There is another way - and it's by boat

May 2018 - EDITORIAL – THE VIEW FROM THE WATER. By Peter Underwood Editor of the Floater.

It is not difficult to understand why Canal & River Trust is rebranding, restructuring and attempting to persuade anyone who will listen that it has the answer to everyone's problems – if only they will stroll by a canal now and then.

It is even easy to sympathise with the position the Trust has got itself into. Many of the promises made by trustees and management when it was established five years ago have turned to dust.

It is nowhere close to replacing government grant with income from 'friends' and other charitable donations and a large financial black hole is clearly to be seen in its future as it loses government cash, initially in 2022 then completely in 2027 – a scant nine years away. No new logo is going to change that reality.

Many boaters warned of this outcome when government dumped the waterways into the third sector – the only objective of the Tory ministers was to get the cost off the public books. But 'I told you so' doesn't help provide the canals with a future – even if there was clearly no realistic prospect of success from the very start.

C&RT has turned away from the concept of running a successful navigation, declaring that: “90% + of our customer base are no longer water based and we need to adapt to their needs.” The core belief behind the restructuring - putting yet more corporate players in top jobs with little consideration for their waterways experience or ability to run a navigation - and a re-branding that moves away from canals and boating, is that the new people and new identity will bring in enough measurable support that they can beg government for another grant recognising that “our former industrial waterways can improve the wellbeing of millions of people.”

It is another 'cunning plan' and as doomed to failure as the one that brought C&RT into existence five years ago. Why? Because it ignores the one genuine asset that the waterways have, that brings people to the towpaths, the one asset that can genuinely recruit support.

​Unfortunately C&RT rejected, with or without the support of government, the idea of a membership based organisational structure, despite pressure from boating groups. Some wanted to see something like the National Trust, where members pay substantial annual fees in exchange for being able to visit places and see things previously the exclusive domain of the rich and powerful.

It was argued that, given open public access to the towpath, it was not possible to charge for membership.

However, that is a fallacy, based on a basic misunderstanding of what canals are about – and that's boats. Without boats any public park with a lake has as much attraction – and health and wellbeing potential - as a canal.

Without boats, canals become shallow ditches, not even interesting to fishermen after a few years of neglect. Yet boats are perceived by much of the public as expensive, exclusive and owned by the elite – a bit like stately homes really.

If C&RT wants to capture the support of a fair proportion of that 90 per cent it can do so by offering them a chance to join the boaters on the water – not by the water - just as the National Trust offers the opportunity to spend time in stately homes.

A membership-based C&RT would not only be able to exercise democratic control over the board members and executives that is sadly lacking, it could also become a National Trust of the waterways giving members access to boating in many forms as part of their paid-for membership package.

For a few pounds a month members could be offered free charter boat trips, with C&RT either acquiring their own fleet, hiring from canal businesses, or working with volunteers and using historic narrowboats.

There could be a free half day on a day boat, or entrance to historic locations like the Anderton Lift, as part of the membership. C&RT could follow the National Trust further with its own tea rooms at key locations, offering historic boater fare.

A national membership, at a price, giving the public access to the one unique thing the waterways have to offer would soon produce a genuine, fee paying, committed membership, keen to see the canals in good working order so that they can enjoy their access to boating.

And it can be structured in such a way that all types and ages can get on the water, from teenage paddleboarders to grannies taking tea on a trip boat.

The resources are mostly already in place. Around the country there are commercial businesses who would be happy to come to an agreement with C&RT to provide all sorts of boating experiences to paid-up C&RT members.

A little bit of imagination and the use of existing skilled crews could see the historic fleet in C&RT's care moving members on the water, with volunteer crews and even volunteer historic boat owners joining in.

In other places membership could provide an agreed discount on waterborne activities, taking in canoe centres and similar activities.

Engaging so many more people in boating on the canals through an affordable membership scheme will mean many more advocates for the waterways, more people taking the next step into a canal holiday or even boat ownership and the genuine uplift in 'wellbeing' C&RT claims to be looking for.

It may not provide the £50m C&RT needs in the coming decade but it would make a substantial difference to the size of the financial black hole and provide a genuine case for government to give further financial support.

The price will be busier waterways, more novices on boats and other minor annoyances but such a scheme can create a genuine opportunity for waterways to become a place everyone can enjoy being on the water, not by the water.

At least everyone who can afford, say, £10 a month.

Photos: (1st) Peter Underwood Editor of the Floater.

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