Per­haps we should think about charg­ing by the mile

Canal Boat - - Me & My Boats -

There’s a wide­spread mis­con­cep­tion among boaters as to what the cur­rent con­sul­ta­tion on li­cens­ing by the Canal and River Trust is ac­tu­ally about.

To lis­ten to some of the talk on the tow­path you’d think it was just a mat­ter of us all crossing fin­gers that the level of next year’s li­cence in­crease will be low, and then hop­ing for the end of that ir­ri­tat­ing anom­aly whereby boats get charged by the foot, re­gard­less of how wide they are.

Now, I’m as much in favour as the next boater of mak­ing wide­beams pay their way on the water­ways, but this is a more com­pli­cated con­sul­ta­tion than this, be­cause it’s the very li­cens­ing sys­tem it­self C&RT wants to re­vise.

The rea­son is that de­spite all the pos­i­tive noises em­a­nat­ing from Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Richard Parry’s well-oiled PR ma­chine about in­creased in­come from Friends, vol­un­teers and the like, there is a se­ri­ous gap open­ing be­tween the money that needs to be spent on main­tain­ing the water­ways, and what is avail­able to do it.

Over the next few years, like it or lump it, we’re all go­ing to have to pay more for our boat­ing.

I may not like what’s hap­pen­ing, but I know why CRT have to do it. My fear though is that this con­sul­ta­tion be­comes a short term so­lu­tion, a stick­ing plas­ter to cover a gap­ing wound, when what it needs to be is a fun­da­men­tal re­or­gan­i­sa­tion of the ba­sics which will see us into the mid-cen­tury with­out any­thing of this sort be­ing nec­es­sary again.

In the spirit of fos­ter­ing de­bate, there might be sense in re­vis­it­ing an idea first pro­posed by for­mer Trades Union Coun­cil boss, John Ed­monds when he headed the In­land Water­ways Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil a while back.

John’s sug­ges­tion was to charge boats a re­duced rate for li­cences – a ba­sic rate – and then charge them ad­di­tion­ally – as the old work­ing boats were – by the mile.

Para­dox­i­cally, for a man who had op­posed Tony Blair po­lit­i­cally, John’s so­lu­tion was clas­si­cally Blairite – it was ‘tra­di­tional val­ues in a mod­ern set­ting.’ For he mooted the prospect of chips be­ing set into the li­cences we dis­play, al­low­ing our move­ments to be tracked on a day by day ba­sis on bridges and locks.

At the time I rub­bished the idea. It seemed to me it would destroy the go-as-you please, get-away-from-it-all cul­ture of the water­ways which was its greatest at­trac­tion. But times have changed. We’re al­ready mon­i­tored on a day-by-day ba­sis by armies of en­force­ment of­fi­cers wan­der­ing up the tow­path with their tablets. So why not bring the whole thing up to date?

At the time John made his pro­posal, the tech­nol­ogy he was think­ing of was in its in­fancy; now it is old hat. To­day, you wouldn’t need to put chips in li­cences, or mon­i­tor boats on bridges: it would be a sim­ple mat­ter to track them by satel­lite.

And it could have pro­found ben­e­fits. For if you charge boats by the mile, you can pitch the rates high for pop­u­lar canals like the Llan­gollen, and low for lesser-used routes like, say, the Hud­der­s­field Nar­row Canal. You could reg­u­late sea­sonal dis­par­i­ties too, avoid­ing the sit­u­a­tion where at Easter the Ox­ford is chock-ablock whereas in the au­tumn on the Leeds & Liver­pool you can cruise for days with­out see­ing a boat. You make peak time cruis­ing ex­pen­sive, off-season boat­ing cheap.

Of course, if you stay in the your ma­rina, you won’t get charged for cruis­ing; and if enough peo­ple didn’t cruise then CRT would have to ad­just the ba­sic li­cence to en­sure its in­come. But it does that now any­how un­der the old sys­tem.

This pro­posed sys­tem could also get around the com­mon com­plaints about live­aboards, be­cause charges could be au­to­mat­i­cally levied not just for cruis­ing, but for over­stay­ing in de­fined ar­eas, too.

If a boat was NOT logged mov­ing out­side one of these ar­eas within 14 days, moor­ing charges could be levied – pos­si­bly puni­tive charges, in cer­tain ar­eas like Lon­don which are thought over­crowded.

Of course there’d be peo­ple who cruise with­out a track­ing de­vice – just as there are peo­ple who travel on trains with­out tick­ets. But on trains, if you get caught, you get charged the high­est pos­si­ble fare for the route you’re on. A sim­i­lar sys­tem would be eas­ier for boats, be­cause no boat can live un­der the radar for ever.

Even as I write, I hate the pro­posal I’m out­lin­ing. But what’s the al­ter­na­tive? More of what we have now? An in­flex­i­ble sys­tem with no room for ma­noeu­vre? And CRT con­stantly short of money while a back­log of work builds on the canals they are charged to pro­tect?

‘If you charge by the mile you can pitch rates high for canals like the Llan­gollen and low for lesser-used routes’

Cheaper li­cences, but mileage charges?

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