As we highlighted in the last edition of Nabo News, a major part of our Council’s work is currently dedicated to supporting the vital and ongoing “Fund Britain’s Waterways” campaign.
At NABO’s instigation, and with over 70 organisations now on board, this initiative is being led by a small steering group with membership from NABO, IWA, AWCC, British Marine and the RYA, under the chairmanship of the well-known Les Etheridge, National Chair of the Inland Waterways Association. The group meets every few weeks, and is actively planning an ambitious programme of events for the next six months or so. In this work, the support of the IWA is proving vital, as they have generously committed some of their paid staff to the programme, enabling us to undertake a far wider range of activities, reaching out much more widely, than would otherwise have been feasible. Whilst IWA are generously picking up their own staffing costs, contributions to FBW finances have already been made by the Royal Yachting Association, the Association of Waterways Cruising Clubs, NABO, and the Inland Waterways Association.
It is important to re-iterate how vital this programme is. As most readers will now know, the government has made some concessions with respect to extending the grant to CRT, announcing that some level of funding will continue to be given. However, the amount is not index-linked and is actually scheduled to decrease rapidly (ultimately, to zero!) over the next few years. It is also important for everyone to realise that the FBW programme is looking far more widely than just CRT. Funding for all the waterways in the country is under threat: the funding of the EA Waterways has already been extensively reduced, and the Scottish Canals are suffering similarly. Hence, “Fund BRITAIN’S waterways” – right across the board.
So, what is being done to bring this to the attention, not only of those in power, but also of the wider public?
The seed funding from our member organisations is being used to produce posters/badges/leaflets, etc. for the campaigns listed below, as well as notices to be displayed on (we hope) as many private boats as possible. Copies of the window stickers can be downloaded from the FBW website https://waterways.org.uk/fund-britains-waterways/fbw-resources , do you have yours?
A widely distributed petition (with almost 50,000 signatures already) is being circulated, and is planned for presentation to the Prime Minister early next year. Please sign it if you have not already done so (go to https://waterways.org.uk/fund-britains-waterways )
The first public event was held on Sunday 13th August with a campaign cruise in Birmingham with nearly 50 boats filling the canal outside the Mailbox. There was extensive press and media coverage, especially via the BBC and ITV, also by local radio stations, and then by several national newspapers, particularly the Guardian, all of this helping to swell the petition numbers, but also getting the message across to MPs etc.
A follow-up event to the Birmingham cruise is being held at Gloucester docks by an offshoot of FBW, “Fund Gloucester Docks”, on the 30th September.
Crucially, we are attempting to engage with members of both Houses of Parliament. We and/or our member organisations have written to most of them, and where possible have held direct discussions. What is notable is that there is huge ignorance of how the waterways are funded, and how crucial government support is!! Attendance at the various Party Conferences was initially mooted, but it was felt that the costs involved in showing a powerful presence were too high and, quite frankly, the advice we were given was that most senior MPs attend only briefly. The feeling is that we would do better to approach them more directly. Again, there is considerable scope here for individuals, as well as groups, to make their voices heard.
The next major event will be another campaign cruise in November, this time to the Palace of Westminster. This will be similar to the one in January 2007, which also sought to effect changes in Government policies. Thirty-one boats played a crucial role in that venture, and most of them have already agreed to be involved this time around too.
I do understand, however, that some boaters may feel conflicted about this initiative. We are, sadly, encountering some objections – mainly from boaters who are deeply concerned by the present sad state of the canals and hence feel that they cannot support CRT in any way. Regrettably, this includes some very well-known TV personalities, as well as some organisations claiming to represent liveaboard boaters.
I do have to say that – from my own experience on both the K&A and the Mon & Brec – I can fully understand people’s reservations. I have never seen the K&A so desperately overgrown, such that in places our public trip boat cannot pass another largish boat without going aground. And every time I take our volunteer-run trip boat out from Hungerford we are delayed by up to 30 minutes by a lock that has had a broken top gate paddle for almost three years.
Nevertheless, we are between a rock and a hard place! As we have repeatedly said in the past, whilst NABO is deeply concerned that CRT is not currently maintaining the canals effectively, there is simply no “Plan B” – and certainly no possibility of a return to the days of BWB!! We simply have to appreciate that CRT is here to stay, and that we need to get them funded effectively, or things will simply go from bad to worse! They need proper funding if there is to be any hope of the system being properly cared for.
HOWEVER, there is going to have to be a quid pro quo in all of this! If it is primarily through the goodwill and the concerted efforts of boaters that proper funding is made available to care for the waterways, then in return we have to convince the bodies who receive that funding (including, of course, CRT) that they need to get their act together to keep our waterways in an acceptable condition. And a vital component of that is that they should listen to those who know the waterways inside out, use them most, and understand them best – largely, those self-same boaters! This isn’t any sort of NIMBY-ism – we want the waterways and the associated facilities to be in peak condition for the well-being of all those who enjoy and depend on them – but we are uniquely positioned to offer help and advice, and the fruit of our experience.
With the current cost-of-living crisis and the fall-off in staycations now that Covid restrictions have gone, the waterways-based businesses and the tourist industry have enough of a battle on their hands right now, without being further undermined by visitor experiences being ruined by poor upkeep of the basic infrastructure. It’s in ALL our interests to get this sorted!
Nevertheless, I hope you have all enjoyed a good summer on your boats – it’s a wonderful waterways world out there!