Boater Report 2020 colleague stories
In our 2020 Boater Report we introduced you to some of our colleagues from all over the organisation, to give you an idea of the wide range of work we do. Now you can find out a bit more detail about what they get involved in on a daily basis and what they enjoy most about their roles.
Canals and navigable rivers were feats of innovation 200 years ago when they were made. Keeping them that way involves negotiating many legal and statutory considerations that weren’t around back then. My team of specialists in ecology, environmental science and heritage help find a way through this minefield, to enable us to keep the network safe, accessible and enjoyable.
We help set the standards for maintaining grass, trees and hedges, making sure that we retain and enhance the species and habitats that they support as they’re maintained. We try to keep on top of the increasing spread of invasive plants and animals, which in some cases are a hazard to health, such as giant hogweed. Others, like floating pennywort, can lead to waterways being blocked by excessive growth.
We help to plan and carry out dredging in the most effective way. I’m currently looking at opportunities working with other landowners and developers to make this activity less costly, and to find more sustainable solutions for where to dispose of the tonnes of silt we have to remove to keep the network navigable. We try to keep the network protected from pollution by encouraging good practice from neighbouring landowners and businesses, as well as our own teams and, of course, boaters. Our historic structures need to be maintained carefully, with traditional materials such as lime mortar. Decisions constantly need to be made on how and what to retain in keeping the network functioning.
Compared to 200 years ago, however, many more people are interested in, appreciative of and keen to get involved in this work. The current coronavirus pandemic has shown again how important our canals and rivers are for people locally, as places to get exercise, fresh air and peace. So we need to keep working with volunteers, who love to research our waterway history, carry out surveys, record our network of habitats or join the wider movement of people tackling the challenge of plastic litter making its way out to our oceans.
I've been with the Trust, and previously British Waterways, for the past 24 years, having come from a background in construction with a degree in civil engineering. I've spent my time as waterway manager, general manager, head of enterprise (funding) and head of asset management. Those years set me up well for understanding the challenges I would meet when taking on my current role.
Sometimes working for the same organisation for a long time can be a disadvantage, however, the key to success is to keep looking beyond your own organisation for best practice and striving for continuous improvement. Being in the job I'm in now has given me a good network of contacts from comparable organisations, including other large charities like the National Trust, and other large infrastructure owners such as the Environment Agency.
My remit is straightforward: making sure everything works and delivering good customer service. My team covers all the regions, customer service, business boating, restoration, third-party works, contract management, operational standards and processes, and most importantly, health and safety. When you look after an open-access network on behalf of the nation, the safety of customers and visitors is a challenging priority. At an operational level, we seek to address any safety-related works as soon as we can and, in our teams, we’re constantly looking to develop our safety culture to avoid injuries and minimise risk in the work we do.
There is a huge willingness to get things done, but not always with consistency in how we do it. From a customer's point of view, this is a frustration, and the service across the network should be to a common standard. The variations are in part because waterways are very different. They were constructed by different canal companies, to different designs and standards. Of course, that's part of the joy of our waterways, the intricacies and the heritage, but we continue to strive to meet customer expectations consistently and deliver an accessible and safe network for people to enjoy.
We all recognise the value that waterways bring to people, particularly during this year, where we have seen so many people making the most of their local river or canal during lockdown for exercise or a brief escape. We know that our canals and rivers have the potential to change lives and improve wellbeing, something that our boaters have known for many years! With so much potential and so much to do, the more people who engage with our canal and river network, to enjoy it, use it or volunteer with us, the greater opportunity we have to ensure it will be looked after for generations to come.
Since we became a charity, I am most proud of our volunteers, without whom we would not be able to achieve as much as we do. The passion, the people, the heritage, the environment and the value it brings to people, make my job deeply satisfying.
I act as a key point of contact within the organisation. Amongst many things, I offer advice, guidance and signposting for anyone who has a concern about the welfare of boaters on our waterways. I have been with the Trust for five and a half years, and the awareness of safeguarding, boater welfare and surrounding policies have become increasingly paramount for all.
Working within the boating customer service team, my role and the type of work I do can be quite varied and often challenging. I work as closely as I can with local teams to make sure that we can help, identify and support people that need that extra level of care, and manage the more complex situations.
The level of support is very much individually tailored to the situation and can include things like financial or health concerns. We look at what support options are available, what we can do and we signpost people accordingly.
I collaborate with specialist support agencies such as Bristol’s Julian House, and national organisations like the Waterways Chaplaincy, which has a specific focus on boaters. These and other partnerships and multi-agency groups work really well, helping us in promoting boaters' wellbeing.
Crucial to the success of supporting people is working with my boating colleagues when assessing the need for equality adjustments. We want to empower people with protected characteristics to be able to continue enjoying our canals to the best of their abilities.
I also sit within our central safeguarding team and offer support and guidance with any boating safeguarding concerns. I review our training, policies and practices, often linking up with local authorities to ensure that vulnerability concerns are raised appropriately.
I have been a volunteer lock keeper on the River Trent for six seasons. The core part of a day at a lock is spent helping boaters as they make their way up and down the river, easing their passage safely through the very large locks that are on the Trent. Before I started volunteering, I thought I understood locks, but I soon realised there is a lot more to them than the basic principles. There are so many differences in scale and complexity, especially with these big commercial locks.
Boaters and their boats come in all shapes and sizes, with huge differences in their level of experience and ability to handle their boats. The mood of the river can change from day to day, so keeping in touch with fellow lock keepers up and down the river and giving boaters the level of support they need to be safe on the water is as important as actually operating the locks for them.
Apart from this, there are essential routine checks on the locks and the wider lock sites to be carried out, to keep everything working properly. There are also queries from boaters and the passing general public to be dealt with and, very occasionally, differences of opinion between boaters to be resolved.
A wet Tuesday in October can sometimes feel like a long day, but there is a lot of satisfaction to be gained from a busy day helping 30 or 40 boats through your lock with the minimum of fuss and delay, getting the thanks of grateful boaters and, best of all, finding a can of beer on the side of the lock as a little thank you.
Primarily my role involves patrolling canal and river lengths, logging boat data onto my iPad. This information produces a history of boat movements. It also identifies boats that are not adhering to our licence terms and conditions, such as unlicensed and unidentified boats, and those without verified moorings that should continuously cruise and may be overstaying permitted time limits.
My area covers the Llangollen, Montgomery, Staffordshire & Worcester and Shropshire Union (Middlewich branch) canals, and the Weaver Navigation. I am part of a team of 11, which includes a supervisor, 4 licence support officers and 6 other licensing rangers.
We're often the first point of contact, not just for boaters, but anglers, walkers and all towpath users, in fact. Our aim is to provide a wide range of support and information whilst carrying out our daily duties. Sometimes we experience anti-social behaviour. Sometimes we encounter someone with a vulnerability, which we highlight to the licensing officers so that they can provide further support. We have been trained to ensure we address data protection as well as equality, whilst providing and collating information.
No two days are the same, and although my job involves ‘lone working’, our safety takes priority. We use the Crisys call system as well as a buddying system with a colleague. We arrange lifts and drop off points to ensure that we both finish together. We cover the lengths either cycling or by foot. At some times of the year our towpaths can be muddy, but the summer months are a delight. I walk an average of 10 miles a day, which means my whole patch is covered within a 14-day period. Walking in the rain and snow is pretty miserable, but there are so many beautiful locations we walk through, experiencing wildlife and ancient structures, especially on the Montgomery and Llangollen canals.
I oversee two teams, responsible for different areas but reliant on each other. An operational team, who look after the waterways, keeping them safe, attractive and welcoming, and a wellbeing and engagement team, who rise to the challenge of capturing the attention and awareness of the local communities, to encourage more use of the green space. We need to change perception from the traditional notion of the canal hidden at the back of an industrial area to today's reality of the canal as an important accessible green and blue space.
I come from a background of regeneration and economic development, so joining the Trust in 2018 as regional director for the West Midlands, particularly under the new vision for the Trust as a waterways and wellbeing charity, answered my calling. I always want to be involved with community cohesion, community engagement and community wellbeing.
The West Midlands area is the largest of our six regions, with 900 kilometres of waterways. It has a dense urban core, but also a substantial rural area. We have the added uniqueness of major international events happening over the next couple of years. The City of Culture and the Commonwealth Games add another dimension and new opportunities to our network.
As local authorities introduce policies around air quality, we can support connectivity and our towpaths come into their own for pedestrians and cyclists. We are using all these opportunities to showcase how a 200-year-old structure continues to evolve and to be an integral part of the future. Although our own resources are limited, we are very fortunate in the West Midlands to have developed such strong partnerships, attracting significant investment in our towpaths and access points. For example, 80% of the 56km of towpaths in Birmingham are now all-weather surfaces, as well as the entire length of towpath from Birmingham to Wolverhampton.
However, nothing would happen without our boating community. The character of the canals over the past 50 years or so would not have been possible without those boaters who have made it what it is. Many of them also volunteer with us, and this is really critical. At present we have 860 volunteers, in many roles, keeping the canals clean, helping with maintenance, and in some cases bringing old derelict canals back into use.
I feel proud to work for an organisation that is so serious about its guardianship of a national treasure, but also so caring towards volunteers and customers. Making a tiny contribution to that effort and experiencing the goodwill generated from our partnerships is extremely rewarding.
My role is to monitor the waterways for change. I'm watching those faults that we are already aware of, to see whether there has been any change, and also looking out for new faults. I also check on work that has been carried out, to ensure the fault has been rectified. My stretch of the East Midland waterways includes the area north of Cosgrove on the Grand Union Canal up to Braunston, as well as the Northampton Arm, Market Harborough Arm and the Leicester Arm, the River Soar up to the junction with the River Trent and the Ashby Canal.
On a typical day out on the bank, I would download the appropriate file to my iPad, then drive to a convenient parking place before starting my walk. This would depend, in length, on the number of locks on the stretch. If there were few, I might walk up to 15km, there and back, but locks can slow you up, so it would take more time to inspect those areas with many locks. The iPad is linked to our database, so I would be notified of any previously reported faults or issues as I walked along. I could then compare the state of them to the description we have, to ascertain any change. I can enter details into the iPad as I go along. Once a week I will spend a day in the office catching up on administration.
No two days are the same. There are slips, cracks, missing signs, overgrown vegetation. Any number of issues might crop up. An example of the unexpected happened in April. A suspected sink hole opened up in a spoil heap above Blisworth Tunnel on the Grand Union Canal. There was a fear that it might impact upon the tunnel, so the historic boat, Sculptor, moored at Stoke Bruerne, was commandeered to take me and the engineer to inspect the tunnel for damage. The cause of the sinkhole was ascertained, and we decided to continue monitoring it in future.
There are pros and cons about the work. It's lovely being out and about, watching the changing seasons, but the weather can be extremely challenging. Even with the best waterproof clothing, I still seem to get soaked at times, and my hands get so numb in the cold weather. Likewise, the sun can be unbearable some days in the summer, beating down relentlessly.
The role has changed over the years, from being pen and paper-based to using the latest technology. Although there are training modules for this type of work, experience really counts. Knowledge of the different types of locks and what they look like empty, where culverts go, the way a certain structure changes in heat or in the depths of winter, when the land is soaked or parched, and so on, count just as much as hypothetical learning.
I work as part of the asset improvement directorate, making sure that all of our canals and navigations are safe and usable by our customers. My team makes sure that the network’s structures are in good working order by fixing faults and problems, of which there are a number, as you can imagine on a system that is over 200 years old.
The 300-person department I lead is largely responsible for construction work and the team are all employees. We are like an internal contracting service. We undertake the majority of the heritage-based repairs and all the lock gate replacements around the network. Each winter we replace between 130 and 160 lock gate leaves between November and March. So the quietest time as far as canal usage is concerned is our busiest time of the year. We have a very skilled and experienced team of carpenters, bricklayers and masons undertaking the work in a sensitive and considerate manner.
Supporting this work I also have responsibility for two lock gate manufacturing workshops at Bradley in the West Midlands and Stanley Ferry near Wakefield. These workshops use traditional methods to build all the lock gates that the construction team install. I also manage the team who look after our workboat fleet, making sure those boats are serviced, maintained and refurbished.
My enthusiasm and love of the canals has never diminished over the 25 years that I’ve been helping to care for them. The sense of achievement and satisfaction in keeping our historic waterway network working gives me a great deal of pleasure. Add in the environment, the variety of work and most importantly the people that I meet through my work, and you have the perfect combination.
As a hydrologist working in the water management team, I provide hydrological support in numerous areas, many of which are related to boating. I am involved in a wide range of projects which cross over water resource and flood risk management disciplines.
The most high-profile project I have supported is the Toddbrook Reservoir incident. This work was very intense but clearly important and very interesting. To help our boating community continue to enjoy the Peak Forest Canal I have been working hard to maximise water supply from the Toddbrook catchment. I have also worked with our regulator, the Environment Agency (EA), to solve water supply issues.
Over the last 18 months, I have contributed to the 155 water abstraction licences that we have submitted to the EA. These licences will regulate our abstractions [water taken from natural sources], which is a requirement of changing government legislation. The next 24 months is critical as we enter the period where these applications will be determined by the EA. Our team may need to work hard in order to ensure that our abstractions are protected in some places where there are water stresses in the environment. It’s going to be a challenging time, but an exciting one all the same. Receiving our first surface water abstraction licences will be a momentous occasion in our history, which will hopefully enable us to celebrate security of water supply for many years to come.
My team also takes a balanced view and assesses each new marina proposal based on water availability, while trying to support new developments. Marinas need to be located in places where they won’t cause water supply problems for existing boaters through decreasing the amount of time our canals can stay open. We also undertake flood risk assessments to weigh up the risk and identify any mitigations required before new discharges, some of which can bring us significant revenue, can be accepted into the canal. Our team are also progressing water transfer schemes with a number of water companies, which will not only bring in a huge revenue but also secure a more robust future supply of water to some canals.
One of my most important challenges is to strike a balance between maintaining progress around strategic work, such as our emerging Flood Risk Strategy, and water resource projects. An example of the latter is investigating the feasibility of increased water supply into the future and driving down canal water losses, while supporting our regional teams to optimise water resource usage. This is particularly important during times when resources are scarce.
The start to the 2020 boating season was not only impacted by government restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but also an exceptionally dry period. May 2020 was the driest and sunniest May and spring was the fifth driest spring on record for the UK. This created a huge water resource impact across our canals, particularly in the north-west of England, which we carefully managed to support our boating community as best we could. We maintained a high level of communication, in writing and also at face-to-face and virtual meetings.
I work with the boat licence customer support team, and am based at the office in Stourport. I work alongside the rangers who collect boat sightings and the licence support advisors who interpret the data that the rangers have collected. Subsequent queries are passed through to myself and I endeavour to resolve the issues raised. My role involves ensuring that our many by-laws are upheld, particularly making certain that all craft are licensed.
Licence fees are really important to the orgnisation, contributing 10% of our income. I also make sure that continuous cruisers adhere to the guidelines. Much of my role involves dealing with boaters or members of the public and answering queries or trying to resolve issues. However, if after much mediation boaters fail to comply with their licence terms and conditions, it may mean that we have to take them to court and ultimately we may seize their boat. Our main tool is our power under Section 8 of the British Waterways Act to remove boats if they remain there without permission or are persistently in breach of the licence terms and conditions. However, this is very much a last resort.
We are increasingly seeing many vulnerable boaters suffering ill health or financial hardship. Once I have identified boaters with such needs, I work with them to ascertain whether they might need an adjustment to their cruising pattern, if they’re continuous cruisers living on their craft, or if they need financial or pastoral support. With their consent I may refer them to the Waterway Chaplains, who offer care and support to those living on the UK's waterways. Additionally, we have the support of our in-house welfare officer, Sean Williams.
Often we are the first point of contact for many boaters or members of the public and answer a diverse range of queries. However, after 18 years in this role I still enjoy the challenges that the position brings and feel privileged that I have been able to work for such an esteemed organisation.
I lead the operational teams, preparing and delivering a plan of works for the region. I hold ownership of the region’s operational performance and all works within it, on behalf of the director, to ensure the region’s waterways are safe and inspiring places for activity and engagement.
Working closely with senior colleagues within the region, I facilitate the delivery of the regional strategy and I’m responsible for ensuring that it is converted into successful long-term work programmes and initiatives. One of these projects is working closely with the boating and customer service manager to deliver the London Mooring Strategy and to roll out the learning from this across the wider region.
Day to day, my teams are the face of the organisation out on the waterways, undertaking multiple tasks and activities. These include water control, preventative maintenance, responding to customers, volunteer events, looking after the towpaths, reservoir inspections, contract management, fly tipping removal, reactive repairs, the list goes on! We are available 24/7, with a response team on hand out of hours to ensure user and visitor safety, and satisfaction is always maintained.
I started in this role in May 2019, but I’m not new to the organisation. It’s been exciting and rewarding to be part of the transformation of the region, sharing and releasing the potential of our waterways for the communities that they serve, and engaging with the public in our work. There is still much more that we can do, and of course the work continues as we strive to identify opportunities that will improve the customer experience and levels of customer engagement with my operational teams.
My role is to ensure that all of the above can happen, and it’s something that I thoroughly enjoy. Every day provides fresh, new challenges counterbalanced with much reward and pride.
My primary role is to manage the customer support teams based in the North West, at Northwich, Red Bull and Wigan, and the boat licence customer support team, who work across the whole of the North West region. I am responsible for managing all customer-related regional contacts, enquiries and complaints, providing insight and action recommendations to the regional teams and maintaining consistency in managing non-compliance, legal cases and the provision of appropriate licensing support for boaters.
I work closely with the area operations managers and their teams across the North West, as well as a wide variety of other teams and external stakeholders.
As an experienced boater and coming from a consumer-focused background, I am passionate about delivering the best possible service to our customers every time that they contact us. I support the regional director and his teams in delivering service excellence.
The best, and often the most challenging, aspect of the role is that no two days are the same. You never know what the next new problem is going to be. Job satisfaction comes each day from knowing that customer expectations have been met, and preferably exceeded.
My team acts as the primary point of contact for anyone operating, or interested in running, a business on our waters.
A boat used for any purpose other than private leisure use will fall into one of the business licence categories. Business boating customers include hire and passenger boat operators, moorings and marina businesses, static businesses based on boats, and roving traders. We provide advice and information to both existing and prospective business boating customers, enabling them to make informed decisions about starting or expanding their business.
We act as an account manager for all the business customers in our allocated geographical area, working closely with the estate and technical managers. This involves providing information to new applicants, assessing new applications and identifying what they require from us in order to set up their business. We work closely with our estates team colleagues to support customers who also require a lease, licence or network agreement.
We provide colleagues across many disciplines with advice and support on business boating, on matters such as events, planning applications, and customer and stakeholder meetings.
We’re also responsible for effectively managing, promoting and developing business opportunities that contribute to the organisation’s aims to increase the number of people using the waterways, whilst protecting the integrity of the network.
Last date edited: 28 October 2020