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