Thursday, 29 September 2016

Navigation committee representation to be diluted

The Broads Authority will this week be invited to agree changes to the way that members are appointed to the Navigation Committee, to ensure that commercial interests are no longer entitled to a voice.

The Chief Executive's proposals attempt to formalise last year's re-interpretation of the Broads Act, when the requirement to consult organisations representing commercial interests on the Broads - which is written into the Broads Act - was effectively deleted.

It seems to me that Parliament was very clear in its wishes when it drafted the composition of the Navigation Committee in the 1988 Act:
(a) two shall be appointed after consultation with such bodies appearing to the Authority to represent the owners of pleasure craft available for hire or reward as it considers appropriate; 
(b) one shall be appointed after consultation with such bodies appearing to it to represent nationally the owners of private pleasure craft as it considers appropriate; 
(c) one shall be appointed after consultation with such bodies appearing to it to represent the owners of private pleasure craft which use any part of the Broads as it considers appropriate; 
(d) two shall be appointed after consultation with such bodies appearing to it to represent persons who are likely to be required to pay ship, passenger or goods dues imposed by it as it considers appropriate; 
(e) one shall be appointed after consultation with such bodies appearing to it to represent other users of the navigation area as it considers appropriate; and 
(f) one shall be appointed after consultation with the Great Yarmouth Port Authority. 
The contentious one is (d). The Chief Executive says that this wording can be interpreted to mean 'any toll payer' and provides an extensive legal argument to defend this view. In fact, last year's report ran to 17 pages of spirited defence against strong objections from several prominent commercial organisations including the British Marine Federation, the Broads Hire Boat Federation and Hoseasons.

There's no doubt that it's possible to construct an argument that the wording of the Act could be interpreted to mean 'any toll payer', if you try hard enough. But my question is a simple one. Why would you? The clear intention of the Act was to ensure fair representation for private, hire, commercial and 'other' boat owners. What else could it possibly mean? If the intention of category (d) was to appoint any toll payers - then surely Parliament would simply have said so?

In any event, the members appointed under this category have, to the best of my knowledge, always been representative of commercial boating interests of one kind or another - so why the huge effort to change this now?

In February 2015, navigation committee members were invited to comment on the proposed appointment of 4 new members, all of whom were seated in the room as observers. Despite the undoubted qualities of the new members, this presented a preposterous and embarrassing situation for all concerned, and rendered any debate of the process utterly impossible without the risk of insulting the proposed new members. As a result, there are no navigation committee members appointed after consultation with bodies representing commercial interests (other than hire boats) and BA members are being invited to formalise this on Friday for posterity.

The immediate past Chairman of the navigation committee, David Broad, has already written to members to express his concerns in the strongest possible terms. He reminds them that the composition of the navigation committee has to be in accordance with the BA's legally binding agreement with the RYA and the BMF, and says that statements in the report to members are "misleading and factually incorrect".

Let us hope that our Members will resist this latest attempt to re-interpret legislation and will ensure that the interests of all stakeholders will be properly represented in the future.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Navigation Committee report 8th September 2016

Last week, the navigation committee met for an action packed agenda at Yare House.

There's usually a long delay of several weeks before minutes are published and things have often moved on by that time. So, I thought I would produce a summary of what happened whilst it was still fresh in my brain.

My intention is to be accurate and to present a balanced narrative rather than just my own opinions. It's not an exhaustive report, but I have tried to cover the substantive items. Here are the key points from the meeting.

Broads Plan Review

This is a big project which comes around every 5 years and sets the strategic direction of the Broads (the whole Broads, not just the BA). Officers have done a good job in dividing this up into digestible "bite size chunks" and this week we were asked to consider the revised navigation and recreation sections, which were largely non-controversial. You can read the draft here, as it puts lots of things into context. For example, although the engineering team manage to pull 50,000 cu.m out of the system every year, there is still an estimated backlog of over one million cubic metres to be removed!

Waterways Specification Update at Instead Shoals (River Ant)

The river depth at Instead Shoals was first discussed by navigation committee in June 2015, again in December and once more this week. There seems to be a clear determination to reduce the waterways specification depth at this location from 1.8m to 1.5m below Mean Low Water (MLW) on the basis that the agreed specification requires dredging the 'natural hard bed' of the river and that this would be capital, rather than maintenance, dredging. Capital dredging requires landowner consent as well as lots of licensing and compliance requirements, which officers say would be difficult and expensive, for little benefit.

Although the report was well argued, there are notable differences between the December 2015 and September 2016 reports. For example, in December, water levels were said to be above the MLW of 0.26mOD 90% of the time. But the new report increased this to 95%, reinforcing their view that low water levels rarely fall to MLW levels. This suggests to me that the 'mean' low water level is not actually the mean, and we therefore don't know the true extent of the issue.  Last year, officers also said that the Irstead Shoals area was the location where "boat users have expressed most concern" whereas the new report says that the "level of complaints has been low".

The thing which most concerned me in this report was the presentation of costs, which seemed to be over-inflated to support the recommendation. For example, river engineer & environmental officer costs were included at £245 per day, which is far more than the wage cost. When the Authority wants to demonstrate how affordable something is, it will often omit staff costs on the basis that the wages have to be paid anyway. The in-house solicitor's salary is not usually included when presenting the costs of legal action, for example. But this time they've included the full charge-out cost to push the figures up. So some consistency is needed, here.

I was also concerned that the construction team cost of £54k assumed mobilisation and site preparation, rather than the marginal cost of digging deeper when equipment was already on site. I requested details of the likely cost of going deeper as part of a routine dredging operation in that location, rather than a one-off visit and a figure of about £30,000 was given.

There was a lively debate over the need for a depth greater than 1.5m, with one member suggesting that it was only modern extreme racing yachts which draw more than 4ft, that they were not fit for purpose on the Broads and their owners should just accept that they can't sail to Barton. Another member pointed out that in fact many of these racing yachts with deep drafts were built over 100 years ago and all (including the new ones) were most certainly designed for racing on the Broads!

One member was concerned about the possible impact on fish spawning grounds if the natural gravel bed was removed, suggesting that mitigation measures could be required to replace lost habitat. However the corollary to this was that digging gravel would only reveal more gravel below, so the impact was likely to be marginal.

Two useful suggestions were a) that the trees in the area should be cut back as a matter of urgency, as they restricted the manoeuvrability of sailing boats which could be forced into shallower areas to avoid hitting overhanging branches; and b) that the engineering team could consider a less expensive deeper 'V' channel in the centre of the river at this location, rather than the wider trapezoid shape, as a compromise.

It was also agreed to provide water depth information boards as a priority.

Hardley Flood and The River Chet

This was another issue which had occupied the minds of members considerably, back in April. Norfolk County Council had proposed to extinguish a section of the Wherryman's Way trail along the River Chet at Hardley Flood, because of the deterioration of the river bank and the collapse of a bridge. They took the view that, as highways authority, they were only responsible for the surface of the path rather than the land supporting it.

Because this land does not form part of the flood defence (which is further back, behind Hardley Flood), the Environment Agency are not responsible for it either and it was unclear whether the land owner would have the resources (or willingness) to fund repairs.

Last time, Members felt that the Authority needed to take a lead in facilitating a solution for this problem, whilst acknowledging that it didn't have the ultimate responsibility for maintaining the bank. There was some officer resistance to getting involved, due to the possible cost of repairing the whole bank which was put at as much as £3million if we wanted to do the job properly. But members were mindful of the Authority's second purpose of promoting the enjoyment of the Broads by the public, and didn't want to see such an important footpath lost.

This time, officers came back with some better news - the Broads Local Access Forum had guided the County Council to work with other public bodies (including the BA) to come up with a partnership project to protect the route. The BA & County Council are also looking at a jointly funded tree & scrub clearance project as a first stage in protecting and restoring the bank. In the mean time, the County have agreed to place a Traffic Regulation Order on the route rather than extinguish it permanently. And further good news was that the likely cost of repairing the flood bank is nowhere near the initial estimate.

There was also a presentation on the removal of navigation posts along the Chet, which had been installed as part of the BESL flood bank works. These posts were generally seen to be unattractive and a potential hazard to navigation now that the bank was properly established, so members agreed to have them removed at a cost of £60k, with the Environment Agency hopefully making a contribution towards this.

Waste Collection & Disposal in the Broads 'National Park'

I had mixed feelings about this agenda item. The fact that officers have recognised this to be a pressing issue requiring resolution, is marred by frustration that we've had to endure fly tipping and all the bad PR that goes with it throughout 2016.

To be clear, the problem was not originally of the BA's making but is, rather, an unfortunate effect of changes to waste classification regulations, which defined waste from hire boats as commercial, whereas waste from private boats continued to be classed as domestic. The upshot was that some local authorities decided to remove bins from riverside mooring locations on the pretext that most of the rubbish probably came from hire boats.

Throughout 2015, the navigation committee was pressing for a stakeholder workshop (scheduled for last November) but the workshop didn't happen, and - in December - officers said that they didn't think it was necessary, and that continued monitoring was the answer.

The navigation committee was not happy with this and made clear their unanimous view that leaving the issue for another season was simply not an option.

Unfortunately, this view was completely misreported to the full Authority in January (navigation committee minutes were still not available 6 weeks after the meeting) and I was unable to persuade members of what had actually been agreed. The minutes were released two days later, confirming the committee's view that urgent action was needed but by then the full Authority had been led to believe that the committee supported the officer view of continued monitoring during 2016, with an internal workshop at some stage.

Since then, as we all know, we have been faced with the inevitable problems caused by a lack of waste disposal locations and - following an internal workshop in July - it seems that the Authority have finally recognised this and have some plan up their sleeve to deal with it.

Part of the policy is to try to encourage visitors and residents to "minimise the creation of waste and recycle as much material as possible" - which is of course a laudable aim, but visitors don't tend to buy large quantities of white and brown goods with lots of packaging when on holiday, most of their waste is food packaging, bottles and cans. So basically the policy is to encourage people to eat and drink less on holiday, which strikes me as unrealistic.

The report also proposes applying pressure via MPs to change the regulations. I agree that the regs are completely counter-intuitive (why does your domestic waste become commercial just because you are on holiday?) but it would take a nationwide campaign to achieve this and it would no doubt be opposed by all the district and county authorities whose collection and disposal costs would rise as a result.

The most promising proposal was to work in partnership with the district and parish councils to resolve the situation. The Chief Executive seemed reluctant to go into any detail over what was being considered - presumably because of commercial sensitivity - but under those circumstances, the proper thing is to go into closed session and inform members of progress. Otherwise, members will be completely in the dark until a decision has been made, with which they may or may not agree. A more cynical mind than mine might think that this was deliberate.

Hoveton Great Broad - planning application for variation of conditions

This is is a bit of a sad one and forms part of the most dreadful missed opportunity in a generation for the Broads.

Hoveton Great Broad - a huge expanse of water second only in size to Hickling - was open to navigation until the late 19th century when it was closed by the owners - illegally, according to expert legal opinion. But once a right of navigation has been established, it cannot easily be extinguished - and many (including me) believe that the right to navigate remains, prevented only by the landowners refusing to allow access.

This would be bad enough by itself, but - in 2014 - Natural England obtained almost £5m of grant funding to dredge the broad (which had become silted up and turbid through lack of management or usage) - but without any measurable public benefit. This would have been a perfect opportunity for the Authority to step in and open negotiations for a restoration of navigation rights and public access, as consideration for the huge lump of public cash. But, sadly, members were not even alerted to the scheme until it was fully developed and planning consent was sought for blocking the entrances and pumping mud from the broad on to the ever receding Wroxham Island, to help bolster and re-establish it.

This latter part of the project was probably the only piece of tangible public benefit provided by this publicly funded scheme, and now Natural England have applied to remove this part of the project - on the basis that they no longer need to remove as much mud as originally thought in order to achieve 'lake restoration' and were unable to achieve grant funding for this part of the scheme. Members appeared to be united in their disapproval of this change, but were powerless to challenge it. In fact, the changes are theoretically of benefit to navigation in the short term (albeit marginal) because there will be no mud pipe laid across the river. But it seems that the opportunity to gain some betterment from a project which provides public funding for a private property has been lost.

But here's where it gets interesting. It turns out - according to one member - that Natural England already knew that they couldn't get funding for the Wroxham Island improvements as early as January 2015 because the island was outside the designated site - and yet they continued to promote the improvements as a material consideration in favour of the scheme as late as June 2015. The NSBA are investigating, so keep an eye on the papers!

In other news, members welcomed the master plan project for the enhancement of Hickling Broad, the tolls working group will be reporting a new proposed structure for tolls in October, and there is a new strategy for the River Wensum to deliver a vision for the river corridor within the City boundary and Whitlingham Country Park.

The next navigation committee meeting is on 15th December 2016.