Two surveys initiated by the National Association of Boaters (NABO) have concluded that boaters believe that the inland waterways managed by British Waterways are in a parlous state.
At the beginning of 2009, BW's Chief Executive, Robin Evans, stated that "the network is now in better shape than at any time in decades." It is clear that the majority of boaters that responded to the surveys, both members of NABO and other waterway organisations, and none, disagree.
The two internet surveys examined the Condition of the Waterways controlled by BW and those of Other Agencies (OA). 370 boaters, having between them over 7000 years of boating experience and cruising nearly 130,000 miles this year alone, responded to the survey about BW waterways. 88 contributed to the survey concerning OA waterways, with nearly 2000 years of experience and over 32,000 miles cruising in 2009.
Invitations to contribute to the surveys were distributed widely to members of NABO, RBOA (Residential Boat Owners Association), TBA (The Boating Association), IWA (Inland Waterways Association), DBA (The Barge Association) and SOW (Save Our Waterways), other waterway-related organisations and to other boat owners and hirers through Internet forums and newsgroups.
The following table shows that boaters' opinion is more negative about the state of BW's rivers and canals than those of Other Agencies. Three-quarters felt negative about the current state of BW waterways compared to last year, increased from two-thirds when compared to 5 years ago and half compared to 10 years ago. In contrast, although the negative trend rose similarly (but at a much lower level), more people were consistently positive about OA river and canals.
On BW waters, 82% of respondents had encountered lock gear out of use, with signs 'BW Aware'. 20% had seen such notices on more than 12 pieces of broken equipment. Over 60% had seen more temporary fencing or netting this year, marking structures yet to be repaired.
The lack of maintenance is further noticed when using operational structures. Over 80% reckoned that some locks were hard to operate and encountered lock paddles out of use; more than half found them harder this year compared to previous years. 30% who found swing bridges and 23% finding lift bridges too difficult for single users to operate. 57% of boaters asked saw more badly damaged bridges this year. Many of these failures create issues of safety with boats and boaters, some of which were described in submissions./p>
The deterioration of the BW network affected cruising and mooring to a greater extent than the past. The lack of necessary dredging, the increased number of underwater obstacles such as trolleys, sofas and fridges, weed proliferation and inadequate vegetation control affected the ease and pleasure of the experience of cruising. It also made mooring difficult through the lack of depth of water at the edges and a shortage of available visitor moorings. All these measures are quantified in the survey report.
While there have been reductions in overall contributions from other users over the last three years via the tax system, boaters' costs, including fuel and licences, have increased above inflation. Unsurprisingly, cost drew the largest number of contributors' disapproval: 85% said that, compared to previous years, they felt negative to some extent about the cost of boating this year.
The analysis of the places that respondents thought BW should be paying close attention to, shows how widespread is the lack of maintenance, that there is a high level of need for repairs and marks disillusionment among many boaters.
Although some of the places listed are very general (e.g. the Kennet and Avon Canal was described as suffering general deterioration, water shortages are an issue on the Huddersfield Narrow and Rochdale Canals), there are large numbers of specific lengths and structures that have been highlighted as being in urgent, medium or long-term need of attention.
These comments have been sorted by waterway within the new BW waterway areas. It is to be hoped that the lists will be given by BW to the waterway area managers to be reviewed and prioritised bearing in mind they are the views of boating users.
The results reported above should not mask the fact that the waterways are a wonderful resource which boaters value. In fact, praise for BW and their staff figured in the final section of general comments. Clearly, the fact that so many people were prepared to take time to complete the two NABO Internet Surveys shows a great concern for the waterways' future.
The more general responses were categorised under Routine Maintenance, Repairs and Policy.
People thought it vital that routine maintenance should attract much more investment, not only for cosmetic but for safety reasons. The number of recent breaches caused concern for the future of the network, questioning the standard of inspections. To continue to attract new hirers and owners as well as keeping existing ones: lock gate and paddle gear maintenance must be improved; vegetation control (particularly overhanging trees, offside growth and cutting to the towpath waterside edge), comprehensive dredging (particularly at bridge holes and moorings) and brick structure preventative maintenance need to be prioritised.
Under Repairs, as well as lock gear repairs, collapsing and leaky lock walls must be mended to prevent accidents, towpath edges repaired to ease mooring, and damaged bridges and piling repaired more quickly.
Under Policy, BW should control overstaying on visitor moorings, lock landings and water points, reduce licence evasion and provide more service facilities and visitor moorings. The proportion of boaters' contributions to the waterways should not be increased. There were many management and staffing suggestions, both constructive and critical, including increased pressure on government to ensure financing of the waterways, creation of a plan to get back to steady state and a commitment to support restorations and the new waterway links while preparing appropriate budgets.
The conclusion that we draw from the results is that no amount of positive spin can, or should, hide the fact that the reduction of the funding stream from DEFRA is causing a steady decline in the conditions of the waterways, as seen from a boater's perspective. It is to be hoped that British Waterways can reverse this trend, so that a steady state can be reached and sustained.