Friday, 28 August 2009

BW and Complaints

Further to a comment on a previous posting, some thoughts on the BW complaints process.

Structurally, in terms of procedure, it has evolved to something that I for one say is quite acceptable. (I am biased cos I was one of the people who lobbied for it to be modernised!) In the bad old days, as recently as 2004, it was not so good and there was plenty of scope for BW to obfuscate. It was up to them to say when you had completed a complaint stage and many complaints would be held up for months. Many complainants gave up.

Under pressure from some complainants, frustrated by this loophole, and with support of the then Ombudsman, who noticed the frustrations over the length of time that BW had taken to process some of the cases that eventually came to him, the policy was modernised, becoming much more akin to other public sector complaints policies. Now there are in effect time limits and two as opposed to the previous three internal complaint stages. In effect if BW don't respond in a reasonable time, the complaint has to be accelerated to the next stage.

The Waterways Ombudsman is the final step in the most extreme cases. A look at the annual reports will reveal the range of issues that people pursue to that stage. (Whoever you were that offered a comment recently about the Local Government Ombudsman, this is why I didn't post that - there is a dedicated scheme for BW.)

However a frustration of the current scheme is that as it is an Ombudsman Service and not a waterways regulator, complaints that can be considered have to be procedural and the scheme does not generally offer a route to challenge policy decisions (see the Ombudsman's' terms of reference). That is not a fault in the scheme but a reflection of the fact that there is no effective parallel mechanism other than civil litigation by which individuals can challenge BW policy decisions or BW's interpretation of their legal powers.

A recent example of course is Mooring Tenders, BW's current policy of offering vacancies to the highest bidder. A case reported in most recent Ombudsman Report (No 336 for 2008/9) illustrates the point that BW has a lot of discretion about how it conducts consultations.

It is also true that generally the duty on BW is to carry out some sort of consultation. However final policy formulation is not a democratic process in most cases. The Mooring Tenders policy is a very good example of this. Although opposed by most user groups, BW went ahead with it anyway. (The User Groups' formal submissions to BW can be seen here under the heading BW long term moorings: allocating vacancies and setting prices)

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Future of Food - on BBC2

I've been really enjoying this - I've found it a good quick introduction to some current issues on sustainability of food supplies, something that I have taken an interest in for a few years now.

There's still something to be said for the BBC while they are airing programmes like this.

And suddenly new bins are on order!

Further to yesterday's posting I also sent a formal complaint to BW about the refuse bins at my mooring. This morning when I logged on, I find a reply saying that new bins are now on order!

Good, but an instructive lesson. I have been asking BW to deal with this informally for over a year but have just been flannelled. I lose patience and put in a formal complaint and the matter is sorted by return!

(PS -For any one interested BW's complaint policy is set out here.)

Monday, 24 August 2009

BW directly managed moorings contribute in excess of £4M profit per year to BW general coffers (but you can’t afford to replace our refuse bins?)

(Picture - Bins at Kensal Green Moorings – one bin is missing completely. Of the remaining four only one is in close to adequate condition, the hinges are broken on two and the lid is completely un-attached on the third – these bins are ten years old but BW does not apparently have the money to replace them).

In response to his comments at the Residential Boat Owner Association AGM I recently wrote to Robin Evans, challenging his assertion that one purpose of the BW Moorings Tenders process is to avoid BW “subsidising” the cost of moorings.

Robin’s response is very revealing and indicates that on average two thirds of the mooring fees that BW moorings customers are paying is going into the general BW funds.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Big Green Gathering challenges the local authority over the last minute closure

The latest official version from BGG - a letter of complaint over the threat of an injunction and alleged misinformation relied on in support of that application. We will see where this goes.


Brig (BGG Ltd Chair) has requested I put this information on the forum for shareholders information.

This letter was sent yesterday
to Donna Nolan of Mendip District Council


Dear Ms Nolan

This is a formal letter of complaint and request for further information with regard to the actions of your authority taken in conjunction with Avon & Somerset Constabulary in order to prevent the Big Green Gathering 2009.

We wish to complain about the way in which the Big Green Gathering was stopped.

Following the announcement that Mendip District Council was to apply to the High Court in London for an injunction, we require answers regarding the following:-

The injunction required us to show:

1. That we had security teams in place. We fail to understand this requirement as at the multi-agency meeting held on 23rd July, Coast to Coast Security and Green Security were present and gave the Council assurances that they would fulfil their contracts. Both companies were paid significant amounts of money up front in lieu of their services. The director of Coast to Coast Security gave an undertaking at that meeting that he would fulfil the role of silver command at the event and his deputy would fulfil the role of bronze. An undertaking in writing to that effect was provided by email the following day in compliance with the ultimatum issued by Mendip DC.

We wish to complain at the harassment of our security companies by officers of Mendip Council. We understand that numerous telephone calls were made to the security companies to

a. Ascertain that they had received money

b. Encourage them not to take up the role of security providers at the Big Green Gathering.

2. That we had a road closure order and signage was in place. We were assured by yourselves and the police that there was no road closure order in place. We have now been given to understand and we have copies of the road closure order that was granted and posted up in the vicinity, dated 20th July. We understand in a reply to our solicitor, copied below, that the order may have been approved, subject to providing all the information requested on 24th July. Our Chairman emailed the highways department on 24th July and received no reply. Why was this? Why was there no witness statement from the highways department regarding the injunction if this was the most crucial element of the injunction according to the police? Can you explain why the road order was provisionally approved? We have emails assuring us that the signage would be delivered on the Monday.

“I now have the photos and have spoken to Donna Nolan about them. It would appear that the party line is that the Road Closure Order might have been provisionally approved subject to your providing all the information and documents requested on 24th July.

However, this begs the question as to why the Order on the gatepost is dated 20th July - 4 days earlier.

I think it fair to say that Donna Nolan was horrified and she is making urgent enquiries to find out exactly what went on here ...”

Our barrister further says that the road closure order was the primary reason that we could not fulfil the licence conditions and why we would have been in breach as it was impossible to clarify with the highways department over the weekend whether an order had been made. We reproduce part of his email below.

“The road closure development is of the utmost importance - since the alleged impossibility of obtaining Highways permission was pivotal to the advice I gave to surrender the licence.”

3. Fire Safety. We wish to understand why the fire services for the county did not complain at the time of the licence hearing if they thought the contractors hired by the Big Green Gathering were not competent. We wish to know why they chose the 23rd July, six days before the event to make their complaints. We further understand that a conversation took place between Midland Fire Services and the county fire services on Friday, 24th July whereby the county fire services were satisfied with the competency of Midland Fire, yet no mention of that is made in the witness statement by Duncan White. Please could we see the records of that conversation.

4. We wish to know when the witness statements were compiled. We understand that Mendip decided to apply to the High Court for an injunction after a meeting at 6.30 p.m. on Friday, 24th July. We find it difficult to believe that all the witness statements were prepared after that meeting, especially as they did not take into account conversations held on the Friday afternoon and the arrival of the statements to our solicitor would suggest that they had been written some time before.

5. We wish to know why the police stated in a meeting on Sunday, 26th July that the decision to stop the Big Green Gathering had taken place some one or two weeks before, yet your officers were still asking our contractors if they had been paid, which they had on Friday 24th July. This ensured that the Big Green Gathering was still paying for infrastructure, when the decision had already been made to stop the Big Green Gathering.

6. We believe the actions of the Council in applying for an injunction on a Friday evening for early Monday morning in London were deliberately designed to ensure that the Big Green Gathering could not get the evidence in the time available. We believe that the Council is incorrect in saying it made every effort to ensure that the event could go ahead.

The above complaint and request for further information is made without prejudice to possible further complaint and action in pursuit of damages, whether through the courts or the Local Government Ombudsman, or (in regard to Avon & Somerset Constabulary) through the Independent Police Complaints Commission, or otherwise in any regard whatsoever

Yours faithfully,

Brig Oubridge,

Chair, the Big Green Gathering Co. Ltd.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Debts BW have incurred through bad investments

Narrowboat World (NBW) have today headlined the losses on joint ventures that BW made last year and yes I'm glad they are taking this up.

I was chatting last night with another boater, an old and friend and fellow campaigner and we were pondering this same old point about what a cleft stick BW are in. On the one hand they are claiming poverty on the other hand they have this huge amount of resources. (Well a lot less huge thanks to recent events). Below a contribution of mine originally in NBW forum a few days ago on all this:

BW funding for 2009/10 - who's really to blame?...

It seems corrections are coming thick and fast (see the comments on Victor's most recent column). Sorry, but I would like to add one more.

The headline item on funding needs a little qualification. DEFRA have NOT cut BW's funding by 16.7%. They actually only cut it by 8% (or about £4.6 million).

That's still a huge blow to the waterways and hugely disappointing.

However BW management have done even greater damage all on their own. They overspent (or to use the euphemism that seems to be being applied, 'brought forward') £5 million of this year's DEFRA funding before the year started. At £5 million, that makes up the greater part of the overall 16.7% cut in cash that will be available to BW from DEFRA this year.

Add to this the fact in the BW annual report: BW lost £33.3 million pounds on "joint ventures" last year and this rather dwarfs the DEFRA cut.

I completely agree with Victor's observation, "well what did you expect?"

BW management is a basket case, and why in the world should DEFRA throw good money after bad?

Messers Hales and Evans banged on for many years about how they were moving to self sufficiency. They have castigated and bad-mouthed the persistent doubters like me. Unfortunately, and it give me little pleasure in saying so, we were right.

BW were dabbling with fire with their more risky investments and we the people who actually pay for the waterways will now be bearing the burden for many years to come. Us and the BW staff who are currently being restructrured.

I'm quite clear that its time to say the "un-say-able". Tony Hales and Robins Evans should be sacked. Their plan for self sufficiency has failed in the most dramatic terms and I challenge DEFRA to finally grab the nettle and do the right thing.

It's time for wholesale reform of the BW Board and Directors because the current leadership are not the people who will get BW out of this mess. They are the people who got us there in the first place.

Moorings Tenders at the RBOA AGM

A jaunt into the country to a pub near Hatton for me on Saturday to the Residential Boat Owners Association Annual General meeting. I was going anyway but billing of one Robin Evans as guest speaker made the journey even more attractive!

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Did the authorities stitch up Big Green Gathering?

I don't know but they say truth will out.

It seems that the disputed traffic order, (the apparent absence of which, was the tipping point that forced BGG to surrender their licenece), had in fact been granted.

How did this come to people's attention? A copy of the road closure notice was found posted near the site and was found in the last 48 hours. It appears the traffic order had in fact been issued almost a week before Mendip DC issued injunction proceedings to stop the event.

George Monbiot tells the story better than I can on the Guardian site.