Effects of ‘bonfire of the quangos’ start to hit home

In the Chair

Effects of ‘bonfire of the quangos’ start to hit home

Mike Rodd analyses how DEFRA policy is driving the change in emphasis by CRT and the EA away from boating.

We’ve seen many intriguing responses to our appeal for members to write to their MPs asking for support for CRT to continue to receive government funding, at least at the current level. While we have always been the first to highlight the many shortcomings of CRT, we are also only too well aware that they will simply not be able to cope if they do not receive this support. The original Cameron model (now being re-energised by the infamous Rees-Mogg) was that the so-called ‘quangos’ should be taken out of government departments and made into charitable organisations that would then be able to attract charitable funding.  Experience has shown, though, both in CRT’s case and elsewhere, that although charities may find it slightly easier to attract funding for projects, boring old maintenance just doesn’t excite donors in the same way…

Many of those who have objected to our suggestion feel that the only way ahead is simply to revert to the original BWB model! That simply will not happen, I’m afraid – especially with all the other current pressures on the Government.

It is also very interesting to see the responses from some of the MPs – they do genuinely seem to value our suggestions and many of them had clearly not fully understood the situation – I guess many were not in Parliament when the original bonfire of the quangos was introduced.

And yes, yes, I know as well as anyone how badly CRT is failing to maintain the canals. For example, on the K&A where I am an MCA-registered Boatmaster, we have never seen so many problems – we have tried unsuccessfully for three years to get a paddle fixed, for example, being told that as long as one paddle works, what’s the problem? The problem is that our public trips, raising funds solely for the benefit of the canal, have had to be reorganised to cope with a lock that takes up to 15 minutes longer to fill – adding up to 30 minutes to a trip. And last week, at the same lock, one of the bottom gates developed a serious fault. So, until it could be fixed (that is, when CRT’s contractors could get around to it!) it was only available for reduced hours. Did CRT bother to consult us about the timing – as a major user of that lock, often up to six times a day? Did they, hell!

But, despite all this, and other problems like it, we keep coming back to the simple truth that there is no alternative, especially now that the government is confronted by issues of far more importance than the canals!

Sadly also, the situation with the EA waterways’ management continues to be a total mess! As I have reported before, the EA is reorganising itself in the way it supports its waterways – and a recent ‘proposal’ to re-structure itself was heavily criticised by its own National Navigation User Forum, with all the boating representative organisations simply rejecting the proposals out of hand. Did the EA listen? Of course they didn’t! At the recent Thames Navigation Users Forum, these self-same proposals were simply repeated, and it was made clear that they would be approved by DEFRA.

The only good thing about all this has been that the various boater and boating organisations have come together in their united opposition to what the EA is doing. The key problem is that, rather like CRT (and isn’t that strange and significant?), the emphasis is no longer on boating (despite that being their prime source of funding outside of government grants) but on all the other potential, but largely un-chargeable, users – walkers, swimmers, paddlers, fishermen, towpath users, etc., etc. And all this apparently fits in with the catch-phrases of the DEFRA policy of ‘Protection and long-term resilience’ (of what?), ‘Transition to net zero carbon usage’, ‘Natural capital’, ‘Access to the outdoors’ and, of course, ‘Levelling up’ – whatever all that might mean.

Of importance to the role of NABO is that, with the exposure we have been receiving, our membership continues to increase. The biggest growth is in our social media work – sadly, not all of those who contribute are willing to pay to be members, but I guess that is just the issue with the new electronics-based world.

We are especially delighted to see the work that our Council member, Ken Hylins, is doing for members with special needs. Very quietly, he has made close contact with relevant representatives, both within CRT and within other disabilities groups and the equalities organisations. What is very evident is that in some regions CRT is doing a super job of supporting boaters who really need special consideration. In other areas, however, the support being given is very poor and the pressure that is being exerted on some folk is simply cruel – demanding, for example, that they move, even though they are receiving crucial short-term local medical support.

We continue to follow the situation in London very closely but, rather like CRT itself, we don’t really see any simple answers. Clearly, the extensive over-boating that is evident to all is simply driven by the perceived low cost of living on a boat – so buying (often beaten-up) boats and ‘sort-of” meeting the continuous cruising requirements of CRT (by swapping one’s mooring with another boat, via a now well-known website every 14 days!) means that CRT has absolutely no hope of controlling the boat numbers – as, in fact, it can’t control the number of boats anywhere on its waterways. And if CRT does start catching up with non-moving or non-licensing issues, the owners just argue for as long as possible, and eventually simply sell the boat and buy another one. At its heart, though, this is largely a housing issue – and it will ultimately be up to local Councils to take any real action to solve the root causes.

From NABO’s point of view, we are naturally very concerned that all this means that London is largely a no-go area for our members – and this simply cannot be right. So we have to press for moorings to be available for visiting boats at all times, even if these have to be reserved ahead of time – adding to the need for effective monitoring and enforcement. As far as the very fuzzy continuous cruising requirements go, we have always recognised that they are very vague legally, and probably do need a complete overhaul. This would be very complicated, however, and is certainly nowhere on any government priority list. Also, the outcome might be even worse, so we have always taken the line that, provided CRT’s stated requirements are seen to be fair, we will support them. For this reason, for example, when continuous cruising requirements on the K&A canal were proposed (an overall annual end-to-end movement with a 14-day requirement to move at least one km, etc.) we were supportive, and this has largely worked well for most genuine boaters.  London is more difficult, though.

As NABO’s representative on the Boat Safety Scheme’s Technical Committee, I am alarmed by the (still quiet) suggestions that some changes be made to the time period required between inspections. I personally feel that the present four-yearly requirement is correct and reasonable. Of course, the inspectors would be happy to see this period shortened but – given the increasing cost of boating and, quite frankly, the lack of real evidence of any need to change the present approach – I will continue to urge NABO and other boater representatives to oppose any change. Other small tweaks to the scheme might be helpful, though – for example, requiring an inspection when a boat is passed on to a new owner.

Despite all this, it is a real joy to be able to go boating once again, even if you have to plan your trips more carefully given the large number of stoppages etc! The joys and benefits of boating remain – so let’s make the best of them as summer approaches…