The Canal & River Trust: the local council hiding in charity’s clothing

A boat! Image: Brian Robert Marshall via Creative Commons.

Earlier this year, a 67-year-old pensioner and his dog were made homeless after being turfed out of their houseboat on east London’s River Lea. The man, known locally as Slow Tony, was relatively fortunate: his community rallied and crowdfunded for a new boat.

But not all such cases have a happy ending. In 2013, a mentally ill woman was missing for weeks after being evicted from her houseboat, before eventually resurfacing living in a tent. The National Bargee Travellers Association (NBTA), an organisation that often works with vulnerable boaters, did not wish to go into detail of the woman’s case, but told CityMetric: “It did not end well”.

Both she and Slow Tony had failed to keep up to date with their licence fee payments to the Canal & River Trust (CRT), a charity that has reluctantly become a de-facto council for a large number of live-aboard boaters. In addition to its already gargantuan duty of maintaining the UK’s extensive and very old inland waterways – which require constant attention to prevent a catastrophic failure – the CRT is also tasked with supplying water, disposing of sewage, dealing with rubbish and, if you’re a lucky boater in the right place at the right time, even recycling.

In exchange for these services, the CRT levies a license fee that feels an awful lot like council tax. If you don’t or can’t pay this, the CRT has the power to evict you. Now this could be explained as a grim but inevitable side-effect, but the charity doesn’t offer anything in the way of democratic accountability for their actions. Of the CRT’s 29 council members  – who are, in reality, in strictly advisory roles with only a small degree of influence over the executive –  there are only eight elected positions, of which just four are for private boaters. (Two others own or have owned boating businesses.)

To make matters worse, almost all of those who can vote towards these few seats are in fact “leisure boaters”. Just 23 per cent of private boats in the UK are used as a permanent home – the remainder are owned by people who enjoy the canals for a bit of fun but live elsewhere – meaning full-time boaters are but a small voice in a crowd, with almost no power to influence those who govern the canals. This is in spite of the organisation having direct control over large aspects of their lives. Although it is possible for boaters to complain to the trust, whether or not to act is then ultimately the decision of mostly unelected officials.

I asked the CRT how, with no seats at its council earmarked specifically for them, it can ensure that live-aboard boaters’ voices are heard. The charity told me: 

“Boaters are an extremely diverse group and any decisions are unlikely to please everyone. Our aim is to manage the waterways fairly for all the boating community and we believe that through open communication and working together, we can achieve this.”

Yet this statement failed to address my biggest concern: people whose permanent homes are the canals are not being listened to. For their democratic fix, live-aboards are instead required to join third-sector groups such as the NBTA.

Of the three such organisations working with people permanently living on boats, the NBTA is the only one to focus specifically on live-aboards licensed with CRT as “continuous cruisers”. This licence dictates that the boaters must move at least once every two weeks, travelling at least a 20-mile range over the course of a year. 

This requirement – which the CRT admits that failing to fulfil could cause a boater to “run into trouble when it comes to renewing your licence” – can lead to all sorts of issues. For example, for many families it can play havoc with the school run. Statutory guidance advises that young children should not be walking more than two miles each way to school; yet if you have to move 20 miles over a year, then this obviously isn’t feasible.

The NBTA, along with boaters, lobbied MPs – who in turn forced the CRT to compromise. Yet despite their February 2017 promise to publish adapted requirements, none have been released. With MPs across the house now preoccupied with larger national issues, the plight of the live-aboard families are being marginalised.


As the NBTA told CityMetric, “The CRT is no longer accountable to parliament and Bargee Travellers no longer have a voice.”

It’s worth noting that, while financial contribution shouldn’t be a prerequisite for representation, boaters do help fill CRT’s coffers. In the last financial year the licensing fees from boaters and boating businesses made up 23 per cent of the organisation’s income, a figure the charity itself expects to creep up to a quarter in the coming year. How this money is being spent is completely up to the trust, and transparency is kept fairly low through caveats in the requirements of the 2000 Freedom of Information Act.

The CRT is required to answer questions related to its statutory functions; but this doesn’t include its fundraising, commercial or charitable activities. This blind spot affecting those living on the water began when the CRT inherited the canal system from the publicly owned British Waterways in 2012. Even having been through a big reorganisation ths year – in which it adopted new governance guidelines and rebranded itself as a “wellbeing” charity rather than one focused on the waterways – the CRT has never made any mention of housing, despite directly managing the 15,000 people living on the UK’s waterways.

But the nationwide pressure on housing means this number is likely to rise, particularly in major cities like London. The number of boats registered in the capital has almost doubled in the last six years to over 4000. This is a growing constituency without a voice.

The CRT isn’t an evil organisation exploiting boaters. It’s simply something that we’re seeing more and more of: an underfunded charity trying to do a huge task. But with the power that has fallen to it, to provide essential services and even evict, we should be asking: is it time for live-aboard boaters to have a greater say in how their “council” is run?

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.