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Category: NN Chairman's Column
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Mike Rodd considers some effects of the pandemic.

Like many of our members in self-isolation at home and unable to travel to our boats, it has really come home to us how much the canals and rivers are an essential part of our lives. It also reminds us how precious these waterways are, and how urgently we need to ensure that they are protected. 

This will be especially important in the days ahead, when our economy will look very different from the immediate past, with governments facing many horrendous difficulties in recovering from the financial wrecking balls caused by the pandemic. And – of vital interest to all of us – at the same time as the Government will be trying to sort out this mess, CRT and EA will be bidding for at least some essential government funding.  As I have said before, I just cannot see how either body will be able to continue without some level of government support, at least similar to that which has been received in the past. However, I really can’t see such bids being high on any government's priorities. It is vital, therefore, that boater representative bodies, such as NABO and RBOA, get behind CRT’s and EA’s bids – even though we must also continue to be critical friends when needed.

I fear for so many of the waterways-related businesses who are facing a devastating year with possibly no income at all. I can also see that many boaters may be financially challenged and unable to pay marina fees etc.  If this causes them to move their boats onto the towpaths, that will further compound the marina operators’ financial position, as well as (in most cases) CRT’s. If boaters are additionally unable to pay their licence/registration fees, this will add to the impact on CRT’s and EA’s finances. We welcome CRT’s extension of licences – but it is also understandable that they have asked those of us who can afford it, to donate back to them the savings we gain, and I encourage those who can, to do so.

I feel it is necessary for me, personally, to address the question of the towpath usage. I am deeply concerned that CRT has been seriously and often publicly abused for its approach to the use of our towpaths during these days of self-isolation. To me, it seems that there are two sides to the debate. For the many (6,000 plus?) folk living on their boats, it would seem logical that, with most towpaths less than two metres in width and right up against their moored boats, CRT should simply close the towpaths to all but the boaters. A logical argument, but, what about the many folk who live in tower blocks in a city where there are no local parks to exercise in? Where else can they go to walk the kids – except on the safe, local towpath?  Or, what if your shortest route to (possibly essential) work is along the towpath and the alternatives are much longer walks or rides up steep hills (like those around Bradford-on-Avon and Bath) on some cyclist-unfriendly roads?  These folk have legitimate needs too. So, personally, I agree with CRT's current policy (at the time of writing) of limited but shared and considerate use of towpaths, to comply with social distancing restrictions. 

Unfortunately, of course, there will always be a small number of folk who then selfishly abuse the situation – and go screaming down a towpath on their racing bikes trying to beat the latest STRAVA speed record. Or those whose exercise is a 20 km run, normally with their mates, along a lovely flat and well cared-for towpath. Unfortunately, CRT’s approach to handling this situation seems to have been to just tell its boating community what its policy is, and then put up signs. This is instead of going public and stating clearly, through the national press and other media, that towpaths should be used by non-boaters ONLY where absolutely essential, and then laying out the conditions under which this may be done, so that those who have no choice but to moor against the towpath can also be kept safe. This crisis has brought home to us all just how interlinked we are – and the use of towpaths is just one more example of how we ought to be mindful of the needs of others, together with the vital need to keep everyone as safe as we can. I should add that the reports we have received from liveaboards with special needs have been very positive regarding the support they have all received from CRT staff.

Naturally, meetings with the senior management of the EA, relating to their navigational responsibilities becoming less dependent on government funding and exploring how to become more commercially viable, have ground to a halt. This also appears to have happened with evaluating the tenders to oversee the management of all the EA’s Thames moorings. We know that there were two experienced bidders for the contract, and they await a decision. While this will only immediately affect boaters using the Thames, the underlying concept of outsourcing moorings management is of vital interest to all of us, as I am sure CRT will be looking very closely at this approach!

Your NABO Council continues to meet regularly via teleconferences, and the sessions have proved to be very productive and well-attended. As in so many other areas where we are being forced to operate in different ways, I do wonder what we will be able to take from these experiences when the situation changes back. Whilst face-to-face meetings are valuable, these teleconferences are less costly and can be very productive. Food for thought!

Finally, despite these strange times for all of us, I wish you everything of the best and, for those unlucky ones who are not living on their boats, I hope we all see our boats again soon!