CANAL COL­UMNS

Canal Boat - - This Month -

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’

Fol­low me on Twit­ter @Cut­dreamer

Pic­turesque St Neots on the Great Ouse

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