Boaters fight private bill that would allow Middle Level charges

January 2017 - Peter Underwood looks at a battle between boaters and bureaucrats in the Fens

Plans to start charging boats using the Middle Levels - a system of navigable drainage channels, linking the River Nene with Cambridge, are being challenged by boating organisations including the National Bargee Travellers Association (NBTA)

At the moment, navigation by non-commercial boats is free of charge. The Middle Levels are funded by millions of pounds of drainage charges from land owners, whose land would otherwise be swamped. Boaters claim the introduction of charges would extinguish the rights given to local people in the seventeenth century to use boats non-commercially without payment. ​

The NBTA claims the Bill also proposes draconian new by-law powers and powers to seize boats. Pamela Smith, NBTA Chair, has written to members saying: “ At present the Middle Levels are an option for boat dwellers to take refuge if they cannot, through no fault of their own, pay the licence fees or keep to the terms and conditions demanded by other navigation authorities such as C&RT.

“The NBTA will be a Petitioner against this Bill. As it's a Private Bill, anyone who will be affected by the proposals can petition directly to Parliament to have the Bill dropped or for amendment of certain clauses.

“This has to be done according to a specific Parliamentary procedure. The NBTA has been working with boaters in the Middle Levels who are affected by this Bill.

“If you live or pass through the Middle Levels (which are the only inland route to Cambridge), or if you wish to in the future, please consider either adding your name to the NBTA's petition or using the attached template petition to submit your own petition against the Bill.”

The NBTA handed its petition to Parliament on January 24th. Pamela Smith says: “Adding your name means the Middle Level Commissioners have to negotiate with you and there is a greater chance that we can stop the worst of these proposals becoming law in the first place - just like boaters did with the Bill that became the British Waterways Act 1995.”

If you want to submit your own petition there is a procedure to follow, and the Petition should be handed in personally to Parliament before 5pm on 30th January 2017.
The Middle Level Bill can be found here.
As a private Bill the attempt to establish a whole new set of charges and rules may hit difficulty if some MPs can be persuaded to take the problem seriously and challenge it.

The Middle Level Commissioners’ primary functions are the provision of flood defence and water level management to the Middle Level area, and as navigation authority for the navigable waters of the Middle Level system. The Commissioners are appointed, not elected, and consist of representatives from both the agricultural and non-agricultural sectors.

Occupiers of agricultural property receive a rate demand direct from the Commissioners. The "rates" on non-agricultural properties, such as houses and factories, are paid through a special levy issued to the District Councils within the Commissioners' area.

The Commissioners are responsible for 120 miles of major watercourses, 100 miles of which are statutory navigations. All of the Middle Level area is dependent on artificial pumped drainage to evacuate excess rainfall.

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