Sunday, 9 May 2010


The recent British Waterways Local User group Meeting on the Kennet and Avon Canal highlights what for me is a longstanding and infrequently spoken of aspect of British Waterways. I have often described the Watford Head Office’s approach to consultation and waterways management as “mushroom theory”: Keep ’em in the dark and feed them sh*t!

It seems to me that this approach applies not just to boaters, but also to their own operational staff.
The Kennet and Avon Boaters' website has posted some very thorough notes of the meeting and while noting that the BW corporate spin machine did not have a hand in compiling these notes (so may yet turn round and claim that the notes totally misrepresent the situation), I think one can still take some account of what has been reported.

The main thing I take from the notes (and other reports I’ve had from boaters who attended the meeting) is that this is just further confirmation about how blinkered and detached from reality the BW management in Watford are from what is actually happening on the waterways. As usual local front line BW staff were left trying to defend the indefensible by the Macavity-like BW head of boating Sally Ash, and puppet master general Simon Salem (who in my view is the real Machiavelli in all this).

The head office spin K+A staff were obliged to repeat about the outcomes of the recent moorings consultations was shredded in very short order by one boater who has apparently taken the time to have a look at what was actually said in the consultation responses that BW have published so far: These are available as huge Zip files on from the BW web page here. Anyway the boater who it seems has not been deterred by this, pointed out that there were more responses opposed to the idea of a local moorings strategy than supported it.

The boaters’ notes then go on to record some very amusing exchanges on how head office have done their maths. Apparently different responses get given a different weighting. It looks to me that Watford have applied a counting system that says “consultation responses that agree with what we want will be weighted higher than those who disagree”!

To their credit it seems BW local staff were sensible enough not to try too hard to defend the apparently indefensible. It seemed to come down to the old truth that I have heard so often before from local front line BW staff, and this phrase is in my experience usually delivered with a mixture of sadness and anger – “we have been doing what we have been told to do by our superiors”.

That is certainly a truth I recognise. That is the off the record feedback I have had from BW staff on so many of BW’s boating policies for many years: the people who impose this nonsense on boaters and then expect front line staff to try to enforce the subsequent nonsense that arises, really don’t know what they are doing and certainly don‘t seem to consult their own people who they expect execute their Stalinist diktats without question.

Watford of course has a zero tolerance policy against any of their own staff who dare to say publicly that they have any doubts about the wisdom of their masters. One has to respect that to the extent that people’s jobs are often put under threat through disciplinary action if anyone makes the mistake of saying what they really think publicly when their lords and masters try to sell them and boaters a three-legged horse.

Accordingly it seems that Watford have decreed that the K+A staff must press ahead with trying to assemble a local moorings strategy. I am sure I will come back to how that progresses in reality in the not too distant future.

I have huge respect for the front-line staff at BW. They are constantly put in impossible positions by their managers, who seem quite willing to undermine them.

Frontline staff are constantly being asked to do more with less due to Watford’s prolonged failure to achieve adequate funding for the waterways. They and their colleagues have also been put through restructuring twice in less than five years while their masters in Watford continue to draw outrageous salaries and seem completely immune from any suggestion that the value of their posts in BW should be questioned, re-assessed and down sized.

In fact lets just say it! - If it's Ok for the BW big-wigs to tell their junior staff to take less money for more work, or leave, well I think it's about time the rest of us asked the same question of BW's senior management.

Despite this ill service at the hand of their masters front-line staff I meet remain indominatably friendly, cheerful and committed to the waterways in a way that puts the idiots in Watford (and frankly some of the rest of us if we are honest), to shame. Their commitment to the waterways and the communities they work in remains undiminished in most cases, despite all the mushroom food they get heaped on them by Watford.

In this lies my hope. If we get rid of some of  the over paid parasites in Watford and give their salaries and authority to the front line staff, (i.e. the people in BW who most understand where the issues are and who seem to have at least some insight and certainly loads of practical experience of how to manage the canal in co-operation with boaters and other users), maybe all of us would get a better deal?

Of course I cannot expect to receive public support from any BW staff over this proposition because for any of them them to do so would be putting their jobs on the line, at a time when, thanks to the recent restructuring, their futures in BW remain particulalrly vulnerable.

(Seriously to any BW employed readers: Don't do it folks - it's really not worth it. We know what the score is. Keep your heads down and keep looking after the waterways the best way you can. You are the solution, not the problem.)

No comments:

Post a Comment