Are we about to witness different licences for continuous cruisers?

Mike Rodd believes that this is what the new words in CRT’s terms and conditions are saying, even though CRT denies this.

At last we were able to have a real NABO Council meeting and it was such a pleasure to meet our new councillors physically! It is amazing how we have coped over the past year, especially with so much going on in both CRT and the EA – but nothing can replace a face-to-face discussion. With the AGM coming up in a few months, we do have an urgent need to recruit someone to take over Mark Tizard’s roles as General Secretary and Vice Chairman. Sadly, Mark has sold his beautiful boat and will be stepping down from the Council. He has made a huge contribution to our work in so many ways.

CRT’s current revisions to the Terms and Conditions for boat licences continue to dominate many of our discussions. Whilst CRT has moved part of the way towards taking on board our comments (and our legal advice), there are still several issues on which we cannot concede. Your Council is thus working up a crisp summary of our concerns that will be sent to CRT and widely publicised within a few weeks. This is important, as we are convinced (on the basis of legal advice) that there are issues that will cause problems in the near future for many boaters. For example, we cannot agree with CRT on whether there are now different types of licences for continuous cruisers. CRT says that we are incorrect in claiming that there are, and that they have made no substantive changes, but neither we nor our legal advisors believe that this is what the new words are saying. The worry is that once this gets established, will CRT then start setting different charges and requirements for those with home moorings and those who continuously cruise? And what happens if (like many) you have a home mooring and then also go cruising for a good part of the year? As another example, we are also deeply concerned that the T&Cs essentially imply that CRT’s volunteers are in charge of any boats passing through locks being operated by them. This cannot be right, as both the MCA and most insurers clearly state that the ultimate responsibility for a boat and the safety of those on it lies with the Boatmaster (in the case of an MCA-registered boat) or the person at the helm for other boats.

More positively, CRT’s London consultation, which would have resulted in new mooring restrictions on the River Lee, has suddenly taken a U-turn, following an external review of the proposals. And – surprise, surprise – one of the conclusions from the independent review was that the boating community should be consulted before future changes are proposed. Oh dear – how very obvious!

In these days of U-turns, we have also been delighted to see the EA’s change of direction on the non-tidal Thames, where it has withdrawn its contract with the car-parking company, District Enforcement. EA has said that this followed “a review that subsequently identified issues with our internal procurement processes that were not undertaken correctly”. We and the other Thames boater representative organisations that we have been working with are naturally delighted – and trying not to grin too widely or even hint at saying “We told you so!” NABO’s concern has always been that this approach to mooring monitoring and enforcement by using a car-parking company could set a pattern to be adopted by CRT in the future. It’s still quietly worrying, though, that the very same company has been retained by those developing the revised proposals for the River Lee! Ouch!

Both CRT and EA are coming up to their respective government funding exercises within a few years, following the (then) Prime Minister’s plan some years ago to get rid of government quangos, taking them out of government into self-supporting, possibly charitable, operations. As we know, one early transfer was BW (then part of the EA) to become the CRT charity, with government funding promised for 15 years; this will soon come to an end. As a result, we are seeing both organisations spending considerable effort (and funds!) on ensuring that our waterways are not (mistakenly!) seen as being of value only to the limited number of (apparently!) rich boaters who can afford to own a boat, or others who can afford to hire one. Addressing this pressure to become self-sustaining, both CRT and the EA, which is responsible for many non-tidal rivers, including the Thames, are now trying to ensure that their waterways appeal to a much wider audience. Of course, all canoeists, kayakers, paddle boarders, etc. are required to pay a licence fee, but that is relatively small and often ignored – or it is paid though boater representative organisations as a part of their membership package. The bulk of the fees coming to CRT and the EA are from those who own or hire powered boats.

It was interesting that the Forestry Commission was also targeted by David Cameron at the same time as BW – unsuccessfully, however, maybe due to public opposition? It was nevertheless clear, even then, that it too would have to become far more self-sustaining, attracting significant new supporters and visitors and hence increase its own direct income and lessen the load on government funds. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? I recently visited Westonbirt, the wonderful National Arboretum in Gloucestershire, which is managed by Forestry England, a division of the Forestry Commission. Forestry England was first formed as Forest Enterprise in 1996, before devolving to Forest Enterprise England in 2003 and then rebranded in 2019. And what a transformation has taken place since our last visit, about five years ago! Huge new car parking, a new entrance hall with scooters and wheelchairs available for hire, and beautiful newly laid high-quality paths. One leads up to the expanded Visitor Center, around which there are now various facilities for children to play on, while parents and families enjoy the pricey food court offers. Oh, and of course, the entrance fee is much higher than before – now there’s a surprise! Fortunately, the wonderful trees remain for those who wish to get away from all the slick ‘visitor destination’ site layout. Does it work? Well, I don’t know what the actual finances look like, but I have never seen so many families there and the car park was packed. What was once a wonderful quiet place, close to nature, is now clearly also a very popular destination for families and friends wanting a day out with all mod cons. You even have to pre-book a specific entry slot. Would I go again? Well, it was a convenient meeting venue I guess. But I would certainly have some concerns if this sort of vision for our historic and unique waterways, with their amazing working examples of the pinnacle of British engineering and the cornerstone of the industrial revolution, were to lead to their ‘Disneyfication’!

Anyway, having just had a wonderful three weeks on our boat on the Mon & Brec, it was just amazing to be back on this most lovely and precious canal. This was despite my wife’s unscheduled plunge into the cut, having tripped into a hidden pothole in a heavily overgrown mooring – quickly followed by me, diving in to rescue her glasses – and despite the almost complete lack of both towpath and offside vegetation cutting. Back home, our K&A Canal Trust trip boat in Hungerford, on which I am a volunteer Boatmaster, is back in business, so we are once again generating critical income for the Trust. Happy boating!