CANAL COL­UMN

The CRT must place boats and boaters at the top of its agenda, says Steve Hay­wood

Canal Boat - - This Month - STEVE HAY­WOOD Fol­low me on Twit­ter @Cut­dreamer

It may seem odd to draw an anal­ogy be­tween canals and foot­ball, but one of the great­est achieve­ments of the Premier League in its 25-year his­tory has been to make the ex­tras which it uses pay for the priv­i­lege of be­ing part of the show.

I speak here as a for­mer TV pro­ducer and I know that ex­tras, when used in num­bers, are ex­pen­sive. Yet tune into any tele­vised foot­ball match and there are thou­sands of them in ev­i­dence.

They’re called spec­ta­tors and each of them pays up to £100 – some­times more – for their seat. Yet imag­ine what the at­mos­phere in a foot­ball sta­dium would be with­out them. The Premier League would not be in­ter­na­tional suc­cess it is with­out the ex­cite­ment and pas­sion they bring to the spec­ta­cle.

And, of course, it’s the same with canals. Take away the brightly-painted nar­row­boats glid­ing gen­tly through the coun­try­side, or get shot of the or­gan­ised chaos that at­tends any lock flight as boats try to nav­i­gate up and down, or get rid of the ac­tiv­ity at any tun­nel or aqueduct, and what you’d be left with would be a ster­ile shrine to her­itage, a me­mo­rial to a lost world.

What makes the Bri­tish canals the at­trac­tion they are to vis­i­tors is that they are a liv­ing tes­ta­ment of our past, a vi­tal, func­tion­ing part of the 21st cen­tury and not some dusty ex­hibit in a mu­seum.

Canal & River Trust chief ex­ec­u­tive Richard Parry has con­firmed on many oc­ca­sions how im­por­tant boats are to the wa­ter­ways, but his re­as­sur­ances are no com­fort to many who grum­ble that boats are be­com­ing less and less a pri­or­ity on the Trust’s agenda. And do you know what, they’re ab­so­lutely right.

The blunt truth is that with only thirty-odd thou­sand of us on the sys­tem, it’s un­re­al­is­tic to ex­pect the Gov­ern­ment to sub­sidise boaters at the £50 mil­lion per year level they are at the mo­ment. Pub­lic money at that level has to ben­e­fit oth­ers too. C&RT has had some suc­cess gen­er­at­ing money off its own bat: it has raised in­come from boats by get­ting more of us to pay our li­cence fees, and it’s had some com­mer­cial suc­cess from its in­vest­ments too – not per­haps a dif­fi­cult thing to do in a time of ris­ing mar­kets. But the best that can be said about its at­tempts to get money from the pub­lic through do­na­tions is that they’ve been dis­ap­point­ing.

Yet we are al­ready a third of the way through the fund­ing pe­riod that leaves the canals sub­sidised un­til 2027. To have any chance of get­ting this con­tin­ued, C&RT is go­ing to have to make a strong case for its own ef­fi­ciency, and for the so­cial im­por­tance of the wa­ter­ways for a wide va­ri­ety of in­ter­est groups rang­ing from those cam­paign­ing to im­prove the phys­i­cal health of the na­tion to those who want to pro­tect trees. And, though you may not have no­ticed, ten years ahead of time they’ve al­ready started their cam­paign. Ef­fi­ciency cuts have been made at man­age­ment level; more are on the way. And a PR cam­paign is grind­ing into ac­tion spear­headed by a se­ries of glossy two-page ‘in­for­ma­tional’ ads ap­pear­ing over the last few months in The Guardian’s Satur­day magazine.

Boaters will be one of the in­ter­est groups to be taken into ac­count as C&RT plans the fu­ture of the wa­ter­ways. But we might as well get used to the fact that we may not be the PRI­MARY in­ter­est group.

From now on we may find our­selves cast in­creas­ingly as ex­tras on the wa­ter­ways, pay­ing a lot of money, like spec­ta­tors at foot­ball matches, to be part of the ac­tion.

I can’t let men­tion of the Guardian ar­ti­cles pass with­out say­ing that the one on Jan­uary 6 was a dog’s din­ner. Re­gard­less of the greater over­all PR pur­pose of the ad, there’s no ex­cuse at all for child­ish er­rors, such as the one in the very first para­graph, claim­ing that the Trent & Mersey Canal was ‘the old­est canal in the coun­try’.

Nei­ther is there an ex­cuse for ex­e­crable writ­ing such as ‘Part of the pur­pose...is to raise aware­ness of the char­ity’s work; so that the pub­lic have a chance to be aware...’ It makes you won­der if any­one from C&RT saw the fi­nal copy be­fore it ap­peared. If so, then you’d have thought a few alarm bells might have rung at the claim that the T&M is mainly used by hol­i­day mak­ers and ‘peo­ple liv­ing on barges’, fol­lowed by the cheer­ful as­ser­tion by boa­towner An­drew that ‘with­out the Trust I wouldn’t have any­where to live’.

The ques­tion of live­aboards is a hugely con­tentious is­sue on the tow­path. This sort of stuff is bound to up­set peo­ple.

‘The blunt truth is that with only thirty-odd thou­sand of us on the sys­tem, it’s un­re­al­is­tic to ex­pect the Gov­ern­ment to sub­sidise boaters at the £50 mil­lion per year level they are at the mo­ment’

What would canals be with­out our beau­ti­ful boats?

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