NABO Concern on Safety Impacts of Cost Reductions on Thames Lock Operations

NABO has written to Sir Philip Dilley, Chairman of Environment Agency expressing its concern on the safety impact of proposed changes on Thames lock operations.

"Dear Sir Philip

NABO, the National Association of Boat Owners, is dedicated to promoting the interests of private boaters on Britain's canals and rivers. (see

Our organisation is well-represented on the rivers, especially the Thames, where members now have some serious concerns about the impact of budget cuts on the operations of the Navigational Authority for the river, the Environment Agency.

We have been advised that there are two areas of policy change which, if true, would be of specific concern to us.

1. We understand that it is proposed that lock and weir keepers should no longer attempt to fight any boat fires in or near their lock. We have also been advised that the existing fire extinguishers available at the lock-side for use in such circumstances are to be removed and replaced with a single 1-kilo unit that would be inadequate to help put out a fire in a boat. Presumably, now, in the event of a fire the lock and weir keepers are expected to call the emergency services and wait?

May we ask you to visualise an accident in an empty lock where a boat catches fire? Indeed – as you will be aware –there have been far too many examples over the past few years of just such incidents. When a boat is burning, especially in a lock, the chances of the fire being passed on to other boats is very high. As most of these fires are related to the petrol held on most river-cruising boats, the Boat Safely Scheme has paid particular attention to this issue and recently released additional advice on preventing such occurrences, but we cannot be complacent that these measures would eliminate boat fires in all cases. Past experience suggests that delays caused by waiting for the emergency services could considerably exceed the national average target of 10 minutes, whereas rapid action to hold back a fire could well ensure that lives could be saved.

2. Lock-side portable ladders, used for extracting boaters who have fallen into a lock when it is “empty” or at its low level status, are to be eliminated – we believe – because they are “too heavy”! Despite their weight, for 40 years they have still allowed endangered boaters to climb out of a frightening environment. However, if someone does fall in in the future, presumably again the new instruction is to call the emergency services? Another 10-minute-plus delay for a child/OAP immersed in a cold water chamber with slimy walls, especially in freezing cold water, would be likely to result in deaths. Much lighter modern alternatives to the heavy ladders could and should be made available.

Clearly, the changes that we understand are being proposed would potentially make bad situations worse. If introduced, they could result in serious injury or fatalities, and might also expose the Environment Agency to potential legal action.

Can we please ask you to confirm or deny whether the above changes are being seriously considered? If they are, we earnestly request that you review them again from a “health and safety”, as opposed to a financial, perspective. We would also urge your navigational colleagues to consult closely with those who are at the forefront of the use of the rivers, i.e., the boating community. Our organisation is always willing to act as conduit to ensure that such communications are as effective as possible.

Yours faithfully
Dr Mike Rodd FIET CEng
Chairman, National Association of Boat Owners"