Canal & River Trust: A positive future by working together
CRT’s Chief Executive, Richard Parry, set out his vision for the Trust
I grew up in a village on the Trent, had many canal holidays as a boy and, since I moved to the West Midlands six years ago, the canals have been a special local place for me and my family to enjoy. So I leapt at the chance to be the Trust’s Chief Executive, especially given the many opportunities we have as a new charity, and I am just as excited by what we can achieve after almost five months in post.
Our Mission is now unambiguously to protect, manage and enhance the 2000 miles of canals and river navigations in our care, making them widely available to use and enjoy - both the remarkable heritage of the industrial canals and the wonderful natural environment. Use for navigation is central of course; beyond that our waterways are also used and appreciated by millions of people for a wide range of activities or simply for escape and tranquillity.
While our mission is about the ‘assets’ – both the physical and the heritage – it is people who are central to our vision for the waterways. It is through making connections with people, inspiring them to engage with history, nature, and the opportunities that our waterways provide for leisure, recreation and general wellbeing, that their long-term future will be secured.
I think it is clear that our approach is different from the past: outside Government, we can act independently, with a clear focus on achieving what’s best for our canals and rivers, without any need to meet annual Treasury targets or suffer mid-year interventions. We have a new inclusive governance structure that involves a wide range of those who value and use our canals and rivers in our decision-making. I see this broad and active involvement from those on and around the waterways as essential to our new approach, working with partners, with a strong focus on local engagement.
Our Waterway Partnerships are at the heart of how we function – opening the door for greater local involvement in the Trust. Local engagement is vital because for many people the canals and rivers are entirely local, with only a limited sense of the whole network; with half of the population living within five miles of one of our waterways we have both a strong local and national presence. We have almost fifty ‘community adoptions’ and rising across England & Wales. There is a new spirit of involvement released as people come together with a common passion and commitment.
I am determined to promote this involvement, to listen to what our users want. I spent much of my first three months in the role travelling around, meeting with and listening to people, including many boaters. While the Trust is fortunate to have numerous talented and committed employees, there is also an abundance of knowledge available beyond the organisation to help us make the right choices and decisions and we will harness that input. Evidence of this approach can be seen in our commitment to spend a lot more money on dredging over the next five years, and in the decision to use any surplus funds this year to attack the worst areas of offside vegetation. We’ve recently announced a significant change to our proposals for business and community boat licences as a result of listening to the feedback we received. During the winter I will be hosting a series of open meetings to listen to individual boaters and their concerns, and I’ll also be inviting NABO and other boating/waterway organisations to a series of meetings to discuss our longer term plans.
As a new charity it is also vital that we raise awareness and connect with new audiences – that is why, for example, the coverage we get from our recent Open Days, like the one at Hampstead Road Locks in Camden which got prominent national media coverage – are so important in engaging with the public. It is why we are so delighted with our partnerships with Google and the coverage that has generated. Consequently we are seeing growth in wider support – we have over 5,500 friends regularly donating and this is rising – we added another 30 as a result of the Open Days, for example. We know there is a lot more we can do in our fundraising and we’ll learn from our experience and refine our approach for the future.
We believe the Trust has already demonstrated it can deliver a substantial public benefit, delivering better outcomes with reduced call on the taxpayer, with around half the funding this year that BW was taking from Government ten years ago. Importantly, we have secured greater funding certainty, free from current public spending cuts, so we are able to plan for the long-term, which itself will deliver efficiency.
Looking to the future we face many challenges. We don’t have as much money as we would like of course and still have very difficult choices to make as we prioritise our spending. There is no easy solution to the pressures on towpath mooring, though we are working much more actively than in the past to address the problems. We have to ensure that HS2 takes full account of the waterways – both to mitigate impacts at our most cherished canal beauty spots and to take advantage of opportunities for urban regeneration. We have to ensure regulation of water supplies doesn’t interfere with navigation or other uses, or jeopardise our income streams. We also see enormous potential to expand our impact. We had record numbers of people visiting our canals and rivers this summer and our local connections are growing steadily; volunteer numbers are rising fast. The Trust has built a firm foundation and can look forward with confidence.
Among other notable anniversaries, next year is the 50th anniversary of the restoration of the Stratford Canal, a key milestone in the recovery of our canal system and a moment when we can reflect on how much has been achieved in the last five decades by so many individuals. It is also a time to look ahead, to remind ourselves of what can be achieved by working together in a common purpose, as I believe we have started to do.
CRT plans for better communication (from a CRT press release):
§ Open meetings for Richard to meet boaters and hear their views, starting in early 2014.
§ A large-scale survey of boat owners’ views this winter with results published in the spring.
§ An ongoing boaters’ research panel to track what a representative sample of boaters thinks about what we’re doing to inform what the Trust does.
§ Regular meetings with national boating organisations and local user groups to discuss the Trust’s longer term priorities including proposals for repair and maintenance work for 2014/15 and beyond.
§ Informal input from national user groups to the planned extra £2m spend on offside vegetation control.
§ Regular social media live chat sessions with Richard to reach those who may not be able to come to meetings.
§ Identifying boaters who are willing to help achieve better communication on the ground, working with waterway teams to provide up-to-date information to those out cruising via notice boards and the ‘towpath telegraph’ as well as digital media.
§ Bi-monthly updates on the Trust’s efforts to support better and fairer use of towpath moorings, with the first report available now.
§ A review of our traditional User Group meetings to ensure they meet the needs of boaters and other users and to encourage as many people as possible to attend.
§ Every two months, Richard will hold a briefing with the waterway press to set out current performance and take questions about any Trust activities or future plans.