In this edition chief executive Richard Parry gives an overview of what we’ve been doing to support boaters during the lockdown, how to get in touch, the Boat Safety Scheme and what work we’re doing to maintain safety around the network.
As a reminder, if you are not currently occupying your boat the government guidance is that you must not visit it (this means no short trips or breaks on your boat at this time).
If you are on your boat you should not cruise until at least 9 May unless it’s to access an essential service such as a water point.
Please follow the government advice – stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives.
I think we’ve all become familiar with the over-used statement that we’re living through unprecedented times right now – but for once this is no hyperbole, and I know that many of you will be very anxious about the virus and the impact it is having on all our lives. We are acutely aware that the impact on boaters – whether you’re living aboard and remaining on your boat for long periods, or a leisure boater who can’t access your boat or use the network – is very disruptive.
The way we treat each other has never been more important. I’d like to thank everyone for the resilience and forbearance you’re showing and for the support you’re giving to colleagues at the Trust who are still out and about keeping the network safe, and those we’re working with in other support services, who are pulling together to do what we can to support you and each other during this crisis.
We’re doing a range of things to support and help boaters stay safe during the pandemic. The most visible are the practical changes to our boat movement requirements: as you know, you can remain moored in one place until the end of the lockdown (currently til 9 May) and we’ve asked you not to cruise, unless you have to make a journey for essentials like fuel, waste or water – and we’re working hard to maintain essential boater facilities throughout the current lock-down period so they remain available and in service.
We’ve also been working to reach and support those who are most vulnerable on the waterways. Trust colleagues have been working tirelessly alongside partner organisations like the Waterways Chaplaincy and local charities and support groups to help make sure that those boaters who need help get the essentials they need. We’ve proactively contacted many of those boaters who we know to be in a high-risk group, including those with equality adjustments, those who have told us they are pregnant, and those who have told us they are over 70, so we can understand any additional needs they might have. Similarly, we’ve asked anyone who lives permanently on their boat and falls into an extremely vulnerable category to get in touch with us and let us know so we can work with others to ensure their support.
We have every sympathy for boaters who are facing hardship due to the current crisis and will do what we can to help those who are struggling with financial difficulties. In the first instance we’re helping advise on the Government grant support available (we’ve published some links here) but if after exploring these anyone is still having financial difficulties we’re looking case-by-case basis to see what support we can offer - by deferring payments and putting payment plans in place.
The impact on the boating businesses that make their living on our waterways has, in many cases, been immense. With no hire or trip boats operating during the lockdown, most of these have seen their trading reduced to nothing and all their income collapse, with little prospect of things improving for some months. To help ensure that boating businesses can get through the crisis we’ve deferred all licence fee payments for business boat companies on the waterways for three months and we are lobbying hard with British Marine and the IWA, and in partnership with the Broads Authority, to urge Government to provide specific support for boating businesses, which typically cannot benefit from the current business grant support schemes.
I know that some of you have asked about your licence fees and this is something we have been keeping under constant review. Of course none of us knows yet how long this disruption will continue, and so it is difficult to anticipate how much boating we’ll be able to do this year; and it is vital that all boats remain licensed so that we avoid all the possible legal issues that would arise if boats were out of licence. So today as an interim measure we are extending all licences that are due to expire at the end of April by one month to run until the end of May. All other current boat licences will be similarly extended by a month from their current expiry date. I urge you to continue to renew licences – we will look at the situation again in a month’s time when we hope that the full extent of the disruption will be much clearer. Let me urge anyone facing hardship to make contact with us so we can help.
The Trust is facing significant financial challenges of our own, with a large and costly historic network to maintain and keep safe during this crisis, and we depend upon the income we earn to fund that work – with everything being funnelled back into looking after the waterways. With much reduced use of our waterways, our museums and attractions closed, reducing income from business boats, and substantial impacts on our investment income – both the tenancies who are facing extreme hardship and the decline in investment returns from the wider economic uncertainty – we’re carefully managing the Trust’s finances and focussing on ensuring we can maintain all essential work until this national crisis is over. For those who can afford to, perhaps I can ask you to consider making a donation to the Trust to help us offset the lost month’s licence fees we are now facing.
Like many organisations we are using the Government’s Job Retention Scheme to step down non-essential staff whose roles are much reduced during this disruption. Around one-third of the Trust’s staff have taken furlough leave, with the Government scheme covering 80% of their salaries and the Trust paying the remaining 20%, so that no-one suffers financial hardship at this time. Our operational teams remain at full strength – with other colleagues with relevant experience joining the team where we have colleagues unavailable due to the virus – and continue to actively keep the network safe and support our boating customers - with boat licence support and customer service teams also still working in every region.
We know some liveaboard boaters have been unhappy about use of our towpaths. The Trust’s considered view is that it is neither practical nor desirable to close towpaths, but we continue to stress as firmly as we can that use should be limited and local, consistent with the Government’s ‘stay at home’ campaign. Thousands of new signs have been put up around network, and we have targeted social media messages and advertising to try to reach the wider public. We continue to emphasise that people must stay clear of moored boats and that cyclists in particular must not ride too fast or irresponsibly.
Whilst I know some feel strongly that we should do more to restrict use, I am clear that we have a duty to make the nearly 2000 miles of towpath available for limited local use that people so depend upon - to spend just a short time outdoors near to their communities. We will continue to follow the Government’s advice closely, with our role in connecting people with nature for their health and wellbeing valued and appreciated by Government at this stage of the lockdown.
On the positive side of this wretched pandemic, I know from some of the correspondence I’ve had with people over recent weeks that many are offering support and help to people across the waterways who are affected by the current crisis. I know that if we all continue to act with kindness and consideration for others, then together as a nation we can come through this darkest of times and be able to enjoy our waterways when the situation allows.
Our online shop is still running so boaters can buy pump out cards, and we’re making alternative arrangements for those who are having problems using it or receiving post. Our Customer Service Team is on hand Monday to Friday to help with licence queries, requests for support, and other information, while our web licensing portal is still the one-stop-shop for everything to do with boat licensing.
While we’re maintaining these services and support for our boaters, with fewer staff working in some areas, please bear with us if it takes us a little longer than normal to reply to you at this time.
Along with other members of the Boat Safety Scheme (BSS), we have agreed a temporary extension to safety certificates for those craft requiring an examination before 11 May. More information can be found on the BSS website.
You may have seen Trust employees out and about on the towpaths, carrying out tasks that are necessary to keeping the waterways safe and, once things return to normal, open for navigation.
A list of the activities can be found here and includes things like water monitoring and control, emergency responses and repairs, reservoir inspections, maintenance of things like lock gates and sluices, waste removal, and safety-related grass mowing – there’s more on this last activity below.
We’re making sure essential boater facilities are working and maintained and we’re working with private operators to keep a list of private facilities that are open as up to date as possible, as well as liaising where private sites that boaters are reliant on have been closed. To keep people safe we’re limiting physical interactions with other team members, boaters and others wherever possible.
Some people have expressed concern that we have carried on grass cutting and other vegetation maintenance on some parts of the network. We want to reassure you that wherever possible we have stopped these works and large tranches of our programme are on hold including the general suspension of mainline grass cutting. However, there are some instances where we believe that it is essential that we should continue on safety grounds. These include:
Recently we have had to start aquatic weed management – for example, in London pennywort and duckweed is starting to grow and, as you’ll know, we need to keep that in check. It is likely that we will need similar operations elsewhere.
We’re continuing to monitor this and having regular calls with Fountains, our contractor partner, about the issues created by the current situation. They, as we, are committed to maintaining social distancing which we understand is a significant concern for people.
More detailed information on things such facilities and how to contact us can be found here.