Trouble on t’Thames

Louis Jankel reports on lost opportunities at the EA

In September I attended the Thames Navigation Users’ Forum (TNUF), representing the interests of NABO members. In that capacity I have been attending these quarterly meetings and those of its predecessor, the Waterways Working Group, for almost 10 years.

The members of TNUF represent all aspects of boating on the River Thames and most membership organisations send delegates. This forum meeting was the first time we could consider the implications of the ministerial announcement to postpone the merger of the Environment Agency (EA) navigations with CRT. It is the view of the majority of Thames user group’s membership that the merger is now a defunct proposition. Any merger, if not effected by 14th December 2016, will require primary legislation to proceed – and that will never happen.

The TNUF meeting’s agenda included the Future of Navigation (FoN) project. The EA had presumed that the Minister’s wish to remove the River Thames from the EA would prevail and investment in the River Thames has been phased back. FoN staff had been tasked with preparing the EA statistics for the merger and over the last 18 months we have been told at meetings that our aspirations were not appropriate as the Thames would soon be part of CRT. On the direction of the Secretary of State all joint committees between Defra, CRT and the EA have now been disbanded as a waste of time and money. It is worth repeating that the view of most user representatives on the TNUF is that the proposed merger will never happen and the deferred EA investment must now be re-examined. FoN has now changed its function to pursue a relevant investment plan and we have asked for five- and ten-year plans as soon as practicable.

Following the canceled navigations merger proposal the problems that have been ignored, to be left for CRT, now need to be resolved: namely prioritising ‘enforcement’. The rules covering ‘registration’ on the Thames have changed, becoming effective in financial year 2011. (‘Registration’ is the name used by the EA for what CRT terms ‘licensing’ and registration (licensing) charges for Thames boaters do not attract VAT). New rules enshrined in the Inland Waterway Order (IWO) were introduced to bring ‘harmonisation’ between all inland waterways.  Now all boats ‘on’ the water, including backwaters and marinas, must hold a valid registration. Prior to 2011 and the IWO registration only boats that were being ‘used’ on the waterways were required to register. This condition was much abused by boat owners: in 2010 it was estimated that there were 1,000 plus extra boats (>10% of the total) that would have to be registered and that would bring in a further half million pounds of income to the EA. (This is a statistical estimate but acknowledged by the EA to be about right). The figures supplied to the last TNUF meeting show that since 2011 the actual number of registered boats has fallen, albeit very marginally. Last year the enforcement team, who represent 10% of the navigation staff, established that the average registration evasion rate was in the region of 15%, with their various boat checks showing between 10% and 25% unregistered. This summer the enforcement team proudly announced four prosecutions for registration evasion, although one of these failed as the defendant had sold the boat two years previously!

FoN has at last grappled with the issue of ‘accommodations’. These are structures that use the riverbed, mainly to allow the construction of safe bankside moorings. Unlike CRT, the EA may not charge boats moored by riparian owners on their own land, but a fee is levied for the structure they may need. The navigation authority needs to be sure that these structures are safe and that they are able to survive the most significant flood flows. In the 2012/13 River Thames Annual Report, the EA navigation income from accommodations was stated to be £400,000. In the FoN paper presented to TNUF, a detailed survey of two sections of the Thames estimated that only 25% of those considered liable for registration were registered accommodations. Even when taking into account that the majority of ‘big’ accommodations are registered, it is statistically reasonable to assume that this represents a further million pounds of uncollected income.

The EA is desperate to obtain extra income but the paper presented to the meeting, which covered new income initiatives, itemised just one single initiative, namely a new café/shop at Molesey Lock. The café is indeed most welcome and is run by a delightful couple. The EA was coy as to exactly how much income will be derived from this project, but I doubt it will be more that the odd thousand pounds. The wages that the EA has paid to date to 'new business' dedicated staff who have generated this minimal income must be £100,000 plus.

It is a miscarriage of management that such limited action on enforcement leaves £1.5m+ in uncollected revenue, despite being highlighted by users over the last two years! As one colleague said after the meeting: “In the commercial world this organisation would have gone bust years ago.”

This funding problem would not have been solved by a merger with CRT. The BW management are all, more or less, still in situ and the existing EA management team were likely to have transferred to CRT. The problem has actually been exacerbated by the proposed transfer because of all the uncertainty created by it and the hiatus on investment plans, which has allowed indifferent management to ignore the difficulties that surround them.

The EA consulted users on annual fee increases and there was an almost unanimous recommendation from boaters that an inflation increase of 2.8% was justifiable. The extra 2% suggested by the EA to help counter funding cuts was comprehensively rejected. Arrogantly, the navigation management is, at this date, to request a full 4.8% extra. What is needed is for the EA Board to grasp the problems on the Thames and empower the South East management to identify realistic income opportunities. We need to see the EA Thames management tasked to find an extra £1m next year from registration and accommodation fees. That would justify their wages – which we users pay through our fees. It would also negate the need for a silly registration increase and dangerous staffing cuts. However the managers’ plans to cut staff and penalise users with fee increases is much easier to achieve than actually doing their jobs. To quote the 2012-13 River Thames Annual Report’s section on finance: ‘We also need to make sure that we collect all the charge income we are due’. Chance would be a fine thing!

Louis adds: “It would be great to receive views on this from NABO members. Please email me at with any thoughts you may have that can be included in our input to this revitalised initiative.