From the Tiller

by Alan Wildman

Back in early February, when Beryl, Charles and myself met with Jon Horsfall and Matthew Symonds at CRT’s offices in Hatton, a good deal of time was spent discussing the ongoing financial challenges facing the Trust. Currently, Central Government has committed funding of up to fifty-three million pounds per annum but in reality, this is barely sufficient to properly support the Trust’s legal obligations. Come 2027 though, when the current arrangement expires, there is no guarantee that even this level of cash contribution will continue.

The proposal to bring Environment Agency navigations under CRT governance is still very much a possibility, sooner or later, and if that should eventually occur, then hopefully a new and more adequate financial arrangement will be a part of the deal. Boats and boaters are, of course, essential in keeping our waterways alive and well; and healthy navigations provide so much more for the wider good too. Water extraction, flood control, transport routes, wildlife habitats, fisheries, walking routes, cycle-ways and enhancement of the general public’s health and feel-good factor are just some of the wide ranging benefits they provide.

Besides the Government funding, CRT generates income of more than sixty million pounds per year from its property portfolio. This is in addition to the sums raised from boating, utility contracts, voluntary donations and various other lesser contributory sources. Quite apart from any uncertainty over Government’s contribution, it is clear that achieving increased revenue from the Trust’s property investments and some of those other sources too, is absolutely fundamental to the ongoing security of our waterways, now and into the foreseeable future. Note: I say some of those other sources because I believe boating is already being squeezed too hard in the scheme of things.

We are told that the CRT property team is performing above the national average as regards returns on capital invested. Part of its performance revolves around selling (some) assets and re-investing the funds raised into alternative, more profitable assets. Whilst such good performance is commendable, it does bring with it the risk that valuable pieces of heritage may be deemed disposable in the constant hunger for increased capital. CRT does have an internal process for assessing and protecting where appropriate any proposed (heritage) sell offs. The Inland Waterways Association is also ever watchful in this respect. We too must all keep our eyes and ears open and be prepared to formally challenge anything that appears to put profit before the preservation of important waterway built heritage. As has been said of so many important things in life, once it’s gone, it’s gone!

We now see that CRT is considering the potential for selling off British Waterways Marinas Ltd (BWML), its wholly owned commercial subsidiary, operating from 18 marinas around the UK and providing over 2,500 moorings, of which nearly 700 are formal residential berths. BWML is understood to have contributed over two million pounds to CRT coffers for 2016/17. CRT has said that if a sale occurs, it will be business as usual for BWML staff and customers; and again, is saying that cash from such a sale might well be re-invested elsewhere to generate a higher level of regular income to the Trust. It is to be assumed that, if sold, BWML will continue to contribute to CRT by way of connection fees and other (?) charges. Nevertheless, might such a move be seen as selling off the family silver?

Further concern comes in the form of a letter from Waterside Moorings, a division of CRT created without notice or consultation to manage its own long term moorings. In the letter, CRT moorings customers are advised that mooring fees in Central London have fallen below current market rates and may therefore be subjected to above inflation fee increases over the next three years. Bearing in mind that what CRT consider to be “prime” moorings vacancies are still allocated by the controversial and, in my personal opinion, unfair and inflationary auction system; how has that happened? If we then take into account the increase in numbers of people living on the waterways without having home moorings, many for financial reasons, it raises the question – Will such mooring fee increases ultimately help or make worse the perceived problem of waterway congestion in those “prime” areas. Considering, too, CRT’s declared position on BWML, one has to wonder, is Waterside Moorings and any connected land and/or assets to become the next sell off?

As committed live aboard boaters, unless we are kept better informed by CRT, it is perhaps becoming more difficult to fully understand and wholly support the direction in which the Trust is travelling. Members’ views on this are most welcome so as to assist RBOA Committee in setting down our own future agenda and relationship with CRT.

As ever, my sincere and very best wishes go out to every one of you.

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