Liverpool docks – empty when C&RT says full

June 2018 - There is a mystery about Liverpool’s link to the canal system and Peter Underwood, who has just spent a year moored in the city’s docks has been trying to get to the bottom of it – without complete success.

The Liverpool Link cost £22m and was opened in March 2009, adding 1.4 miles to the canal system, but bringing a wonderful, friendly and lively city within reach of inland waterways boaters. Lots of boaters love the idea of spending time in the heart of the city but the 46 mooring pontoons in Salthouse Dock are rarely filled.

Over the past year I have checked on the number of boats two or three times a week and – during the seven months of the year that the link is actually open – there have been between six and a dozen boats.

It has never been full, despite former North West Waterways manager Chantelle Seaborn slashing the stay time from 14 to seven days, claiming it would allow more people to visit.

In fact, conversations with C&RT staff and volunteers operating the Stanley Locks, which give access to the link, suggest the majority of spaces in Salthouse Dock have been unfilled for even longer.

Would-be visitors looking for a mooring in Salthouse on the C&RT website are shown whole months with no availability – despite the fact that two thirds of the berths remain empty.

Chantelle Seaborn’s temporary replacement, Stephen Higham, has made changes to the way the link operates, allowing boaters to operate swing bridges on the approach and locks on the link itself without assistance – a move which has slashed seasonal staff jobs from three to just one.

However, access is still controlled by a boater’s ability to book a mooring in Salthouse Dock and the online system has consistently, and inaccurately, said the dock moorings were full when simple observation showed they were virtually empty.

When asked Stephen Higham was initially unaware there was a problem. He told me: “Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I am not aware of any issues but I’ll definitely check with my colleague who manages the bookings.”

Some days later he insisted that it was a problem of recent technology changes: “The problem has been down to new software that we are rolling out on the booking system. Not ideal I know, but it looks like any issues we have had have now been resolved.

“People have been able to call the office and book that way.”

Clearly an excuse, and one that fails to answer why this issue has been current for at least 12 months and probably twice as long.

I also asked Stephen Higham why, after British Waterways and the local council invested £22m in the Liverpool Link, C&RT decided to close it for nearly half the year, with the exception of a handful of winter moorers who could not then leave the docks?

He claimed: “Winter stoppages do indeed have a bearing on the operation of the Link, but another consideration is staffing. The Trust does rely a lot on seasonal staff during the boating season, including for manning the Link. Once the seasonal staff depart in the Autumn, this does cause a resource issue for operating the Link.”

He went on to hold out the possibility of a more realistic operation that would benefit boaters in the three marinas in Liverpool’s docks, enabling them to use the canal system year round, as well as those on the rest of the system.

Stephen Higham said: “The operation of the LCL is constantly evolving however, and I will raise the possibility of keeping it open over the winter, perhaps as you suggested, one passage a week. I suspect the Trust would benefit from some wider consultation on this matter

However, when I asked again about when the closure policy might change I was told: “Access to the link can be disrupted by our priority projects programme that runs between Oct and March every year. Due to the linear nature of the canal, if we have a stoppage in Bootle for example that lasts 20 weeks, access to the link would be impossible during that period.

“We are still waiting confirmation of our 2018-19 stoppage programme. If we can keep the Link open for that period we’ll consider doing so.

Stephen Higham also promised to consider going back to the 14 day stay in place before it was changed – without consultation by his predecessor: “We constantly review our booking arrangements for the Link and moorings. It’s something we’ll certainly consider.”

The proof of C&RT’s ability to run the Liverpool Link and Salthouse moorings properly will be in the coming months. All boaters visiting Liverpool are invited to tell the Floater how many other boats were there during their stay. And if you have tried to book but been unabale to do so, tell us about it.

Photos: (1st) Liverpool's Salthouse Dock pictured in May this year when C&RT's website claimed it was full, (2nd) Stephen Higham - interim NW Waterways Manager, (3rd) The £22m Liverpool Link as it crosses Pierhead. By Sue Adair, CC BY-SA 2.0,

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