Perhaps we should think about charging by the mile
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?