Comment—The beginning of the end?

Published: Friday, 22 October 2010

PERHAPS us boaters today are fortunate, as from all accounts this is the heyday of the recreational waterways.

The Government has promised that its grant to British Waterways is to be severely cut, and there is little money from elsewhere, for British Waterways really deceived everybody by declaring that its property portfolio was  funding the maintenance of the waterways.

The truth

Yet it was by much searching and Freedom of Information requests by our Allan Richards who discovered the truth about that property portfolio, it was actually costing money—£76.3 millions to be exact.

The Board's plan of spending money on pubs has failed, for they are now being discarded at a fast rate, as it is realised they are losing money. What is a waterway authority doing investing in pubs anyway?  Most people realise that the number either for sale or closed, gives a good account of their worth.  But I expect there are none so blind as those who do not want to see.

Waste the watchword

Waste is obviously a watchword at British Waterways, with many posts having been generated that have nothing to do with the actual running of the waterways.  Its great interest in nature is a point.  Yet there are literally hundreds of such groups that would readily take on the tasks concerning nature, that the Board believes on which it should spend money.

Creating unnecessary jobs is part of the waste.  British Waterways contains many posts that have absolutely nothing to do with the waterways, and has a Board that has shown time and time again that it is completely out of touch. Even those posts concerned with the waterways are excessive, with the authority having no less than 14 communications people, spreading the word!

Then there was the complete relocation of the waterway areas, moving boundaries and offices, and relocating staff—losing some good people in the process, at what cost can only be guessed.  But not once—but twice!

The sheer wastage of its limited resources beggars belief. Remember the bollards fiasco?  The Board decided all narrow lock must have three extra bollards, with we and others pointing out were dangerous.  Eventually the Board realised its mistake and had them all taken out, but not wishing to appear the idiots they are making themselves to be, they then had the useless square wooden posts installed in their place.  I was told the total cost  of this fiasco was in the region of three million pounds.


Last week we cruised through Fradley locks, and coming down Middle Lock saw a boat coming out of Junction Lock and turning on to the Coventry Canal, thinking that at least the lock will be in our favour.  It took us about eight minutes to get to it—yet it was empty!  Such was its leakage it had drained completely in that short time.  Other locks at Fradley have stiff paddles, gates that won't stay open and those that leak like sieves.  Yet £140,000 has been spent just 20 yards away on Fradley Nature Reserve!

The current spend is on signs—the one shown by our Brian Holmes is a prime example.  But they have nothing to do with boating, they are for towpath walkers of course, who incidentally have managed to negotiate the towpaths obviously quite well for nigh on 200 years.  Long Horse Bridge over the Trent was taken down seven years ago, and it due to be rebuilt next year, yet this month metal signs have been erected telling its towpath is closed.  If it managed without signs for seven years, why erect them now when funds are short?

At its Sawley Marina I joked with a member of its staff that surely there would be no more signs, us agreeing there were hundreds, most of little consequence and many telling to beware of something or other. The man retorted that he yet had to erect signs telling 'Beware of the signs'.  He obviously saw  their worth.

British Waterways bought out marinas at a colossal cost, telling again that the money raised would go towards waterway maintenance.  It hasn't.   And now, from being completely full with waiting lists just two years ago it is admitting to having one berth in five empty.  Some investment!

White elephant

But it all pales into insignificance by that white elephant of the lock 'serving' the Olympic site at a cost of £21.5 millions that was to take building material to the site.  A government minister herself admitted that there had been two barges in seven months!

At the moment British Waterways' main concern is going the 'third way', or whatever it is being called this month, believing that it can all be run on the cheap by volunteers, which as something I have been very much involved in, I can tell them is a complete  non-starter.  Reliability is needed, and  this is something that volunteers will not provide.  As neither will they provide the much lacking experience.

A fresh start

To my mind it needs a completely fresh start, starting at the top, with a complete clear out.  For whilst this Board remains it is clear the waterways will continue to deteriorate, and sadly eventually close as more money will be wasted on its non-waterways spending.

Perhaps sometime in the distant future another pair of dedicated boaters will start it all off again.

I am certainly not alone in my thinking, as the comments from two of our  columnists show:

"We have had third sector, charity, mutual, trust, big society and now civil society rammed down our throats by two governments and BW.  It simply hides the failures and does not provide a solution. But, it seems to me that this is the beginning of the end for navigable waterways. We could be rapidly approaching a long economic period where it will be hard enough to maintain the essentials, let alone non-essential pastimes or ways of life such as boating."

"I predict that it is the government's (civil service's) intention to stop all waterway funding except for flood control within about five years. Obviously the government expects boaters to foot the bill for 'their' waterways. Obviously most boaters can't afford it."

Enjoy the waterways while you can...

Tom Crossley