The questions below were submitted by club members and forwarded to Stuart Mills, our guest speaker, prior to his presentation at the AGM on 13 March 2021. Stuart incorporated responses to those within his remit in his presentation. Other answers received after the meeting are here.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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 siting? Are local managers still encouraged to maximise mooring income over the 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, and they 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.
Whilst it seems the focus is on the Stop House at Braunston there’s no doubt that the sentiment applies to all listed buildings for which Canal & River Trust have responsibility.
- 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 be 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 to 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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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, eg 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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 cash, 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?
- 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?
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?
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.
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.