BY PETER UNDERWOOD
Despite a lot of noisy political PR about Third Sector involvement, our waterways were the only major victim of this abrogation of responsibility. Along with a number of other boaters – all people with their lives invested in the waterways – I argued from the start that this was a fundamental mistake, that it removed accountability to the electorate, and that the UK Waterways were a vital cultural and historical asset that deserved to be looked after by the public purse.
The group we formed – Boaters’ Manifesto – was given the predictable spin doctor schmooze by British Waterways and the putative Trustees of the new charitable company. We were invited to Milton Keynes, patronised for a couple of hours and ignored. My recording of that meeting is still online somewhere.
As a journalist for the past 50 years, I decided that, if no-one else was able to hold Canal & River Trust to account, I could use my set of skills to attempt to tell the real stories behind the unrelentingly positive spin being churned out by it’s dozen or so public relations officers.
I wanted boaters to know the real numbers, the stories of harassment and incompetence, behind the managerial gobbledegook and corporate bullshit. I have been joined by a number of other boater / journalists contributing to the picture, over the past six years, most notably and reliably Allan Richards who has incredible patience and has extracted one uncomfortable truth after another from C&RT accounts and FoI requests.
We have had results – you always know you are getting somewhere when you are threatened with legal action and senior executives start telling lies about you – and thousands of boaters read and share every story either from the website, Facebook or Twitter. In fact we have more readers than any of the glossy waterways magazines.
And yet, and yet….
Despite the flim flam figures in C&RT’s annual report the system is going downhill, less is being spent on the essentials of navigation and the number of unplanned stoppages is soaring – to the point that the Trust has had to go to amazing lengths to fiddle the figures, as The Floater has explained.
I suppose my hope was that boaters would join together to bring pressure to bear on C&RT, especially after it completely changed its priorities away from navigation into the ludicrous concept of ‘wellbeing’ in the desperate hope that it would persuade a government that has already washed its hands of the waterways, to provide cash for walkers, cyclists, fishermen and all the others it aims to drag onto the towpaths.
Ludicrous for two reasons. One is that a government that can’t be persuaded to spend on our health services or look after sick and disabled people is unlikely to give a toss about generalised wellbeing.
The other is that the essence of the waterways is boats, without boats all those people might as well go and do their thing alongside a muddy pond in their local park. Yet C&RT doesn’t want to give priority to boats and navigation, we have steadily fallen down its priorities.
However, apathy rules, as ever. It is easy to understand why. Those young people and families for whom a boat is home are too busy working out the latest “guidance” as C&RT continues to change the rules, whilst trying to earn a living. Meanwhile the holiday boat owners are only concerned if it affects their few weeks out on the system – and even then only whist they are boating.
So my dilemma was whether I had the energy and commitment to carry on researching and writing what were, in essence, the same stories over and over again. The names might change but the facts rarely did.
The answer is that I have decided I can’t be arsed to carry on. Boaters have had enough information by now to be in little doubt that C&RT has been transformed into a hollow husk, populated by over-paid executives who want nothing to do with real boaters and waterways. Almost every navigation function is contracted out – guaranteeing the least work for the most money – or handed over to well meaning but limited volunteers.
The trajectory is downhill. I am a boater, and a liveaboard and will remain one, but I am now going to get what I can out of the system before it slowly closes down or C&RT is forced to hand it back to government.
So there will be no more news stories from The Floater website, which I am mothballing. The Facebook page and group will remain open and I will share relevant waterway news from other sources as and when I find them. Others are welcome to do the same.
By the end of the year the email editor@theFloater.org will no longer function.