Happy 30th, NABO

Happy 30th, NABO

Although formed in 1991, last year’s pandemic distracted everyone from NABO’s 30th anniversary. Here’s a belated summary of some of the issues facing NABO 30 years ago.


Phil Bland and Jon Darlington formed NABO, joining forces with Syd Beacroft and Dave Green, who had called a meeting to form a boaters’ organisation. NABO’s first open meeting, on 25th August was in Dudley and was an overwhelming success, with 69 boat owners joining on the spot, bringing the initial membership to over 130. Speakers from the floor said they did not feel that anyone had hitherto been prepared to listen to the views of individual boat owners.

NABO’s first Council

There were 15 nominees for the first Council and each described their reasons for standing for election: David Ling gave a flavour of contributions from other nominees: “A more authoritarian regime appears to have taken over at BW and I have become alarmed that the very freedom which attracted me and many others to the waterways is now at risk. I feel that it’s no good crying if one is not prepared to stand up and be counted.” Mel Darlington wrote: “In 1989, I spent six months cruising in the central area and I realised just how bad things were. The canals are badly maintained and shallow, due to a water shortage and no dredging, mooring is restricted in places, and I feel very much as if all the fun and freedom which I want is being taken away from me. With the formation of NABO, I decided that I wanted to take an active part in trying to get a fairer deal for the boater.”

Communicating with members

NABO’s newsletter ‘The Boater’ reported in Issue 1, September 1991, on how and why NABO had been formed and its proposed objectives. Jon Darlington covered policy issues, including the Waterways Bill, the Certificate of Compliance and dredging – or rather the lack of it. He stressed that NABO would be a lobbying organisation and not a social club – a concept that continues today. He also emphasised the importance of communication with members and urged them to write to the committee and not wait for open meetings, “since these would be few and far between”. There would also be a network of regional representatives to further help communications.

Campaigning issues

The first issue that NABO took on was the 1991 British Waterways Bill, which was about to pass through Parliament, and in particular the terms and conditions attached to BW’s ‘Houseboat Certificates’. Subsequent campaigns included ‘Constant Cruising’ and whether a boater who lives on a boat but cruises it the whole time needs a Houseboat Certificate. In particular, NABO noted: “There is the question of the byelaw covering cruising licences, which says that a boat cannot be used as a dwelling. We do not know of any attempts to enforce this byelaw and, indeed, in our view it is unenforceable. The only question that has to be answered is: “Is this boat genuinely or sincerely used for navigation? Whether you live on it or not is irrelevant.”

NABO’s lobbying against the BW Bill in the House of Lords included four pages of amendments for consideration by their Lordships. At the end of the debate “a significant number of Lords gave vent to deep-felt criticism of the [BW] Board and the way in which it has treated its customers…. they must change old attitudes and the way in which they are perceived by their customers; they surely cannot afford such open and hostile criticism as was laid on thick and fast by a number of their Lordships. The Board will only achieve this by listening to and taking notice of what their customers are saying to them.”

NABO also campaigned against the ‘Transport and Works Bill’, noting that it: “contains some far-reaching powers which, if unamended, could have extremely serious repercussions for boat owners and the canal network as a whole. Despite having no white paper and no consultation with user groups or IWAAC – indeed no waterway user group was even aware of its contents – the Bill had its second reading [in Parliament] yesterday and is expected to go to its committee stage within 10 days. This Bill would allow for the removal of not only remainder waterways but of any waterway, and any rights of navigation which exist now could be terminated at a stroke of the pen.” NABO wrote to the Committee of MPs suggesting amendments and successfully lobbied for changes in the provisions affecting waterways.

NABO also provided detailed evidence to a Department of the Environment review of the navigation functions of the National Rivers Authority and BWB. It supported the idea of a single navigation authority, “but only if appropriate safeguards for boat owners can be built in.”

The early BSS

In consultations with BW over boat standards, NABO proposed that a ‘Minimum Safety Certificate’ be made available for vessels that comply with appropriate safety requirements. BW turned this down out of hand and without explanation. NABO responded: “BW refused to take account that evidence should be sought to determine the need for each particular standard. Instead of objective research providing the basis of standards, we have a mixed bag of personal opinions that leads to a hotch-potch of poorly thought out standards. The extraordinary stance taken by BW seems to be derived from an emotive fear of standing up in a coroner’s court and being blamed for the accidental death of someone. Until BW approach standards sensibly we will oppose them. Overall this is a very depressing state of affairs.”

Sales of BW property

At a meeting with BW: “The Board said that they had been suffering from a reducing government grant over the last 20 years and anticipated that  … they would have to generate half of their income from their own resources.” They had reached an unusual agreement with the Treasury and were allowed to sell off non-operational property and reinvest the proceeds to generate ongoing revenue. NABO expressed its concern that this would lead to substantial increases in charges: “As BW effectively holds a monopoly of inland waterways, the application of free market pricing policies is not appropriate. They denied that they are anything like a monopoly, since people could choose whether they bought a boat, a caravan or a new car [!]”

NABO pointed out that the essential character of the waterways was changing under BW management as a result of inappropriate signage and other matters. BW said that they wished to preserve the industrial heritage aspects of the system – within safety constraints.”

Wrong type of customers

“Despite all the ‘customer-first’ talk, it appears that BW seems to have the wrong type of customer in the same way BR complained last winter about the wrong type of snow. People who don’t want it to be run as a big business, or have fancy signs and pretty locks, but virtually no water in the canal, do not fit into BW’s modern waterways scene.”

Failing infrastructure

“After the majority of the Garrison Flight in Birmingham, which was only closed for four years, can we expect to see the same ‘rapid’ movement take place to ensure through navigation on the Kennet and Avon, the Ashby Canal, the Lapworth Flight, another rebuild of Shadehouse Lock on the Trent and Mersey after the first rebuild then collapsed, and slow-drying concrete causing extended closure on the Southern Grand Union. The provision of ‘teashops and craft outlets’ together with an audio-visual facility, are the latest in a long line of ‘better things to do’ for the managers of our navigations.”

Fast-forward to 2022: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!