Brief Report on the CRT National Users Forum: Wednesday 9th September 2015

As usual this was held at The Bond in Birmingham, and this 6-monthly meeting was well attended by representatives of 24 boating and canal-related organisations. As has become the norm now, the meeting was essentially a platform for CRT to update the various organisations, with relatively little follow-up discussion. The networking, though, is valuable.

With a seemingly long agenda, Richard Parry’s introduction was very crisp and we soon ploughed into the presentations, started by announcing that the Operations Director, Vince Moran, would retire early in 2016. Vince handed over to Julie Sharman who gave a very professional and polished review of the work being undertaking  on the development of an asset management strategy. She noted that CRT has amassed extensive data about most of their assets right across the system, and  the key issue was now how best to use this information in the long term management of the assets, ensuring the best possible customer satisfaction. (Very interesting to note the close linkage between the strategy and the determination to ensure the customers are happy!)  She pointed out that the work was based on asset deterioration theory, but acknowledged that there is little practical experience available from  similar environments – ie managing complex industrial heritage objects which are still in daily use.  The objective is to plan a rolling 10 year programme of effective asset management. A most useful and thought provoking presentation.

Simon Bamford then gave an overview of the planned winter stoppage plan and noted that the final programme was now available. He emphasised that this was closely linked to the asset management strategy and aimed to integrate the work of CRT’s Direct Services team and the CRT contractors, Keir. A very sensible approach, ensuring that when one task is being undertaken, any related issues are dealt with at the same time. He also mentioned that the winter works will in future be seen as part of a rolling 3 year programme, which also will involve, when possible, summer and overnight stoppages.  Of much interest also was the determination to see the volunteer input as part of all this, with the volunteers doing serious work when possible, integrated with the work of the staff. A very interesting change underway!!

This latter comment led neatly into the presentation by Caroline Killeavy on the growth and maturing of the volunteering activities. The growth has been impressive but to me, it is not just about the number of people or number of hours worked, but the increasing use of volunteers to do serious work, and, it must be quietly admitted, increasingly doing work which in the past would have been  seen as the domain of staff or contractors. Whilst Caroline stated numerical goals are interesting and ambitious, what is really key has to be the recognition that the volunteers can really do serious work – no surprise to those of us in the canal societies, WRG, etc who do these tasks all the time!!

Interesting to hear that CRT is aiming to recruit a significant number of “Towpath Rangers” to help tackle the issues relating to the use and abuse of the towpath. ( ie the racing cyclist problem?) Also it was intriguing to hear of the work by a group of company-sponsored volunteers in developing a Key Stage 3 education programme – a very exciting development. (Caroline also heads up the CRT education programme.)

Next up was Graham Boxer, the new Head of Museums. He gave an overview of CRT’s 2 museums (Ellesmere and Gloucester) and stressed that these both are undergoing major redevelopment aimed, essentially, to ensure they are both sustainable financially, as well as are recognised as authoritive and accessible source of knowledge of the waterways. To this end the development programme aims not just to make the content relevant and accessible, but to provide a better and more attractive experience to the users. Once again it is good to see some serious long term planning taking place.

Mike Grimes was next up, covering both business and private boating, including enforcement. It was interesting to see the growth in Mike’s portfolio, including the property management side. Of interest were his remarks about the work being undertaken on the development of new visitor attractions at key waterside destinations. Once again, a long term strategy is under development here.

He also briefly gave an overview of the enforcement situation, but this was really what saw a few week ago, as were the discussions on winter moorings.

Finally, of special interest to me, was a top class and very clear exposition by the Waterways Ombudsman, Andrew Walker. The presentation described in very straight forward terms the role of the Ombudsman and of the overseeing Committee, the latter being essentially the appointment and oversight of the Ombudsman, but with no input into his a day-to-day activities. He also discussed the changes brought about by the EU’s ADR initiative – “Alternate Dispute Resolution for consumer disputes”. This has somewhat broadened access to the ombudsman and set minimum standards.

It is extremely important to note that despite much of the recent flurry of queries relating to the Ombudsman’s committee, the number of matters being dealt with by him (around 18 per years) has been fairly constant over the past 5  or 6 years. Andrew concluded by asking the boating organisations to do more to promote the scheme.

At the conclusion, the outgoing CRT Chairman, Tony Hales, was thanked for his many years work for both BW and CRT, and he responded by a very well-chosen few words.

A useful morning but I can’t help wonder if both CRT and attendees are getting the best out of these Forums ?

 Mike Rodd