Steve Haywood: the EA is shirking its responsibilities

PUBLISHED: 10:14 16 November 2016 | UPDATED: 11:37 16 November 2016

What's on Steve's mind?

What's on Steve's mind?

Archant

The Environment Agency has made an enemy of our opinionated columnist and award-winning current affairs TV producer, journalist and author Steve Haywood

Every month, it seems, the cost and inconvenience of boating increases. You’d think it would be simple – You buy a boat, a licence and that would be it. Except it gets more complicated.

The decision earlier this year by Peel Holdings, owners of the Bridgewater, is the latest. They’re scrapping a reciprocal agreement with the Canal & River Trust, so that although boaters coming off CRT waterways will still get seven days’ free cruising, they won’t be able to return for 28 days. Then they’ll have to buy a £40 licence.

If nothing else, this sharp bit of business reminds us the dream of the early waterways pioneers of a single waterways authority is still a long way from being realised.

At the moment, there’s a whole rag, tag and bobtail of organisations as well as CRT and Peel Holdings, who can charge us on top of our standard licence. There’s the Avon Trust, Cam Conservators, National Trust, Basingstoke Canal Authority, and now the Middle Level Commissioners announced they’re thinking of imposing a cruising charge for the first time in their history.

Picturesque St Neots on the Great Ouse | Richard Scott, Flickr CC2.0Picturesque St Neots on the Great Ouse | Richard Scott, Flickr CC2.0

Largest among the organisations, of course, is the Environment Agency, that offshoot of the government’s Department for Food and Rural Affairs charged ‘to protect and enhance the environment’. Its remit covers flood and pollution protection over the whole 32 million acres of England and 3,000 miles of coastline. Oh yes, and it has a few rivers it’s responsible for.

I’ve been thinking about the EA recently. Partly because I’ve been travelling along the gorgeous Great Ouse, one of its rivers, but mainly because – but for the government’s tight-fistedness in not finding the money to fund it – the CRT would even now be in the process of taking over the EA’s river responsibilities.

As it is, the same muppets who will spend billions knocking five minutes off a rail journey between London and Birmingham have starved this East Anglian jewel of cash. And the Great Ouse is suffering for it.

You don’t have to be on the river long before you realise many of the tasks that should be EA’s responsibility are carried out by volunteers from the Great Ouse Boating Association. Indeed, if it wasn’t for GOBA, you’d hardly be able to cruise the river at all. It’s not just that they provide most of the moorings, they’ve had to turn their hand to dredging too. Even so, there’s a limit to what they can do.

Small, illegible, inaccurate

The EA’s responsibility seems to end at putting up signs, which are so small. illegible and sometimes inaccurate as to be useless for visitors unfamiliar with the often confusing backwaters of this splendid river. Further up towards Bedford, trees lie where they fell months ago, reducing an already narrow waterway even further.

Yet the EA has powers to deal with riparian owners and they have a responsibility to keep the waterway navigable. A measure of how seriously they take their tasks is that they don’t even get rid of sunken boats.

Locks seem uncertainly maintained, too. One busy afternoon at Hemingford, we helped rescue a couple of hire boats stranded in the lock for hours due to an electrical fault on a guillotine gate. Only to find ourselves stranded straight afterwards!

We later learnt this wasn’t an unusual occurrence, with regular users knowing how to trip the system in a way that would give the EA’s Health & Safety boss a heart attack.

Compared to provision on CRT waters, the EA provides virtually no water points, Elsan or pump-outs on the Great Ouse. Indeed – can you believe this? – it allows boats to discharge into the river. From their sea toilets!

What sort of environment does the EA think it’s protecting? My impression was that it knows it’s going to lose its responsibilities soon and is just leaving the mess for CRT to clear up. The sooner CRT is allowed to get on with the job, the better.

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