Wednesday, 14 May 2014

I once had a dream

I'm in a bit of a philosophical mood today. I'm laid back in my chair, eyes closed, mulling over the state of play on the inland waterways. For a long time I have had this pipe-dream of enjoying an idyllic life on our boat. Now, I have serious concerns that the pipe-dream is about to be shattered. When viewed from a distance, the inland waterways like the Earth keeps on turning and life does go on, albeit at a steady pace. From a distance all is well in the waterways and world. Well that's the image that CaRT like to conjurer up for the public about this wet, green and pleasant land. 

In the great scheme of things, I suppose that I have experienced few significant problems in life. In reality we all know that when the granularity of life is broken down into smaller pieces. There are always those niggling little problems that require some of our attention, in those quiet moments we sometimes get in our busy lives.

I think back to a time a few short years ago when the long awaited day arrived. Retirement is here at last and we can now take on board a new more leisurely set of daily values. Its hard letting go, we think that our place of employment will not be able to function with out us. Then we find out from colleagues, who are still chipping away at the coal face. That in reality the job still functions quite well. Then there is the niggle that comes with the suggestion that the job might just be functioning better now that we have gone. In desperation, we wrinkles need something to do, so we either join a crown green bowling or boating club.

Today the retired army of 'wrinklies' are members of a generation of baby boomers. A generation who are still having a major impact on the economy that has been pretty good for us. We were raised on free school milk and nurtured into a caring sharing society. We enjoyed a free education system right through to graduating from university. We worked hard, paid our taxes and enjoyed the benefits of the 'free at the point of delivery' health service. Much of this to the chagrin of various flavours of government who have long ignored the huge elephant that is the pension provision problem. 

According to a recent Government announcement by pensions Minister Steve Webb. 'Pensioners could be given an estimate of when they might die to help them manage their finances. As part of Government guidance intended to help pensioners plan how much to spend and save. The guidance, which could be rolled out in April next year, may form part of a major shake-up of the pensions system. The reforms also include measures to allow the withdrawal of money directly from a pension savings pot, without leaving them tied up in annuities.'

We wrinklies are outstaying our 'sell by date'. This has led to some colourful and descriptive circumlocutions such defining the typical boater as being ready to “cash in one’s chips, count the daisies, giving up the ghost or kicking the bucket.” As a generation we had it so good, that some of us discovered that we had disposable income to spare. So we put money into a boat. Perpetuating the myth of a utopian future, cruising into the retirement sunset. Some of us retired with metaphorically speaking - pensions to die for - and we enjoy that scenario. Because we thoroughly intend to take as much benefit from the pension and boat as is possible before the inevitable time arrives and we boat across the Styx.

Boating like crown green bowling, is a retirement sport. Though the wherewithal for one is a lot less than the other. You cut your cloth depending on your personal circumstances. Boating does not have the kudos that it had in our day. With old age and a new age generation now setting the pace in opposing directions. So our priorities are forced to change. The next generation were brought up on owning a car and flying away to the sun on packaged trips to exotic places. Since the days of Freddie Laker and 'Skytrain' the price of a flight has fallen through the floor. The weather on arrival can be guaranteed to be good. 

Because few have enjoyed and many have endured, a boating holiday on the inland waterways For those who endured terminal boredom when encountering a broken lock or when the weather was cold and wet. They made a mental note, about finding a warmer and more promising climate for their next holiday.

Unlike the package holiday, owning a boat has a significant and continuous financial overhead. It's cheaper and easier to budget for a flight once a year than to pay the upkeep of a boat. Only to sit on and wait for a another repair or to watch the rain run down the windows. When it comes down to making a choice its an easy one for the next generation to make. The problem for the wrinklies is that the tastes of the younger age group are significantly different to ours. Finding a mortgage and maintaining a home is seen as an essential investment for the future. The future now has much different pension provisions - it comes complete with an open ended retirement age - aspirations and expectations for the next generation, which are completely at odds with ours.

The prospect of employment for life has changed to jumping on and off the employment roundabout. The employee becoming almost nomadic, constantly looking for a more gainful or secure employment elsewhere. Large scale employers are fewer and now the major employers are small businesses. Security of employment regulations have been eroded and even part time work is now being replaced by zero hour contracts.

What does the future hold for the canal boat as either a home or holiday home. Well that prospect is not looking good. In the main its down to the enduring wrinkled boaters mindset. The wrinklies form the denizens of the geriatric boat clubs that spurn change. Peopled by committee members who when wearing the commodores hat, would like to be given the power to issue on-the-spot fines for displaying roof top ornaments and having the wrong coloured curtains.

First of all the wrinklies have now ensured that the canal is not a place to bring up a family. Anyone wanting to stay in one place either for work or schooling is viewed as a pariah to be driven off the cut. Visitor moorings are for the wrinklies on their annual trip down the canal to fill up with diesel and to obtain a new box of brasso. But there are still a few brave souls that made the leap of faith and sold their homes and bought a boat. Now as people get older and become more vulnerable. There is the realisation that there is no intrinsic security of tenure when living in a boat, as there might be from owning bricks and mortar. A boat will only deteriorate with time and will not gain any additional worth. As an alternative home to bricks and mortar, a boat will always be in negative equity. Now, the trusts enforcement team confronting the vulnerable, is seen as an unwelcome alternative to the social worker. The bright new world of the charity-less charity has arrived.

Here is the rub, suddenly everyone at Ivory Towers has been nudged from their slumbers. Each has woken up to the fact that the age profile of boat ownership is far to high and the future is looking dire. Falling numbers of boats on the canals and more people are leaving expensive marinas in an attempt to save on costs. The biggest culprits for supporting this form of waterways cleansing are the older generation. The ones who can afford the floating cottage that comes complete with chintz curtains to twitch. The ones who remember the good old days of the birch. These are now the ones who are going to be contributing to the future of the inland waterways. But in a Kafkaesque way,  only for the shortest period of time. The canal will still continue to be the nursing home of old and wrinkled attitudes for some time to come.

So how will the next generation be attracted to the canal. That is the next big conundrum that we may have to face. But only if we survive, after falling over the precipice that is the ever growing maintenance backlog. Well a start has been made, with young offenders 'volunteering' on the canal doing their community service orders. The junior drug dealers that frequent the urban bridge holes of an evening. There are the latch key kids filling in their time by vandalising along the canal, until the single parent comes home. There are the graffiti kids busy 'tagging' their turf. Plus the towpath racetrack for stripped down motorcycles. We are already attracting the younger generation to the canals - its just that we refuse to see it!

The trust seem to be placing their faith in pond dipping, encouraging water voles and suggesting rules for cyclists. Boating could be replaced by 'heritage' Tudor picnic tables, Georgian sustrans cycling stops and Elizabethan car parks. Add into the mix the dash for the environmental and wildlife handouts. It feels like the the state of the canals is heading back in the 40's and 50's. Is this to be the 'new heritage' that we are aiming for. Selling off what remains of the family silver. Abandon uneconomic to maintain waterways and replace those pesky locks with weirs. Allowing the bottom get closer to the top. The advent of land fill tax being an extra encouragement to fly tip more and more. The uncaring public encouraged even more to see the canals as a wet self service landfill. 

The inland waterways will continue to deteriorate, they will see out my generation. The next generation already have no ties to the canals. As the deterioration continues there will be no way to enthuse another generation of boaters. Can the problem be fixed, I don't think so. As the gap between the have's and have nots grows ever wider. Disposable income for boating is a thing of the past. As the infrastructure deteriorates once more and reverting back to an earlier time. Are there other charismatic motivators like Rolt and Aickman to turn the tide?
Suddenly like a member of the CaRT council, I'm nudged awake! Was it all just a dream or a premonition for the future. I'm reassured by a familiar voice with the offer of a cup of tea and the offer of a few pensioners favourite custard creams. I brought you some Oil of Ulay as well she says! - What's that for I enquired? - its to get rid of the troublesome wrinkles she says - don't bring it near me I says.....

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