Chair’s Report to AGM November 2023

After too many years as your Chair, and with an excellent Council team in place, I felt this was the time not to stand for re-election as your chair, although – if approved – I am happy to continue as  a Council member, especially given the situation with EA and my role on the Boat Safety Scheme’s Technical Committee. The latter is especially relevant, given its work on the rapidly changing situation regarding the rapid increase in the introduction of AC on boats, as well as all the dangers related to the introduction of lithium batteries.

Without any shadow of doubt, it has been a great privilege to be NABO’s chair, not only because of the challenging issues that we have had to face, but also because of the wonderful folk who have been, and still are, members of the Council – who really do all the work, especially my Vice Chair, Anne Husar! We’ve never yet had to deal an issue where no-one has offered to take responsibility.

But what a situation faces all us boaters right now, given the horrendous issues resulting from the government’s (reduced) funding of CRT, and of all the other waterways operators, especially the EA. The current crisis for CRT goes right back to Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision in the Noughties, to get rid of the so-called “Quangos”[1], and the vision that British Waterways could become the “National Trust for the Waterways”. It’s important to note that NABO – along with most boater representative bodles – said from the start that this would never be financially viable.  The fundamental problem is that (unlike National Trust properties, for example, where every visitor pays) most of those who benefit from the waterways never contribute in any meaningful way to their upkeep and maintenance costs.

NABO recognised right from the start that this strategy would simply never work, and thus opposed it loudly – but to no avail. Now we are once again having to say – very loudly – that CRT and the other waterway operators simply cannot (and indeed, should not have to) operate without any government support, given that they are largely unique national treasures of historical importance that benefit a high proportion of the population, most of whom contribute nothing to their upkeep, except (currently, but not for long, unless something changes) via their taxes!

Nevertheless, the outcome of this policy was for British Waterways to become the Canal and River Trust (CRT) and now, after the planned 15-year transition period, the minister responsible is applying the long term aim of reducing CRT’s government funding so that it will soon be down to zero.

A separate – but related – issue is that we also believe that CRT could make better use of the money that they do have.  We have continually had to raise concerns about the way CRT is failing to maintain the canals – instead, spending vast sums on silly blue signs, supporting non-waterways-related projects, employing poorly-managed contractors, etc.

There is, however, no “Plan B” that doesn’t include CRT.  We, as your Council, have had to recognise that there is no way that the government would consider undoing the establishment of CRT.  CRT is here to stay, so we need to find the best way of helping it to focus more on the fundamental reason for its establishment – that is, keeping our amazing and unique canals and waterways in an acceptable condition. Thus the best thing for us to do is to hope that by supporting moves to get the reduction in funding reversed, we might be seen by CRT as a “critical friend” – with the emphasis on “friend” – whose voice should carry more weight in making operational decisions!

Because of this we saw a need to establish a national movement to work for better funding of our waterways, and were delighted to find that the IWA (Inland Waterways Association) was similarly motivated.  So the  “Fund Britain’s Waterways” campaign was established.

With over 100 organisations now on board, this initiative is being led by a small steering group with membership from NABO, IWA, AWCC, British Marine and the RYA, under the chairmanship of the well-known and highly-respected Les Etheridge, lately the National Chair of the IWA. With an initial  campaign cruise in Birmingham with nearly 50 boats filling the canal, there was  extensive press and media coverage, especially via the BBC and ITV,  also by local radio stations, and then by several national newspapers, particularly the Guardian.  This all helped to swell numbers signing the nation-wide petition (please do sign it if you haven’t yet – see ) and also brought the issue to the attention of MPs, etc. A follow-up event was held at Gloucester docks by an offshoot of FBW, “Fund Gloucester Docks”. The next event was another campaign cruise in November, this time to the Palace of Westminster, similar to the one in January 2007, which also sought to effect changes in Government policies. Thirty-one boats then played a crucial role in that venture, and many of them agreed to be involved this time around too.

At the same time as all this has been going on, NABO has been flabbergasted to see that CRT has chosen to plunder one of its few identifiable revenue streams, namely us boaters, by imposing horrendous increases in licensing charges, mooring costs, etc., over the next five years. This specifically includes – despite our earlier, legally supported objections – escalating the licence fees for continuous cruisers, using a very questionably-structured so-called “survey of boaters” to prove that this move is favoured by the majority of its licence holders! We have, of course, taken legal advice regarding the situation, but it does seem that without expensive addition legal action, we will be unable to prevent CRT from going down their chosen route.

We boaters are clearly seen as soft targets, but my fear is that these moves will drive many to leave the waterways, and may also cause others to simply disobey the requirements unless there is substantially increased monitoring and enforcement.  It seems a perfect recipe for killing the golden goose!

We also continue to try to be active in the management of EA’s waterways, especially the Thames, although unfortunately we don’t presently have many members who are based there. The funding of waterways activities within the EA has also been extensively cut back and a completely new structure of volunteer engagement has been introduced, many experienced staff have been disposed of and relatively inexperienced new staff introduced into key roles. On the Thames especially, we have continued to work with other boater representative organisations and recently we have at last seen some improvement in the EA’s willingness to engage with us – a very welcome change to earlier attitudes, whereby it had seemed to many to us that they simply saw no benefit in working with us!  So we can only hope that a similar transformation could occur at CRT!

NABO has continued to be an active player in the Boat Safety Scheme; until recently, David Fletcher was chair of its Technical Committee. There, he did an amazing job of ensuring that the Scheme continued to be of real value to our boating community, often struggling with under-staffing issues. At the same time, the scheme has had to deal with many necessary changes in the on-board requirements, as well as the continual need to ensure that all requirements keep pace with the changing nature of boats, especially in relationship to new technologies. In my own role as a boater representative on the Technical Committee and a Chartered Electrical Engineer, I had been particularly anxious about all aspects of the BSS’s electrical requirements, largely resulting from the increasingly widespread use of 240volt AC-based systems. Having always been concerned about the lack of guidance to installers, boat designers and, indeed, amateurs making changes to their own boats, I was delighted that my recent employers, the Institution for Engineering and Technology (IET, formerly the IEE) decided to produce such a guideline text.  After a year’s work involving advisers from all the relevant bodies, this has finally been published.

In terms of your Council’s activities, I would like to pay special tribute to our retiring NABO News editor, Peter Fellows, who for many years has been continually improving and expanding its contents – always making it of relevance to our members and the thousands of others who read it. It is also apparently compulsory reading for CRT and EA staff – given their frequent screams after publication, when they haven’t liked what they were reading!! I was saddened when Peter finally decided that, in selling his boat and going farming in Wales, he should step down, but I am delighted that John Sadler has quickly picked up the reins and is doing a great job!!

It is also very good to see that, through the work of my vice-chair Anne Husar and also CJ (Carolyn Green), we are now having a major presence in many areas of social media – I just wish that a few more of the thousands involved would add more muscle to our work by deciding to become paid-up NABO members!

In thanking others, especial thanks go to Helen Hutt, not only for her highly professional management of all aspects of our financial affairs, but also for her work on the CRT Council as an elected boater’s representative. Thanks too to Phil Goulding for his work on the CRT’s winter works group, and again to David Fletcher on CRT’s NAG (Navigation Advisory Group).

Finally, I have to conclude my thanks by paying tribute to Ken Hylins, our Welfare Officer. Having had his own problems, but with extensive experience as a live-aboard boater and a deep knowledge of fundamental rights and entitlements (especially of those with problems), he has done a wonderful job in helping so many folk battling the bureaucracy of CRT or local authorities. I think some of the CRT staff cringe when they get a request to call Ken – they are aware that he knows more about a boater’s legal rights than they ever will! His unstinting and selfless service of others is proving a fertile recruiting ground for NABO – people really see the value of having us alongside them!!!

And so, thank you all so much for many wonderful years and I am sure my successor will find the role as interesting and fulfilling as I have.

[1] “Quasi-government organisations” – which, he felt, would be better run by non- government bodies, and which would then not require to be funded (or indeed run by) a government department.