Thursday, 28 August 2014

... but which way will the wind blow?

I think we are at a critical time for the future of boating on CRT canals and rivers. I said before that I hope that the recent departure of the much reviled Sally Ash and the other changes in the boating management team represents an opportunity for the winds of change to blow. But of course as ever there is no consensus about what form or direction any change should take.

In the last few days a story has broken that boating on a canal should be restricted for ecology reasons. This issue will certainly test the question of where boating fits into CRT's overall thinking. Will the ecology lobby commit to offering revenue funding for CRT year in year out as we boaters do? A further irony for me in this story is of course it is boaters who pay for a significant proportion of the ecology protection that CRT do in the first place. Fortunately a sensible reposte has since appeared and it rightly highlights that we need to live together and not exclude one group over another.

But yes I do think boaters have good cause to ask for, if not special treatment but some consideration of what we contribute: that it is not unreasonable for us to ask that navigation is given some priority. It was and probably still is the case that in CRT's eyes boaters are principally regarded as a source of cash flow for the Trust's shaky finances. In any event their annual report highlights that boaters provided £39 million of the Trust's 2013/14 income plus a another £5m in direct mooring fees and the same again from boating business. (See page 10 of 118 in (BIG FILE!).) In fact the Trust's income from private boaters and BW Marinas Limited customers now equals the income from central government (p 13 of 118 in the annual report). Add in some more from their investment income sector and boaters probably now pay more than government towards CRT waterways.

But despite the significant financial contributions we make, (and don't start me on all the additional voluntary contributions...) the temptation to go after boaters as the 'easy' target for even more money is inevitably still lurking. Forget about the silly attempts at new revenue generation of the Sally Ash/Simon Salem era which have been and in some case are still lurking about; overstaying 'charges', no return rules and charges, shortening published stay times on existing visitor moorings, (one suspects more motivated by the prospect of trapping boaters in to overstaying charges rather than better or more 'fairly' managing the resources), attempting to  bully people into paying roving mooring charges. As we have seen, apart from all the legal and reasonableness arguments, most boaters just adopt and adapt to avoid these charges in the main.

So we are coming to that time of year when CRT will be looking at moorings fees and general licence increases. There are lots of little hints knocking around about and for me the most scary bit is the use of 'charitable status' to promote arguments about not being able to provide private benefit except at market cost. The context in which this comes up seem to me to blatant code for, expect a much more aggressive charging policy for private boating.

Such arguments seem to conveniently forget the wider duty to navigation as a whole; I say that providing long term moorings also has an element of public benefit when it comes to the overall  management of the canals, as well as the money mooring customers already pay in to the general pot over and above the actual cost of of our moorings. Such warped private/public benefit debates are of course at the heart of the policy of selling mooring resources to the highest bidder, also known as moorings auctions. It completely excludes any idea for overall management of the waterways, by allowing the richest to have primacy of access to the exclusion of all other considerations. Part of the ethos of being a charity as I have always understood it is to buck the market for the wider good?

As I say, for me such arguments that everything should be monetised fail to look at the bigger picture. As already touched on above, the obsession in many quarters is still about the increasing numbers of boats appearing on a finite network, especially on the towpaths and the alleged consequences of that. I will try not to dwell on the mountains of debate about resources, overstaying, who is a scrounger, who is not a scrounger etc as there is more than enough of that blame-other-boaters bile out there.

Well there's the challenge. We live more and more in a society of blame culture; read the news. In whatever media you chose the question always comes up, who is to blame for... We seem to be obsessed with finger pointing and maybe I am guilty too. I do point the finger at CRT a lot! What I do also try to do however is suggest an alternative or a better way of going about it next time. We seem to live in a culture where fear of blame and fault and the tendency to join in these defensive games in turn paralyses us from taking positive action. This has certainly been the culture in CRT's boating business for some time and I wait with interest to see if there is any change afoot.

If you dare put aside all those blame games and defensiveness aside for a little while and then start to think about what else we can do, where does that take us?

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