Boater-restorer tells C&RT to stick its grass cutting – 'we have a vision if you don't'

February 2018 - Whilst the Canal & River Trust spends millions trying to project a positive image and makes a fetish of the number of volunteers it recruits, the way it treats and attempts to control canal enthusiasts is a true measure of the institution and the sad saga of the way it has dealt with one 63-year-old boater and his thousands of supporters shows that it has a long way to go before it can be trusted, reports Peter Underwood

Colin Ogden has been involved in boating for more 50 years, starting by working for a Burnley-based hire firm as a 13 year old and having a passion for the waterways and industrial history that saw him build two narrowboats, buy his own vessel and spend most of his summers cruising the Lancaster Canal with his wife Linda.

He is an unlikely rebel, but he came into conflict with Canal & River Trust about four years ago when North West Waterways Manager Chantelle Seaborn – newly appointed and with no previous knowledge or experience of the waterways – imposed 48-hour mooring restrictions the length of the Lancaster Canal without consultation or apparent understanding of boater's needs.

That protest, supported at the time by other boaters visiting the canal, including myself and another journalist Steve Haywood, led to the formation of a Facebook Group called Owd Lanky Boaters and to Colin deciding that something had to be done to restore the Northern Reaches of the Lancaster Canal – closed in the 1960s when the M6 motorway was allowed to cut the stretch between Tewitfield and Kendal into a number of sections.

Restoring the Northern Reaches would, perhaps, be the most popular and effective restoration in Northern England, putting the wonderful Lake District within reach of boaters across the country and providing endless opportunities for tourism as well as making the Lancaster Canal a much more viable prospect for hire boats.

It had long been the objective of the Lancaster Canal Trust, even if it's progress had been limited, but that organisation had been made ineffective thanks to another decision by Chantelle Seaborn to prevent it from doing any work on the canal, using the excuse of a disagreement over whether the painting of a certain stone on bridges was historically accurate.

That ban lasted two years and led to the leadership of the Trust being replaced by those willing to be C&RT compliant and a massive loss of members, disillusioned by C&RT's micro-management.

The only other body with an interest – in theory – in reopening the Northern Reaches was a conglomeration of local councils, the IWA and C&RT called the Lancaster Canal Regeneration Partnership (LCRP), but that had been moribund for years as the local authorities had no money or appetite for regeneration.​

In fact, there was – and is – an abiding suspicion amongst canal restorers and boaters that C&RT was only willing to pay lip service to reopening the Northern Reaches. Even keeping the section it still owned open to allow the flow of adequate water from a reservoir into the navigable section of the Lancaster canal was more than it could manage most years and the costs of restoration and maintenance would be substantial.

Below is the full story

Colin and his Owd Lanky Boaters, soon a thousand strong, stepped into a vacuum of inaction and Colin's combination of restoration work parties cleaning up and restoring bridges on the section of the Northern Reaches no longer owned by C&RT, along with imaginative publicity stunts, such as towing his launch along the dry canal bed to Kendal, assist by a Captain Jack Sparrow lookalike created even more support and substantial media interest. Suddenly the public was seeing the potential of restoring the Northern Reaches and C&RT was faced with questions it wasn't comfortable answering.

Instead, Chantelle Seaborn, faced with upstart boaters demanding restoration, decided to make a pretence of doing something and fell back on spending loads of money on a spin doctor.

C&RT's response was to persuade the local councils involved in the LCRP to meet and authorise buying in a former British Waterways PR person at consultancy rates to promote its 'activities' and make the argument it was interested in restoration.

It didn't want to go as far as doing any actual restoration and the group and it's spin doctor settled for reviving a footpath along the Northern Reaches first established years earlier by the Lancaster Canal Trust, and paying a comic book artist to produce a book about the canal. Even that spurt of action has now ended.

Meanwhile Colin and his group of volunteers were ploughing onwards and, to test C&RT's commitment to restoring the Northern Reaches, applied under the Trust's adoption scheme to adopt the lock flight at Tewitfield, which is the most southerly section of the lost Northern Reaches.

Colin's commitment was clear – he was happy to work with C&RT if it took him a step towards restoration and he made no secret of that ambition as he met and talked and communicated with various C&RT bigwigs, including Richard Parry and Chantelle Seaborn.

Soon after the adoption was agreed Colin wrote to Richard Parry praising the C&RT assistance he was getting. This was the reply: “Hello Colin, thank you for your email and for your positive feedback about the adoption and specifically Roy’s support and his team’s assistance.
“Good to hear that there is public/media interest – it would be good if you can liaise with our local press officer Naomi Roberts to ensure we fully align any communication with our own.
All the best

Roy Gibbons, C&RT Customer Service Supervisor, was happy with the adoption. He wrote: “I thought the adoption meeting at Tewitfield yesterday went very well . We agreed to start with the bye weir clearance and then review the lime pointing subject to a panel test. With regards to the adoption we have agreed to the Lanky Boat Club adopting the lock flight at Tewitfield for the next 12 months subject to programmes works we agreed with CRT colleagues on site yesterday with full RAMS being in place before works start and monthly reviews. I have copied in Naomi CRTs National press officer to work with the Lanky Boat Club on future press releases. I think we both agree that good publicity in conjunction with CRT / LBC is the way forward with this Adoption. Please give me a call if you need any further assistance. I look forward to working with you”

The common theme from this and other communications with C&RT is the desire to control Colin's group in its activites related to the media. Richard Parry wants to 'fully align any communication' and Roy Gibbons is keen to ensure anything coming from the group is controlled by C&RT's national press office.

In the meantime Colin was being courted by the regional newspapers and broadcasters and telling the world about his plans to restore the Northern Reaches. He was ably assisted by Frank Sanderson, a veteran PR man who had reluctantly separated from a PR role at Lancaster Canal Trust following the intolerable pressures placed on it and those working for it by C&RT.

It was a perfectly innocuous and accurate press release from Frank that Chantelle Seaborn used as an excuse at the end of last year when it became apparent that Colin and his group were running rings round the professionals and getting the sort of publicity they could only dream of.

Before her December departure from the Trust, Chantelle claimed that Colin and his group had breached the adoption agreement as it did not mention restoring the locks and it was clear that was what Colin aimed to do. She alleged Frank's release was inaccurate but refused to say how or to apologise, something that still rankles deeply with Frank.

It is significant that what upset the then Waterways Manager was publicity – not the excellent work Colin and his volunteers were doing on the lock flight.

A desperate Chantelle Seaborn even went as far as claiming the adoption had not been approved – despite the communications confirming it from her team and the email from Richard Parry – but it didn't stop her cancelling it!

Colin was devasted – he had complied with all C&RT's conditions and even attempted to work with the Lancaster Canal Trust's new C&RT approved officers, only to be rebuffed.

At the same time his wife, Linda, was seriously ill and regularly in hospital.

Despite that he was ploughing ahead with setting up a Community Interest Company – Northern Reaches CIC – to help fund the restoration work. Like most volunteer groups he had also fallen out with one or two people along the way, including a local business person and a visitor from another restoration project. Two people who now appear to conspiring with C&RT.

All of which brings us to the most recent episode of the saga of the Northern Reaches.

With the departure of Chantelle Seaborn and the appointment of an interim replacement while C&RT reorganises and rearranges its regions, there was hope that pettiness and control freakery would be abandoned.

Despite his personal reservations and family health problems Colin agreed to meet with Steve Higham, the interim manager. Unfortunately, it seems Mr Higham was in communication with those who had parted company with Colin and his group before and after that meeting. They have also been in communication with Richard Parry. Certainly one of them has been attempting to persuade Steve Higham to take legal action against Colin, without making it clear on what grounds.

The meeting went ahead but the result was a stone wall from C&RT and yet another attempt to stifle Colin in his communications with the media.

Steve Higham refused to reverse Chantelle Seaborn's spiteful final action, saying: “I do not feel that I am in a position to reverse this decision at the moment.”

He claimed to be: “open to starting afresh with yourself and the Owd Lanky Boaters, and re-commencing supervised volunteer activity around Tewitfield Locks for 2018 and beyond,” but only if they restricted themselves to cleaning up and grass cutting.

Mr Higham claimed: “I do not wish to dwell on the past, but from my perspective there seems to have been a shift from your intentions that were laid out in the Adoption Agreement, which stated general maintenance and upkeep of the Locks, to a position where there seems to be an appetite to restore Tewitfield Locks (and perhaps even the canal).

He claimed that restoration had “never been formally discussed or agreed with any of my Trust colleagues, and seems to be where the relationship has started to sour.”

The weasel word here is 'formally' - the reality that Colin has always been perfectly open about his restoration ambitions and even discussed them with senior C&RT managers and trustees. It is impossible for Mr Higham to claim ignornace on the part of C&RT.

“I would like us to go back to basics, and agree a schedule of works for Tewitfield Locks that are both manageable and achievable in the short term,” said Mr Higham. “As agreed, therefore, if you could proceed to make arrangements with Roy and start to develop this schedule, that would be a good starting point, with a view to supervised volunteer activity starting over the first weekend of April.”

Clearly Mr Higham thinks he has left Colin with little alternative but to knuckle under.

Then came the common theme we have seen throughout C&RT's attempts to control and stifle Colin Ogdens and Owd Lanky Boaters: “Since returning to the Wigan office, I have spoken to Gemma Rathbone and she will be happy to promote your activities, so if you can arrange photographs and a few bullet points when appropriate then Gemma will be glad to prepare press releases for you (which I assure you will be turned around quickly).”

Colin mulled over the offer of becoming C&RT's grass cutters on the Tewitfield Locks for several days before telling Steve Higham: “I no longer want to take part in the adoption.”
He also cancelled plans to take on an old chapel at Tewitfield as an office and information centre.

He told The Floater: “I am disgusted and dissapointed by the decision to cancel the adoption of the locks at Tewitfield – I genuinely thought we could work alongside C&RT.

The Trust is holding a gun to my head – do it our way or we will stop you working. I am sick of their dictatorship and censorship. It is clear to me they don't want the Northern Reaches restored and I believe they are actively encouraging other groups to tell lies to discredit me. They have gone too far this time.

“All C&RT want me to do is work on the locks at Tewitfield to tidy up for them to look good. They are not interested in restoration work.

“But I am not giving up. I am still going to be promoting the restoration of the Northern Reaches and we have a few more plans up our sleeves that will show restoration is perfectly possible and must go ahead. We have vision if C&RT don't.”

The big, unanswered question is why Richard Parry and the Trustees have allowed this sorry saga of spite and ineptitude to get to the stage where honest, enthusiastic volunteers are treated in such a way.

Photos: (1st) Colin's group working with C&RT on Tewitfield locks, (2nd) The sign showing the group was confirmed as adopting the locks before Chantelle Seaborn changed her mind, (3rd) Colin Ogden at BBC Radio Lancashire - he is popular with the media, (4th) Colin Ogden and his launch which he towed along the dry canal bed as a publicity stunt, (5th) The bottom lock at Tewitfield, (6th) C&RT and the Lancaster Canal Restoration Partnership achieved a comic book, (7th) The now-departed Chantelle Seaborn with one of Colin's supporters dressed as Jack Sparrow, and his launch.

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