Wednesday 23 February 2011

Waterways petition.

Last year a petition to the prime minister was instigated to help protect our waterways by not selling off property owned by British Waterways prior to becoming an inland waterways chartity.

The petition was submitted by Ian Rees with a deadline to sign up of the 6 June 2010.  The petition was well supported with 22,310 signatures appended. The petition is now closed, as its deadline has passed.

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to protect our canals by not selling off property owned by British waterways. Further to recent announcements concerning the potential sell-off of properties owned by British Waterways by the Treasury, we petition the Prime Minister to give assuarnces that our canals will be protected and recent levels of investement, a credit to Labour, is maintained. Our canals are great source of pleasure for many people in the country, providing a source of employment through tourism and associated businesses. They're also home to many forms of wildlife. Without proper management this will ebb away and the network return to a state of decay and ruin. We urge the Government to allow British Waterways to retain its property portfolio, protecting its essential source of revenue and ensure the sustainability of its work.

Government has now responded.

On 14 October 2010 the Government announced that British Waterways would be abolished as a public corporation and that we would create a new charity, similar to a national trust for the waterways. Details of the public consultation on the proposed model, including scope and governance, will be announced within the coming few weeks. The new waterways charity is expected to be set up in 2012, subject to Parliamentary consent and time. A civil society model for British Waterways reflects the Government’s commitment to Big Society, as well as its confidence in British Waterways to work with others to build a sustainable future for the waterways under a charitable model. A charitable company will give users and communities more responsibility for governance of the waterways. It also has the potential to enable the new body to access new income streams and greater public support at a time when there is considerable pressure on other sources of income. Charitable status would also facilitate a step change in volunteering, enhanced local partnership working and a range of cost efficiencies. The Government will give the new charity the best start it can afford, with the transfer of the property portfolio and a long term contract. As a first step, the Government has provided a new long term commitment to a grant allocation at the 2014/15 level (£39m) to 2022/23 inclusive (covering the next two Spending Review periods) that will enable the development of a funding plan which gives confidence to the incoming Trustees of the new charity. The amount and length of the contract will be subject to negotiation with the Trustees, who will be appointed this April.

Now I think it is time to petition the PM to exclude members of the current BW board from playing any "non voluntary roll" in the the new waterways charity.

Tuesday 22 February 2011

Retirement rant.

I am just starting to complete my last week working in Higher Education. Whilst the official state retirement age is a little way off. I have been given the opportunity to volunteer for redundancy and to go early. In my case it is a most welcome change. However, I am aware that there are a lot of people with many years before state retirement who are fretting about their future and prospects. But there is no need to worry - if you loose your job you will have more time for Big Society volunteering!

By the luck of life's lottery draw, I was born at a time when prowess at school dictated your future. Graduating at a time when jobs were plentiful. Labour was at an all-time premium. Opportunity was seemingly a right. Living at a time when conscription was a thing of the past. Wars were of no direct consequence and the permissive society was a birth right.

Contrasting with my father, who was a (Bevin boy) coal miner and my families sole provider. My life has been one of few cares, abundant opportunity and no particular hardships endured. I should be happy with my lot and I am. That's not to say that it has been a life of rose petals and ambrosia. I have had a share of hard work. Albeit carried out in a series of buildings with a refectory. Whilst my father did his underground, without natural light, no toilets and a lunch that was usually eaten with dirty hands.

Times change, the hopes and aspirations of my mother and father for all of their children was fulfilled, to a certain extent.  For the most part the boys did OK and the girls had slightly more "difficult" route but everyone got there in the end. Being as I was the much delayed baby of the family. Born when my siblings were all self sufficient in most things. Therefore, I had the all embracing attention of mother during my formative years.

Mother was a thwarted academic, life did not provide the opportunity for her, that I was to experience. So I was the centre of her attention in all things. I was able to read and write before starting school. A love of books was built into me that still burns bright even now. Nothing was too much trouble and I have much to be grateful to her for. More than anything else, I can remember my graduation, I could see the joy in her face and the sadness in her eyes. Joy that her "baby" had fulfilled one of her ambitions but at the same time realising her sadness at her own missed opportunity.

Now, I look around at what was then and compare with what is now. More educational opportunity for everyone - but now it is at a price. I always thought that providing higher education free was investing in my and everyone else's future. I think university fees is a stupid idea and ultimately will be a regrettable course of action. It will bring back the us and them mentality - Building a class barrier between those who have and those who have not the benefit of the wherewithal. Alienating a whole generation of students and want-to-be non students alike.

I have listened to the weasel words of many MP's who in the main eagerly snatched the very opportunity of a free University Education. Now, they are seemingly singing the praises of the new fee paying system.  Its the same people who are bigging up this Big Society nonsense to "create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a big society that will take power away from politicians and give it to people."  Hands up all those like me who remember the fiasco of the MP's expenses debacle. Now just try and convince me that the same MP's are going to give up the dream of power and hand it to the likes of me and you. The problem is the very idea that a Big Society can be decided in a vacuum from the rest of Westminster!
The essence of the Big Society that you don't actually have government programmes any more. You've got to do it for yourself. It's a whole new mindset and a different way of looking at the waterways.

Its the same story with the waterways. Now we are starting to hear the jingoistic phrases like "voluntary sector" or "the third sector" given as the new way forward. There is not a snowball in hells chance of this happening in a positive way, the waterways have been under funded for years. They have also been mismanaged for years, because those at the top have been systematically ignoring the voices of the people. The same people who use and love the inland waterways. The same people that are now expected to volunteer their services. Volunteering BW employees onto the redundancy scrap heap.

Now its the "Big Society" turn of the waterways. There will be  much acclaim made. However, the canals will continue much as in previous years. Pushed headlong down the slippery slope. So as a charity, the new brave world of the waterways in the third sector will be able to accept donations. So is there an incentive for philanthropy? The current gift aid scheme is already very generous to charities and donors alike. If a banker gives a million pounds today they will get back a tax credit of £375,000 so assuming they are paying quite a lot of tax the £1m donation will only cost them £625,000 and the charity with the Gif Aid top up will actually get £1.25m. In reality that £1m donation costs the government £595k of lost taxable revenue.  Whoops, I wonder how long that leak will remain unplugged.

So whats the latest about charity donations? A report from the Cass Business School and University of Bristol says 0.4 per cent of household spending went to charity in 2008, as in 1988. Households give the same share of their spending to charity now as they did 20 years ago, according to the  new report.

The New State of Donations: three decades of household giving to charity 1978-2008 The report uses data from the Office of National Statistics’ Living Costs and Food survey. It says that in 2008 households gave an average of 0.4 per cent of their spending to charity - exactly the same as in 1988. Poorer donors are more generous than richer donors in terms of the proportion of their budget they give to charity, the report says.

Sarah Smith, professor of economics at Bristol University and one of the report’s authors, said the relative stability of charitable giving was both good and bad news for the voluntary sector. "It means that charities can rely on donors, even in times of recession," she said. "But it also indicates the huge scale of the challenge in raising the level of donations." She said that changes since the 1980s, such as increases in the generosity of tax relief and the professionalisation of fundraising, might have prevented donations from falling, but that there was little evidence they had brought about a step change in how much people give.

After all of the investment in fundraising etc that has taken place you would surely hope that a figure like this would have at least risen a little bit in the last 20 years.It shows just how stagnant this behaviour is amongst the public.

So what future lies ahead for a plan based on the belief that "smaller budgets and a smaller workforce will improve the infrastructure!" 75% of charities get no public funding and if left to the public only the popular causes would get funded. Causes like cancer, children and animals there is nothing wrong with that - they are all deserving causes. However, try selling canals and river infrastructure to the public as a charity for donation and it doesn't stand a chance.

There are also barriers to volunteering

After a recent ruling by three judges that a Citizens Advice Bureau volunteer is not covered by employment law because he/she did not have a contract of employment and was not paid. He/she did not qualify for protection under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the associated European Framework Directive. The decision was welcomed by the Association of Volunteer Managers.  If the appeal had been allowed, they argued, it would potentially have created a huge financial burden for many charities and deterred them from taking on volunteers.

Paul Michell, the barrister who successfully represented the CAB, recognises that the outcome does not leave a satisfactory state of affairs. "If volunteers are not protected under employment and occupation directives, then how are they protected?" he said after the case. "That is the next question."

Rob Jackson, director of development and innovation at VE, said it was pleased with the Court of Appeal's decision. "We don't think volunteering is the same as paid work," he says. "Making it so would create another set of problems. It would put up barriers to volunteering when we're trying to encourage more of it."

Kate Bowgett,  Association of Volunteer Managers, also thinks the appeal court got it right. Volunteers she says, "don't exist legally".
Mark Restall, a consultant on volunteer management and author of Volunteers and the Law, agrees with Bowgett. "A few years ago I would have said volunteers needed a better defined status," he says. "But now I feel that the status quo is better. At the moment it's based on mutual trust, and any legal changes would risk making it something different - almost a sub-category of employment." Restall also cautions against anything that might look to an employment tribunal like a contract or a form of payment. "They will look at whether something of value has been offered or exchanged," he says. "This can be anything over and above direct reimbursement for expenses." He says that even giving volunteers a flat rate to cover potential expenses or offering them perks such as discounts at a charity shop could be seen as payment. "The problem is that we don't know for sure about lots of issues, but we only ever do when it comes up in a tribunal case, and there's only been a small number of them".

The appellant in the CAB case in the appeal court did not have a contract with the CAB, but she had been given a volunteer agreement. This was described in court as "binding in honour only ... and not a contract of employment or legally binding".

Victoria Willson, a solicitor at Levenes Employment, which specialises in the third sector, says that such a document or a letter can be helpful. "It should say that they are a volunteer. It shouldn't be too prescriptive, though. Make it clear that the arrangements do not impose any obligations to do the volunteering and avoid using employment law terminology - for example, 'disciplinary' and 'grievances'."

As for the name change for British Waterways you could call it the "sink or swim" charity.

Please mind your head, beware of low flying BW porcine avionics.


Saturday 19 February 2011

So close I can smell it!

I have become more laid back and mellow of late. As early retirement redundancy from my current job comes ever closer and I find myself becoming more and more relaxed. I shall be one of the down-turns casualties as I enter the ranks of the unemployed. Time slows, its like walking through treacle. I await my freedom from the drudgery of the salt mine with ever growing anticipation as my leaving date draws nearer. Yet, I am welcoming the change and the opportunity to do something different. I have a few jobs to do at home as the Memsahibs list of essential work grows ever longer. I have a few jobs to do on Rosie as well.

Last week, I began the new season preparations on Rosie as I changed the gas bottles. Two 13kg Calor gas bottles came to a total of £51.  I must shop around and find the best price. Another recent purchase was a Dirtdevil. It is a small hand held vacuum cleaner. Ideal for getting the dust and dog hair out of all those little crevices. The Memsahib even let me have a go with it.

Today's plans.

Well we have some family over this weekend who want to stay on board Rosie rather than at chateau Wits End. Today, the weather is not so good. It has been raining for most of the night, its actually snowing now and the wind has finally died away so the snow is settling into a slushy watery mess. I shall be down on Rosie this afternoon building a fire in the stove in readiness for our visitors arriving. So who knows, we might even get to do another short run up to the Sheffield basin and back again.

Future (short term) plans.

We have been searching for a new car for a while. We have now settled on a diesel Audi A3 coupe in black. We had a test drive of one and we have been completely smitten. Bit of serious haggling and we came to a compromise deal where we saved next years mooring and licence fees for the boat, off the car price.

Next to plan is the first real cruise of the season based around the up coming Easter break.

Future (long term) plans.

Including the Memsahib, who will also be leaving the salt-mine to become another casualty of the banking crisis. But it will be summer before the shackles are off for her. Then it will be time to plan our first serious cruise on Rosie, but one without a real return date in mind. That should keep me day dreaming for a while. Well, until I get the reminder nudge at my elbow from she who must be obeyed.


Tuesday 15 February 2011

Basin cut!

Sunday morning saw me up bright and early. Whilst the Memsahib went out shopping in Doncaster I took the boat for her first shake down run of the season. Assisted by friends John and Tracy. Most of Saturday morning had been taken up with mucking out the boat. It was not long before we set off to go up to the Sheffield basin. Before we had made our way through the top two locks, I had three trips down the weed hatch. One coal bag, one balaclava and one jacket. This was then followed by a steady cruise heading towards the basin. 

We had one further stop when an engine alarm sounded. A quick look at the instruments showed that the engine temp was a bit on the high side. I let the engine cool for a while and topped up the radiator with about two litres of hot water. The weather was cool with a continuous slow drizzle, but the shakedown trip proved to be quite worthwhile. We stopped for a brew before winding in the basin and heading back.

The rest of the trip proved to be uneventful, with the exception of one small incident. We came to a pontoon under one of the railways bridges that was being systematically vandalised by three of Sheffield's finest children. I pretended to take a photograph with my mobile phone camera. Their hoods were up in an instant and they soon peddled off down the tow path and into the distance.

Just finished reading another Canal Book this time it was "Anderton for Orders" by author Tom Foxton. ISBN 094771233X
Tom Foxton describes his life aboard a series of working narrow boats. An industry that forged the industrial revolution. Full of observations of the boat people and chronicling the slow decline of canals.  Set in the 1950's and including a 3 year spell when he was conscripted. Tom weaves an interesting tale, right up until the time he buys his own boat to become, one of the last number ones. A good enjoyable read.

Total trip distance was 5 miles and 4 locks plus 1 swing bridge.

Rosies running total :- 128 canal miles, 83 locks and 10 swing bridges


Monday 7 February 2011

Spring has Sprung!

Well, spring it would seem is at long last on its way. As I write I can see the first of this years bulbs start to poke through the ground in the garden. It will be the first year that I will have some time to devote to the garden apart from the more usual emergency lawn cutting and remedial annual hedge trimming. I keep getting an ever growing list of "essential" jobs from the Memsahib as she doesn't want me to become bored by my impending early retirement.

I have a number of  "essential" maintenance jobs of my own to do on the boat before we take the first shakedown cruise of the year. Installing my radio equipment so that I can keep in touch with friends whilst we are cruising away from home. I want to do an oil and filter change, as well as carry out a visual inspection of the batteries.

The Lock Keepers Daughter
On another tack, I have just finished reading "The Lock Keepers Daughter" author Pat Warner ISBN1858580757" This is a good read which gives a great deal of insight into a canal lock keepers family. The book is something I would describe as an accidental autobiography of two people. Because I don't think Pat set out to do an autobiography of herself or her father. In a way, the book benefits a great deal from not being another dry biography.

The book describes a poignant story of a man who lost his wife and almost all of his children quite young. His youngest daughter describes her childhood and their life together. He working as a canal lock keeper whilst at the same time being both father and mother. A moving story of him as a provider and her reliving all of her adolescent years. This is a story of their shared privations living in an isolated lock keepers cottage, with no electricity, sewerage or running water. A story told by a first time author with obvious love and admiration that she had for her father. Written from fond memories "The Lock Keepers Daughter" is a simple story, that is simply told and a very good read.


Tuesday 1 February 2011

Some bad news - some good news

As many of you will know, myself and the Memsahib are keen bikers. We have just purchased a lightweight bike for taking with us on the boat. So we are hoping that the current fuel prices will not take a big bite out of our nest egg.

First The BAD News

UK Fuel prices are set to hit an all-time high in the near future, the AA has warned. With hundreds of garages across the UK charging more than 127p per litre for unleaded petrol, the Association says we should expect the average fuel price in Britain to exceed the record of 119.7p, set in July 2008.

Earlier this week, a poll conducted by the AA revealed 67 per cent of its 17,500 members are making dramatic changes to their lifestyle to cope with the soaring cost of petrol. Wonder how many will make the switch to two wheels?

Now the GOOD News

Oxforshire based company Cella Energy is developing a fuel that could be used instead of petrol and would cost just 19 pence per litre. The fuel uses hydrogen and is described by Cella energy as 'the perfect fuel' as it produces three times as much energy than its equivalent weight of petrol and when it burns its by-product is water. At 19p pence per litre it would cost just £3.23 to fill a typical 17 litre motorcycle tank, however the government would typically tax it so that its price at the pump would be around 60 pence per litre.

At the moment, at £1.28 for a litre of petrol, 48 pence is the petrol, 59p is fuel duty and 21 pence is VAT.

Stephen Voller, Chief Executive of Cella Energy said: "Early indications are that the micro-beads can be used in existing vehicles without engine modification. The materials are hydrogen-based, and so when used produce no carbon emissions at the point of use, in a similar way to electric vehicles." Currently the product is still in testing and is expected to be available in three to five years.

Last of all the Caveat.

Is it a greener fuel source and it creates significantly less greenhouse gases than petrol in it's production. If so then it's going to be difficult to justify introducing a duty on it level with the current fuel tax, which is based on a policy of reducing carbon emissions. The government will of course have to collect the revenue shortfall elsewhere by creating a different crisis to tax.

£18 Billion of VAT and duty per year on fuel and counting...