Crunch-time soon?

Crunch-time soon?

Mike Rodd peers into a very uncertain future for the waterways.

The coming months are going to be absolutely critical for all of us who boat on our inland waterways, as it is clear that reports into the futures of both CRT and the EA – as I have mentioned in my previous columns – will soon come under consideration by the relevant government ministers. These reviews will ultimately determine not only how CRT and EA are going to operate, but what (if any) government funding they will receive. So you will have to forgive me if I concentrate in this Chairman’s column on these critical issues, as each and every one of us will need to understand the situation and do whatever we can to influence our local MPs, and also shout loudly across social networks, or wherever we have a voice.

First, we need to recall that when CRT was set up, the stated aim of the Cameron government was to eliminate many of the so-called government ‘quangos’, essentially by turning them into independent charities. The grand idea was that they could then not only be run more efficiently (mainly by volunteers?), but also that they would have access to other sources of funding, not available to government bodies. By some highly flawed reasoning, government believed that there were shedloads of money ‘out there’, held by large bodies and just waiting to be used. Some of the quangos (for example, the Forestry Commission) fortunately managed to resist this move, but British Waterways became CRT. Initial government funding was granted for 15 years, and the government grant continued to underpin about 40% of CRT’s costs. (Originally this was envisaged for a shorter period, but we all screamed that that did not allow sufficient time for the new structures to bed down, and the time – which will soon elapse – was extended). Roughly another 40% of CRT’s income is derived from BW’s property portfolio, received as a start-up ‘dowry’, and the rest is derived from mooring and licensing fees, etc.

It is painfully obvious to everyone, however, that, hard as CRT has tried, it has battled to raise any significant additional funding. Even with the present income, it has had to cut its staff numbers, in many cases disposing of highly experienced and able staffers. The practical outcome of all this is giving rise to serious reservations about CRT’s staff reductions and its apparent policy of only fixing something when it is completely broken (the rationale seems to be, if one paddle works then that should be OK. No, it is not! – particularly when the lock then takes twice as long to fill, and you are running public trip-boats). As a result, we all know that the canals are in a worse condition now than when CRT took over.

Additionally, the original intention was that the EA’s navigational responsibilities would be taken over by CRT. Detailed studies by CRT, however, showed that this was not going to be feasible without huge additional financial support. We, as NABO, could not support this move either, as we felt very strongly that CRT needed to get its own act together before taking on additional responsibilities. Also, quite frankly, we felt at that point that the EA, in contrast, was doing a pretty reasonable job of running its waterways, as exemplified by many examples of good practice in working with its user communities.

However, although the decision not to move EA navigational responsibilities into CRT was made, it soon became very clear that the EA was going to totally revise how it operated – and the views of its user bodies now seemingly became totally irrelevant. So, for example, an EA National Navigation Users Forum ‘Stakeholder engagement review’ was held to consider proposed changes to the whole way in which the EA interacts with its users. I (and many others) left the meeting feeling that this so-called consultation had been a total and utter waste of time, as the EA was simply not prepared to discuss their internally produced proposals, and this ‘review’ was just a way of going through the motions so that it can now say it has spoken to (i.e., ‘consulted’?) NNUF members. 

The proposals claim, not unexpectedly, to be similar to the procedures adopted by CRT – but in practice they seem to be a jumble of new committees and groups, many fronted by EA staff. For example, a huge National Waterways Advisory Group is proposed, meeting biannually to receive reports from National Waterways Groups, including ‘Sustainable Funding’ (covering charges, boat registration and commercial partnerships), ‘Sustainable Outcomes’ (covering engagement, health and wellbeing, climate change, net zero, participation, sports) and ‘Sustainable Operations’ (asset management, compliance and enforcement, service delivery and volunteers). It is not clear which organisations will be represented on these groups, but the underlying concept of the present ‘Navigation User Forums’ has been abandoned in favour of having all possible users of the EA’s waterways represented in future on the National Waterways Advisory Group. Indeed, the word ‘navigation’ seems to have largely disappeared!

These are worrying times of massive international pressure on the Government in terms of the energy situation and other pressures related to Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine and the NATO/Russia/China situation. So, additionally, and of real importance, we have to accept that funding of our inland waterways is not going to have much importance in terms of government priorities! This will be compounded by Defra’s current mantra that any funding can only be justified if it assists in meeting Defra’s strategic objectives. These include: 1) Protection and long-term resilience, and transition to net zero carbon usage (to deliver, maintain and improve historic waterways infrastructure, heritage assets and open access systems, as well as to ensure navigation, accessibility and public safety); 2) Natural capital (to contribute to, and support, the protection and enhancement of the natural capital and historic environment found in and around CRT’s waterways network); 3) Access to the outdoors (to contribute to the nation’s prosperity and resilience, cultural capital and the visitor economy); 4) Levelling up (to contribute to national economic resilience and growth, particularly in areas experiencing economic deprivation and health and wellbeing inequalities).

This all means that both CRT and EA have to address these issues; hence their apparent shift away from focusing on the needs of boaters, towards giving precedence to towpath users and others. So, it is not clear whether EA’s navigational responsibilities are to be forced onto CRT, or whether the two organisations will continue to work separately. Personally, I would anticipate that one of the conditions placed on CRT for any future government funding might well depend on their taking over EA’s waters as originally proposed. However, even if this does not happen, there is no doubt that the whole way in which the EA manages its waterways is likely to be totally different, going forward.

Nevertheless, I do strongly believe that we have no option other than to put as much effort as we can into supporting both EA’s and CRT’s appeals for funding, whatever our opinions about the implementation. Whilst the question of their effectively merging their navigational responsibilities is unclear (and, given the way EA has gone over the past few years, even NABO might support this now!), the underlying issue is simply that there is no ‘Plan B’ for the management of our unique and historically significant waterways. We all have to get behind both organisations – right now. This can be done via all our social platforms and of course in NABO News. But it is also essential that we appeal directly to all relevant MPs, and we strongly urge our members to do this.

Finally, I have, sadly, to report that John Devonald, who has only recently taken on the essential duties as our General Secretary, is now very ill and has had to give up boating. We wish John the very best. It does mean, however, that we now have to find a new General Secretary – offers, please! Otherwise, however, we are fortunate to have an excellent and hard-working Council team, which will be absolutely vital as we face a very crucial few years for our waterways.

Despite all the problems, though, we can all still do some wonderful boating!