The Chancellor's budget announcement that BW is to move to the 3rd sector is an exciting development; one that justifies much of the campaigning that has been going on since the SOW protests of 2006 whilst being a signal for us to switch from protest-mode to a more positive yet still pro-active role.
We know from ongoing consultations on BW's 2020 Vision that they foresee a future that integrates stakeholders into the management structure at the top level and closer, better defined, working relationships at the sharp end with communities.
At the top end, the favoured proposal is that stakeholder representatives would populate the important Members Council, a body which would have the duty to scrutinise activities and nominate and select future Trustees. Members of this Council would be democratically selected by stakeholder groups. Trustees would replace the current Board and be unpaid.
At the grass roots, local navigation offices would have Waterway Committees which would seek to improve communications with local users. This is where SOW's Waterway Watch initiative fits in.
We know that over 30,000 boats and 13 million users make 260 million visits each year to BW waterways. [The Thames and the Broads are each believed to enjoy a similar degree of popularity and many of the following suggestions could apply equally to other navigations.] Most boat owners and the vast majority (95%) of other users are not members of our stakeholder organisations. Clearly, we need to find a way that will engage the active support of this substantial group of largely unrepresented users.
It seems likely that the majority of users will be residents of a riparian community. Most may not be aware of contribution that the waterway makes to their way of life but SOW believe that these residents would respond with concern if it was suggested that their waterside environment was to change for the worse. As the main recipients of the economic and social benefits that our inland waterways bring, the residents of riparian communities have the most to lose if decline sets in. It is common knowledge that BW is under-funded to the tune of £30 million/pa and for each year that this continues the current maintenance backlog of £100 million will increase; circumstances that can only mean the condition of our waterways will decline even further. Given the current economic climate it is extremely unlikely that this gap will be filled by central government.
DEFRA's new 'Waterways for Everyone' draft policy document encourages greater community engagement and specifically asks the question 'How do we engage local communities?'
Most riparian communities are already covered by the extensive network of stakeholder bodies that comprise IWA branches; angling and cruising clubs; water sport clubs; community boat associations, canal and restoration societies, waterway festivals, etc.
SOW used these community links when we staged the protests of 2006/7 and we believe the change in government approach coupled with wide cross-party support for the waterways presents an opportunity to tap into that community spirit once again but this time as a call for self-support rather than protest.
Over the past few weeks SOW has been talking to BW and a number of stakeholder groups about an initiative we call Waterway Watch. The idea is simple. We call a number of meetings in key waterway communities to explain to our supporters and other local residents that without community support, there is a risk that their local waterway could fall into steady decline. We would point out that BW's move to the 3rd Sector is an opportunity for each community to make a contribution that will help prevent that decline and give its residents the power to shape the waterway for the future.
As the name implies, Waterway Watch is not dissimilar to a Neighbourhood Watch that draws on the success of schemes like Towpath Tidy. However, each community Watch would have opportunities to play a wider role than just the protection and upkeep of the waterway that passes through their community.
The range of activities in which an individual Watch community might become involved will depend largely on the skills and enthusiasms of the local supporters that they attract but a typical community Watch would aim to have the active support of:
- All users – walkers, dog owners, anglers, cyclists, canoeists, etc well as boaters
- Parish and District councils, local MP and MEP
- Schools and higher education establishments
- Business community, youth groups, local societies
- Police and emergency services (crime and access issues
- Local media
Every community is a potential source of professional and practical skills that might be attracted to a local Watch to help with opportunities and problems facing navigation authorities, examples might include:
- monitoring unlicensed boats and mooring over-stays, perhaps manage local moorings
- bidding for contracts for vegetation control, towpath maintenance....
- repair of assets and services, clearing fly tipping, locate rubbish points, etc
- acting as intermediaries on planning issues
- communicate views on matters of wider concern to local MPs and MEPs
- gaining access to lottery and EU funding for community projects
- new community initiatives - water festival, community boat; youth activities
Transferring such activities to community level will present opportunities to identify cost savings. Restoration societies have shown that there is a wide range of talent that can be tapped to assist with all manner of tasks that would lead to the betterment of one's local community. Just looking at the examples of vegetation control and towpath monitoring, SOW estimates that a national Watch movement has the potential of saving BW £2-3 million a year in costs and recovered income.
Although individual community Watches might decide to raise funds for local projects and activities, SOW don't see WW as a membership-based structure that competes with other stakeholder groups for members. Nationally, the WW movement wouldn't be run by any single stakeholder group, it would be a joint initiative by stakeholders and run locally by residents drawn from all users and vested interests in that community. Each community Watch would link with the local navigation authority through the existing user group network.
Central to the idea is the use of state-of-the-art web technology to provide a central point of focus and communication. A central portal would link together all active WW groups and thereby facilitate a constant exchange of ideas and contacts which could also be the source of donations and increased access to philanthropic, lottery and European funding.
We see members of existing waterway support groups as having the potential to form a Watch in their community and invite anyone who is attracted to this idea to contact us via email@example.com letting us know how you would like to help.
We also welcome your comments - positive or negative - and any suggestions you may have. If you have an idea of how a local community can improve the way or reduce the costs of something that is done on the waterways, please let us know.