A review of the general situation...

Published: Thursday, 01 September 2022

OUR contributor for the Middle Levels, Kelvin Alexander-Dugan was stuck for hours at a airport returning from Svalbard archipelago.

So took the time to write his review of not only the Middle Levels but other waterway matters:

Water levels

Since Easter across much of the country, there has been very little rain fall. As is the case across Europe, the lack of rain coupled with the relentless heatwave is causing problems with very low water levels on the rivers and canals. The Weeks of drought across Europe and beyond have added to supply chain problems as vessels have had to lighten their loads to ensure they can travel along depleted water channels.

The Rhine in Germany this time last year was filled nearly to the top of the banks. This year the water levels are so low that barges may not be able to navigate in the low water, impeding the transport of goods to and from Germany’s industrial heartland adding to the country problems with a shortage of natural gas due to its dependences on Russia's natural gas exports since 1974.

In the Loire Valley in France, the water levels on the river, which is often frequented by grazing cattle, are so low this year that even the flat-bottom ferries are grounding on the bottom of the river when crossing. In places on the navigable section, it is possible to wade across the river without the water level going above the knees. Boat movements are almost at a standstill in many places on the river. This time last year the river was in flood, which caused a deal of damage to infrastructure and to boats moored on the river. The whole Loire hire fleet run by Le Boat Hire company was destroyed when the pontoons lifted off the top of the mooring posts. Leaving the boats to wash downstream to be sunk and destroyed.

Canal & River Trust's record breaking number of stoppages this summer

On the waterways run by the Canal & River Trust, the lack of water has not been the main problem since Easter, but the sheer number of stoppages the last few months which has brought much of the network to a standstill. Most of it down to lack of preventive maintenance as the trust rather waits until it fails, when its army of Pen Pushers come out to produce reports on the failure.

Take for example the section of retaining wall that failed in Worksop on the Chesterfield Canal which was caused by a torrential rain storm, the trust stated that it will take a fortnight to remove the debris before the pen pushers can move in and produce a plan of works. Which will then go out to tender, and another month goes by before any repairs start.

No hanging about for pen pushers on the Middle Level

A few years ago in March there was a torrential rain storm which washed out part of the road in two places above the town moorings along with the bank leaving a much bigger mess than the small section of failed wall in Worksop. Yet within a few hours, both the Middle Levels Senior Engineer and a Highways Engineer from Shire Hall had visited the location and decided on a course of action. The bank was repaired and reinforced along with new drainage installed, with the road surface above reinstated.

All this was completed in less than a week. The Middle Level have their own staff to do maintenance and repairs, furthermore they have the tools and materials in the depot to do the job, Which is a good thing as we don't want the Middle Level Commissioners (MLC) staff hanging around waiting for the nearest tool hire centre to open along with the builders merchants if a section of the flood bank fails, more so when you consider that much of the Fens is below sea level.

How many pen pushers do you need?

When you considered that Middle Levels has just over 100 miles of navigable waterways plus a few hundred miles of drainage channels plus 81 pumping stations and runs it all with a office staff of 23 people, more than half based in the office are engineers and technicians. Then you have the Canal & River Trust with it's army of pen pushers and managers in the 100's or even 1,000's. You do wonder where all the money is going, the wage bill must be massive. Along with the cost of the large office block in Milton Keynes to house most of them. What do most of them do? I suspect simply pass paper between each other to look busy.

What percentage of income is being spent on admin by the trust? A well run charity will spend between 20 and 25 percent of income on Admin and Fund rising. The Parliament's public accounts committee is concerned with the percentage of income that is spent by some charities on admin and fund rising that it is considered limiting charities' admin costs.

What's been happening on the waterways in the East of England?

The prolong heatwave and drought has caused a few problems with low water levels on the upper reaches of the Nene and the Great Ouse along with it's tributaries. Anyone on the Grand Union crossing the Cosgrove aqueduct will have noticed how little water there is in the Great Ouse below. At Weedon Bec where the Nene passes under the Grand Union the river flow has almost dried up in the past few weeks. What few stoppages there have been, have be dealt with quickly by EA, MLC or Cam Con depending on the waterway.

At Wisbech Yacht Harbour, there have been a number of break-ins in the past few months into boats moored in the Fenland council run marina. It is mainly domestic items and food that is stolen. One boat owner who had £2,000 of worth of equipment stolen from their boat stated:

"It's getting out of control and it appears like the council is totally in denial over what is going on. There is little sympathy from the council management of the marina who simply point out it is my problem for having inadequate insurance to cover losses resulting from a break in.”

With the council stating there had been an individual rough sleeping on a boat. He has since left the premises and the police are aware.

On the Middle Level

So far this year the MLC have been able to keep levels above the point where boat owners would be experiencing issues with lack of depth. In normal conditions water from the Nene would be used to keep levels up, but reduced flow on the Nene has since meant a reduction in the amount of water let through. The MLC are investigating dredging the shallowest sections of the old Nene, which has been done so on sections of Well Creek in the past few years. They are currently looking at the river through March and sections in and around Benwick.

New Moorings have been completed in Ramsey Basin along with a new water point. MLC is to investigate enlarging the winding hole at Ramsey to allow longer boats(60ft) to turn round instead of having to reverse back to the marina to turn round. New rural moorings have been installed at Angle Corner (Junction of Whittlesey Dyke, 20 Foot River and Bevill's Leam), Burnt House Bridge (Whittlesey Dyke), Goose House Corner (20 Foot River), and at Leonards Child Bridge (40 Foot Drain) As is the case with all rural moorings on the Middle Level maximum stay is 24 hours. Map of moorings on the Middle Level https://middlelevel.gov.uk/12597-2/

Fenland Council run moorings in March, the moorings in West End park have still not been repaired since they were wrecked in the lockdown of 2020 by the freeloaders running their engines in gear for hours on end. The prop wash undermining the piling, washing out the supporting earth behind, which resulted in the moorings collapsing. The council claim that there is no money for repairs, Yet this same council takes tens of thousands in council tax charged on moorings in Foxes Marina and at Flood Ferry. In 2017 this council changed the moorings limits to 48 hours with no return within two days with a charge of £100 per day for overstaying. Yet these limits have never been enforced, there are now five National Bargee Travellers Association (NBTA) supporters squatting on the Town moorings, one of whom has been there since 2016. Over the Bank Holiday weekend there was only room for four boats throughout the weekend.

The totally useless council prefers to give reasons why they cannot do anything. Last reason was they were waiting for licences to be introduced (licences have been required for the last 23 months) Yet no enforcement has been carried out by the council as none of the squatters have licences so the council don't have a address to use for enforcement. Myself and others warned them that these types tend not to licence their poorly maintained boats. Now the council is leaving it to the MLC to remove them for no licence, no insurance or BSS. The squatters are now using every delaying tacit in the book using legal aid and the Human Rights Act. But in the end the boats will be removed and impounded for sale to recover costs.

The sanitation point and service block in March has been out of action, since before Easter when a compost toilet owner dumped the contents into the Elsan waste which wrecked the pump, the damage to which cannot be repaired. Fenland Council had intended to remove the sanitation point and service block along with the town toilets at the top of the bank as part of it's Town Centre Redevelopment Plans. The council stated that as facilities were available at the Marina (Foxes), passing boaters could use them. Between Easter and October it is busy around the pumpout on three days of the week when the hire boats turn round. It has long been the case that pumpouts were only available on non turnround days plus the added problem that the marina is not connected to the sewer main, instead relying on a tank which has to be emptied by a tanker. Since Easter this has been more often than usual due to the pumpout in town being broken. The council has since done a U-turn on removing the pumpout facilities in Town with the broken pump being replaced instead.

Access to real time water levels data, with a new telemetry system being installed on the Middle Level. Data from this system will soon be available on a new page on the Middle Level website with details of water levels at various locations such as Woodwalton, Ramsey and Well Creek.

Enforcement, A number of unlicensed boat owners have had court papers served on them to appear in court for failing to license their boat and for failing to provide proof of insurance. The expected outcome is that the boats will be impounded in the Middle Level Yard where they will be stored for three months before being sold. The boat owners can recover their boats if they paid the outstanding licence fees, legal and court costs, storage charges and the removal cost. Plus the cost of removing their boat from the Middle Level Yard to another waterway.

The £400 rebate on energy bills

The government package of support known as the Energy Bills Rebate is to help households with rising energy bills.

Some UK households are currently ineligible to receive Energy Bills discount as they do not have a direct relationship with an electricity supplier. This applies to households who are supplied by a reseller through a private electricity grid connected to the National Grid and for Households who are off the grid. If your lease includes electricity your landlord should pass on the rebate to you,

The government has confirmed that further funding will be available to provide equivalent support of £400 for energy bills for the households who will not be reached through the Energy Bills rebate.

An announcement with details on how and when these households across Great Britain can access this support will be made this Autumn.

These details were released by the government on the 29th July 2022. My MP informed me that this was going to happen at the begaining of July that the government were looking into.

It is expected that the NBTA will try and claim full credit for this.