Tuesday, 31 March 2015

CaRT's Soviet Ten Year Plan

There is a belief that living aboard a boat can provide a close approximation to an aspirational and idyllic style of life. But like many things viewed from a distance – when you get in close, you come to realise that idyllic is not the right word.

Hopes and Aspirations
Though to be fair, many people still harbour their hopes and aspirations for the future of the inland waterways. I even count myself amongst their number. However, in the current financial and political climate, the state of the inland waterways will test the resolve of every boat owner over the next few years. As the years tick off the government funding clock. We only need to look at the performance of the Waterways Partnerships. Which were the flagship of the 'new regime' have failed miserably to even cover their own costs. This does not bode well as an experiment. Neither does it bode well as being a fully fledged funding stream by the start of the current year.

Living your life on a boat is not for everyone, especially if you want to enjoy a cosseted life. One that comes with all the creature comforts. However, if you are the sort who would enjoy living in a caravan, then boating on the canals and rivers has much to offer. As you move around, you will make acquaintances and friends. Though you may only meet up again by chance from time to time in passing. Most of your friendships will be quite loose. If you enjoy solitude or you are quite comfortable with your own company. Then living on a boat can be a nice experience. For some, with the right sort of expectations, a boat can provide a home.

Life on the inland waterways has its own very specific problems, which can be much harder to manage than you might think. The first is that if you wish to lead a sedentary life you will need a mooring. Without a mooring the Canal and River Trust can and will pursue you to keep moving. If you have a mooring the Canal and River Trust will still pursue you to keep moving when away from your mooring. Therefore you are unlikely to be able to stay in one place, while away from your home mooring for long periods. If you have a medical condition or similar issue requiring access to the NHS or other such services a marina mooring is going to be a necessity.

Two Extremes
The environment of the inland waterways has two extremes. The countryside can provide a pleasant vista for those harbouring idyllic pipe dreams. With sunny days, dappled shade and the sounds of the birds. However as seasons change so does the environment. In what was a carpet of flowers in summer can become a soggy morass of mud in another season. The weather will vary and so will the waterway. The best times will therefore by the unpredictable variation in climate change and the nature of the weather, be very short.

The other end of the spectrum can be surprisingly grim. Its not the weather that's the main issue now. Its the way that the waterways are treated by those living alongside the canal. Generally those living on the waterways try to maintain some semblance tidiness. The closer you get to conurbations the greater the change will become. As you leave the countryside and approach a conurbation the very nature of the canal changes. For some people the canal is a place to flytip rubbish. Its been this way for many years. There is an association in the mind of the public of the canal being dirty, dangerous and a dumping ground. The usual marker being a rusting shopping trolley. The idyllic view being enhanced by the gaily coloured plastic bottles and bags. These are amongst the 'friends the trust are seemingly encouraging to use the canals. 

Canal Myopia
I think that boaters are blessed with a form of 'minds eye myopia', especially when it comes to the canal. We can all recall those wonderful idyllic days that we enjoyed in our minds eye. We grumble and then largely forget about the times we have to clear collected rubbish of the boats propeller. We grumble to ourselves about the poor maintenance that creates operational difficulties. Difficulties which tend to add an extra dimension to those short conversations about the weather. That we enjoy when boater meets boater at a lock in passing. The more visible element of the towpath telegraph.

Most of all, if you ask a boater about life on the canal, you will generally get a jaundiced opinion. It will not necessarily be a negative opinion. This is because boaters who spend time or live on the canal accept, all the canals short comings. Accepting the life on the canal, warts and all, because it might be the solitude, that floats their boat so to speak. It might equally be those occasional idyllic days. Most of all, its because of the stoicism in their character. I usually sum this up as “I'm going to enjoy this, even if it kills me” attitude. Which is a much better trait than the much more mythical “stiff upper lip” character. best enjoyed as another heavy downpour, finds the gap betwixt head and shoulder and runs down their back.

Pachyderm Sized Problems
There is the nub of the problem, the general state of play on the canals. Which would not be tolerated in the same way elsewhere. The boat licence is for a year, but for a significant portion of the year, canal locations can be closed for planned maintenance. The poor maintenance means that throughout the cruising season there will be other unplanned closures which might be for just a few days or in the worst cases even a few months. When a lock is closed the whole section of canal is effectively closed. Next year the same canal will be closed again, as yet another lock is closed.

Over a decade of deliberate underspending on maintenance. Which was started by British Waterways and continued by the Canal and River Trust, has brought the situation to a head. presumably the underspend will continue for the foreseeable future. So has the change from a quango into a charity with the same quango mentality, actually brought any benefits. The rhetorical question is certainly a moot point. General acceptance of their lot has changed for many boaters as they have become increasingly sceptical about the future and the direction of the trust. The politics of the waterways has certainly grown in line with the general level of disenchantment.

It will be interesting to cogitate over what's being described already as CaRT's 'Soviet Ten Year Plan'. Nothing to do with massaged figures for maintaining a false claim about tractor production output.  But you can bet austerity will continue for the foreseeable future. The plan is going to be delivered by Richard Parry in April. I can only hope that all the major concerns will be reflected in the commissars plan. However, I suspect that there will be some notable pachyderm sized exceptions. Just like Chancellor Osborne's recent budget ignored the largest elephant in the room, the NHS. I wonder if the Canal and River Trust will ignore the major issues.

I have hopes for an announcement of a real change of heart by the Canal and River Trust. In embracing an open and transparent future. I have hopes for the demise of the Waterways Partnerships which have proved thus far to have the same effectiveness as a chocolate fire-guard in a conflagration. I have hopes for a real plan of action to improve the public's safety from high speed cyclists on the redeveloped canal towpaths. I have hopes for a real financial plan, delivered without the pie in the sky aspirations, setting even more unachievable targets. I have hopes for an improvement in the allocation, pricing and letting of self managed moorings. But most of all, I hope an opportunity will be taken to announce the immediate departure of the lack lustre chairman of the trustees. “Taxi for Hales” But them I am easily satisfied.

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