Thames Navigation Users Forum on Wednesday 13 April

Andy Soper of the Dutch Barge Association and NABO Member, reports on this meeting:  I attended a meeting of the Thames Navigation Users Forum on Wednesday 13 April. Some 25 people attended with about 15 from user organisations including all of the principal boating user organisations (RBOA, NABO, RYA, ATYC, TMBA, IWA ) along with British Rowing and Canoe England.

Less than a week before EA circulated 46 pages of papers for consideration at this 2.5 hour  virtual meeting (EA not embraced face to face meetings yet).   Many attendees expressed disappointment at the expected range of topics but welcomed the delivery of papers before the meeting. 

I met virtually with a number of boating reps two days before the meeting to agree likely lines of discussion, agreement and challenge.

In this note I will summarise the key points and issues:

Item 3 – Thames Waterway Overview
There has been some unreported shrinkage in headcount between 2018 (60 Resident lock-keepers (LWK) and reliefs) to today (about 55 Resident lock-keepers   and reliefs).   There was some confusion as none of the managers were in post in 2018! Some 24 temporary LWK are being recruited this year but  may not be fully inducted until late April. The 2018 figure for volunteers was 250 but only 153 had reported for duty last week. EA advised at the meeting that there were now 183 returners and some 78 new volunteers for training.
The estimated minimum to achieve 7 day cover is about 78 LWK so 55 + 24 should be adequate to single man all locks – although there is still some significant absence due to COVID which may explain some of the dual and triple siting of LWK this Easter weekend. EA have assured us that the will deploy managers to cover some of the gaps but no update of the rota yet.

Boat registrations so far this year are down on both 2021 and 2020.  Accommodation charges (for jetties and piles) are similarly down, there is a software problem and gapped posts in the licensing team. Both of these issues are resulting in a loss of income for EA.

EA are very excited about their first net zero carbon lock – Northmoor.  Members were delighted that the historic paddle and rhymer weir has been retained.

24 hour moorings
EA presented a somewhat disjointed plan for managing short term moorings.  Members were not impressed as it has no electronic payment options, inadequate oversight and enforcement and a slew
of relaxations for breakdowns, medical issues etc. that will be easy to abuse.  Discussion was guillotined due to shortness of time and further discussions will take place.

Water Points and Pump-outs
Again guillotined due to time constraints. EA do not seem to understand the problem, solutions or the impact on users. Further discussions will take place.

Item 4 – Winter Works
While EA were congratulated on opening the river fully on 31 March after the winter works it ws unfortunate that they immediately closed Rushey lock for two weeks for further work  the disrupting up-river hire trade.
Probably the biggest disappointment of the winter works is the failure to address the unreliability of the operating pedestals under public power as they failed to find a competent contractor for the second year running.

Item 5 – Enforcement
Enforcement following up reported registration and other issues is in the hands of a manager and just 6 warranted officers.  The fairly good news is that the cost comes out of the central EA funds and not navigation but as the top-slicing of earnings is 47.6% navigation deserves to get some attention.
EA were keen to report their success in prosecuting Alastair Trotman (owner of 5 bnb slumboats) including awarding of costs to EA of £20K.  Sadly at the court awarded rate of £200 per month it will be some time before we see the money!
Thames Motor Boat Association (TMBA) carried out a desktop survey of the Thames via Google. This shows that the number of boats on the Thames in 2019 is very similar to that in 2021.  Unfortunately – see above- registrations are down. No enforcement no income.  I reminded the meeting that in the grey areas of Facebook it is common knowledge that declaring ‘Mickey Mouse’ ‘no fixed abode’ will get you through Teddington lock and even if you are chased up as long as you pay the registration fee before court day there will be no penalty. EA will drop the case.
I am told it will be different this year…..

Item 6 Finance
I welcomed to much clearer financial reporting in the pack.  However, a 1 January registration year for Thames and a financial year start on 1 April continues to make understanding of income and expenditure very difficult.  Both Anglian and Medway EA waterways start their registration year on 1 April matching the financial year. I have again asked why Thames registration year cannot be matched to the financial year. No satisfactory response was forthcoming – it was either DEFRA / EA or Treasury rules but no-one was sure!

Item 7 National Navigation
EA has a National Navigation department under the oversight of Deputy Director Andy Wilkinson.
His report to the meeting was re-hash of his newsletter to National representatives (DBA is a national rep).  I reported in February on the rather unsatisfactory meeting of the National Users. His report repeated his plans for a new complex ‘Engagement’ model unchanged despite the challenges at the National Users meeting.  I explained our disappointment that despite strong representation by boater organisations no amendments appear to have been made. The arrogance was clear – we know best – no changes. Apparently there are some 49 organisations that EA are approaching to improve the diversity of their Forums. A request for sight of the list was ignored.

Item 8 Communication
Two members of the Forum attend an Agenda drafting meeting with EA.  This item was a surprise addition!  EA stated that they will be re-instating (!) their customer newsletter which will be emailed to all registered customers.  Their proposed list of statistics was a dull as ditchwater and we suggested that something similar to the Volunteer newsletter might be more interesting.  EA were reminded that the Forum has a Comms Sub-group which might usefully have been involved in preparation of this proposal.  

Item 9  AOB
Proposed voluntary Code of Practice for Rowers,Sailors, and Swimmers by RUG8 .  Short of time only limited discussion and a reminder that RUG6 have had a Code for some years.

Item 10
Date of next meeting – Hybrid – week commencing 17 October.

As ever – happy to take any questions or provide amplification or explanation.

Best Wishes

Andy Soper