Chair’s column Sept 22

A critical time for the canals

Mike Rodd is concerned about the very existence of some of our waterways.

This is THE most critical time – not only for the future of the present canal operators, the Canal and River Trust – but indeed for the whole future of our amazing waterways. I was shaken to the core by a message sent by CRT’s CEO, Richard Parry, in reply to our concerns about the unexpected (and, we believe, unfair) increases in the cost of private boater licences.  He said: “I can only offer the general view that we are doing what we can to deliver the best stewardship of the waterways that we can, whilst also growing engagement with, and support for, our cause in order to safeguard the waterways future – which is by no means assured, given the financial position we will face for years to come.”

This must, of course, be read in the context of the present situation, in which our canals are patently in the worst state that many of us have ever seen – with virtually zero vegetation management for several years, many failing locks and bridges, and even simple repairs not being done. (See for example my Regional Report about the situations on the K&A and Mon & Brec.; on the former, our volunteers are actually having to cut down trees to enable the ‘Rose of Hungerford’ to continue to raise funds to support much of the K&A’s precious associated infrastructure, including the world-leading Crofton Pumping Station.)

So, are we being softened up for a situation in which CRT will no longer be able to “safeguard the waterways”? Given current government priorities, can we expect the waterways to be given any additional funding, or is it more than likely that our best hope is for the present level of under-funding to continue? May we, in fact, have to face serious reductions? In which case, could all the work so many people have put into rescuing and cherishing the waterways become a pointless exercise, especially as far as boating is concerned?

What might be the consequence of any reduced funding? Well, in a perfect world, it might just get CRT to start addressing its own top-heavy staffing situation; I was horrified to see that – almost in parallel with the unfortunate decision to increase our licence fees (without any consultation, of course!) – came the announcement of the recruitment of over 50 additional management positions in CRT – few of which seem to have much to do with actually getting the canals fixed – despite the present mess they are in! How absolutely naive to make these two announcements almost simultaneously!

Surely, when CRT was established to take over from British Waterways, its core function was to maintain the waterways, not merely to act as a PR organisation to attract more people to visit them without any real stake in their future? I have always found that one of the joys of boating was to meet so many folk who were already enjoying the canals – and poor management and maintenance will be a major deterrent to that.

Sadly, one logical consequence of any reduction in funding of CRT could be for them to look after fewer waterways! So, perhaps we face a situation where some of the more expensive or less popular canals will just simply not be maintained – at least, not to a level on which boats can use them? So, in the south keep the K&A going, but let the short and less-used Bridgewater & Taunton Canal simply silt up and become un-boatable? I can envisage far too many similar situations. Even my own much-loved Mon & Brec canal is only 34 miles long and, despite being the most popular visitor attraction in South Wales, is probably the most expensive canal in the UK to maintain, given its toe-hold along the steep slopes of the Brecon Beacons. A senior CRT manager remarked recently at a meeting that we, the boaters, are very privileged to be able to boat on this canal. Indeed we are, but it would be tragic for everyone – not just the boaters – if it were lost! However, I do worry that this is the sub-text of what Mr Parry was saying in his message to me.

So, this is the time for NABO to get its act together and – hopefully together with the other boating organisations (especially the IWA!) – to go public on its concerns and get as much public support as possible, for retaining the canals as worthy of government support. We need to make it clear that (in this instance at least) Mr Cameron’s ‘let’s get rid of the quangos’ policy has failed miserably! I am not suggesting that CRT reverts to becoming part of government, but the authorities have at least to acknowledge that a national, unique and precious infrastructure like the canals simply cannot be run on the same basis as the National Trust. The fundamental difference is that the latter can charge anyone who uses its facilities, whereas in the case of the canals, few users (besides the easily identifiable boaters!) can be expected to pay.

We are coming up for our Annual General Meeting and – being quite frank – your Council is worried about the future of NABO. As I hope I have explained above, the prospects for our wonderful waterways are in a precarious state, given their present condition and the problems with long-term funding, which may lead to further deterioration or even closures. The need for NABO, both as a critical friend, but also as a mouthpiece of CRT’s key users, is more important than ever. However, we are seeing a decrease in members coming forward to help the Council. We are fortunate in that we currently have a very active council but, in truth, none of us is getting any younger and many of us have simply done it for too long! We need an input of fresh ideas and energy. The load is not excessive: about six formal meetings a year, half of which are now held via teleconference, and each member is asked to take on the responsibility for specific tasks that particularly interest them. Please do give some thought to coming on board and helping. I’d be very happy to discuss all this with anyone, so please feel free to contact me – see the inside cover for contact details. And do try to attend the AGM – either in person or virtually!

Despite this ongoing tale of woe – for those who can get out onto a working canal, enjoy the last of the good weather!