Sunday, 16 June 2013

Smell the Coffee (1)

Good morning, here is the news. 'The high street retailing giant 'MegaStores Inc' has gone into receivership.'  How many times have you listened to a news program, that started out with those sort of prophetic words.

Our high streets are visibly starting to resemble the ill-fated 'Marie Celeste' which it would seem characterises the rows and rows of empty shops. Empty properties are interspersed with the odd charity shop in a vain attempt to roll back time. All of this town centre desolation has been created mainly for the white goods outlets by the Internet based on-line shopping phenomenon.

Companies affected by the down turn in the last five years have included Comet, JJB Sports, Clinton Cards, Game, Borders, Barratts, Alexon, T J Hughes, Jane Norman, Habitat, Focus DIY, Floors-2-Go, the Officers Club, Oddbins, Ethel Austin, Faith Shoes, Adams Childrenswear, Thirst Quench, Stylo, Mosaic, Principles, Sofa Workshop, Allied Carpets, Viyella, Dewhursts, Woolworths, MFI, and Zavvi/Virgin Megastore.  Some of these companies recovered and came out of administration, some were bought by other businesses. Some were sold as going concerns but changed their name, for some the name was bought and this is still used under different ownership. And others ceased to exist. New on-line companies have been created for selling goods which are now delivered not from a shop but from a central distribution centre. Their overheads are low.

If you want to actually see the goods before you buy. You have to visit one of the few high street stores still in business. But in this time of austerity, you still make your purchase on line to make a saving. The digital world and new technology is funding this major change in our habits. Recent research has the number as high as 1 in 8 shops on the high street are now closed. There is a second significant cause which is the growth of out of town supermarkets which have also diversified into providing all manner of additional services. This is causing Joe Public to change the way that goods and services are obtained.  The increasing use of technology by customers, shopping by mobile/cellphone, virtual shopping, changes in payment systems and green retailing have all played a part.

If you want to know the time of a train do you go down to the railway station and consult the time table. If you want to know the route that a particular bus takes, do you go down to the bus station to check. Its now reached the point where if you want to buy your weekly shop, do you go to the supermarket or do you go on-line and use one of the supermarket home delivery services. No, to save time and money you use the internet. 

There are parallels to this more modern day Internet led exodus from the high street to be found everywhere. Including the inland waterways. This started me wondering, are the days now numbered for some of the larger boating associations. Is the instant communications capability of the Internet, also making some boating associations redundant or no longer fit for purpose. In its heyday any association would have been the catalyst that allowed groups of like minded people to join together. The associations strength came from having an independent viewpoint and would have provided the membership with a robust collective voice. Are they able to respond to the changes in peoples lifestyle or are they about to fade away, slowly towards an ignominious end. 

Have the local group meetings and the annual general meeting run their course. Are the associations as we know them now, about to become a thing of the past?

For some associations, its strength was once bound together by a small committee and a printed newsletter. In some cases, providing a fierce and independent opposition. This style of association is now too slow and far too archaic for today's instant news updates and reactions. 

Any boater can now espouse ideas and elicit support on-line for any waterways related subject. The recent visitor moorings issues at Upton upon Severn are a good example. Where a small group of boaters challenging and overturning a crazy CaRT decision. There were no time consuming delays. It started when instant emails were sent to CaRT raising their concerns. When that did not bear fruit, instant interaction with the local council brought about an almost instant resolution. All of which took place in a very short time frame. The issue did not drag on for months on end. 

No longer is there a need for committees and subcommittees. Tasked to discuss amongst themselves and report back at some time in the future on their deliberations on such issues. Everyone can now contribute. All done in a real time round robin discussion. In the digital era - 24 hours - is now a long long time in this sound-bite age.

It seems to me that one group has already capitulated by throwing in its lot with the Canal and River Trust. The appointed "independent" representatives have given away any semblance of real independence and are already assuming the positions that have been set aside for them.  Having already shot themselves in the foot and alienated many boaters and other waterways users. They then took careful aim and shot themselves in the other foot by then becoming clandestine waterways spies and reporting on their fellow boaters. The very people whose interests and welfare they should be protecting. This is a perfect illustration of a very myopic viewpoint. Someone somewhere has lost the plot.

Or have they? Maybe this is their way forward into the future. It was possibly a driver to the establishment of the "memorandum of understanding." The creation of an MoU often expresses a convergence of will between two or more parties. Setting out an intended common line of action. It is often used in cases where parties either do not imply a legal commitment or in situations where the parties cannot create a legally enforceable agreement. It is a slightly more formal alternative to a gentleman's agreement. CaRT also has similar MoU in place between itself and RBOA, ACE, DEFRA and others.

I have puzzled over what the association has to gain from this particular alliance. Other than the Canal and River Trust, by not having a paid membership, would help the association to continue to exist in some form or other. Which if a CaRT membership was to come about, would certainly sound the death knell. Memorandums of understanding are only worth the paper they are printed on. If that is the case, the vision of Neville Chamberlain waving a communique certainly comes to mind. I have no doubt that CaRT would burn the paper in the blink of an eye if needs must. One route to future funding if 'friends of the canal' fails, would certainly be a paid membership.

Continued in 'Smell the Coffee (2)'

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