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Answers in response to questions submitted for the AGM 2021

Responses received 23 March 2021 from Canal and River Trust after the AGM.
Members' questions are shown as bullet points, the Trust's responses are in italics:

1. Commercial

  • Given the 2% increase in charges for Canal & River Trust Directly Managed Moorings announced for April, may we ask what services we who pay these inflated fees, might expect to receive in return, over and above those provided to other licence holders who do not pay them.

A mooring permit from Waterside Moorings, enables the customer to moor in a specific location at one of our long term mooring sites for the duration of the agreement. Services and facilities vary between sites and are priced based on a variety of factors including the location and services / facilities on offer. All moorings are offered on our website where interested parties can bid for available moorings.

  • It is now seven years since the Trust’s executive approved the recommendations of the Freight Advisory Group’s ‘Quarmby Report’ which included opening an Inland Port in Leeds. This report was widely welcomed within the waterways community and supported by local and national government and only recently Richard Parry has made positive references to it. What needs to happen to enable the port to open?

The Port has been designed and planning permission obtained and although we received £3m from West Yorkshire Combined Authority to construct the port, the budget estimate from our framework contractor came back at £6.8m. In addition, we have reviewed the liabilities that would be created once the port open, in terms of a significant increase in boat traffic and have concerns regarding the reliability of our infrastructure and specifically investment needed in the mechanical and electrical apparatus on our locks. Although our long term plan includes for the upgrading of this equipment, the opening of the port would need this to be brought forward and in consideration of our resources, we would need third party funding to deliver this. Overall therefore the project is on hold until we receive the investment we need and the Trust are continuing to work hard to find sources to fund the difference.

In addition to trying to find the funding the Trust continue working with European Partners to develop strategies to reinvigorate freight across inland waterways and are also continuing to influence DfT, TfN and regional authorities to make sure Waterways like the Aire & Calder are considered in transport policy and regional strategies.”

  • Canal & River Trust appear to be putting the requirements of towpath users ahead of boaters, with navigation taking a back seat. Can you assure us that navigation is still important to Canal & River Trust?

Boaters remain at the heart of what we do, most of our work and the majority of the money we spend on charitable activities is focused on maintaining the navigation – which benefits boaters the most. However, given that the Trust receives £50 million of funding from government each year, it is important that the waterways are available for everyone to enjoy. Ensuring access to the towpaths is an important part of this, but all users of the towpaths should be considerate to each other as set out in our Share the Space, Towpath Code.

  • When considering the heritage property portfolio, which is most important to Canal & River Trust - keeping ownership and preserving the property, or maximising the financial returns? If the position is more nuanced than that, where do you think the correct balance between those two extremes is?

Stuart Mills to answer at AGM

  • Linear Moorings. Over the years there have been several attempts to remove long lengths of linear moorings, from the system, especially those sited on the towpath side. One example which comes to mind are those at Kinver, where alternative moorings were created, and boats encouraged to move into the new moorings. The then British Waterways management spent a lot of money to achieve this laudable aim. However, the next thing which happened was that the British Waterways management, changed its mind about the use of linear moorings and decided to maximise income, so now in this example, we have a badly sited set of linear moorings, as well as the new moorings. What is the current Canal & River Trust policy towards linear moorings and their sighting? Are local managers still encouraged to maximise mooring income, over practically of using the canal? The moorings at Kinver make navigation very difficult due to restricted width, mooring also on the outside of a bend where the channel should be, they and are also on the towpath side. Three wrongs do not make for a pleasant user experience. These moorings at Kinver are just one of many poorly sited linear moorings.

Prior to March 2019 the Trust had a towpath mooring reduction policy where we automatically removed Trust online permanent moorings in line with the creation of new offline moorings. This policy saw the removal of hundreds of permanent online moorings and saw a big growth in new offline moorings. However, by 2019 the policy had achieved its aim and was resulting in the removal of perfectly legitimate and appropriate online moorings. Following a consultation the new online mooring policy was adopted in March 2019 replaced the towpath mooring reduction policy. The new policy no longer requires the removal of existing permanent online moorings, but still favours offline permanent mooring. The new policy includes a clear and detailed set of requirements that needed to be met for any new online moorings to be considered.

2. Listed buildings/Museums - Stuart Mills to answer all in this section

Whilst it seems the focus is on the Stop House at Braunston there’s no doubt that the sentiment applies to all listed buildings Canal & River Trust have responsibility for

  • There has been a lot of publicity about the Stop House in Braunston. Can you let us know what Canal & River Trust’s plans are for this iconic building bearing in mind its Grade 2 listing and the listings attaching to nearby dock buildings?
  • Bearing in mind the extent of Canal & River Trust’s ownership of listed buildings and the undeniable costs of maintaining and running them what action is being taken to secure the historic (but not accessioned) artefacts and items that are still in these buildings. There is a view that these items will either be destroyed by squatters or deteriorate more quickly without use of the building. An example is the hand-drawn map of the North Oxford Canal in the Stop House at Braunston. What action is being taken to prevent arson of these buildings as happened in the not-too-distant past in Braunston?
  • We would like to raise the closure and potential sale of the Stop House at Braunston. Canal & River Trust are the custodians of the historic buildings of the canal. They should not be sold for short term gain but repurposed. Historic waterside buildings need to retained and repurposed if necessary. For example, it is becoming increasingly difficult when cruising to buy pump out cards, watermate keys, or for boaters and the general public talk to Canal & River Trust staff/volunteers. We would ask Stuart and Canal & River Trust to look beyond profit at the impact that disposing of buildings like this has on the perception of the general public of Canal & River Trust and its charitable purpose leading up to grant renegotiation. Can you imagine the National Trust selling a similar property?
  • Can you give us as licence payers an assurance that no buildings of historic value such as Braunston Stop house or Red Bull yard, to name but two, will be sold into private ownership? We realise that these buildings are expensive to maintain but they are just as much part of the canal heritage and landscape as a waterway or lock. Canal & River Trust are merely custodians and should be looking after them for future generations and users, not selling for short term gain. As Canal & River Trust is moving to the home working model but will use Hubs to meet up as required has Canal & River Trust thought of using the space in the Historic buildings to rent out as meeting/networking venues for outside companies as well as using them as hubs for their own staff. Many other companies will be doing the same as Canal & River Trust but will require venues for their teams to meet up in various locations. These could be marketed as unique historic venues in historic locations rather than a nondescript room in a hotel. It is also very important to keep waterside locations not only for boater contact but also to engage the wider public walking the towpath etc
  • Weston Point Docks, I wonder if you could clarify the Ownership of this site, there seems to be a question. Does Canal & River Trust own the docks and the grade 2 listed church and is it leased to a consortium of Peel and Stobart? If this is the case, what can be done about the maintenance of the dock, lock gates and swing bridge none of which are operational. The grade 2 listed church (now defunct as a church) is in a very poor state, should this be on the Heritage at risk list.
  • The Stop House is the building on everyone’s minds, the question surely is about Canal & River Trust’s long-term strategy on their heritage and listed buildings. The heritage buildings, no matter how small a part of the whole canal heritage they are, should include stables, lock keepers’ huts and small workshops, but this is not an exhaustive list. How do Canal & River Trust make their decisions on the sale of heritage buildings, may we see the criteria? What thought goes into the loss of canal side wharves and yards and their use for ongoing maintenance.

3. Staffing

  • Whilst it is generally accepted that some staff turnover is good for business (the average UK staff turnover rate is around 15%) as it can provide opportunities for younger staff to progress, anecdotal evidence suggests the turnover rate within Canal & River Trust is somewhat higher. New people come in with little idea of what The Trust's core business is and knowledgeable volunteers tell them all about the historic importance of the waterways and what they are all about. It’s a little soul-destroying to pass on experience and knowledge to new people only to find within a breath they have left, or they are unable to carry out the ‘promises’ of the previous incumbent. There have been four collections managers in four years and eight waterway managers in the same period for the waterway in and around Stoke Bruerne. Does the Trust have any strategies to try and reduce the staff turnover and perhaps to make passing on experience more rewarding in the longer term? What are the Trust’s strategies in regard to succession planning?

Firstly, it seems a little unfair to use a national figure against such a niche organisation such as the Trust and secondly, I think we are actually at around 10% turnover which would bring us in below the average rate.

There have been 3 collections managers and 2 Waterway managers.  Phil Mulligan is in post, and Sean McGinley before him.  Phil Mulligan has been in the Trust for nearly 2 and a half years now and is making excellent headway across the region and especially at Stoke Bruerne.  The 3 collection Managers: there have been 2 permanent colleagues and 1 who is an interim covering the position at the moment.  Obviously there was a re-structure a few years ago which will have perhaps meant some new faces coming and going.  

  • As an organisation, Historic Narrow Boat Club (HNBC) is increasingly concerned at the seeming lack of continuity of knowledge of the waterways within the Trust, together with the inevitable lack of experience that the frequent turnover of staff leads to. HNBC, and other similar organisations, have repeatedly offered the services of our collectively great and extensive experience of the canal system. What process could the Trust put in place to make use of this cornucopia of knowledge and experience that the members of our organisation, and others, are more than enthusiastically ready to provide?

We continue to engage with a wide variety of waterway users. We have navigation advisory groups across all sectors of the Trust giving guidance, we engage with our elected boater representatives regularly, and with the wider boating organisations, such as IWA and AINA several times a year. We are always happy to arrange meetings with the HNBC if there are issues you would like to discuss. 

  • As boaters we are caught in a perfect storm of an increase in the number of newbie boaters needing help at, for example, staircases, and a reduction in the number of experienced staff on duty to help them. It is unfair to expect volunteers to cover the whole time period that experienced boaters require. This lack of staff seems to be resulting in the threat of reduced opening times at critical bottleneck points on the system, e.g., supervised tunnels and staircase locks, thus limiting our hours of boating. Are you aware of this knock-on effect of the cut-back in experienced staff and what steps can you take to mitigate it?
  • There appears to be an unhealthy turnover of staff within Canal & Trust which is leading to a loss of practical experience. How is your training programme addressing this and have you committed sufficient funding to properly and extensively train staff in the practical operation of, and knowledge about, waterways structures?

Waiting for a response 

4. Corporate memory

  • There was a problem in British Waterways about the documentation of projects. Completed works were seemingly never documented or referenced in such a way that past works to specific structures or areas could be checked when problems occurred or reappeared. Often the people involved ‘on the bank’ remembered past works but this ‘corporate memory’ has now been lost. Knowing what has happened in the past to stretches of canal or structures can save time and money when problems occur. Canal & River Trust inherited the British Waterways systems. Has the project documentation and associated data management system improved at all and if not are there any plans to improve it?
  • There is anecdotal evidence that other agreements seemingly fail to be recorded. For example, the undertaking to always fit gate paddles to southern Grand Union locks. The undertaking to do that does not appear to be recorded in a way that can be passed on. Can you confirm there is a process to record and action such agreements?

All information relating to Assets is stored in electronic files for each functional location, including project information when completed.

Waiting for a further response 

5. Engineering responses

  • Canal & River Trust staff responded swiftly to the breach on the Aire & Calder near Goole in late December and managed to prevent flooding of properties in the area. However, notwithstanding the Christmas break and Covid restrictions, local commentators are critical that it took the Trust until early March (about eleven weeks) to mobilise the piling gang and get the breach area pumped out. During that time pleasure boats in the two Goole marinas have been sitting on the bottom, and shipping disrupted due to changes in water levels – hopefully that has settled down now. Do you have an indication as to when the waterway will re-open and can seven-day working be utilised (as at other breach sites) to speed up the repair, get the canal open again for freight and leisure traffic, and reduce costs of pumping and hire of equipment?

A tremendous effort by both Trust colleagues and our contractors prevented the flooding of many properties over Christmas. Having made the breach site safe and monitored the repair over Christmas and New Year, involving many colleagues giving up their holidays, the project team began the recovery phase on the 4th January.  The initial task was to install a cofferdam i.e. two lines of steel piles across the navigation, either side of the breach site. In order to build such a structure we needed obtain details of the ground conditions, then design the piles, then procure the piles and then mobilise to install them. All these stage were completed in 1 month and the piling began on the 4th February, with the last pile installed on the 21st February. In consideration of the challenging times we are working in, we feel this was a very good effort.

Further damage to the canal bank has delayed a detailed inspection by our engineers, and until that takes place we will be unable to confirm the precise failure mode and thus design a repair. Until a repair has been designed and the works to implement it have been programmed, the precise re-opening date cannot be confirmed but at this stage we estimate it will take several months. Seven day working is an option on this and all projects and we will use this approach when and where we feel it is appropriate based upon our resources and the liabilities across our network.

  • Extensive dredging operations on the Pocklington Canal were carried out by Canal & River Trust in 2017 & 2018. This was between the Melbourne Arm and Coates Lock being prior to another length and two locks (Thornton & Walbut) of the canal reopened. The dredging went as far as Coates lock, but Canal & River Trust will only allow boats as far as the Bielby Arm; Coates Lock was restored in 2000 and is usable with a winding hole for boats directly above the lock. Why can’t Coates lock be used? The busiest section of the canal is between East Cottingwith Lock and the Melbourne Arm and this section has never been dredged in years, not even in the worst silted parts – can this dredging be planned please as soon as possible? Another problem is the short arm that connects the canal to the river Derwent. This section is under the control of the Environment Agency, and again there seems to be a great reluctance to maintain the arm to a satisfactory navigable standard. Could this be done as well – maybe by ploughing? Pocklington CAS has been ready to start the restoration
  • of Sandhill Lock since 2018. This work still has not started, Canal & River Trust always has an excuse for not letting us get it started, this is despite PCAS having all the cast, as well as having all the requirements required to do the restoration on a Grade 2 listed structure together with the approved engineers and safety officer etc in place. Is there any way this can be expedited?

There are a number of reasons why Coates Lock is not operational yet. Firstly, the head of navigation is Beilby arm, and a change would need agreeing with Natural England. That is quite possible but a bigger challenge is because the gates at the low end were not fitted correctly over 20 years ago and a seal cannot be made and so an attempt to use it could result in draining the pound above. Attempts have been made to fix this problem but unsuccessfully. Once through the lock there would be a problem with weed and the reliability of the feed, both of which would require further funds to address, but taking things in order, the lock is the next challenge.

Our national dredging budget is used to carrying out dredging across our entire 2000 miles and we focus it where it can have most impact. The waste management regulations make dredging an expensive activity and so although we would love to do a lot more dredging and appreciate that our boaters are keen to see as much dredging taking place, we are limited in the amount we can do in consideration of our overall resources. That said we will review our plan and see what is possible and we can also ask the EA about their plans for dredging the connecting arm, though again I would imagine they have similar financial challenges to ourselves and so we don’t anticipate a quick result from them.

The Trust would love to see the restoration of Sandhill Lock and are happy to continue to support it as far as we can. Such projects take time and what you are referring to as excuses are actually processes and procedures, largely stemming from the Construction Design & Management Regulations, rules that we have to follow in our work and are maybe not evident to those not involved in them day to day. The restoration is work additional to our own plans and so although we will support it, it has to be appreciated there is so much more going on with only limited resources and so we are unable to dedicate all the resources to it that others would like to see.

6. The breach above Wharton’s Lock 10 on the Shropshire Union Canal

  • It was first noticed that there was a problem on this length at about 17:30 with an image on social media, showing the water flowing over the towpath. The sender assured me that they had already rung the emergency number - 0800 479 9947. The length did not fail till about 21:30 hrs.
  • If any of us experienced boaters had been there, this is the action we would have taken:

called for further help! The more the merrier.

Lock up Wharton Lock, to stop interference by Joe Public. Filled the lock, opened and roped back the top gates, opened the bottom paddles. We would then have gone down to the storm weir at Mill Farm Aqueduct and opened the draw-down valve there, to take the excess flow off the Christleton Level.

We would then have gone up the flight and attempted to manage the flow coming down – possibly by ensuring that the storm weir above lock Tilstone lock was taking off as much of the excess flow as possible, maybe by drawing the weir planks there; alternatively, by planking the by-wash at the nearby lock, to reduce the flow down the flight. This would have taken some skill but would not have been too hard to achieve as long as it was monitored. Again, we would have locked the locks, to stop interference.

Then going back to Wharton's Lock to see if we had stopped the flow over the towpath. If it had stopped, we could then drop the bottom paddles, such that the by-wash took the flow. We would then have gone back to Mill Farm and adjusted the draw down there. Not rocket science but one does have to be careful when running water so  hard. 

  • What training do the staff have in running water hard? Just how many staff did attend and when?

Given that it may have taken a hour to get someone on site, in these modern times of not having resident lock keepers, it would still have given them 3 hrs or so to manage the situation, by immediately drawing down the pound. The fact that the canal breached shows that they did not manage the situation! This breach was a failure to manage the problem, in a timely manner. It was not beyond redemption when you first attended!

  • How are you going to train your staff on the length and those that manage them, so that this situation does not happen again?

There have been reports that ‘Boaters’ were interfering with the management of the water flows. But the fact that this was discovered, too late, says that there is still a problem with the training of those looking after these assets. They do not have the experience to know what happens to the flows when in extremis, and this knowledge has been lost from your staff.

  • How are you going to replace this knowledge, to ensure something major like this does not occur again? This includes understanding where extra flows enter the canal under heavy rain conditions, are these logged on your system?
  • Why was the bank allowed to get so low that the excess water could flow over it in the first place? This was a breach waiting to occur! It is not dissimilar to the breach in Middlewich where a weir was not able to manage the excess flow, as the level rose, and the water decided that the low bank was a better option than the storm weir.
  • Has Canal & River Trust checked all embankments to ensure that storm surges will not over-top them or that we know the level is rising to a dangerous level and water levels can be managed by an appropriate method?

It should have been obvious that the flows were not as expected. With modern equipment it should have been easy for the manager to spot any major flow disparities using the SCADA system. Was this the case, and if not why not?

Response from Principle Engineer:

All of the points noted by the group appear reasonable, however what they fail to have noted that all these activities would have been carried out in the dark, all of which adds additional time and risk to the staff involved.  

In conjunction with the issues on the SU we also had to try and reach Swanley lock on the Llangollen  canal where a boater had tried to go through the lock in the dark with the  adverse weather conditions and had got into distress. Fortunately the boater managed to get out without injury but refused to go back to drop the lock paddles, this in turn sent more water down to the Shropshire union via Hurleston.

One of the major questions I have is that the incident started at 17:30, which is correct, however on the day at 17:30 it was already dark, yet the photo received by the Trust was clearly taken in daylight. Why did whoever took the photo not make the call immediately from site , hence providing the trust with the maximum opportunity to intervene rather than at dusk, knowing staff would be placed at risk?  

Upon being notified of the incident the duty office dispatched the on call team who were on site within 1hr and assessed the situation, they were later joined by the AOM. When it was identified that the canal was in danger of imminent breach, our Duty Engineer and contractors were mobilized to site (unfortunately due to the Snow fall neither arrived as it was deemed to unsafe to get there) the contractor mobilized to site at first light.  

The learning points from this event will be captured and our operating manuals /procedures updated with salient points.

Immediately post the event all assets in the area were inspected, along with other areas affected by the storm. It should be noted that Storm Christoph affected a vast area of the NW , not just the Beeston area.

Our SCADA system monitors waterflows at strategic sites, there is no Scada station within the pound between Lock 10 and 11 on the Shropshire Union Canal.

The whole response needs to be contextualised in that in addition to the issue encountered at Beeston the duty officer for the area was dealing with the flooding in Northwich, and the slip of the cutting above the T&M near Anderton. In addition from a regional perspective the out of hours team and duty Engineer were  also actively managing the levels at Toddbrook reservoir and a further cutting failure in Rochdale.

Additional response from AOM:

As soon as the team were alerted by the duty manager they attended site, however at this point it was not safe to attempt any remedial works to the bank, they installed barriers on either side of the breach to block of the towpath and took all available actions to try and reduce the flow.

As stated this was all done in the dark and extreme weather conditions. Within an hour of arrival on site we were working in two to three inches of snow and most major roads had been shut.

When the team arrived at Tilston lock as quoted in the HNBC list of actions they found that all paddles had been raised and a free flow of water was going through the lock, which meant that the storm weir was not taking the excess flow into the  R Gowy. The paddles were dropped by the team.

The paddles at Wharton, and Beeston Stone locks were also raised when the team inspected them, this had not been the case earlier in the day.

48 hours prior to the Storm, the team had been dealing with the levels to ensure we could handle the excess water as forecast and we had also been in touch with West Midlands to ensure that flow rates from above Audlem on the SU and down past Hurleston from the Llangollen were as low as possible.

All available sluices were set to safely and evenly divert the excess water without risking flooding downstream.

All water control measures were in place on the day of storm Christoph.

As the report rightly states SCADA is used to monitor this and was checked by myself to see what the levels where across the Shropshire Union, Llangollen & Middlewich canals. SCADA was showing levels were at the lower end of the thresholds in all pounds that had SCADA during the afternoon and this was due to the actions taken by the team. I had been regularly checking on SCADA throughout the day and up until around 17:00 hrs., the levels were showing steady.

In conjunction with the issues on the SU we also had to try and reach Swanley lock on the Llangollen canal where a boater had tried to go through the lock in the dark with the adverse weather conditions and had got into distress. Fortunately the boater managed to get out without injury but refused to go back to drop the lock paddles, this in turn sent more water down to the Shropshire union via Hurleston.

The team on that day included members of staff who are very experienced in water control and I am confident that we had taken every step required to manage the effects of the storm had it not been for the actions of a third party.

7. Loss of local knowledge

  • Does that fact that Canal & River Trust no longer has people tied to the length by the fact they live in a fixed place on the canal, mean that local detailed knowledge has vanished?
  • If this knowledge has not vanished, where is it recorded so that it can be made easily accessible by the support staff?
  • Alternatively, if it has vanished what action is being taken to re-acquire this knowledge?

We have a wealth of local knowledge at our disposal within the regional teams, with many staff members having worked for the Trust for a greater part of their working lives. This knowledge is passed down through apprenticeships. We also have linesmen who daily walk their patch, looking for any changes. These are logged into the system as they are entered by ipad.  All the information is then available to support staff.

8. Canal opening times

  • Historically the canals operated 24/7. We are very concerned at the number of flights and other structures which are only being operated on a part-time basis. We understand that with the influx of inexperienced boaters, particularly new continuous moorers, that many boaters now have little or no knowledge of how to operate some structures and require assistance - however this is not true of all boaters.
  • How are you going to enable experienced boaters to carry on boating 24/7?

May I suggest a key safe system, where the boater rings up and asks for access and after the appropriate checks have been made, that the Number code is handed over to the boater. This would enable you to know just who was doing what and when. It would be easy to mark each licence holder with a gold star, or whatever, to signify their competence. It would be important to reset the number of the key safe after use, to stop the number being handed over.

The vast majority of our 2000 miles of waterways are operational 7 days a week, 365 days of the year for all boaters. However, there have always been certain structure that have to be managed, and access is being improved by offering booked passage. We acknowledge that there are differing ability levels in operating locks and cruising through structures. Safety and limiting damage to our structures are priorities, but we hope to offer as high a level of service as possible especially during the key cruising months. We are always happy to look into specific cruising issues.

9. Leaving Locks empty

  • We have been informed officially, by a Freedom of Information Request response we have seen, of all the locks which currently require to be left empty due to known maintenance problems. We know that this list however is incomplete and incorrect.
  • Locks which require to be emptied to manage poor maintenance can become habit forming, and even once repaired people will empty them because that is what one does at that lock! So ‘this lock has been repaired’ signs are also required.
  • What actions are Canal & River Trust taking to ensure the list of leaking locks is correct?
  • Will this list be regularly published, along with the expected date that the asset will be repaired by?
  • All we are asking is that this is a stoppage notice item, which needs to be regularly reviewed, and updated, with a next update date. We need to get on top of wasting water, especially as the canals are becoming so busy.

We are aware that there have been issues with our stoppage notice pages on the website, and we have been reviewing the way information is recorded on our stoppage and restrictions pages to ensure all information is complete and up to date.