Chairman’s Report to AGM
Having admired the work of NABO ever since we bought our first boat some 16 years ago, I was delighted to be invited to join the Council. I didn’t quite tumble to what David had in mind, though, when I soon discovered that he was planning to stand down after five years as the Chairman! His are huge boots to step into, but what a pleasure and huge privilege it has proved to be, being able to work with such an amazing bunch of totally committed and highly professional boaters! I must start by thanking David for his wonderful support and for always being there - not only to give sage advice but to continue to participate in everything we do. I will refer to this further as we look at activities through the year.
Being perfectly frank, having been involved in establishing the very first trial CRT Waterways Partnership, I realised right from the start that my major contribution should be to try to ensure that NABO was fully engaged with, and respected by, CRT and its senior staff. I realised this was potentially dangerous as we might well sometimes be seen as having become CRT’s puppets. Nevertheless, I felt very strongly that we had a vital role to play in helping the new CEO, Richard Parry, to transform BW into an organisation that accepted its responsibility, not only to the waterways it was established to protect and maintain, but to its prime customers/users – us, the boat owners. Without boats, the canals and other waterways will simply be ditches and rivers instead of the unique, vibrant places of historic importance that now offer a unique environment for living and relaxation. As a boat owner and active trip boat operator, I had truly felt alienated by BW’s senior management, although I was always able to work well with their excellent local staff. This attitude at the top of the organisation badly needed to change if CRT was to succeed, and I believe we are being instrumental in working towards bringing this about.
Focus of NABO’s Work
NABO has established itself as a well-respected organisation, fiercely independent but always basing its activities on the input of many committed and knowledgeable boat owners. As members, you will know that we have invested heavily in recent years in obtaining the best possible legal advice on matters to do with licensing requirements. We have been almost alone in this, and it has put us into a strong, and indeed leadership, position in countering many of BW’s excesses. With the change from BW to CRT, we, as your Council, felt that it would be appropriate to make much of our legal advice publicly available, and this has largely been welcomed by the boating community. The resulting lead article in Towpath Talk and the reports in Waterways World and Canal Boat were widely read and commented on. As a significant percentage of our members are continuous cruisers, we have naturally also been active in issues affecting this important community. For most of them, there is no problem – they understand the 14-day rule and do move from one ‘acceptable’ or ‘sensible’ place to another, as part of a true navigation. Of course, we fully appreciate that there are overcrowding issues on sections of the K&A, and even more so in the London area. However, these are fundamentally problems to do with congestion and enforcement, which are issues that need to be tackled in their own right. For these reasons we have monitored the progress of the experimental mooring project run during this year on the western end of the K&A.
From my own experience on the K&A and Mon & Brec, I am also aware that many of the overstaying boats are not liveaboard boats, but simply boats left moored on the towpath – largely because the owners do not have a home mooring. As one said to me recently, “Why should I pay £3500 for a home mooring when all I do is leave my boat on the towpath and when someone puts a notice on it, I move it to the next bridge?” Another boater I spoke to does have an on-line home mooring but can’t get on it anymore because it needs dredging!
We are, above all, absolutely convinced that these issues (and others such as those related to overstaying) will only be solved by proper and effective, visible enforcement. We continue to press CRT, asking that consistent, even-handed enforcement action should be taken against boats that do not move. It is, after all, for CRT to decide (and then for the courts to rule on) what constitutes ‘bona fide’ navigation. However, we also believe strongly that enforcement should not be carried out by volunteers, but by properly trained staff, or someone is going to get hurt or end up in court!
As a result of our well-publicised work in the above areas, I am sure that NABO’s profile is now higher than ever. We naturally hope that this will result in increased membership – the more members we have, the more credibility we gain. I must say a huge thank you to Geoffrey for all his painstakingly detailed work on the legal issues, and to Mark for his bull-terrier-like approach to all the moorings issues.
Boat Safety Scheme Work
An important role that NABO has been playing for some time has been its detailed and professional input into the work of the various committees of the Boat Safety Scheme. Here, we believe, we can offer high quality and well-informed advice; we can also – and indeed must – ensure that the requirements that are imposed on our community are both fair and proportionate. As a direct result of my colleagues’ work, we now have active NABO representation on both the Advisory Committee (David and Trevor) and the Technical Committee (Chaired by David with me as the NABO person). The revised requirements for private boats came in last year, and we are presently all engaged in revisiting the requirements for hire boats. While this might seem a bit odd for NABO to be caught up in, of course we are all impacted (sometimes literally!) by this important industry, contributing as it does to the use of our waterways. Also, we know that any new hire boat requirement might well, in time, trickle down to affect private boats.
While the Council has been largely focused on the CRT waterways, we have also had excellent input into the EA activities, especially on the Thames and related waters, by our three actively engaged representatives - Louis Jankel, Graham Paterson and Dennis Hill. There have been massive changes in the operational structures of EA and especially in how it supports its navigational responsibilities. NABO vigorously opposed the initial proposals for increases in its charges of CPI plus 2% and we were pleased that these were dropped down to CPI, as are CRT’s. We have also continued our opposition to the taking over by CRT of the EA’s navigational responsibilities, at least until CRT can prove it can manage its existing obligations effectively. There are also funding arrangements that need to be resolved in order to make it viable for CRT to operate waterways that are so fundamentally different from those it presently runs.
Communicating with Members
NABO News goes from strength to strength and is clearly welcomed by our members, being both informative and entertaining. From comments received, it is clearly also reaching many places within CRT, EA and indeed, local and national authorities. While we are making increased use of the various social media, it is clear to us that there is a strong demand for the printed version, which seems to end up on many important people’s desks! A massive thank you to Peter Fellows and his team of copy editors, and to Chris Pink for all the very high-quality work on the layout. A new deal on distributing NABO News was negotiated; this included putting the magazine into the envelopes and labelling them. I would like to thank Ruth Field and Frances Westwood for their wonderful work in the past, including many painstaking hours doing this task.
It is also appropriate to report on our increased use of Facebook and Twitter and their integration with the website. Mark, especially, is ensuring that we have a continued presence on Facebook and the amount of resulting traffic is most significant and provides us with continual feedback, which is vital to our relevance. So, for example, Mark's recent survey of member’s (and others’) experience of visitor moorings and overstaying proved to be an instantaneous success, providing both us and the media (and, we hope, CRT) with a very valuable insight, in which most respondents told us that they found few problems, except for the need for additional dredging and vegetation control! I would like to add that the coverage we get through the on-line NarrowboatWorld website/forum is very important, given its ever-growing viewership – we very much appreciate the work of Tom Crossley and his team, especially Allan Richards.
The retirement during the year of Melanie Darlington as our administrator, after many years of great service by her and Jon, required us to take a far-reaching look at all aspects of our administration. Here David has played a huge role in cleansing, integrating and automating far more of our membership database, with the support of past chairman Sue Burchett, and more recently, the recruitment of Helen Hutt. David has also been working tirelessly to ensure our increasingly popular website is fully-functional; and I should also thank John Slee for all his support in this area. The whole administration process has been overhauled and is now fully volunteer-run. Helen’s role as our bookkeeper is proving to be exceptionally valuable, and I feel much happier that the Council is well informed as to our financial situation; this has also made Steven Peters’ job as the Honorary Treasurer far easier and more effective.
I would also like to thank Richard Carpenter for all his on-going work as our General Secretary – he really does make sure we meet all our constitutional requirements and he makes my life so much easier – especially when I complicate matters regarding the holding of Council meetings by asking that we hold them in different boat clubs round the country!
Steven will report on our finances but I would like to confirm that we are holding our own – the increased membership fees did result in a slight decrease in membership but this was largely offset by new members joining. Like all similar bodies, these are not easy days and we have had to make sure that we reduce costs wherever possible and work as efficiently as we can. The advertising in NABO News is vital as we strive to keep the cost of producing this as low as possible. At the same time, though, we know our readers do not want to see endless pages of ads, and hence we have concentrated on attracting a few high quality and relevant advertisers.
As one would expect, the arrival of CRT has resulted in a series of important consultation surveys, etc., and we have managed to respond to all those that we feel are crucial to boaters. These include the recent ones on sharing towpaths, the auction of towpath moorings, and the proposed water resources strategy. There was also Mark’s survey on visitor moorings and overstaying that was given to CRT and taken up by Towpath Talk.
One of the interesting, if time-consuming, aspects of the Chairman’s role, and one which took me completely by surprise, has been the numbers of enquiries that come in totally out of the blue. Be they issues relating to obtaining a mooring in London, an argument with mooring owners, a query as to whether it is possible to sail a 90’ ocean-going yacht from Bristol to London along the K&A, or “how do I fix my alternator?”, we certainly seem to attract a lot of interesting questions! The answer is often, “I don’t know but I know a person who does!” but this certainly does mean that people are finding us! It also has struck me how often we are consulted on matters to do with the canals and rivers – from the new sewer through London to the re-development of land along the old canal track in the Swansea valley, we have clearly made our mark as an organisation that carries both weight and authority.
We have a strong and committed Council and I am delighted that we continue to have new folk coming forward and standing for election. Nevertheless, I have to say that – like so many similar organisations – we have to be concerned by our ageing profile. This is, of course, reflecting what we see on the cut – most new boaters are coming on mainly in search of what is perceived as a cheap way of living and we are all seeing a decline in younger active boaters. NABO, and hence our Council, does need to attract a broader membership. On the positive side though, the most positive change we are seeing is in the steady increase in the use of our Facebook and Twitter presence, and the number of folk who are being drawn to our website. One of the challenges is to convert many of these contributors to becoming paid-up members – whilst our finances are sound, our activities are totally dependent on subscriptions, driven by feedback from our members.
In conclusion, a huge thank you to all members of the Council and to our many regional representatives. As a totally volunteer-run organisation, we can only be as good as our members make it possible for us to be!