Mike Rodd represented NABO at this biannual meeting which was well attended by most of the boating organisations which cover the EA navigations. As is usual with these EA User Forums, the preparatory work was excellent and the meeting was very well chaired by EA Board member Peter Ainsworth, with a focus of making sure all delegates have every opportunity to express their views.
This meeting actually had been delayed as it had been hoped that there might be progress to report on the EA/CRT negotiations. Sadly, there was nothing really new to report, except a deeper insight into the key issues. EA’s lead, Mark Ormond, and CRT’s lead, Peter Walker, gave presentations and from these it was clear that the main sticking point is, as we all realise, money. Much joint EA/CRT work has been invested in assessing EA’s assets – somewhat surprisingly, EA’s own data on these is not as good as it should be and the investigations have had to accumulate much more meaningful data. What is clear is that the issue is not so much the locks, which overall are in reasonable condition, but the 500+ weirs and sluices. These are generally very large and ageing structures and serious funding (many 10’s of £millions) will be required urgently to bring them up to a sustainable state.
Both EA’s Board and CRT’s Trustees are keen to go ahead with CRT taking responsibility for all EA’s major waterways, and various options are being explored and proposals will then be put to the Minister. But this major financial gap has to be addressed, and given the recent autumn statement and Brexit etc, the immediate prognosis is not good. It is also important to note that even if a solution to the funding situation can be found, it is estimated that at least 2 years will be needed to sort out the variety of legal matters which will arise, given the legal complexity of EA’s waterways. We were assured that when there is real progress, users will be consulted.
There was also a very explicit exposition on EA’s financial situation and it is clear that they are doing their best to ensure their waterways are managed as well as possible even though the funding is insufficient. It was also very interesting to hear that the EA is commencing a “strategic charging review”. Intriguing to hear that the words used in the objectives of this include “to ensure charges are able to provide an efficient and economically sustainable service for our customers”. Sounds very much like the forthcoming CRT licencing review – indeed, it was suggested (by NABO) that maybe the 2 reviews could be done together….. It is planned that proposals will be available for user consultation by autumn 2017.
Reports on recent key court cases were given. The issues resulting from the case in which some “House Boats” were found not to be liable to pay EA’s Registration fees, was very serious and indeed will be even worse when this ruling is applied to other waterways, especially on the Thames – not only can registration fees not be recovered, but those who have paid them in the past have to be repaid. EA’s is thus working hard to redefine what a “house boat” is!
In the case of the 20+ boaters at Penton Hook marina on the Thames who had won their Magistrate’s Court case that “as they do not navigate” they should not have to pay the registration fee. EA’s High Court appeal against this ruling is being heard on the 13th December. Again, losing this will have enormous impacts on EA’s funding.
The rest of the meeting covered an update on the BSS and an excellent, wide-ranging report highlighting activities etc on the various EA’s waterways.
2nd December 2016