A most unusual, but rewarding, year

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Chairman’s Report to the AGM 2020

Mike Rodd reflects on his last twelve months in the Chair.

Having resumed as Chair once again when Stella had to stand down, I am delighted that she has made such excellent progress health-wise. She has, however, had to move back on land and give up her boat, so I guess I am ‘it’ for a while. But my task is made so much easier by having such active and fully engaged colleagues, both on the Council and also as our Regional Representatives. And what a year this has proved to be – not just through the Covid lockdowns, but with both CRT and the EA clearly getting themselves geared up for a future in which they will have to bid for Government funding, by making extensive internal changes and very significant operational modifications.

NABO and CRT

I have always believed that we should work with CRT and the EA – but always acting as ‘critical friends’. At times, however, this has not been particularly easy and – until recent changes at the Director level in CRT – was in fact proving to be very difficult. We have now, however, been able to have regular meetings with most of the new tranche of Waterways Directors, and our General Secretary and I meet the National Boating Manager (Leisure) on a regular basis.  He also provides us with detailed reports of all CRT’s activities. It is important to also note that my council colleague, Ken Hylins, our expert on support for those who are disabled and/or socially affected, has developed excellent contacts with many of the CRT staff handling these matters, and has been able to help many of our members who are in difficulties.

We are nevertheless very anxious, right at this moment, about the recent announcement by CRT of a consultation on proposed changes to the Terms and Conditions of our licences. As with the previous consultation in 2015, CRT has given no explanation of the scale and scope of the problems it is trying to address. The consultation documents propose many changes, but the suggested solutions have simply not been well thought through and, in many cases (as has been confirmed by our solicitors), are in contradiction to the relevant Waterways Act. It is just such a pity that CRT didn’t talk to the boater representative organisations before going public – it is clear to us that those who have been dreaming up some of these changes simply have little understanding of the issues facing real boaters! With the expertise that exists among our members, CRT really seems to be missing an opportunity here.

CRT has also launched yet another consultation – on London congestion – yet many of the outcomes of the previous consultation (published only in 2018) have yet to be implemented. Is this yet another political exercise, I wonder?

We are, of course, fully aware that in the next few years CRT will have to start negotiating with a financially constrained government to secure a new grant. It is clear to anyone looking at the recently published accounts that, without substantial government funding, the organisation will simply not be able to operate as it does now. It is thus entirely understandable that CRT needs to promote the waterways and their environs as being of national importance, and bringing important benefits to the wider population, not just boaters. CRT needs to target the support of all those who use the waterways, for whatever purpose – and the number of non-boaters far exceeds boaters, so this is where the need for government funding is right and proper. However, CRT also needs to recognise that boaters and boating-related businesses contribute almost as much as the entire grant, through their licences, mooring fees and related activities. It is thus only right that we boaters should get behind CRT’s bid and help get the message across to those who will make the final decisions. But conversely, it is equally vital that CRT should work with us and, for example, not start proposing new licensing requirements without talking to us first!

NABO and EA

NABO is well represented on most of the relevant EA boards and committees responsible for overseeing their navigational responsibilities, especially on the Thames. The government department responsible for the EA has itself undergone massive changes following the decision of the Government not to move the navigational responsibilities to CRT, at least for the next five years. This decision was welcomed by NABO, one of the very few organisations that opposed the original proposal. However, it is clear that the EA continues to prepare itself for such a move, essentially by making itself far more attractive to CRT, partly by trying to raise additional funding from users of its waterways.  Internally, there have been significant staff changes and we have gone to meetings where almost the entire personnel have changed – some of whom clearly had little understanding of their waterways. I have to note, however, that the EA was successful in gaining additional funding this year for system repairs and, as we speak, much additional and urgently needed work is taking place on the Thames.

One aspect of EA’s work that has deeply worried your Council has been the way it is proposing to manage their short-term moorings on the Thames. As a result, a car-parking company has been awarded the contract to do this – using the same hard-line approach as it does for car parking! This is very worrying, in that it changes the whole relationship between boaters and the organisations responsible for managing the waterways they use. An additional worry for your Council is that, if this model is emulated by CRT, we could see all our short-term moorings being operated like car parks!

Our Waterways

The Council is fully aware of the poor state of the network over the past year. While we appreciate that the lockdowns and staff furloughs have made things difficult for CRT, we are only too well aware of the significant increase in system failures, with many canals simply being unavailable for cruising over many weeks. There have been far too many lock failures and a multitude of examples of poor or inconsistent vegetation control. We see, for example, different standards of vegetation control being applied across the network, and we are not convinced that the regular lock inspections are picking up all the potential problems – possibly because inspectors don’t always spot the problems that boaters will experience. We are also gaining a strong impression, whether true or not, that paddle repairs etc. are left until there is a total failure – if one paddle works that seems to be OK. This is not good news, either for us as users, or for the general view of CRT’s level of customer satisfaction.

Boat Safety Scheme

NABO Council members are especially active in all the BSS committees and relevant working groups, where our professionally qualified members (led by David Fletcher, who presently chairs the BSS Technical Committee) participate actively in many areas, always trying to ensure that the scheme is proportionate in meeting the real needs of all waterways users. We have been particularly deeply involved in recent changes, including the compulsory use of CO monitors, either where there is potential for the generation of CO on the boat in question, or the now proven possibility that CO created by one boat can also affect boats moored close by. We have also been involved in some very complex issues relating to the increased use of electrical power on boats, and the rapid emergence of all-electric boats. This raises many very difficult situations that will have to be addressed in the long term. A fully electric boat could have enough electrical power to cause a fault as large as a major gas explosion, and the inspection regimes will need to be appropriate.

NABO’s place in the Waterways World

As I have said previously, I am always pleased (if sometimes rather surprised!) by the respect we have achieved right across the waterways, beyond the statutory organisations – sadly not always from all boaters – but from most other organisations with an interest in the canals and rivers. As the Chair, I am continuously a first port-of-call when people are seeking advice, recommendations, approvals, etc., for anything to do with the waterways. This just shows what our NABO predecessors have achieved in staking NABO’s claim. It is also interesting to see that the most popular waterways publications (notably Towpath Talk) are always willing to seek and report our views.  Indeed, Towpath Talk gives us a monthly slot, brilliantly written by our General Secretary. It is interesting to note, though, that some of our more outspoken views on CRT are ignored by some of the glossy mags, who may perhaps be too dependent on carrying CRT advertisements, etc.? Likewise, since IWA took over the secretariat for the All Party Parliamentary Group for the Waterways, our attendance at their important meetings has been rather sporadic and, for a couple of years, we were simply not invited! A great pity.

It is important to note that our membership numbers have stayed fairly constant over the past decade, often growing slightly when there is an important issue at stake, although it is evident that most boaters simply get on with things and take an interest only when there is an issue affecting their own cruising. The same appears to be true for other representative bodies.

Communicating with members

NABO News has continued to reach new heights both in terms of content and in its role, not only in briefing members, but also in getting messages over to senior people in Government and other authorities. Always filled with outstanding relevant content and most professionally produced, this is a very important mouthpiece for NABO. The efforts of the Editor, Peter Fellows, are much appreciated, as is the very professional work by Chris Pink on the layout and the careful and highly detailed work by the teams of copy editors. Over the past few years we have also made great strides in ensuring our presence is felt in the social media world. David Fletcher has made much progress in terms of our well-read website and monthly members’ bulletin, and Mark Tizard spends much of his time ensuring that a constant flow of material and debate takes place in the Facebook world.

Finances

As will be reported, we are financially OK, with our major expense being NABO News and, when necessary, solicitors’ fees. Holding regular (recently, all!) meetings across the internet has also reduced costs. Helen Hutt’s work as our volunteer Treasurer has continued to be outstanding and the Council is always provided with excellent and easy-to-understand, accounts. I must also thank our auditor, Colin Walker, for his vital work approving our annual accounts, and for also the advice he gives to Helen.

Council Membership

Whilst we could have done with a few more Council members this past year, I was delighted that each and every member accepted that they had well-defined roles to play and simply got on and did it – a real pleasure to chair! I must also thank Mark Tizard for his on-going work as our General Secretary – he really does make sure we meet all our legal requirements and quietly ensures that Council meetings are carefully prepared and organised. I must also thank David Fletcher for his excellent minute taking! But we do still need to find a minute secretary, please!

I am delighted to welcome three new members to the Council, bringing us up to a full membership again.

We were deeply saddened by the loss of our long-term legal advisor and Council member, Geoffrey Rogerson, who passed away in August 2020 after several years of illness. With his deep practical knowledge of matters legal, Geoffrey made a huge contribution to NABO, leading all aspects of our legal work, closely supported when necessary by the Council's solicitors. For many years he lived on his boat on the K&A as an active, rule-abiding continuous cruiser, setting a very clear example to all. We also lost Sadie Heritage (formerly Dean), a member of NABO right from its start. She was on the Council from 1999 to 2001, and the minutes secretary for some of the time. She was NABO’s very active East Anglia representative, mooring on the Middle Level.

Looking ahead

We are all sadly aware that there is a significant decrease in the number of younger folk becoming actively involved in inland waterways boating – the only counter to this is the large number of individuals who find living on a boat to be a cheap way of living in the centre of London and a few other cities such as Bath. There is no simple answer to the latter problem, and we have to be careful that CRT and the EA don’t try to solve it by ruthless charging mechanisms, with their obvious knock-on effects on the rest of the boating community. NABO clearly has a vital role to play over the new few years, especially in ensuring that the Government is persuaded to continue to fund the waterways, and that neither CRT nor the EA fall into financial traps that put the waterways out of the reach of most people. As a totally volunteer-run organisation with no staff, we can only be as good as our members make it!

My best wishes to you all for Christmas and the New Year.

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