Open letter to CRT’s CEO

Several NABO members have said that others might like to read this letter from our well-known member Simon Greer, in which he suggests many ideas for improvements to the waterways.

Dear Richard

There is a credibility gap between the CRT ‘promise’ (as promoted on your website, in your literature and your PR) which is pretty wonderful and the on-the-cut reality, which is less compelling. Consequently, CRT often falls into a credibility hole of its own making. This engenders discontent (i.e. that CRT is ‘boater friendly’ when often it is not, or that CRT has all the answers when it clearly hasn’t). Here is a selection of ideas. These are more than just my thoughts; I have solicited ideas from far and wide. I hope you find them useful.

Don’t Fix What’s Not Broken

Please don't fix problems where they don't exist. Places like London, Bradford on Avon and the Llangollen do not reflect the majority of the system; they are simply busy areas. Congestion is part of the scene. Like vehicle traffic in busy towns, or the motorway through Birmingham, most boaters negotiate bottlenecks and congestion well enough, with patience and common sense and deal with it without ringing up the DVLA each time. Like at a boat rally, we happily breast up two and three deep – no problem. We get along without any of the special measures seemingly perceived by some of your management as necessary for these untypical locations. 

Boaters do not welcome being orchestrated or herded or need their hands holding. Notice how many boats are called ‘Freedom’, ‘Pipe Dream’, ‘Dreamweaver’ and similar. This is not aspirational nonsense, it’s one of the most important USPs of the canals! Boaters don’t want a charge for that which they used to get for free and generally they don’t see canal embellishment as good value. They have humble requirements and are easily satisfied with adequate water depth, working locks, casual moorings and minimum micro-management. The needs of these paying customers should receive priority. We’d also appreciate ‘contained’ running costs. 
Please avoid micro-managing – CRT can’t please everyone and could choose to be more laissez-faire.  Metaphorically, rather than supplying litter bins at every request, you could cultivate a requirement that customers take their rubbish home and not drop it in the first place. Refuse to take sides; ride above the nonsense. Stick to the big ideas (e.g. boaters – don't cause a wash; developers – replace moorings you take from boaters).

Management Style Matters, but Managed for Whom?

Unfortunately significant bad feeling exists between many boating customers and CRT. Securing approval from CRT for canalside development/moorings is turgid, slow and contorted. This is because of inappropriate diktats (e.g. no more online moorings). Much has been demanded by CRT with little regard for boaters’ expectations, wishes, or licence money. It’s almost as if we are not customers but intruders who are also milch cows. Being a monopoly supplier that's also a charity shouldn't mean that CRT can treat customers as milch cows or threaten them with court action for contentious non-compliance.

Should the network be administered for the ‘trade’ at the expense of private boaters? Certainly much current visitor mooring restriction is mostly for the benefit of hire boaters. I question this.  Like car parking in town, if someone already occupies a space it is accepted they got there first and we park elsewhere. Why is a short walk back to the pub a problem? Is a short walk not part of a canal holiday?

How Do Others Manage?

Please consider how other countries run their canal networks. France operates a ‘carnet’ system where boaters pay only for periods of navigation, so periods of non-movement while moored are not chargeable. Boats without a Safety Certificate are acceptable, provided they do not move.  Locks are operated for boaters throughout the system. These are not necessarily good ideas but they show that there is credible alternative management in operation. Perhaps your management team could be asked to explore similar thinking?

Vested Interests Conflict

Vested interests mean that user groups are in constant conflict: paying moorers vs non-paying moorers; hire boaters vs private boaters; walkers vs joggers vs cyclists vs dog owners vs fishermen vs canoeists. Plastic boats vs steel boats vs dayboats vs canalside house owners vs liveaboards vs non-liveaboards and so on. This is because we are all able, with impunity, to promote our own self-interest rather than a common ‘canal interest’. House owners throw their rubbish over the garden wall into the canal, boaters run generators at night next to houses, property developers think boaters get in the way of development etc. CRT doesn’t encourage a common canal interest but rather fuels the flames of factionalism by taking sides – generally against the boater and in favour of the landlubber. As the main navigation authority CRT might see fit to fight the boater’s corner as its first priority. We boaters certainly feel CRT doesn’t ‘Bat for Boaters’. Perhaps CRT might wish to adopt the phrase?

Waterway Law

There is much in the 1995 British Waterways Act that is vague. Having contributed to the Select Committee hearings, I know with certainty that this vagueness was deliberately introduced by George Mudie MP and his parliamentary team as legal protection for boaters. The vagueness was introduced for our protection, balancing up the draconian law sought by BW. Today, outside the scrutiny of the Select Committee, CRT (and BW before it) spends possibly many millions of pounds of our money trying to circumvent the protection given to us (over £1 million last year mostly with Shoosmiths). I would suggest such spending by a charity, directed against its customers, is inappropriate. Please consider curtailing this expenditure; it simply isn't charitable.  We argued our case in the highest forum in the land against your professional legal team and won our concessions. That should be the end of the matter. We have to live with those sections of the law we don't like and we feel that CRT should do the same.

To assist you to ‘nudge’ towpath-moored boats into moving regularly consider publishing rotas, by location, of visits by your enforcement officers. These could be posted on local noticeboards, leafleted on the towpath and posted on the web for those who are online. Then watch the majority of boaters move in synchronicity with such rotas.

There’s a myth that there are more boats today than ever before and therefore more regulation is required to manage them. Not true. Boat numbers peaked at over 100,000 at the turn of the 19th century, with 500 more miles of canal and 95% of boats permanently on the line. There was less regulation, more congestion and greater camaraderie. Contrast that with 35,000 boats today, 95% in marinas, with much more regulation and imposed expense. I recall when towpath mooring was the norm and was included in the licence fee.

Linear Water Theme Park or Killing the Golden Goose?

If I visit Snowdon the environment is natural, uncontrived, honest and unspoilt. That’s what I want; that’s the attraction. Put in the hands of insensitive professional leisure managers and the result is Blackpool up a hill. Up go the signs ‘Welcome to Snowdon’, with a pay box here, an IKEA-type routing system there. An expensive cafe, trinket shop, tarmacadam information-guided path, interspersed with sculptures and organic ice-cream booths, all in the name of progress. But the ‘improvements’ actually compromise that which was the attraction! The so-called progress is retrogressive and can degrade the integrity of the resource.

CRT appears to manage the system as if it is a sort of Alton Towers on water where the visitors must be corralled into paying for mooring and accept a relatively high entrance fee.  How much better if it was viewed like a National Park where there is no entrance fee and water sales (see below) mostly take care of the running costs. Millions of walkers and joggers along waterways have it free; it clearly can be done.

Charitable or Monopoly Status?

CRT is a new charity. Please always act as such. Making boaters homeless and throwing them into the hands of hard-pressed local authorities isn't charitable. Hiding behind the phrase ‘We are not a housing authority’ doesn’t sit comfortably when you take money for houseboat certificates and residential moorings. Indeed, as a charity, I can't see why you wouldn't wish to positively help with the nation’s housing needs. I understand the previous Minister for Housing, Grant Shapps, has suggested that this should happen. As a monopoly supplier it is perhaps incumbent on CRT not to use its privileged position to strong-arm customers into compliance with that which is contentious (e.g. threats to withhold licences for perceived non-compliance).

I understand that the CRT property portfolio needs to be ‘managed’. However, ahead of moving boaters from a site CRT wishes to develop, please find your customers alternative moorings as a prerequisite to development. Presently moorers are unceremoniously evicted and left to fend for themselves. It’s a bad deal. Jericho Boatyard in Oxford is a good example of this but it continues to happen nationwide. In Macclesfield eight local wharfs have been lost to housing and not a single boater was assisted with their relocation difficulties. Boaters lost engineering expertise, parking, security, diesel supplies, moorings and more.

More Reliable Income

Many millions of gallons of fresh water currently haemorrhage from CRT reservoirs to the sea via the canal network.  But CRT is broke!  At the same time many thousands of new homes are to be built. Seemingly the water companies are making little or no provision for this new demand;  no-one wants a new reservoir in their back garden. So here’s a proposal: sell CRT reservoirs (but not the water) to the utility companies to raise capital now and use the network as the primary distribution conduit. A royalty fee for every gallon extracted and cleaned for sale could be our funding for a reliable future. Please also consider using the system more as a transport network  (e.g. moving rubbish for local authorities or non-perishables for Tesco). This should be in CRT`s thinking; it used to be.  Reducing road journeys is green, attracts government support and helps keep the canals working.

In conclusion, in the past our waterways have been administered as if they were the private fiefdom of an anti-boater Watford management. The hope is that this can stop and a more inclusive new boater-friendly administration can arise. You are invited to cultivate boating interests FIRST – no other body is charged with this function. Other interests, such as walking, bird-watching, canoeing, restoration of historical buildings and housing development have their own dedicated lobby groups. We only have one and it’s CRT. Putting boating needs first, I believe, will enable much else that is wanted to fall in place in a new and virtuous equilibrium.  Please consider this as a workable way forward. A clear sense of direction of this sort will be most welcome and promises a long and harmonious future for all who live, love, and work on the canals. 
Kind regards,