Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the National Association of Boat Owners (IW 19)

THE POTENTIAL OF INLAND WATERWAYS

INTRODUCTION

  The National Association of Boat Owners (NABO) is the only truly independent, voluntary body in the United Kingdom which exists to represent solely the interests and concerns of the owners of pleasure boats used on the inland waterways.

  NABO represents some 2,000 personal boat owning members and more than 8,000 affiliated boat owners based on the rivers, canals and lakes of Britain; or with trailable boats which they take around the country.

  Our submission reflects the concerns and interests of our members from the point of view of pleasure boat owners navigating the waterways for a pastime. In addition, some of our members actually live on board their boats, either full time as their main or only residence, or for prolonged periods as they cruise continuously throughout the country.

  Our comments are therefore centred on the aspects of the Government's publication Waterways for Tomorrow which directly affect our members.

THE ROLE OF INLAND WATERWAYS IN RESPECT OF LEISURE, RECREATION, TOURISM AND INDUSTRIAL HERITAGE

  As an Association representing owners of boats used for leisure on the inland waterway system, NABO has no doubts about the value of canals and rivers when used for recreational activities and for tourism.

  They attract walkers, anglers, artists, historians, etc who enjoy seeing boating activity and historic craft. It should be noted that, historically, most towing paths alongside canals were private property and the public had no right of access on foot or bicycle. This situation prevails today but many towpaths have been improved at public expense and opened up to create safe pedestrian routes especially in urban areas. Some towpaths have been turned into local or national cycle routes. There is an urgent need to clarify the status and permitted uses of canal towpaths, Boat owners are required to have Third Party insurance cover. Should the same apply to cyclists and other users?

  The age of many of the canal structures is part of the fascination of the waterways and many tourists hire boats every year to travel the system. The inland waterways attract thousands of overseas visitors every year, who contribute to the local economy.

  It must be recognised that pleasure boats regularly cruise on canals where dredging and maintenance leave a lot to be desired. The Transport Act 1968 designated certain canals as "cruiseways" which were to receive most investment in maintenance, whilst others were classified as "remainder" waterways, receiving only minimum care and attention. As a result of partnerships with other agencies both types of canals have been improved in recent years and some have been re-classified as a result. However, many canals are in a poor condition and use by boats is not encouraged.

  NABO regrets that the government has not taken the opportunity to reform the dated legislation and re-classify the existing "cruiseway" and "remainder" canals. Many of the latter are extensively used by cruising craft and if use of all canals is to be encouraged then all waterways must receive similar standards of maintenance.

  Despite a year-by-year reduction in private boat and hire boat movements on the inland waterways, the document makes no reference to this fact. The current year (2000) has witnessed yet another noticeable reduction in the use of canals and rivers by pleasure craft. Our members have remarked on it, lock-keepers have confirmed that their figures for lock passages are down, even the River Thames has been much quieter.

  The boat hire trade is in decline and the reasons need to be investigated urgently before the hire boat industry commits itself to any new investment.

  Our members are becoming increasingly concerned about incidents of vandalism and intimidation of boat owners. They find themselves victims of crime—from physical personal attacks and theft from their boats and, all too often, the police fail to respond or to apprehend the perpetrators. Action is urgently required before sections of our waterways become "no-go" areas.

  Many inner city areas have been regenerated with canals as their focal point. Unfortunately, in some cases the contemporary canal-side buildings have not been retained or restored. Unsympathetic office bocks and apartments have taken their place, accompanied by a proliferation of unnecessary signs. In one recent case, BW attempted to obtain planning permission for the siting of a "Chinese junk" to be moored in the centre of Birmingham. This was vehemently opposed and rejected, but suggests that BW does not regard the historic canal environment in the same way as the general public.

  We consider that greater emphasis must be given to preserving the historic built environment together with historic boats, and more derelict waterways should be restored for their original purpose—for use by boats. But please, no more signs!


COMMERCIAL FREIGHT TRANSPORT

  The overview to Waterways for Tomorrow includes the statement "There is scope to increase the amount of freight carried on inland waterways". This appears to be an opinion rather than a statement of fact. Has a formal study been undertaken by the DETR to establish the facts?

  Although our members own and operate pleasure craft on the inland waterways, they would strongly support the re-introduction of commercial carrying on canals and rivers.

  We see no conflict between these different class of user since most waterways were originally constructed to accommodate commercial craft and leisure use followed the commercial decline of the waterways. Re-introduction of large freight-carrying vessels would improve the navigable state of the waterways. Water depths would need to be maintained for the larger craft, locks and other structures would be improved and kept in operable condition and these would benefit our members and all leisure boat users.

  We deplore the fact that many of the larger commercial waterways controlled by British Waterways have been allowed to deteriorate since commercial use has declined over the past 30 to 40 years. This is despite BW continuing to have legal responsibilities to maintain such waterways in a condition suitable for use by commercial vessels.

  For instance, BW has failed to dredge major rivers such as the Severn and the Trent following the decline in commercial use. Waterways such as these could not be readily used by large freight vessels unless BW were to carry out considerable improvements and maintenance works to restore them to their former navigable condition. NABO has consistently campaigned for all canals and waterways to be dredged to their original profile except where engineering factors preclude this.

  The lack of investment and maintenance of the major commercial waterways in recent years reflects the fact that BW has not sought to promote commercial carrying. On the contrary, it has even sought to reduce the standard of maintenance and depths on certain commercial waterways in Yorkshire.

  We do not foresee commercial carrying being brought back to the narrow canal network to any appreciable extent. Narrowboats have insufficient capacity and operational restrictions to make them a viable mode of transport. We appreciate that it would be unrealistic to utilise narrow canals and that improvements and widening of 200 year old structures would not be practicable or economic in most cases.

  However, the wide beam canals and rivers do have the capability for use as major commercial routes. We commend the proposals of the Inland Shipping Group if the IWA which has proposed a number of major schemes for development of water transport in its paper entitled UK Freight Waterways—A Blueprint for the Future (1996).

  Water transport has economic and environmental benefits. It is energy efficient, less polluting, quieter and reduces road congestion. NABO wishes to see greater use of inland waterways for freight carrying.

  Local Planning Authorities must be charged with ensuring that the sustainable use of inland waterways for freight carriage is promoted whenever development proposals close to navigable rivers or commercial-designated canals are being considered. By way of example, permission for gravel extraction on sites adjacent to the River Severn has been granted by the local authority in Worcestershire and yet all materials are transported away by road.

  In the same county, plans for incineration of waste have been vehemently opposed by residents, whilst the opportunity to convey refuse via the River Severn to an environmentally acceptable incinerator site near Bristol has been ignored.

PRINCIPAL USE OF INLAND WATERWAYS

  It is important to recognise that rivers were improved for navigation; and canals were primarily built to accommodate the movement of boats carrying cargoes to centres of population.

  NABO deplores the fact that Waterways for Tomorrow fails to rectify the most significant negative achievement of the Transport Act 1968 which removed the Right of Navigation from all canals controlled by BW.

  The document fails to recognise this fact and NABO calls on the Government to reinstate the Right of Navigation on the nationalised canals. If they are to be "waterway highways" for increased public and commercial use, there must be a public right to use them.

  Despite waterways attracting a variety of users (mainly leisure) we must not lose sight of the fact that they are first and foremost navigations. Without boats using them they would be less attractive places and of reduced benefit to other users such as anglers and walkers. Boats help to aerate the water (a benefit to anglers) and prevent obstructions from weed growth.

  NABO is concerned with the trend in recent years for nature conservation to take precedence over other legitimate and historic uses such as boating. This has developed to the ludicrous extent that some derelict waterways have been restored to use only for restrictions or outright bans to be placed on the movement of boats due to the misguided concerns of English nature and other environmentalists. There is no conflict between boating and bio-diversity.

  NABO believes that all interests and uses can be accommodated on the inland waterways. After all, boat owners also wish to enjoy the delights of the flora and fauna of our rivers and canals but they understand that without boats to keep the water channel open, wildlife would suffer.

FUNDING THE INLAND WATERWAYS

  Boat owners contribute more than once to the upkeep of the inland waterways. They are an easy target for imposition of hefty increases in boat licence charges and have paid well above the rate of inflation for BW licences in recent years as a direct result of a policy decision by BW.

  Boat owners also pay for inland waterways via national and local taxation, unlike the majority of other users. NABO believes that the inexorable increases in the costs associated with boat ownership may have acted as a deterrent to younger people and the lack of their involvement concerns us. We do not want boat ownership to be seen as elitist or unaffordable.

  IWAAC was created by the Transport Act 1968 to advise BW and the government. It is not a consumer "watchdog" body.

  NABO considers that the fact that the majority of the inland waterway system is controlled by a nationalised body (BW) requires an independent regulator to safeguard consumer interests in the face of the dominant position which BW holds. The government should appoint a consumer body (perhaps to be termed "Off-Cut"??) to regulate the activities of BW and to control the imposition of excessive increases in tolls and charges.

  Other users, in the main, do not have to pay any separate charges for using the waterways. Ramblers and cyclists are permitted free access and are even subsidised by lottery funding such as the Sustrans cycle network or by improvements to towpaths funded by local councils.

  NABO supports the assertion on page 22 that BW's involvement in Fibreway "will provide additional income for BW to bring forward investment in much-needed repairs and improvements in its waterways".

OWNERSHIP OF THE INLAND WATERWAYS

  British Waterways is the major operator of inland waterways in England, Wales and Scotland as a result of its legacy from past nationalisation of the transport infrastructure.

  The EA has navigation responsibilities on a number of major river systems including the River Thames, the Medway and the rivers of East Anglia. However, navigation is a very small part of its budget and is not a major activity for the EA.

  The government increased public investment in BW in February 1999 and the document states that BW has built on the new framework and has developed its own strategy, including plans to establish new public/private partnerships.

  The commitment to public/private partnerships is laudable but does lack credibility in the light of the recent extensive acquisition of BW of a number of pubs, marinas, etc, thus nationalising previously private facilities. NABO does not believe such actions are of benefit to private boat owners.

  NABO is grateful for the increased investment to tackle the backlog of maintenance but would like to know what the BW Strategy is.

  Is it to increase public ownership of waterways facilities such as pubs and marinas? In recent months BW has been on an acquisition spree and has purchased many facilities formerly in private ownership. No suggestion of any partnership—it has simply taken them over.

  A nationalised industry should not be buying up pubs and marinas in competition with the private sector.

  We are pleased that the government "wants to encourage people to make use of the inland waterways for leisure and recreation" including increased tourism and use by disabled people.

  NABO notes that the government has encouraged greater co-operation between BW and the EA with a formal collaboration agreement and partnership projects.

  We view the proposal for BW "to look at the Agency's navigation responsibilities" with some suspicion and not a little concern. This ominous statement suggests that the government may be minded to hand over navigation responsibilities on rivers to BW. A further example of back-door nationalisation; and an extension of the BW monopoly which would be a disbenefit to boat owners.

  This comes in the wake of the government's earlier assertion (in 1999) not to alter the present responsibilities of the EA.

  If the government is minded to change the status quo, NABO's considered view is that it would prefer the EA to retain control of its present river navigations and for the EA to take on the navigation responsibilities of BW on rivers (eg the Severn, Trent, Weaver, Ouse etc) as an integral part of managing the river systems. However, this must be subject to adequate funding being forthcoming from the government to the Agency.

  Furthermore, NABO would not wish the EA to acquire navigation responsibilities on rivers where no navigation authority presently exists. We opposed many aspects of the Agency's bid for the River Wye as we are convinced that the move would restrict the historic right of navigation. We note that the Secretary of State has still to announce a decision in this regard.

  There are also a number of other bodies with responsibility for navigation, including private companies, charitable trusts, drainage authorities and local authorities. NABO would not wish to see their functions being taken over by new or existing bodies such as BW or EA. The variety of ownership, and the freedom to choose where one bases a boat, adds to the interest of our waterways. However, our members would prefer to have to pay for only one licence covering use of all inland waterways. The optional "Gold Licence" introduced jointly by BW and EA has been a welcome step in this direction.

National Association of Boat Owners

September 2000


 
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