EA is shirking its responsibilities on the rivers; why you need to keep alert at all times
Every month, it seems, the cost and the inconvenience of boating increases. You’d think it would be simple. You’d think you’d just buy a boat and a licence and that would be it. Except it gets more complicated.
The recent decision by Peel Holdings, owners of the Bridgewater, is the latest. They’ve decided to scrap a reciprocal agreement with the Canal & River Trust, so that although boaters coming off CRT waterways will still get seven days’ free cruising, they won’t be able to return for 28 days – and then they’ll have to buy a £40 licence.
If nothing else, this sharp bit of business reminds us that the dream of the early waterways pioneers of a single waterways authority is still a long way from being realised.
At the moment, as well as CRT and Peel Holdings, there’s a whole rag, tag and bobtail of organisations who can charge us on top of our standard licence. There’s the Avon Trust, Cam Conservators, National Trust, Basingstoke Canal Authority, and now the Middle Level Commissioners announced the other week that they’re thinking of imposing a cruising charge for the first time in their history.
Biggest among the other organisations, of course, is the Environment Agency, that offshoot of the government’s Department for Food and Rural Affairs which is charged ‘to protect and enhance the environment’. Its remit covers flood and pollution protection over the whole 32 million acres of England as well as its 3,000 miles of coastline. Oh yes, and it has a few rivers it’s responsible for.
I’ve been thinking about the EA recently, mainly because I’ve been travelling along the gorgeous Great Ouse which is one of its rivers. But mainly it’s on my mind because – but for the government’s tightfistedness in not finding the money to fund it – CRT would even now be in the process taking over EA’s river responsibilities. As it is, the same muppets who will spend billions knocking five minutes off a rail journey between London and Birmingham have starved this East Anglian jewel of cash. And the Great Ouse is suffering for it.
You don’t have to be on the river long before you realise that many of the tasks that should be EA’s responsibility are carried out by volunteers from the Great Ouse Boating Association (GOBA). Indeed, if it wasn’t for GOBA, you’d hardly be able to cruise the river at all. It’s not just that they provide most of the moorings: they’ve had to turn their hand to dredging too. Even so, there’s a limit to what they can do.
EA’s responsibility seems to end at putting up signs which are so small and illegible (and sometimes inaccurate) as to be useless for visitors like us, unfamiliar with the often confusing backwaters of this splendid river. Further up towards Bedford, trees lie where they fell months ago, reducing an already narrow waterway even further.
Yet EA has powers to deal with riparian owners. And they have a responsibility to keep the waterway navigable. A measure of how seriously they take that task is that they don’t even get rid of sunken boats.
Locks seem uncertainly maintained, too. One busy afternoon at Hemingford, we helped rescue a couple of hire boats which had been stranded in the lock for hours because of an electrical fault on a guillotine gate. Only to find ourselves stranded straight afterwards! This wasn’t an unusual occurrence we learnt later, and regular users knew how to trip the system in a way that would give the EA’s Health & Safety boss a heart attack.
Compared to provision on CRT waters, EA provides virtually no water points, Elsan or pump-outs on the Great Ouse. Indeed – can you believe this? – it allows boats to discharge into the river. From their sea toilets! During an August heatwave when the river was packed and kids were swimming and splashing about. Really! What sort of environment does the EA think it’s protecting? My impression was that it knows it’s going to lose its responsibilities soon and is just leaving the mess for CRT to clear up. The sooner CRT is allowed to get on with the job, the better.
‘EA’s responsibility seems to end at putting up signs which are so small and illegible as to be useless for visitors like us’
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Picturesque St Neots on the Great Ouse