Sunday, 26 October 2014

Learning from the past.

OK I admit it, I am a 'Grumpy Old Git' and like milk, I'm not improving with age. I know that I could easily be the 'Altar Ego' for Victor Meldrew. But that's only one of my more endearing features. The other endearing feature is that I tend to be conservative in diplomacy and outspoken on issues. I say it as I see it. But I'm also happy to be corrected because that's the way we live and learn. I'm also happy to listen as long as the conversation is meaningful. I'm also happy to share my opinion whether its needed or not. But my biggest failure in life is that I have a low tolerance threshold to bullshit.

Recently, I have spent some of my leisure time researching the history of the inland waterways. There are many books written about various aspects of planning, design and the lives of the key engineers and owners. I have read most of them. The problem being that in most cases the books were written some time afterwards and were based upon a particular theme. You have to read many such books to pull together a deeper underlying understanding.

However, I have concentrated upon a specific set of 'old records' mainly gleaned from newspapers of the day. I did this for two reasons. One was for the variety of perspectives gained from the many different writers. Many who actually had their feet on the towpath at the time. The other was because the issues that were being aired were topical for the age.

There are several generalisations that can be made about the history of the Inland Waterways. It's extensively recorded that our Inland Waterways were a significant player in bringing about the industrial revolution. But in reality the Inland Waterways were only one piece in a very complex jigsaw. The other is that the owners - and there have been many. Generally starved the canals of maintenance funding as pressures were placed upon operational costs, capacity and speed of delivery.

Coming more up-to-date and we can learn much from a study of the past. Looking at the previous ten years, before the creation of CaRT. The Canal and River Trust is an improvement of what went before. I am quite clear and unequivocal on that. That does not mean that the trust is the best thing since sliced bread – far from it. The best metaphor for trust at the moment is sliced toast.

It seems to me that the Canal and River Trust is unable to come to terms with the times. Because it still operated with a 'silo mentality' which is a hang over from the worst of the BW days. (You will have to go along with me on this, but all will become clear later.) Every now and then I see another of the 'old director or manager' leave the trust and this revives within me some hope for the future. As I have pointed out again and again. Boaters have to work with the trust because currently there is no other alternative. It's sometimes said that getting things off your chest can be very therapeutic. Well if that's the case stand-by for some more of my therapy.

Criticism whether friendly or otherwise will still persist about the trust. Its not going to stop any time soon. However in a change from what was commonplace in the past when highlighting the shortcomings of BW. The general tenor of the criticism does not have to be destructive. However, the trust has a great deal to learn about motivation of people supporting charities. The trust is seemingly unable to grasp the concept of taking positive action without fear of favour. It wants to be everything to everyone and in that endeavour it will always fail. Every group has a different perspective. Boaters, Fishermen Walkers and Cyclists all have their own agenda. They are all different. Pandering and fawning to one group only ensures that the trust will cause displeasure in the others.

Have you seen the 5/10/20 year plan for the future. Do you know how your licence money is spent. Does the trust have a mission statement. Have you seen a rational for creating the Waterways Partnerships. There are many questions that remain unanswered. As for the trust. I am sure that its biggest failing is that it has a 'fear of failure' itself.

Let me give some examples.

Take the Waterways Partnerships. Who are they accountable to, I still don't understand their real function, I have seen a Santa's wish list of blue sky ideas. I now believe that since their inception the partnerships will still continue to contribute nothing and are a recipe for disaster. Like the albatross of old. The partnerships have failed to even get to the first rung on the ladder. That rung is to be totally self funding by the end of this year. Who knows when the partnerships will reach the second rung which is to raise funding for the canals. 

The partnerships are not working as intended. The partnerships appear to be providing a hobby and pastime for retired megalomaniacs. The remit for their devolved functions requires reigning in and bringing back in house. - Fund raising is a deadly serious issue for the life blood on the canals. - Can we afford to let such canal 'play groups' be responsible for gathering funding?

This will be seen as a failure and the knee jerk reaction to a fear of failure then kicks in. This means that the trust will like a rabbit in the headlights will freeze and do nothing. The partnerships will continue to be a significant drain on ever dwindling resources.

The fact that the trust has had to be given a reminder by the Parliamentary All Parties Waterways Group that in their opinion the partnerships are failing. In a typical moment of fear and knee jerk non action - no one from CaRT had the intestinal fortitude to admit to the group that it was not going to happen any time soon. This heads up nudge, will be seen once again as a notice of failure and the fear of failure then kicks in. Which will ensure that the dysfunctional partnerships will continue for years to come. This will in turn provide years of criticism by all and sundry as the canals continue to deteriorate.

But the trust is not alone. Another example is the Inland Waterways Association. An association that claims to represent the interests of all waterways users. The IWA had something of an auspicious beginning but went on to do good work in many areas and especially around canal restoration. Once is was peopled by those with a bit of fire in their belly like David Huchings and some real intestinal fortitude like Robert Aickman. It had a mandate to represent without fear or favour. We owe it to those visionary pioneers to stand up for the future of the Inland Waterways.

In recent times the IWA has seen a decline in membership. Recently it has capitulated, taken the shilling and gone over to become the provisional arm of the trust. Along with its home grown network of moorings spies. I also believe that its day as a campaigning group standing up for the rights and the future of the Inland Waterways has also been and gone. There will be those who still hang on to bask in the past glories but we cannot rest upon the  laurels gathering dust from the past. I predict there will be much 'mutual back slapping' and calls of 'pass the port Rodney old boy' for a while yet. Until such time as the old buffers move on to more ethereal pursuits.

Like parliament has its opposition parties and second chamber. The trust needs a group who will question its activities.  If only to ensure the more outlandish activities come under scrutiny. So who is the replacement for campaigning group for the continued well being of the Inland Waterways. There are niche groups who represent those with specific interests. Such as boating and restoration, volunteering and angling. The oversight is not going to come from such groups. 

But there is one huge Elephant in the room. Welcome to the whole new world of social media. Welcome to the world of national campaign groups. Nothing happens today upon the Inland Waterways that is not reported on social media. Nothing happens on the Inland Waterways that is not discussed in fine detail on social media. The day of the boat club newsletter has been and gone.

There is an old saying 'a week in politics' is like today's news it becomes tomorrows chip paper. But the internet has a long memory. Like the old newspaper reports that I have been reading. The outpourings on various web pages, blogs and other social media sites will provide the insight. The 20:20 vision in the future. The rapporteur sharing opinions and criticisms on the issues of the day will be you!

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