Boating with John Dodwell

Words and photographs by Martin Ludgate

I don’t see myself as a boater,” remarks John Dodwell as he steps off his 1942 BCN tug. Resisting the temptation to say “you could have fooled me”, I let him continue. John sees himself more as a waterways lover – heritage, boats, wildlife and more. But he’s the Trustee seen as bringing his waterways knowledge to the Canal & River Trust as it prepared to take over from British Waterways.

Growing up near the Thames, John canoed the length of the non-tidal river; his brother Tim was involved in the working parties of the London & Home Counties branch of the Inland Waterways Association which led to the founding of Waterway Recovery Group.

John’s involvement included the 1964 Stratford Canal reopening; the fight for the Stourbridge; the ‘big digs’ on the Cheshire Ring; the Upper Avon – at the same time as training as an accountant. He admits at the Droitwich Dig he was involved as ‘a suit’ – and this move to the ‘political’ side included three years as IWA General Secretary.



Business and pleasureReturning to accountancy, he dropped out of IWA activity, “in fairness to my successor” and to raise a family. Financial knowledge led into business planning (raising capital and spotting opportunities for small companies) and to setting up a water freight consultancy, advising on grants, and helping schemes such as the gravel traffic on the Severn and Grand Union. He chaired the Commercial Boat Operators’ Association, broadening its interests to more large-scale barge traffic. From there, he was invited onto the Inland Waterways Advisory Committee and eventually to be a CRT Trustee – for his property and business knowledge as much as his boating interest.

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That boating interest had been maintained by hireboat trips until an inheritance in 2001 led him to ask the late Alan T Smith to  “…remind me of all the reasons why boat ownership is a bad idea – the maintenance, mooring costs and so on…” Alan called back shortly to say “I’ve found just the boat for you!”. And that’s how I came to be meeting John on Helen, heading down through Huddersfield towards the Calder & Hebble.




Is there enough money?Knowing his financial background, I tackled him on the income predictions for CRT. He admitted that the ‘charitable’ funding aims seemed “ambitious”, but assured by fellow Trustees Lynne Berry of the WRVS and Jane Cotton of Oxfam that they were achievable, he felt “if that’s what the experts say, they’re better placed to judge”. He felt the Trustees’ other areas of knowledge, such as property and water companies, could raise significant cash – if water transfer schemes happened we would be dealing with “companies that think in hundreds of millions”, while the Wood Wharf property deal in London’s Docklands could still generate more money.

In the short-term, I suggest there might be tough times as we wait for the extra �10m per year from Defra in 2015. John doesn’t believe it will get “bad” – more that “things we’d like to see done won’t get done”. He’s fed up of hearing that the canals are heading back to the state they were in 50 years ago from people who weren’t there. He was.

He points out that boating, property rental and (with the 15-year contract agreed as part of setting up CRT) Government income is reliable, and allows forward plans which won’t get ditched because the grant’s been cut at the last minute – as happened before.

As an example, Lapworth Locks will see a �1m work programme over 2013-14 with a saving on ‘mobilising and demobilising’ cost compared with a series of smaller jobs.

John accepts, though, that things won’t be great for those early years. Major asset conditions will worsen – albeit not to anything like the state ten years ago: “Defra would haul CRT in before then.”

Still on money, I raise boaters’ fears of increasing licence fees. John is very clear: “I would hate to see waterways become a playground for the rich. It’s a horrible phrase but we need to maintain the ‘social mix’.” He is very aware there will be another debate with the Government on funding after the current contract ends in 2026. It won’t be easy to argue that they are ‘waterways for all’ if costs for boaters have been pushed up to the point of diminishing returns. On the other hand, boaters do make a useful contribution to funding, CRT has to be “sensibly commercial”, he says. “We’re a charity, but not in the sense of being a ‘soft touch’.” He can’t guarantee fees won’t rise, but “our objective is not to stifle demand”.




Expansion?After pausing briefly at Aspley Basin to take on water (and for John to nip into the chandlery to buy a handspike, a length of wood used to operate the Calder & Hebble paddles), we continue our journey. I ask about bringing in the Environment Agency rivers: John replies that the Trustees are keen, as is the Government – but there is the “awful financial question”. Firstly there is a need to separate navigation costs from matters such as flooding (John cites Denver Sluice on the Great Ouse which “sooner or later will need replacing”); secondly, the EA waterways don’t come with any commercial property. “We didn’t take on the BW system without a dowry, and we can’t take on the EA rivers without some kind of support.” This applies to other canals: if, say, the Basingstoke were transferred, it would have to come with some support, as happened with the Tees.

Does the same apply to expanding CRT’s navigable network by restoring waterways? This is one of a dozen areas, he says, where future policy is under review. He feels the fact that it’s worth reviewing is a good sign. Restorations won’t get big funding from CRT – but technical help could be available. John feels that’s no different from the BW days (for example, the Droitwich was largely paid for by non-BW sources) and the key aim is getting to the right point to be ready for  this funding. He stresses, though, that the trustees want to see canals restored (“we think waterways are a good thing, so more waterways would be a better thing”). And sooner rather than later: at a celebration of 40 years of restoration on the Montgomery Canal, his response was “I don’t think there’s anything to celebrate about the fact we still haven’t finished it after 40 years. Commemorate, maybe…” John suggests one way the Trust might help where BW couldn’t would be to run a restoration appeal.





How will volunteers help?Restoration leads us on to volunteering. John would like to see the collaboration with WRG on the Oxford Canal bridges project (see Restoration, page 72) lead to more of the same – and not just with WRG. Given his background it’s no surprise that John subscribes to the view that “volunteers can do a lot more than litter-picking”. He accepts it will take time, but CRT needs to work out how to work with volunteers, not to tell them that “we can’t because it doesn’t fit in with our way of thinking”. That said, he stresses that CRT has undertaken not to replace any full time permanent employee with a volunteer: “we’ll get them doing stuff that otherwise wouldn’t have been done.”

That (and our arrival at the first of the nine broad locks leading down to the Calder & Hebble) brings us to volunteer lock-keepers. John feels they have a key role in spotting problems, sorting out the minor ones (such as low pounds) and passing on the serious ones; that would free up staff to concentrate on what they’re good at.

He gives an example on the Mon & Brec where a member of staff, employed to  repair brick-built channel walls and  bridges, was constantly being called away to sort out a blocked paddle or a jammed gate “…and by the time he got back, his mortar had gone off”; now, a volunteer keeper handles most problems and he can get on with his bricklaying.

In John’s view the main sticking point isn’t staff attitudes, shortage of suitable work or lack of volunteers; it’s looking after them. He feels the recent appointment of a volunteer co-ordinator in each regional partnership area and a national committee that can learn from other organisations (he mentions Kew Gardens where “you can’t tell the volunteers from the paid staff”) will help. a source of friction?

On the subject of regional partnerships,  I ask whether he foresees friction between established staff and those new to the canals. John accepts that everyday canal work isn’t familiar to outsiders, but believes induction meetings held in all partnership areas and national meetings on matters including planning and engineering could help.

He points out that the partnerships are only advisory but that if partnership members feel they’re being ignored they’ll soon get fed up and say so – and with all their chairs having places on the national Council they’ve got a direct line to the top.

While there might be a slight attitude of “what do these people know about waterways?” he feels that’s not their aim; it’s their connections with local authorities that matter. He gives an example from Lancashire where the Regional Partnership has led to authorities along the Leeds & Liverpool working to put together a local plan for the canal corridor.

Changing the subject, I ask about waterways freight, given his background in CBOA. This is another area where policy is under review – but he feels that it’s ‘horses for courses’. Yes, CRT likes to see working narrowboats selling coal, but commercial freight is about bigger loads on wider waterways. “We have to be realistic, but to look for the opportunities when they arise”: he gives the example of the Edmonton incinerator on London’s River Lee, where a long-term contract to take rubbish in and ash out is up for renewal, which might provide such an opportunity.

From the practical to the philosophical: does John see any sign of the ‘us and them’ attitude replaced by ‘we’re all in it together’ with the change to a charity. His response is a slightly non-committal “that depends on who the ‘us’ is” – ordinary boaters, the waterways organisations, or those involved in online forums and the like. But as one who’s seen it from both sides – BW saying “IWA will never change” and vice versa –  he feels both sides are already changing.

And that leads us on to boater representation on the Trust’s governing Council. Is four seats out of 35 a paltry share for an important function? Or conversely, could it be that too many boaters might lead to a view that if the canals are run by and for boaters, then it’s right that they pay for them? John doesn’t take either view: he sees it as a mistake to pigeonhole members as boaters or whatever. For example, John Yates and Peter Brown, representing heritage, are boat owners. David Gibson, representing walkers, was involved in an IWA campaign to save Paddington Basin. And Neil Wyatt, wildlife representative, is  a keen waterways enthusiast.

We’re back to ‘waterways for all’ – and  to John not seeing himself as a boater. As if to illustrate this, while we’ve been cruising down the Huddersfield Broad Canal we’ve spotted a kingfisher and worked out how an old mill used to get its goods in and out.




What happens in 15 years?Finally we discuss the future beyond the  15-year contract. John’s feeling is that there is likely to be continuing Government support – so long as we keep talking to MPs, feeding them stories about how good the waterways are, and how much better they are if properly funded. And by “we” he means all of us – he reckons if it’s just CRT telling them, the MPs will say “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” This is where John sees a continuing role for IWA as an independent voice in dealings with Government – although “the day for strident editorials denouncing navigation authorities is probably over”. On the subject of waterway organisations, I mention the Friends of CRT. John would like to see boaters joining, in the spirit of “waterways for everyone” – even though he appreciates as a boat owner that they pay towards the canals in plenty of other ways.  

And speaking of boaters, that’s one thing that we haven’t seen on our trip – any other boats. Partly it’s down to limits on passages through Standedge Tunnel ? and John’s been speaking to the Huddersfield Canal Society on the subject. He reckons it’s being used as much as it can be under the current regime of accompanied passages on certain days only. That could change completely, but “that’s a different debate”. In the meantime, he feels a proposal for some CRT staff to work on the basis of ‘total hours’ rather than fixed-length days might mean that they could get five boats through instead of three on the days they operate. It’s a start...

Meanwhile, we’re struggling slightly with the gates on one lock. John spots some floating rubbish blocking the entry to the bywash, raising the level of the pound by  an inch and making it difficult to get a level. He quickly bends down and clears it out. For one who doesn’t see himself as a boater, he seems to know a fair bit about boating.