Waterways User group Meeting November 19th Wharf Centre Devizes
An opportunity for British Waterways to finally find out what we think?
Or a piece of corporate blandwash?
Well there was absolutely no point whatsoever in carefully preparing a series of questions on the moorings consultation and the enforcement issues we are all experiencing. Because they were not answered, not one. We are promised written answers by email but this is not really the point as the potential for dialogue (shall we call it ‘consultation’?) is severely limited.
Anyway, the meeting was chaired by the new general manager for the Kennet and Avon, Mark Stephens, now based in Devizes again after a disastrous five years of BW trying to run the canal from Gloucester. He introduced himself as a hands-on engineer lastly responsible for waterways improvements in the area of London’s Olympic ‘city’. He worked on the Heritage Lottery work on the Kennet and Avon when the channel was concreted from Bradford to Bath although he didn’t say whether he worked on one of the crap bits or the good bits.
He quickly conceded that all future meetings would take place in Devizes under pressure from all present. There was some dissension from him about whether British Waterways would produce minutes, he wanted ‘notes’ although it was pointed out that minutes of such a meeting are a legal document and thus give some accountability to the process. In the end it was agreed that minutes would be taken by an un-named branch of the K and A Canal Trust and then signed by Mark Stephens. It remains to be seen whether minutes produced by a group with vested interests will in fact be a true account of proceedings.
But rest assured your correspondents at Boating Community will check these minutes and challenge any bias or inaccuracy.
The moorings ignoration
There were 6 people, yes 6, from BW directly connected to the consultation process, Sally Ash, Damian Kemp, Russell Bennet and 3 others so we were expecting some in depth analysis and a detailed question and answer question. You will no doubt be aware that to this time not one boater has been consulted in any way.
Sally ‘Final Solution’ Ash opened the debate, looking disturbingly like a young Mrs Thatcher though lacking Thatcher’s poise and apparent strength, with a bland exposition of the consultation process that was a much abridged version of the preamble from the national consultation document. Nothing new in there apart, perhaps, that BW, having been slapped down by BANES Council and the Parish Councils, are now calling the enforcers ‘Agents’ rather than the ‘Volunteers’ of the first stage of this upside down process. Shades of the Matrix perhaps, ‘you have overstayed Mr Anderson, you will be deleted’.
So the debate is opened to the floor. The first question picked up on Ms Ash’s use of the phrase ‘the situation on the Western Kennet and Avon has become intolerable’ and asked what it was, precisely, about the situation that was ‘intolerable’. Ms Ash refused to answer, instead passing the question to Keith Rossiter of Bathampton Parish Council, an old friend of this website. Mr Rossiter quickly distanced himself from the word ‘intolerable’ and passed the question neatly back to Spitting Sal. She then claimed to have walked from Bath to Bradford and found dog faeces on the towpath, she also attempted to refer to the allegations of human waste. When challenged firstly that dog poo was not solely a boater’s issue and that there is no evidence for the human waste allegations she threw a hissy fit and called on Mr Stephens with a shriek of “Mark! Stop them being mean to me!” to close this part of the meeting.
And that was it. Finito. Fielded aside in a prearranged maneuver to avoid any controversy or robust questioning about issues that will greatly effect the lives of many families and people. An obvious and not very subtle piece of corporate manipulation designed to prevent their customers questioning the motivations for forthcoming draconian proposals.
Some consultation! My thesaurus doesn’t give an antonym for ‘consult’ so quickly coining a phrase we will henceforth refer to it as the moorings ignoration.
So dude and dudettes there we have it. From the Eichmann of the waterways herself, the intolerable situation on the western Kennet and Avon is….. dog shit. And it’s all our fault and we must be punished. In fact, if we could all just go away and not exist then dog shit will no longer be a problem.
Mark Stephens, being an engineer and obviously not in bed with the Enforcement Junta, was visibly relieved to move on to his area of expertise and the meeting settled down to the unanimity that canal users have when referring to the muddy ditch itself.
To give him credit – though we will be checking that he lives up to this first impression, he took on board the reports from the range of experts that the boating community in its widest sense has within it.
Maintenance issues covered;
Mark Stephens said that British Waterways would do some maintenance of the Kennet and Avon. No, no, he did, really, he did.
He promised improvements in maintenance reporting and scheduling – improvements in general logistics and clearing the backlog of maintenance were promised. He said he would email maintenance boat schedules to interested parties so that communication could be improved over outstanding issues.
Widespread reports of water depth (or lack of it) were a surprise to Mr Stephens who had been assured by his team that the depth on the Kennet and Avon were good and more than adequate. The meeting was at one in disabusing Mr Stephens of this impression. He was left in no doubt that all types of user experience belie this, Semington to Bradford especially around Hilperton , the long pound, Hungerford to Newbury being particularly picked out.
Boaters present reported that their boats with drafts from 3’6″ to 3′ were experiencing difficulties in many places despite the Kennet and Avon being officially 4’3″ draft throughout – already a diminution of the design depth of 5′. Some people were reporting depths down by 5″ or more.
A number of problems with Bradford Wharf, lock and pumps were pointed out, including the hole by Bradford Lock that visitors fall in with disturbing regularity.
The growth of Norfolk Reed and weed in the long pound had led to a reported loss of 10% of available mooring length this was said to be skewing moorings availability.
Plywood and grease are being used to great effect by volunteers at Tyle Mill and surroundings to keep those structures in use and there was great desire to get volunteers to keep these structures up to scratch. After all it was those same people who restored the locks in the first place before BW took over and let it all run down again.
Grass cutting and hedge flailing was observed to be carried out with blinding incompetence with nicely dried hedge trimmings being spread around the towpath by strimmers making punctures inevitable.
Other issues raised;
Winter moorings; it was stated by Paul Griffin of BW that no more that 25% of visitor moorings would be rented out and that they would be rented out from November to March – five months. In recent times this policy has been totally ignored and over 33% of visitor moorings are now rented for 6 months. With the exception of the promise to Bathampton Parish Council that there would be no winter moorings in Bathampton — we assume this is an accomodation for the existing liveaboards.
A representative from the Bristol Avon asked that the river was not ignored, pointing out that the poor hire boaters when confronted by water that moves tend to go to pieces and get themselves into all sorts of scrapes. Bless.
Bradford Dry Dock
It was pointed out by marine surveyor Rich Burchell who works out of George Gibson’s Wharf at Honey Street that there are very few dry docks on the Kennet and Avon, someone else counted 3, and that the standard of maintenance on the boats he was inspecting has deteriorated drastically over the last few years, exacerbated hugely by the closure of Bradford-on-Avon and Semington dry docks.
BW said that despite rumour that Oxfordshire Narrowboats have said they won’t run a dry dock they would attempt to confirm that there was a clause in the contract requiring them to do so.. It was also pointed out that 3 rows of moored dayboats, Oxfordshire Narrowboats are reported to be hiring 12 day boats form the wharf, means the loss of a winding hole.
It was great to see that there was no dissension or argument between any of the disparate groups once the meeting turned to the actual canal. 70 people united by a great passion about our canal. It was also refreshing to see that the new manager or the canal is an engineer who appeared to take on board most of the reports and comments. We hope that he manages to successfully carry out some of these resolutions and the mess that comprises BW’s corporate ambience doesn’t drag him down.
We’ll post the published minutes when they become available.