How much has Sally Ash cost boaters?

Sally Ash, the unpopular Head of Boating, finally retires at the end of this month after 38 years working for BW and CRT. She joined BW as a researcher in 1976 following a Masters degree at Reading University. Here we take a look back at some of her activities and the cost of her career both to boaters and to her employers, not only in financial terms but also in goodwill, time and effort.

In 2006, a routine audit check led to the dismissal of Education Officer John Butterly in February 2007 for using his BW procurement card to buy an estimated £70,000 worth of goods and home improvements for himself over a period of four years. He was convicted of false accounting and imprisoned. His line manager was Sally Ash, who received a Final Written Warning for inadequate monitoring and control of Mr Butterly’s use of his BW card. That’s £70,000 down the drain.

Ms Ash has wasted considerable time by repetitively recycling unsuccessful proposals in abortive consultations aimed at eroding the right to use and live on a boat without a home mooring. The Lock Miles rule of March 2003 would have forced boaters without home moorings to travel “at least 20 different Lock Miles every 15 days (ie you can’t count the same stretch more than once); at least 40 different Lock Miles every 30 days and at least 120 different Lock Miles every 3 months” or else their licences would be terminated. Boaters made great efforts to oppose this, organising meetings, carrying out a survey, writing complaints and organising press coverage. NABO obtained a Legal Opinion stating that the Lock Miles rule was unlawful. It then wrote to BW threatening legal action. The Lock Miles rule was withdrawn. Legal opinions are expensive; the total is rising fast.

The Lock Miles rule consultation defined the “problems” that the rule was intended to address as: “boats staying for extended periods at locations designated as visitor or temporary moorings or as unsuitable for mooring , and a sense of injustice amongst many boaters who perceive that, through their compliance with the legal requirement to have a permanent, home mooring, they are ‘subsidising’ some who ‘find ways around’ this requirement”. Sally Ash has used these carefully spun and imaginary problems to attack boaters without home moorings ever since.

In more recent years Sally Ash has written briefings incorporating these imaginary problems, for CRT Trustees in 2011 and the CRT Council in 2012, continuing the attack on the rights of liveaboard boaters without home moorings. These briefings refer to “continuous moorers” and “non-compliant continuous cruisers”, and declare an intention to break up communities of boat dwellers without home moorings. As a result of such briefings, CRT Trustees decided in 2012 to spend £1.5 million on the Towpath Mooring Control Project, which was quickly re branded as the Towpath Mooring Management project.

Ms Ash’s work has been driven by the constant demands of the hire boat industry, a sector that she has been closely involved with through her directorship of Drifters Leisure Limited. Many of her proposals have been dropped following opposition from boaters. Examples include the May 2002 proposal to increase the licence fee for boaters without home moorings to 2.5 times the normal licence fee; the August 2002 proposal for an additional District Mooring Fee for boaters without home moorings; the 2005 proposal to increase the cost of a licence without a home mooring by 147% and the 2008 proposal to add £150 to the cost of a licence without a home mooring. These cost boaters an unspecified amount of time and money to defeat, but at least Ms Ash looked like she was doing enough to justify her Principal Officer level salary.

Similarly Ms Ash has been seen to be busy constantly tinkering with the Boat Licence Terms and Conditions, each time widening their scope a little further beyond the legal powers of BW and CRT. This occurred, among other occasions, in 2008, 2011, 2012 and 2013. Let’s hope that in her retirement she will find something to do that really does need constant adjustment, like maintaining a vintage engine, where she can do less damage to the lives of other people.

The universally disliked mooring auctions, announced in 2007 as a “trial” with no prior consultation, saw boaters unceremoniously thrown off mooring waiting lists. Mooring fees have since risen significantly, especially in London, and moorers within the same sites are paying different prices for the same service. Despite sustained opposition, and in spite of considerable under-occupancy of moorings caused by setting the reserve prices too high, the auctions continue. One of Sally Ash’s declared aims in 2005 was to “improve the management of BW’s online moorings business, ensuring a fair trading framework and a consistent approach”. The mooring auction system has instead resulted in vacant berths, inconsistent pricing, unfairness, resentment and an enormous loss of goodwill, while Sally Ash’s senior manager salary continued to arrive in her bank account.

Roving Mooring Permits were first proposed in 2004 following the withdrawal of the Lock Miles rule. Ten years later Sally Ash was forced to admit that adverse legal advice provided in February this year meant that Roving Mooring Permits could not be offered in one area without offering them to every boater on the system, and so the schemes under development in Uxbridge and Gloucester were abandoned. Ms Ash had ample opportunity over the past ten years to check the legal position before wasting the time and money of CRT and the efforts of a number of liveaboard boater volunteers who were keen to take up the permits. However it is not surprising that the required legal research was not done, given that in a meeting of the K&A Local Mooring Strategy Steering Group in September 2010 Ms Ash told an itinerant liveaboard boater to “forget about the law”.

Ms Ash took a similar gamble with lawfulness regarding the £25 per day Visitor Mooring extended stay “charges”. She must have known that BW and CRT do not have the power to enforce these overstaying penalties, because in a report dated May 2011 she asked “WILL people pay?” when reporting back on progress in implementing daily extended stay charging.

Houseboat dweller Simon Robbins had a ten-year battle to get proper written terms and conditions for residential moorings occupied by boats with Houseboat Certificates. In this case Sally Ash clearly failed in her declared aim in 2005 of “Clarifying service standards for boaters and boating businesses”. During this time, Sally Ash also unlawfully tried to change the definition of a Houseboat in the Boat Licence Terms and Conditions. The Ombudsman found against BW when Simon complained. The definition of a Houseboat is set out in the 1971 and 1995 British Waterways Acts.

Sally Ash was the author of the infamous April 2009 Briefing for User Groups on Updating BW’s Online Mooring Policy in which she proposed that “a more effective strategy would be one that forces a re-think of lifestyle by the offending boaters” in reference to boat dwellers without home moorings. This paper included a spurious “analysis” of the movements of boaters without home moorings alleging that 70% of them remained in a small geographic area. This is of course not unlawful, but it emerged that the “analysis” did not exist. It was simply a list of  the number of canals boats had been sighted on over the previous winter, when many would have been on winter moorings, and it categorised all boats that were only sighted on one canal as remaining in a small geographic area. By November 2012, Sally Ash conceded that CRT did not have powers to tell boaters without home moorings how far they must move to comply with Section 17 3 c ii of the 1995 British Waterways Act. Three wasted years? We think so.

In late 2009 Ms Ash ran consultations on BW’s Online Mooring Policy and on Local Mooring Strategies. The results were manipulated to deny a voice to the majority of respondents who opposed the draconian nature of much that was proposed, including the policy of Local Mooring Strategies. The K&A was identified as the first area that would get a local mooring strategy because it allegedly has the biggest “problem” of people exercising the right of BW/CRT licence holders to use and live on their boats without a home mooring. Five years on, it appears that legal advice means that the policy of local mooring strategies is history, and five years of paid and voluntary effort have been wasted for the sake of Sally Ash’s career. She could have checked the legal position in 2009 but instead encouraged the K&A Local Mooring Strategy Steering Group to ignore the law.

The policy of local mooring strategies also led Ms Ash to propose the draconian Draft Mooring Management Plan for the River Lea, Stort and Hertford Union Canal  in February 2011, whereby boaters without home moorings on the Lea and Stort would be prevented from staying for more than seven days south of the North Circular Road unless they paid around £7,000 a year in “extended stay charges”. This plan aroused massive opposition including from MPs and some London Boroughs who feared that an influx of homeless boaters would overstretch their housing resources. At two public meetings full of angry boat dwellers, Ms Ash stated that BW’s intention was to price itinerant liveaboards out of the market: “we can’t have more continuous cruisers coming” she said. She was also quoted in the Guardian in March 2011 as saying “some people will have to suffer”. The proposal was dropped a few months later, but not before the London Boaters group and many supporters spent numerous person-hours campaigning against the proposal. It is evident that Sally Ash does not fit the caring image that a charity has to present in order to win public support and donations. Clearly she had to go.

For more information on the activities in this article, search this web site for “Sally Ash”

Simon Robbins writes about Houseboat Certificates, mooring auctions and more in his blog

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