Has any notice been taken of us? Of course not…

Mike Rodd compares and contrasts the BSS with navigation authorities.

I must be terribly naïve! In my simple mind, if I were applying to the Government to continue/extend a multimillion ongoing annual grant, I would want my most influential and committed customers to be supporting my application and giving it as much positive publicity as possible. Not so, CRT or EA, it appears.

As will be known from previous editions of NABO News, both CRT and EA will be applying for further government funding in the next five or six years. In both cases, however, they seem to be hell-bent on ignoring the views of most of the boater representative organisations.

The present situation regarding CRT’s current revisions to the Terms and Conditions for boat licences is a classic case. Yes, there was a public consultation – well, sort of, as long as you had good internet access (which of course many boaters don’t, denying them the chance to comment – but hey, they are only boaters, so why worry?).

We – and most other boater representative bodies – responded to the consultation with a series of suggestions, as well as some positive support. Much of our response had been validated (at our own expense, of course!) by our legal advisors. Then CRT, without even formally responding to our submission, published their updated T&Cs with a starting date only a few weeks ahead. The document was not only full of silly editorial mistakes, but also ignored most of points we (and others) had made, and suddenly introduced new conditions that had not been in the original consultation document. Bizarre, and absolutely arrogant! All this could have been avoided by simply asking a few organisations like ours to look at what was being proposed. We not only have Councils comprising highly committed canal users, but also include many highly professional people, with extensive experience in large organisations, and some with useful editing skills!

Since then, after we and others had screamed blue murder, some changes have quietly been made, including the sudden withdrawal of at least two of the ridiculous new clauses that hadn’t been part of the initial consultation (they were inserted “in error”, you see). Some editing has also been undertaken on what was previously an embarrassingly shoddy document. However, some serious issues still remain – some of which are, in our legal advisor’s opinion, illegal to the point where any appeal would probably be upheld in court.

It is interesting that CRT’s London consultation, again after ignoring all expert inputs, suddenly resulted in new mooring restrictions on the River Lea. This time, though, the reactions among the boating fraternity were (not entirely unexpectedly) angry, and many of those boaters who might be directly affected staged a mass demonstration. A review by an independent organisation was speedily set up and, almost as it was reporting back, the changes were put on hold. Again, all this could all have been avoided by talking to appropriate representative organisations. So, has any notice been taken of us? Of course not – CRT knows better, you see!

On the EA’s side, too, we see a similar situation whereby the prime user groups are ignored – including once again NABO. Here, a group of all the boaters’ representative organisations on the non-tidal Thames are working closely together, calling for, amongst other things, a change in the way users are represented and hence work alongside the EA. We have also all been fighting the issue of a car parking company being awarded – by way of what we believe to be a very dubious process – the contract to monitor and enforce restrictions on the EA’s moorings on the non-tidal Thames.

So, has any notice been taken of us? Of course not – the EA knows better, you see!

As counter-examples, however, there are sectors of both organizations that do really take us seriously, and which welcome – and, indeed, depend on – our involvement. The Boat Safety Scheme is a perfect example of how government-funded organisations like CRT and EA and other navigational authorities can and, indeed, should work. At all levels in the BSS structure, we see boaters, inspecting bodies and national representative bodies represented on all the key committees and, where appropriate, forming expert working groups. From my own personal experience, I know that this is not just a notional involvement, but an active role, in which we are expected to undertake extensive background work: contributing to and then checking and, where necessary, critiquing, any documents that will ultimately go public and form the basis of the whole process of securing safety on the waterways. Of course, we don’t get paid for this, but we do it gladly, through our commitment to the betterment and continuing maintenance of the waterways, and the protection of boaters. I can ‘sell’ the BSS operation to anyone; it’s a wonderful model of what can be achieved by co-operation!

Why – I have to keep asking myself – can’t this ‘grown-up’ approach be adopted elsewhere? Why can’t organisations like CRT and the EA generally behave in a more mature fashion? Or is their mindset just too irretrievably rooted in a conviction that they alone know what is good for us all?

We are all painfully aware that, given the demands currently facing our government, the future funding of the waterways will be low on its agenda. We thus need to form a unified approach to support CRT, the EA and the other navigational authorities, in taking a united message to each and every MP and publicly demonstrating how valuable we believe the waterways to be. Not just for providing fun for (allegedly) well-off boaters, but also for wider health and wellbeing, and as a unique tourist attraction – both for its beauty and outdoor amenities, but also as a celebration of our culture and a reminder of the heritage that allowed this country to lead the industrial revolution. 

Nevertheless, and turning away from these infuriations, we can always hold on to the thought that we are almost out of lockdown, we’ve had some wonderful sunny days, the fields are lovely and (except for the higher than ever number of canal closures) at last we can get out on our boats.