Chairman’s Column NABO News 5 November 2016

The (mostly) ups and (a few) downs of chairing NABO

Mike Rodd looks back over the last three years.

With our AGM looming, this will – sadly – be my last column as your chairman. When David (gently?) twisted my arm as he held me out over the K&A from the balcony of the pub where the Council had been meeting at Bradford-on-Avon, I (willingly?) agreed to do a three-year stint. I firmly believe that organisations like ours should be continually refreshed, and I am delighted that we have been able to find someone like Stella Ridgway to take over the reins, if she is elected at the AGM. I have so much enjoyed my time in office and it has always been a great privilege to be associated with NABO in this way. Council meetings are a sheer joy to chair, and I could not have wished for more dedicated and thoroughly pleasant and professional colleagues.

Being a ‘critical friend’

I came into the Chairmanship with a strong belief that we should work with the (then) newly created CRT – always acting as a ‘critical friend’. And in many ways this has worked out: we have been able to get close to the new senior management and have clearly been able to influence at least some of their policy-making. Of course, we have often disagreed and, indeed, still do – especially over certain aspects of their new terms and conditions of our licences. Here, having taken the best possible legal advice, we still believe that in certain areas CRT has gone beyond its legal rights under the terms of the Waterways Act. A good example of this is the claim that, if you have a home mooring, when you are away from that mooring you have to obey CRT’s requirements for continuous cruising. Indeed, two recent contradictory statements from CRT itself have shown that some of the management team are themselves confused over this!

NABO Council is naturally alarmed by the reports from our members (and our own personal cruising observations) about lock failures and many examples of poor or inconsistent vegetation control. Here, we have very strong representation on the two relevant CRT advisory groups and they are doing what they can to help. We do appreciate that CRT is underfunded and that they are dealing with a fragile, 200-year-old system that will always need regular maintenance. What we can all do is to ensure that CRT is aware of instances where we, as active representatives of the boating community, see problems that need addressing. For example, it is clear that in many cases, the organisations that have been awarded CRT contracts are simply not always delivering, possibly because they are not being sufficiently monitored, or perhaps because the requirements are not well-defined. We see, for example, different standards of vegetation management being applied across the network. Likewise, we are not convinced that their regular lock inspections are picking up all the potential problems – possibly because inspectors don’t always see the problems that boaters experience.

Balancing safety needs

Another area where NABO is especially active is in the Boat Safety Scheme. In all their committees and relevant working groups, we are professionally represented by knowledgeable people, who participate actively in every aspect of the well-developed processes adopted in the BSS management system. Here, we bring not only our own personal professional expertise and practical experience, but as representatives of the boating community, we always have to ensure that the scheme is proportionate in meeting the real (and not theoretically dreamed-up) needs of all waterways users. In the present national culture of allowing so-called ‘elf and safety’ to rule our lives, it is vital that we strike the right balance. It is all too easy to adopt safety standards that ensure that nothing (?) can possibly go wrong (probably because nothing is allowed to happen!), but is this really necessary in practice or, indeed, affordable? At this time we are wrestling with this balance in the recently established working party dedicated to examining electrical safety requirements. It would be easy to adopt a variation of the world-recognised standards, established by my ex-employers, the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE, now IET), through their famous and very successful ‘IEE wiring regs’ (which are now a European Standard). If, however, we were to do that, then our installations and BSS inspections would have to be done by persons with the appropriate electrical expertise and training, involving huge extra expense and complication. Conversely, however, our boats are becoming increasingly electric-based, with hybrid and electric boats starting to become a reality. The use of computer controls with potentially highly dangerous battery technologies that require very careful monitoring, and possibly wiring systems that, like our cars, are dependent on seriously complicated communications networks, means we need to see where the balance might lie. Looking at today’s cars, can you fix even a simple fault?

Representing boaters

What continues to amaze and please me about NABO is the respect we have achieved right across the waterways – sadly not necessarily from all boaters, but from most organisations with an interest in the canals and rivers – we are so often the first port-of-call when seeking advice, recommendations, approval etc. One of the roles of the Chairman is to field these many incoming requests; almost every consultation that impacts the waterways is referred to us and we are duty-bound to respond. This is humbling, as it shows what our NABO predecessors have achieved in staking NABO’s claim. However, the counter to this has to be the fact that our membership numbers have stayed pretty well constant over the last five years or so. Yes, they surge slightly when there is an issue that directly affects boat owners (such as the new CRT terms and conditions), but the truth is that the bulk of our boating community is relatively satisfied with things, and as long as they can cruise their favourite waterways, then why bother with getting involved? And this is the challenge to NABO’s survival.

It’s therefore with much sadness that I read in Narrowboat World that boaters apparently need yet another organisation to represent them. It is always of concern to read statements like this: clearly, we’ve not been getting across first, the amount of work that we all put into NABO activities, and secondly, how damn hard it is to keep a representative body like this going! It is so easy to be critical, especially now in the many variations of social media, but few are willing to roll up their sleeves and actually do all the hard work involved. We may not always get things right, but we can only do what our members want us to. And if they don’t tell us what that is, then it is up to those who have been brave enough to stand up and be counted by joining the Council, to work out what we should (and often, what we should not!) do. Our Council meetings are open to all members and I am sure that those many NABO members who have taken the trouble to attend one or more, have always found us open to suggestions. We, and any other similar organisation, can only be as good as our members allow us to be!

So I leave the Chairmanship acknowledging that there is still much to be done but, as long as I can contribute, will seek to remain on Council. Who wouldn’t!?