Tuesday, 7 January 2014

2013 a year reprised

Well its the new year and a traditional time to reflect on how things have performed over the previous months. A time for looking back at 2012/13. To learn the lessons of the past and to use what you learn to make plans and resolutions for the future. I'm not by nature a superstitious type. The fact that this is past year was number 13 in the new millennium and is in no way different to any other year. I might well choose to avoid walking under a ladder to reduce the risk of something accidentally falling on me. Rather than as a way of avoiding what some superstitious people think of as prodding the omen of impending bad luck. I believe that to a point you influence your own luck, albeit that the luck can be good or bad. I also believe that you can through bad judgement, create a series of self fulfilling prophesy. And some of those self fulfilling prophesy came home to roost when British Waterways (BW) was transferred into the third sector. 

There has been a certain amount of 'spin' put onto the change of circumstances. I could not make up my mind at the time if it was workable. Now I have serious concerns about the long term viability of the change. Despite all the spin, what was very obvious, was that the change in circumstances for BW was being brought about by the governments need to impose cuts in spending. Also what was patently clear was that 'BW' and its senior management as we and they knew it, was living on borrowed time. The slash and burn process was described in the 'news' as the 'bonfire of quangos'.

The trust would if managed professionally and with accountability, be a very significant player in the third sector. But for me, what was missed were two very important opportunities in the transfer from a quango to a trust. One was a way to address the poor and very hostile public relations between boaters and BW.  The other was the year on year underfunding of the infrastructure maintenance. Both of these issues could have been significantly improved by a root and branch change to the senior management structure. Pensioning off the outgoing BW senior management team. After all, they had no worthwhile experience in working in the third sector. To many boaters they also had a limited grasp of managing the inland waterways as a quango! The issue of facts and figures that seemed to be plucked out of thin air, held little for me in the way of a convincing argument for change.

By bringing in a new management team who could go to the Minister in an open and transparent way. Carrying no baggage from the past, could then place the actual facts and figures on the table and say "this is where we are". This is what we need and here is our short, medium and long term plan for the future.

A new team would not have been shackled to what at the time seemed to be very dodgy financial projections from the past. Then ultimately having to go back. This time cap in hand, just like Oliver Twist begging for more. That did not enhance their bargaining position or their capability perception with boaters.

That's where we were - but this is now.

So looking at 2012/13 with a weather eye on the inland waterways that are managed by the Canal and River Trust (CaRT). There have been a number of very obvious highs and lows in the last year or so. You have to weigh the good and the bad, if you want to get a general 'feel' for how the year transition and year has been. 

There are three kinds of people in the world. 

The first are those that are willing to make things happen. They are people who are willing to seize the day. There are the movers and shakers who can lead by example and in that way inspire. They succeed because they achieve more and contribute more. Because they want to achieve more and contribute more. 

And then there is the second group. 

Those that hedge their bets believing that they should just sit tight, say nothing and more worryingly do nothing. In the forlorn hope that something might come their way. They let circumstance around them guide their lives. Their accomplishments are minimal and uninspiring. Bereft of ideas and still wearing the 'kings new clothes' on their abilities. An act of folly which has long been the stamp of the quango.

The third group are the 'maybe' group. 

Unable to make a categorical unequivocal yes or no decision. Their answer is always a 'helpful' maybe! Out of their depth, promoted from obscurity and treading water towards retirement.

I now see a light at the end far end of the tunnel. It's an improvement on where we have been, but its still a long way ahead and we are still very much in the dark! No matter what the outcome in the future - at this time - the only viable solution is the trust.

The biggest 'high' for my year and I am sure for many others was the silent, almost ripple less and totally unmarked departure of Robin Evans.  When this was announced - it set the tone for me. Evans had never instilled in me any confidence whatsoever for the future of the Trust. I actually felt the announcement of his departure as being the first positive change in the right direction. Now, its almost as if he had never been there. Maybe I was right!

The biggest 'low' for the year has been the very significant number of failures in the infrastructure.  The first canal breach was greeted with the usual amount of 'spin' around how rare such an occurrence was. This was quickly followed by an appeal for funds to help repair the breach. The problem with BW under Hales and Evans was that government got fed up to the back teeth with giving it money to improve the waterways. Only to see that money squandered on a series of disastrous and predictable commercial ventures.  One is a series of self fulfilling prophesy.

The outcome of the appeal for money - like the rarity of a canal breach - soon became an embarrassment and both were allowed to quietly fade from view. Waterways users have a long memory and they could not be convinced in sufficient numbers to donate.  Another instance of a self fulfilling prophesy.

The second biggest 'high' for my year was the appointment of Richard Parry. I actually think that whilst his charitable credentials are weak. He set his agenda, before having his first day in office. Richard was on the job walking the canal and talking to people. He has led by example and in that way he has already started to inspire some confidence.  I see Richards appointment as another positive change in the right direction. Both for the employees of the trust and the waterways users.

The next significant 'low' has been the number of catastrophic lock and culverts failures in 2013. Followed by the usual 'spin' such as the make believe tidal wave that was induced by vandals damaging a lock. This claim has also become something of an embarrassment and has also been allowed to quietly fade from view.

Another 'high' was the announcement of the resignation of Legal Director, Nigel Johnson. I'm not sure where he has been during for the last ten years, because he did CaRT no favours.  His biggest achievement for this year was the 'cat out of the bag' revelation in a sworn statement to court. That the steady state maintenance spend should be £130 million pounds a year. However, on a more positive note upon his departure his post will not be filled. Maybe that explains what he was doing.

The next big 'low' is the perennial underspend on maintenance. Like a huge and apparently invisible elephant. The maintenance requirement continues to grow like Topsy. With no solution or apparent explanation offered about the provision of the £130 million pounds needed.  And the actual £78 million spend. Which only perpetuates the ever growing backlog of repairs numbering somewhere in the region of 145,000 in total.  Yet more in the series of self fulfilling prophesy.

CaRT has conveniently forgotten that British Waterways stated that it would eliminate maintenance backlog by 2012. Not only that, but it would reduce any dependence on government grant. This is another failed target that is something of an embarrassment and has also been allowed to quietly fade from view. Another instance in the series of self fulfilling prophesy.

The next 'high' point is the swelling numbers of people who agree with me that there should be a membership function for the Trust. As numbers of like minded people grow, so will the pressure for change. I want a membership organisation because that will break the 'us and them' barrier for once and for all. Everyone will be in this together and each side will be accountable to the other. This would also kick into touch the failing 'friends' of the trust which after the fiasco of the fund raising chuggers is something of another embarrassment and should also be allowed to quietly fade from view.

The next 'low' point is the future of Tony Hales. When it was first announced that Hales would step down in April. I was over the moon. Then it was announced that he was staying on for a period because the Trust was late in starting. Then the excuse was that he was needed for a short while because Evans as chief executive was leaving. First its on then its off, will he or won't he.  He obviously can't make up his mind and as a 'maybe' is of little value to the trust. Another instance in the series of self fulfilling prophesy.

As Chairman, its a key role in the structure and one that can't be left to the whim of any individual who does not know where he wants to be. Its now time for Hales to jump or for the trustees to give him a gentle push. I don't expect than anyone will miss him. The ripples I am sure like Evens before him will be few if any. Evans had the decency to quit, but why is Hales not doing likewise. Another instance in the series of self fulfilling prophesy.

So what's on my 2014/15 agenda for change. 

1) Well I would like to see a restructure to the Operations and Moorings  Directorates. I believe that both of these roles should be merged into one directorate. The Operations Directorate could easily fulfil both functions. It would simplify and remove a great deal of internal task avoiding. By removing the very obvious internal 'us and them' between directorates. I am convinced that others like me are disgruntled of making enquiries that are met with. 'Sorry that's a moorings issue or sorry that's an operations issue and nothing to do with us.' There is me thinking this was supposed to be a joined up seamless service. Another instance in the series of self fulfilling prophesy.

2) I continue to be concerned about all the different focus groups.  CaRT is recreating the old image of quangos made up of waterways partnerships and other such baggage. It needs a moratorium on the plethora of what I term as the 'hotch potch and botch' interest groups. There is an old adage about too many cooks spoiling the broth! I feel that waterways partnerships and other such 'focus groups' are a culinary recipe for a waterways version of the Eton Mess. The waterways partnerships are also sucking the life blood from the ever dwindling resources. The waterways partnerships are long believed to be a way for the transition team to have someone else to blame.  Another instance in the series of self fulfilling prophesy.

3) More than anything else CaRT must do something to loose the ever growing reputation for what seem to be a course of litigation at any cost. Losing a high profile section 8 case and racking up huge costs. Being fined for an abuse of human rights. Now embroiled in what is being termed as a land grab which seem destined to rack up even more costs. Judging by the evidence in the public domain this is going to be another high profile, high cost and a further reputation busting public relations disaster in the making. Another instance in the series of self fulfilling prophesy.

Anyone thinking of leaving a legacy or giving a significant or regular donation will not want to risk their gift paying for such issues. Government ministers old and new must be shaking their heads and hiding their embarrassment behind their hands. I bet that they are wondering how they allowed such a scenario to continue. Whether they are right or wrong CaRT can't afford to be seen flexing their muscles at great expense both in financial terms and giving even more succour to an awful and tawdry public relations debarkle.

I can only imagine that other charities must be rubbing their hands with glee as the name of the Canal and River Trust make headlines again and again in the media. On public display for all the wrong reasons. If as is being alleged there are questionable activities being conducted in the name of the Trust. One has to question how long it will be allowed to continue.  Another instance in the series of self fulfilling prophesy.

The more I read about the issues the more I become convinced that there is an element of spite being directed at an individual. This issue has been pursued long past the point of  common sense and may well be well beyond the point of meaningful mediation. What is certain is that those who have played any part in bringing the Trust to this point. Cannot and should not be allowed to play any further part in its resolution. Maybe the early announcements of the various 'exit from centre stage' has an underlying reason after all.

4) What I am going to touch upon now is the issue of visitor moorings. In a way it outlines a concept that requires some thinking outside of the box. I have two particular issues in mind.

4a) The first is to suggest a more radical solution to overstaying on visitor moorings and at the same time avoid impinging upon CaRT's directly managed moorings income stream. 
4b) The second is that it would also go some way to relieving  the requirement of enforcement at the honey pot mooring sites so it could also prove to be a time and cost saving idea.

There has been quite a bit of disquiet and a certain amount of sabre rattling about boaters overstaying on visitor moorings. It has been acknowledged that the complaints such as they are, occur around the peak holiday season. A time when boats leave moorings to cruise the system for a few weeks at a time. This understandably creates a greater pressure on the available visitor moorings. If there is a problem of people overstaying on visitor moorings, I don't accept that it is as bad as it is portrayed. Last year in eight months we travelled over 1500 miles round the canal system. From Oxford in the South. Liverpool in the West, Boston in the East and Ripon in the North. We never experienced a single instance of being unable to find a space on a visitor mooring.

However contrary to popular belief, overstaying is a problem that can be managed with a light touch.  One of the possible solutions requires an unselfish attitude between boaters and a willingness by CaRT to look for fresh solutions to issues with an open mind. My own management science concept is that the first step is to scope, consult and then manage out the issue. If that can't be achieved the second step is to manage by mitigation. If that fails the third step is to manage by compulsion. On the overstaying issue CaRT seem to have jumped to the third step and not examined all the available avenues. 

Plus CaRT wants to put in place what some regard as a fine or what others regard as a charge. I have to wonder if this was intended as a money raising matter where the alleged but unproven overstaying issue has provided a convenient excuse.

First there are more than one way to manage the moorings issue. 

The figures I am using are not going to be exact but are intended to provide some understanding. In broad terms there are some 33,500 plus boats that are open to use the visitor mooring provision. If all of those 33,500 boats were out cruising the system at the same time. Chaos would descend on much of the waterways. Simply because the number of available visitor moorings is insufficient. There are nowhere near the visitor mooring spaces needed to accommodate such cruising numbers. Provision of suitable visitor moorings in the past has been low priority by all concerned.

There has also been a reduction in visitor moorings only if when they are passed over to commercial concerns. So its a plain and simple fact there are not enough visitor moorings. A significant increase the number of visitor moorings is one possible scenario. However provision of moorings in such numbers is not always a proportionate or cost effective option to take. 

Or is it. Well that depends if you look at provision as an insurmountable problem. To me its more of a lack of management know how. There's a surfeit of mooring space available that seemingly goes unused. It's the huge invisible elephant in the room and one that always seems to be ignored.

Of the 33,500 some 4000 of those boats CaRT recognise as being 'Constant Cruisers'. (Boats without a home mooring) So there must be many thousands of spaces available. If only to accommodate those boats with a home mooring all the year round. A good number of those boats will be moored on CaRT's directly managed moorings. The boats are easily recognisable as they should have a current mooring certificate.

Each year you can often see winter moorings advertised. So there is even more capacity available. Sometime even on visitor moorings. However, looking at the moorings auction site there are always vacancies advertised. So there must be some over capacity of moorings available. So rather than use visitor moorings for winter mooring. Use spare capacity in directly managed marinas.

A second point are moorings that go unadvertised for long periods. In my marina that are currently about six berths that have not been advertised for over six months and in some cases much longer. They have been offered as winter moorings with zero take up.
The national moorings manager has gone on record, saying none of the empty moorings will be let. Now that’s a big hole in the income stream that someone needs to seriously look at.

I feel because some boaters are now being priced out of directly managed moorings with recent price hikes. As well as out of some private marinas as they struggle to remain in business and in turn raise their prices. This situation is the next big fiasco in the making. Charity commission rules require that items such as moorings should be used to raise income. Artificially creating shortages in an attempt to boost prices is also something for the monopolies commission to possibly take look at again.

Marinas continue to be built and marina capacity is growing. Yet at the same time the number of licensed boats are falling. The only reason that this marina construction can continue to take place is because other linear moorings are being taken away. I understand that there is an agreement that whenever a new marina is constructed a number of existing long term on-line moorings in the vicinity are removed and the occupants encouraged to use the new facility. But are boat owners being forced into occupation of  more expensive moorings.

 I digress.

If you missed the huge elephant in the room the first time.  Let me give a hint. Simple straight forward out of the box thinking. Every time a boat leaves a CaRT directly managed mooring to go cruising for the season. A mooring space is left vacant. So why can't CaRT permit holders who are cruising the system use such available empty CaRT moorings. When the boat returns to its 'home mooring'  if anyone is utilising the space they move to another empty mooring or move away.

At the start, I said one possible solution would require an unselfish attitude between boaters. Because there would be those who would object. Typically they are the self appointed, myopic  'cut cops' who greet other cruising CaRT mooring permit holders with that time worn phrase 'you can't moor there'. The very same people who complain about overstaying on visitor moorings.

I have in the past made it known to the moorings manager that when we are out cruising our mooring is available for other CaRT mooring permit holders to use. All it needs is for CaRT to consult with directly managed berth holders. Establish a framework for such as scheme. The CaRT moorings terms and conditions to be updated to reflect such use.

There are other benefits that could be instigated. Say a moorings swap for a period of 28 days. Say someone wants to come and stay in my part of Yorkshire. To visit all the wonderful attractions that Yorkshire has to offer. We could arrange a mutual exchange of our moorings. Think of how much of an attractive proposition this would be. There would be no pressure to keep on moving. Local short term visitor moorings would have less pressure on them. There is the opportunity to make a real significant change. 
A healthy and refreshing alternative option for a change.

There are similar systems in place, such as the AWCC the waterways cruising club association. I am a member and I have enjoyed the hospitality of staying in other locations on someone’s mooring who is out cruising. The boaters in the marina take care of the nitty gritty. I show them my AWCC card (It could be the CaRT mooring permit displayed on my boat) they point me to a mooring that they know will be empty and available for use. All down to local knowledge and a willingness to share. It's called camaraderie and is one of those things that CaRT should be encouraging. Why, even BWML has a broadly similar sort of facility where mooring locations can be swapped for berth holders. 

It's not rocket science.

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