In the Chair Report 2023

I must start by welcoming our new NABO News Editor, John Sadler, who has bravely stepped forward to take over from Peter Fellows, who is leaving the waterways and decamping to live in Ireland! And what a hard act he will be to follow – each year, Peter has somehow managed to develop NABO News to the point where it is now widely recognised as one of the premium journals related to our waterways. Each edition is full of insightful commentaries on the state of the waterways, and provides technical content of interest to all. I know also how much it is both welcomed (and often feared) by the respective waterways’ operators! I often count the days between its publication, and the first reactions from the latter organisations…

I need also to follow up on our AGM, and say how pleased I was to see new people offering themselves for election to our Council. Indeed, it is the first time since I became your chair, that we have a full complement, and what a pleasure this is, to see so much support forthcoming. We are, however, still lacking a General Secretary – so please give that some thought. The duties are not arduous but are essential: it is largely a case of acting as the “postmaster” for all incoming information – some of which just needs binning, but a substantial amount needs to be flagged for the attention of the appropriate councillor or regional representative. We try to have each council member play a distinctive role, and so they need to receive and deal with all relevant material – some of which it is vital for us to react to, especially where it might have an impact on the waterways. We do need always to be seen as a willing “consultant” – for example, by local authorities, as a vital component of any consultation on proposals that might impact on the waterways under their control.

And what a crazy and worrying time it is, to be involved with the waterways and their politics! With a government in some serious chaos, and with the ministers responsible changing every few months, the funding of the waterways is clearly a long way from the top of any government agenda!! We were very pleased that the Chair of the All Parties Parliamentary Waterways Group, Michael Fabricant, reacted to our (and other) pressures to get some recognition of the issues at stake, related to the future funding of CRT, by setting up a Westminster Parliamentary Debate. This was reasonably well attended by many MPs but the offhand response by the relevant minister was just so depressing.

And the chaos that I have previously reported on, in the changes to the EA’s management teams responsible for its waterways (essentially the rivers), has been of deep concern: One objective seems to be to replace people with real local expertise, by folk with almost no experience in the areas for which they are now responsible, while simultaneously ignoring any input from the waterways’ representative organisations. With attitudes like this in a government department, it is no wonder that things are in such a mess!

So where will we be when CRT’s future funding is finally revealed? Being perfectly honest, with the issues currently facing the government, we can only expect that CRT may be confronted by a very difficult situation. One has to suggest that maybe CRT should take a hard line and simply give the waterways back to Defra and tell them that the CRT model just doesn’t work? Would that achieve anything better, though? Right now, the CRT‘s CEO, Richard Parry, has been saying that CRT will simply have to adapt to a world in which the funding available is seriously reduced. In that case – given that experience over the past few years (where, even with the present level of funding, CRT has not been able to keep the canals in a fit state, and stoppages have never been worse), what will be the consequences? Again, as hinted at by Mr Parry, does this mean that some of our canals will simply have to be left unattended, while CRT concentrate on the more popular ones? Perhaps, one might (quietly) suggest that CRT should simply revert to its core business – that is, looking after the waterways for which it is responsible – and not spend seemingly endless efforts in stressing how vital they are to the well-being of the whole population, putting up vast amounts of signage to this end, and employing a serious number of staff who have nothing to do with caring for the actual canals?

Photo BlueSign Tape not Cold & Wet weather resistant? Photo Sharon Wells

Away from the stresses of waterways politics, for me personally it has been very pleasant to get back to something I really know a bit about – electrical engineering! (I spent a large chunk of my working life as an academic in this field. I also cut my teeth – and many fingers – earning some of my university funding by working with my father on wiring houses.) From my own observations on boat electrics, and also from sitting on the Boat Safety Scheme‘s Technical Committee, I have increasingly become concerned at what I was seeing, especially recently, as boats are making more extensive use of 240 volt AC systems. I soon realised that there is no clear and readily accessible guidance on boat electrics available, and that the official IEE/IET wiring regulations simply do not apply to boats. This led to discussions with my past employers, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (the IET , which was the IEE), who eventually agreed to produce an IET-sponsored guide to Electrical Installations in Small Craft. With a couple of very enthusiastic authors with wide experience in this area, this text has made significant progress. Over Christmas, the editorial team has been undertaking a major review of what, it is hoped, will soon be ready to go for editing and input from its many sponsors. The text will be aimed at those involved in the area, but has been designed to be readable by those with less experience or technological expertise.

Of particular importance is the extent of the material required regarding the use of the various types of lithium-based batteries, as these are now being extensively used in road vehicles, and many boaters are now starting to use them too. So, in parallel with the compilation of the above text, the Boat Safety Scheme has continued to review what information should be given to all boaters on the use of such batteries.  Some of these are reported to be extremely dangerous, leading my own major boat insurers to advise their customers as follows: “SAFETY WARNING: Lithium-ion battery devices. All instructions from makers & suppliers regarding storage, charging & use MUST BE FOLLOWED to the letter due to the continuing fire problems.” The issue is that, whilst some of the lithium-based batteries are safe to use in a boat environment (provided that they are correctly installed, monitored and charged etc., and not mixed with older, more conventional, batteries), there are some that have already been proved to be extremely dangerous, and have been responsible for major boat fires – which are then also (please note!) impossible to extinguish.

However, at least our pre-Christmas woes of water shortages are being (over-?)addressed, and although there are many canals needing extensive winter work, most of us (including me!) can get out and enjoy at least some days of wonderful winter cruising.  I wish everyone good cruising in 2023!