Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Should you bother volunteering with Canal and River Trust?

The whole question of volunteering with CRT is a difficult one for me, and I suspect for many others. What I do know is that CRT urgently have to up their game on this front by several orders of magnitude.

There is no doubt that CRT does not have the resources to maintain the waterways as a whole and are constantly fire fighting. Many jobs especially when it comes to litter and grounds maintenance, that in the past were done by staff or contractors, now only happen when volunteers are available. CRT realise this but are they going about engaging with volunteers effectively? Some examples of my personal frustrations:

Many will have noticed that I have stood down from NABO Council. This is almost wholly through being constantly frustrated with and by BW and now CRT. I am simply not prepared to volunteer to bang my head against that brick wall much more. And that is what it has felt like as a national association officer trying to deal with BW for a decade; and CRT are so far little different, (not a surprise when we have largely the same incumbents to deal with).

Consultation is too often lip service to process, after which the officers carry on doing what they were planning to do anyway, often in direct conflict with what customers have taken the time and trouble to volunteer in said consultations and based on carefully spun and imaginary problems.

Narrowboatworld has been reporting mixed feelings among boaters about some of the volunteers staffing locks. Many years boating experience tells me that third party help at locks can be as dangerous as it is helpful and if some of the reports around the web about the quality of some over-zealous and/or inexperienced volunteer help is correct, in the worst cases it is hazardous to safe boating. (One wonders how many if any boaters have been involved in training some of these volunteers?)

I have always done voluntary cleaning and litter picking locally to my mooring. Nothing exceptional or different to what many people do but I have to say, I suspect like many others, too often motivated by wanting live in a reasonable local environment which BW/CRT does not keep up to the mark.

I turn up when I can for organised local towpath tidying events but this has also had frustrations. At events I have attended in the last year volunteers have been instructed to be selective in what they clean and clear because there are apparently no resources to dispose of too much waste. This seems particularly crazy to me - Don't help out too much cos we can't cope if you do 'too much', seems to be the message.

At a another recent event what was collected and bagged up for later collection was not actually collected, so the foxes and the winds have more or less put the waste that was collected back where it was and into the cut. Such outcomes hardly encourage volunteers to come to the next event?

I also cannot avoid looking back to something I wrote a while ago, about feeding the hand that bites you. I read that piece again while writing this, and sadly that analysis still holds true as I sit here with the latest batch of unanswered emails about outstanding repairs on my mooring. CRT are content to take my money for mooring, but it seems are no different than BW when it comes to upkeep of the mooring. Among other things I have in the last year had the excuse given of lack of budget for delays in doing repairs. I highlighted a while ago how much of our mooring fees go into the general pot and I have no reason to doubt that the numbers have changed much. The excuse of having no money to do minor repairs that would cost a few hundred pounds holds no more water with me than it did in the past. (Curiously when I raised the threat of turning again to the complaints process and the Ombudsman, some money was found).

Given I still have to fight with CRT to get a service I have paid for, how do they suppose that leaves me feeling about volunteering for them?

As I set out for NABO recently despite huge dissatisfaction with the lack of service we often get, remarakably perhaps, many mooring customers still undertake voluntary work for CRT despite the many other frustrations, and like many others, perhaps against my better judgement, I suppose I will still offer some time here and there.

However patience and good will is not unlimited and I for one am getting closer to a point where volunteering feels like more trouble than it's worth. Until CRT realise that they are hugely distrusted over day to day issues and interactions and in turn do something to improve on that front, there will be huge reticence among many people who already interact with them to volunteer, (or in my case and that of many others, to volunteer more often). I hear this constantly from people in the comunity I live who frequently ask me why I bother: this question also came up repeatedly while I was on NABO Council. I am not sure I have a good answer after a decade of trying.

If the experience when volunteers do show up is poor or indifferent, if the work you have just done is seen to going to waste, if through lack of briefing or training, or in some cases, I believe devisively, you are put into conflict with others, if what we offer at consultation events is met with outright evasion and at times downright hostility, people will not continue volunteering in CRT's favour.

Lets see if CRT can grasp this nettle and do better on this in 2014. The fact is that without an effective and widespread volunteer network, especially when it come to maintaining the public space, the waterways are going to rapidly decline. How much I am prepared to be part of it though is a whole other question.

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