For many , many moons, the river has been managed on the lines set by the Thames Conservancy Act of 1932 which provided for income from a small number of clearly defined sources – registration fees, lock tolls, local authority levies, water extraction fees etc. These sources of income have been eroded by successive legislation and changes in current practice. Additionally, government funding by way of assigned budgetary support and, in more recent years (since Thatcher) the concept of “Grant in Aid” provided the additional funds needed to provide levels of maintenance and service that we all came to recognise as “the norm”. Note this does not mean that we were legally entitled to these services, just that it was considered reasonable to provide them and it was relatively easy to do so with funding reasonably easy to access.
This has all changed – BIG TIME !
Government have embarked on a massive reduction in public spending on services which they believe should not be funded by the public purse. Not only this, they are also, and rightly in my view, intent on reducing the cost to the taxpayer of providing essential services such as education, health, welfare, defence etc.
The Environment Agency are therefore no longer able to obtain the levels of funding needed to provide our much loved services – particularly assisted passage by resident lock keepers at every lock during the working day 7 days a week come rain or shine. Crazy though it may seem, they do not have sufficient funding to ensure adequate resources to collect the monies they are due from those reluctant to pay registration fees or to exercise their responsibility for enforcing bye-laws such as speeding.
River users, and particularly powered craft boaters who pay by far the greatest share of registration income, have been strenuously resisting further rises in such charges – hardly surprising.
As I have said before ( some would say ad nauseum) the EA do not have any remit, nor do they consider it part of their responsibility, to promote the river as a recreational or commercial facility. Legal and fiscal policy severely restrict their ability to explore and bring in new income streams to replace the funds lost by reductions in public purse funding. Their job is simply to manage the waterway as best they can with the resources available year by year.
Make no mistake, there will be further reductions in government contribution and the situation will get worse.
So, what can be done?
1. Government could have a change of heart, recognise the importance of the river as a national asset and resource, and return to making a realistic contribution. Pigs, wings, fly etc but even if that were to be what would be considered realistic?
2. Users could accept that if they want to enjoy specific services than they will need to pay a realistic contribution to the cost of providing those services. Pigs, wings, fly etc as in 1 above.
3. Government could proceed with transferring the management of the waterway to the Canal and River Trust, the EA (and DEFRA) could heave a sigh of relief and it would be for C&RT to take up the struggle to make the river a viable and vibrant recreational waterway. Government would need to reach agreement with C&RT regarding the level of government funding to be made available over the next ten or fifteen years
which would likely not be as much as we would like but would at least be guaranteed rather than subject to the vagaries of government spending reviews and annual budgets as it is now.
4. Something else ……
As usual, I offer no ideas for quick fix solutions. What we do need, whatever the forward path may be, is clarity of expectations and intent. What do river users want? What are they prepared to pay? If that income is insufficient how else can it be raised? If it cannot be raised will river users recognise that they must revise their expectations?
However, it is not really that simple. The sheer complexity of river ownership, the myriad of user groups (each with their own agenda), the fact that Government itself is up to its *rs* in alligators and has little time to concentrate on a small matter like draining the swamp, all conspire to ensure that there cannot and will not be any “quick” fix. Arguments and discussions – government call it “consultation” will go on for ever while things continue to decline.