Challenges in the year ahead

Mike Rodd considers NABO’s priorities and the way forward.

Coming back into the NABO chair at this time in the history of our waterways is far more formidable that it might seem – the challenges that face us are by no means simple. The next few years will be critical to the future of our waterways, with CRT and EA both facing long-term funding issues. At present, the government grant covers about 40% of CRT’s income but, in about six years’ time, the initial funding stream will come to an end. It was always the intention of government that, by then, the organisation should be essentially self-funding – that is, no further government grant would be needed. Of course, as NABO has always pointed out, such a concept was cloud cuckoo land; however hard CRT might try, there is no way that it will be able to continue without direct government support. CRT Trustees and staff have tried very hard to address this issue; one approach has been to try to show how amazing the waterways are in promoting ‘public wellbeing’. That’s all good stuff, but I seriously wonder if governments of the future will take any notice – especially as many other organisations seeking government support are saying exactly the same thing. Ultimately, some level of government grant seems essential, and making the case for the real value of the waterways is of major public importance. That is really all about recalling their historic significance, as well as recognising the huge numbers of people who use them or benefit directly from their presence, as boaters, fishermen, traders, towpath walkers, bike riders, international tourists, etc.

At the same time (and not by chance I am sure, converging on similar refunding deadlines), the EA finally decided last year not to pursue the proposed merger of its navigational responsibilities with CRT, but rather to embark on an extensive programme of internal reorganisation. Indeed, EA is changing its founding principles by being allowed in future to seek non-government funding through embarking on commercial activities. Right from the top of the management ladder, EA has been reorganised and some very interesting work is emerging. This includes its structure for charging boaters – to this end a series of very well-organised workshops has been held with its various interested parties (including NABO). To me, it was intriguing (but unsurprising) to see how many of the proposed changes to its income-generating streams from boat users will in future look rather like CRT’s! Any thoughts on why?

Where NABO stands on this is simple – we all want our waterways to be suitably funded and well looked after – but at an affordable and justifiable cost! CRT has managed to keep our boating costs down, but the reverse is true of the EA. We have now had confirmation that EA’s charges on the River Thames – significantly increased last year – are to continue to rise. They have swollen by another 5.7% on last year’s charges - and this will be repeated in 2021. That’s a further 17.1% increase to add to the 55% additional above-inflation increases over the last 20 years!

It is thus crucial that NABO actively supports both CRT’s and EA’s appeals for continuing government funding – there simply is no Plan B! However, NABO must also ensure that both organisations accept that the EA increases over the past few years are simply unreasonable and will result in decreasing user numbers. In working out how best to support both CRT’s and EA’s appeals, NABO has to continue to be a ‘critical friend’ in holding both organisations to account. There is no doubt that the last few years have seen the canals suffering from more stoppages than ever. The issue of major cruising routes being closed for lengthy periods is unacceptable, not only to us private boaters, but also to the vital hire-boat industry. We do understand that things all too easily go wrong with our fragile 200+-year-old structures, but we also see a disproportionate increase in failures because of a lack of preventive maintenance. In addition, we witness, in too many cases, poor performance by CRT’s outsourced suppliers. We have mentioned this many times before, but contactor management really needs to be addressed – for example, the vegetation cutting on my little local canal in South Wales was excellent, but the contractors left the towpaths in a terrible state.

One new area to be addressed by the NABO Council has to be environmental issues. As our policy statement in this issue points out, the majority of boaters are very environmentally aware. But with so much questionable science being exploited by environmental activists and point-scoring politicians, the fact that the majority of our boats use diesel for both propulsion and heating makes us an easy target. Countering this is vital.

I am very pleased with the response we have had over the past year from CRT’s new Regional Directors; the regular meetings we have been having are much valued. This is indeed a healthy change – a year ago we felt that CRT was deliberately ignoring us!

I am also personally thrilled to see that CRT is now installing composite lock gates. In 2013, a prototype was installed by volunteers on the lower section of the Mon & Brec Canal. The K&A Trust’s legendary Bill Fisher long ago put forward the idea of composite steel gates with sacrificial wooden components, with the overall gates being modular and able to be assembled at the lock. With design work by Swansea University, and under the leadership of Richard Dommett (ex-BW Waterways Manager) of the Mon & Brec Canal Trust, pilot gates were built and installed. We invited CRT folk to see these but they did not show any interest – it was only when Julie Sharman came into post that the attitude changed. With a projected life of up to 100 years (against 25 years for conventional wooden gates) and similar manufacturing costs, the potential future cost savings are crucial.

Your NABO Council has thought long and hard to determine its immediate priorities, as we seek a way forward. This is made more challenging by the increasing difficulty (currently being experienced by most charitable bodies) in recruiting new and active members; our social-media-driven world, with its essentially free access to vast arrays of information, means that younger folk see little point in formally joining organisations, especially if that involves some cost! The biggest challenge to achieving all its aims is that NABO needs a strong and active Council, with constant input from a wide range of members. Please help us!