Thames Navigation Users Forum October Meeting

On Thursday 14 October Mike Rodd tried to attend a “Teams” meeting of TNUF. Unfortunately he had to attend via phone only as there was poor internet access from where he was moored. However, Teams dropped out several times and he was placed on unmute and the function to reverse this would not work but ended the call! We have therefore had Andy Soper of the DBA (and also a NABO member)’s permission to re-produce his report. See below

The protocol for these meeting is that the papers are circulated two weeks before the meeting.

We were advised by the EA on 30 September that “You will be aware that we endeavor to circulate any papers identified on the agenda for TNUF meetings 2 weeks prior to the meeting date (14 October 2021).Please take this email as a notification that we have taken the decision to postpone the circulation of papers until next Wednesday 6 October. We believe it will be more beneficial to members to receive updates from us that cover outcomes for the whole of Q1 and Q2 (ending today) rather than partial reports. Many of these reports including compliance and finance will not be available until early next week due to the way our internal reporting systems work.

In the event a total 53 pages of papers were not eventually circulated until late on 8 October giving very little time to take soundings from members. I met, virtually, with colleagues from the main motor boating organisations (NABO, RBOA, ATYC, TMBA and IWA) on 13 October to confirm our consensus on the principal issues.

Historically TNUF is chaired by a senior EA manager and often had an EA main Board Director in attendance. Attendance by EA managers this time was disappointing. The meeting was chaired by Maria Herlihy, one of the two Operations managers currently sharing the additional role of Waterway manager. Apologies for absence were sent by the Area Director Julia Simpson, Thames Area Enforcement Manager Colin Chiverton, National Navigation Manager Andy Wilkinson (now promoted to Deputy Director Commercial and Navigation with his post being advertised!), and there was no Finance manager available to advise on financial figures.

The meeting started in fine style with the acceptance of the minutes of the previous meeting as it was claimed that no objections had been received in time – an erroneous conclusion that they had to accept as the minutes were late being presented – see above!

The Operations update was presented by James Adams – an appointee to a new post as Senior Team Leader responsible to both Waterway Managers and responsible for managing some 10 other managers and team leaders. He claimed that having a resident lock-keeper allocated to each lock and recruiting some 24 seasonal relief lock-keeper reliefs was a great success. It was pointed out that in previous years we had Summer assistant lock-keepers as well giving significantly more man- power over the summer season. He was pleased that 70% of the volunteers had turned up again this year but had no answer as to why 30% hadn’t – despite the organisation chart showing two volunteer managers. He was also pleased to announce that 20 seasonal reliefs have been kept on beyond the end of September and seem surprised that this was challenged as a waste of money as there are too many lock-keepers with too little to do in winter. Unfortunately, on this issue, as on many others in this meeting discussion was cut short with the comment – ‘ this will have to be continued by correspondence’ (eg e-mail) thus limiting the holding of managers accountable for their actions.

A communication plan –, conditions website, facebook etc – was announced and challenged by boaters. There is a communications working group within TNUF but this had not been called to comment on the plan – or even involved!

The discussions on vegetation management, a proposal for a wider water safety forum, non-return valves on water points and pump-outs, and Red/Yellow boards protocol were all guillotined to be discussed by email. (I do have the offer from Maria of a telephone discussion with Peter Collins on the Sunbury lock debacle – but no phone call by the end of the week)

Finance – despite promises to improve the presentation of the financial position we were still sent obtuse and impenetrable data. EA continues to obfuscate the figures as the Thames registration year runs from 1 Jan to 31 Dec but the financial reporting year from 1 April to 31 March. What was clear from the figures is that some 1000 boats – £500,000 of income is missing this year despite the marinas being full and increasing numbers ‘continuously cruising’ the river.

Compliance – the proud announcement of 78 patrol launch patrols since April was met with scepticism as it works out as one patrol every other day. EA have ten launches but were unable to advise the annual cost of maintaining one patrol boat. Guillotined discussion again.

Enforcement – Article 16 of the Inland Waterways Order 2010 enables EA to remove boats that do not comply with registration requirements but they do not enforce this and indeed are believed to have agreed with the National Bargees and Travellers any craft that is a home will not be removed. No-one from EA was willing to confirm or deny this agreement but they did advise that they believe need to consult further before using these powers – granted 10 years ago!

Boat Registration Consultation – Sam Holland – National Navigation Adviser presented the outcomes and advised that significant opposition to both area charging and the level of increase had been reported but was not able to advise how this would be reported to the Secretary of State – who has the last word. The £20 million per annum to fund the EA waterways was challenged and a breakdown by waterway asked for again – not available – nor is the level of service that this is based on.

The Thames ‘Business Plan’ (more a collection of aspirations) was rushed through with most of it ‘to be discussed by email’).

One glimmer of hope – if it is possible and the contractors can make it safe to do so the locks closed over the Christmas / New Year will be re-opened for passage during the construction industry three week close down. My prompting worked!

This was an almost totally unsatisfactory meeting. It was held on-line when the EA’s own main Board were meeting face to face. Too many items were tabled late and crammed into just 2 and a half hours. However – EA – have no statutory requirement to hold any consultations – it was abolished as part of the ‘bonfire of the Quangos’ (David Cameron 2015).

On the other hand my complaint about EA waterways management is moving slowly forward is being investigated by a manager from outside of Thames with a meeting agreed for 25 October.

Andy Soper

Dutch Barge Association