Saturday, 21 October 2017

Planning to live aboard?

I was interested to read the EDP’s story about the ‘targeting’ of a live aboard at Hoveton, because the Broads Authority have for many years been resistant to what they regard as ‘unauthorised’ residential moorings.

Although there are, without a doubt, some undesirable residential boats on the Broads, that doesn’t mean that people living on boats generally are undesirable. There are some pretty unattractive and potentially unsafe non-residential boats out there too, and the same could be said for caravans and houses as well. Sensibly, a boat which is lived on 365 days a year is more likely to be looked after than one which gets visited once in a blue moon. I think that the real problem is one of ignorant discrimination against people who want to live on their boats, based on the appearance of a small minority and the baying of the liberal elite who don’t like looking at them.

So let’s start by clarifying the planning law about living on boats. The BA have, quite legitimately, created planning policies which allow them to apply conditions to new moorings. So, for example, if someone was to create a new mooring basin, then the BA could impose a planning condition which restricted the use of some or all of the moorings to non-residential use, or 24 hour visitors only, or whatever was considered to be appropriate when judged objectively.

The same is not true for pre-existing moorings. Planners cannot impose a retrospective planning condition on moorings (or anything else), no matter how much they might want to, and no matter how much they say that residential moorings are "unauthorised" in a particular location. If a mooring does not have conditions which restrict its use, then there is nothing to stop someone from living on board if they choose.

The reason for this is that planning is about the use of land, not the use of boats. A mooring is a mooring, and what goes on aboard a boat is not relevant to planning, unless the moorings have explicit conditions restricting their use.

Care must, however, be taken to ensure that the land surrounding the mooring does not get strewn with residential 'paraphernalia', as that might well constitute a material change of use. Stick your TV aerial, bike and washing line on the roof of your boat if you like - but if you start cluttering the adjacent land with sheds and what have you, then you may be materially changing the appearance of the land and you can expect a visit. With planning, it’s all a question of degree.

This has been tested several times in the appeal court. The BA lost an enforcement case in 1999 when they attempted to prevent 2 boats in Hoveton from being used for residential purposes. The Inspector found that if he couldn't see the difference between 2 boats - one used residentially and one not - then there was no material change of use of the land and therefore no breach of planning control.

The findings of the Inspector could not be more clear, and probably explain why the BA have not taken any further formal enforcement action against people living on boats - though they continue to refer to any residential mooring as “unauthorised”. This is a bit naughty, in my view, because people tend to believe what they’re told by public Authorities, and end up either leaving the Broads or else having to live ‘under the radar’.

Disappointingly, the 1999 case is now summarily dismissed by the BA as an "old decision", even though another appeal inspector came to exactly the same conclusion in 2010 on the Driffield Canal in Yorkshire. But, in any event, the age of the decision isn’t remotely relevant. The key is deciding whether living on a boat all of the time is a materially different use of the land, compared to living on the boat some of the time. Planning inspectors - and objective common sense - say that it is not. The use of the land (the mud under the water and the land immediately adjacent) is the mooring of a boat.

The BA, in association with other local planning authorities, recently commissioned a report on the objectively assessed need for houseboat accommodation (as well as caravans and traveller sites) in the Broads. This concluded that there is a need for 63 residential moorings - although the BA’s own research from rangers estimates that there are as many as 100 households already residing on boats. The emerging Broads Local Plan has allocated 25 moorings for residential use, but this figure is well short of the objectively assessed need of 63 and the BA’s estimate of 100 - which is itself only an approximation of existing residential use, with no consideration of future demand. And allocating residential moorings doesn’t mean that they will become available - it just means that the policy permits it, if the landowners choose to apply for consent.

So, although I have no detailed knowledge of the planning conditions in respect of the particular mooring described in the EDP, it is certainly not the case that living on a boat needs to be expressly authorised by the Broads Authority - or anybody else. If a mooring has no planning conditions restricting its use, then the occupier can feel free to 'live' on board their vessel in that location for as long as he or she chooses.

Finally, the BA’s statement that it welcomed “residential boats moored where they are authorised to do so” is a bit confusing - because they don’t regard any residential moorings as “authorised”!

Note - this article represents my personal and private views, and not those of the navigation committee. I attest that I am not acting in my capacity as a member of the navigation committee in wiring this blog. 

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Adjacent waters - to toll or not to toll

Following recent coverage in the EDP, I would like to talk about tolls for static vessels in adjacent waters. In particular, I would like to talk about an ongoing disputed case which has cost over £35,000 of public money in pursuit of a £500 toll, and which has not been properly brought to the attention of Members for a balanced, informed discussion or decision for over 5 years.

In 2009, the Broads Act gave the Broads Authority some additional powers. These were primarily aimed at ensuring boat safety and adequate third party insurance cover for vessels moored in “adjacent waters”, such as marinas which are attached to the navigation area but don’t form part of it. All boat owners - whether in the navigation area or adjacent waters - are now required to have an up to date boat safety certificate and insurance policy, a move which has significantly raised standards and safety on the Broads.

Additionally, it was argued that vessels moored in adjacent waters should pay a toll, because some boats had been “hiding” in marinas and pretending never to use the river, avoiding payment of their dues and placing an unfair financial burden on other toll payers. Tolls in adjacent waters were therefore set at the same level as those in the navigation area, on the basis that such boats had full access to the navigation area and it was up to the owner whether or not they chose to do so.

Unfortunately, this adversely affected one very specific type of vessel - static boats, such as barges which never move. A reasonable person would conclude that, if such a vessel cannot use the navigation, then they really should not have to pay a navigation toll. Please bear in mind that the definition of a “toll” is a payment for passage, such as on rivers and roads, and is not a parking charge. However, rather than simply charge a registration fee for a static vessel in adjacent waters, instead of a toll, the Authority has embarked upon a legal battle which has so far run for over 5 years and cost tens of thousands of pounds of public money.

In 2012, I attempted to raise the issue at navigation committee, but failed because it had apparently “already been decided” by members at a previous meeting. However, this was not strictly true - whilst members had agreed to the general principle that charges in adjacent waters should be the same as those in the navigation area (for the reasons above), there was no consideration given to the potentially contentious case of static houseboats within the context of this policy. Subsequent events have demonstrated that this type of vessel should have received special attention in the debate.

I also tried to raise the issue again during the Tolls Workshop a few months later, and was shot down by the then-Chairman on the instructions of the Chief Executive, on the basis that members could not possibly debate such tolls because of an ongoing court case between the Authority and Alan Fry - the owner of a Dutch barge - who was being asked to pay a toll of over £550 to moor his static vessel in a private marina. I should at this stage point out that the marina is at Waveney River Centre, of which I am a Director.

Whilst it would clearly have been wrong to discuss the merits of an ongoing court case, the Chairman incorrectly took the view that sub-judice rules should be invoked in order to prevent a debate on that category of tolls in general. It is possible that the Chairman was not aware that there were a number of other vessels affected in a similar way, but the stifling of debate was unhelpful. This is why it is important for Members of the Broads Authority to keep an open mind at all times.

After Alan Fry won his case in May 2015, I asked for it to go on to the navigation committee agenda for discussion. Surely now the committee could discuss the matter, come up with a fair system for static vessels in adjacent waters (a small registration fee, perhaps) and stop wasting money on persecuting people?

Instead, the Authority announced its immediate intention to appeal, but reluctantly agreed to include a report in the navigation committee agenda for 4th June. However, the Chief Executive conspired to ensure that I could neither listen to the officer’s report or contribute to the debate, by bringing in a solicitor who alleged that I had a financial interest in Mr Fry’s toll.

Self-evidently, I cannot have a financial interest in the payment of Broads Authority tolls by my customers. Mooring fees yes, BA tolls no. And in any event, it would be up to me to make that judgement call and to take the consequences. It’s not up to the Authority’s solicitor to accuse me of having a financial interest and to tell the committee that I could be prosecuted if I stayed in the room whilst the matter was being reported. This is a complete misrepresentation of the law and a breach of due process. But again, it had the desired effect, because I was forced to leave the room (under protest), whilst members were told that the Court judgement was wrong and that the Authority must appeal it because it would undermine their right to charge any tolls at all in adjacent waters. Which wasn’t remotely what the judgement said - but how many members do you think took the trouble to read it?

No doubt realising that the Authority’s standing orders had been breached - as well as the law - I was leaned upon not to make a complaint, on the basis of a promise that the issue of tolls on static vessels in adjacent waters would be brought to the next tolls workshop meeting. The minutes record the concerns of members and an agreement that this would need to be discussed at a separate meeting.

Of course, there was no “separate meeting” - and the “tolls workshop” permitted no ideas to be put forward by members, instead paving the way for a hand-picked “tolls review group” to formulate a new system for calculating tolls.

At the October 2016 navigation committee meeting, the Tolls Review Group announced their proposals - which included a rushed last-minute confirmation that adjacent waters tolls would remain the same as those in the navigation area, and that a Court decision had confirmed the Authority’s right to make such charges. This was true, but does rather ignore the important principle that such charges should be reasonable and fair.

Members were also told that it wouldn’t be appropriate to discuss adjacent water tolls, due to the ongoing dispute with Mr Fry which remained in the Court system after more than 4 years, but that they would be allowed to discuss it “in the future”. This was a year ago.

Nevertheless I raised my concerns and called for members to be allowed to debate the subject, resulting in the Chief Executive once again accusing me of having a personal financial interest in the case. He later denied having said this and produced a set of meeting notes which sought to prove that he had not - but his notes bear no resemblance to what was actually said in the meeting, and I can prove this as I have a recording.

In the middle of all this shenanigans, in September 2014 the Authority started a new battle front at a marina on the River Yare, by attempting to draw more floating things into the tolls net. Notices suddenly appeared on floating pontoon cabins, telling the owners that their properties were in fact “houseboats” under the “strict wording” of the Broads Act 2009, and needed to pay a toll.

In fact, houseboats are not mentioned anywhere in the Act. The Act says that tolls must be paid for “vessels”, and I can find no definition of “vessel” - either in the 2009 Act or any dictionary - which would include these floating cabins. The 2009 Act requires any such vessel to be capable of being used for transportation by water, which obviously wouldn’t apply to these houseboats, so the Authority decided to extend the statutory definition by adding the words “or being moved”, in an attempt to justify their position. It was even claimed that the inclusion of sailboards in the 2009 Act’s definition of “vessel” must mean that it was open to the inclusion of anything else!

Unfortunately, the 2009 Act provides no mechanism for appealing against these charges (unlike navigation tolls which can be appealed under s31 of the Harbours Act 1964). So the Authority has dug its heels in, safe in the knowledge that the organisation could never be held accountable for its actions.

The 2009 Act is, in fact, so badly drafted in relation to the nature of adjacent waters charges that it has been impossible to get the Courts to agree with one another - which is why Alan Fry’s case has gone on for so long. The most recent judgement (from July 2016) declared that the tolls regime - and the navigation charges - were “reasonable”, but the transcript of the case makes clear that the Court relied upon the Authority’s evidence that these toll charges had been considered by members. I wonder if the Judges would have reached the same conclusion had they known not only that tolls for static vessels in adjacent waters had never been discussed by members, but that they’d been prevented from doing so for the previous 4 years?

Since 2012, the Authority has pursued this case without ever allowing members to debate the issues or re-consider the charges for static houseboats in adjacent waters. The focus has always been on whether the law allows the Authority to make such a charge - and not on whether the toll charged is fair or reasonable. As a result, tens of thousands of toll payers’ pounds have been expended on batting the ball back and forth over the net and, the longer it’s gone on, the more difficult it has been for the Authority to consider reviewing its entrenched position. Even the courts who have found in the Authority’s favour have largely done so reluctantly, agreeing that the charge “seems to be unfair” but finding that the law is “unfortunately” unarguable.

And so it goes on. The ridiculous cost of pursuing this case has far outweighed any benefit to toll payers, and the executive have gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent members from scrutinising their actions - including false allegations of financial interests, inappropriate use of sub judice rules, falsification of meeting notes, broken promises and general obfuscation & procrastination.

How can a publicly funded authority be allowed to run up legal bills over 5 years and yet prevent its members from holding it properly to account? Another spectacular failure of governance.

Note - this article represents my personal and private views, and not those of the navigation committee. I attest that I am not acting in my capacity as a member of the navigation committee, as the committee has not been allowed to discuss this matter, and 5 years is more than enough time for it to have been permitted to do so.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Vice Chairman admits to changing the rules to exclude elected councillor

The Duty to Cooperate scandal has intensified, following a meeting of senior members of the Broads Authority and Broadland District Council.

BA Vice Chairman and unelected member Sir Peter Dixon boasted to Broadland leaders that both he and fellow Secretary of State appointee Prof Jacquie Burgess had openly canvassed members to oppose any attempt to reinstate Cllr Lana Hempsall on to the planning committee, going on to say that she was “not liked” at the Authority.

Warming to his theme, he accused her of being “disengaged”, which is a bit rich when you consider that he conspired to remove her from the planning committee without notice or reason, and that both he and Prof Burgess have steadfastly refused to reinstate her.

Standing order 32(2) states that “a member … must not in any way try to influence improperly the choice of candidate for any appointment”, putting Sir Peter and Prof Burgess in clear breach of standing orders - as well as as numerous elements of the code of conduct. Members must never use their position improperly to confer a disadvantage on others, for example, and must treat others with respect.

Proudly confirming that he had altered the Duty to Cooperate statement in direct response to Vic Thomson’s attempt to make the BA comply with its own rules, Sir Peter asked “why shouldn't that happen in such a circumstance?” He seems to think it quite normal that he can change the rules to suit his own personal agenda, and appears unaware that he is placing the Authority’s Local Plan at risk by putting his antipathy towards an elected member ahead of the BA’s Duty to Cooperate with local authorities.

Sir Peter concluded by saying that if Cllr Hempsall “behaved herself” for 6 months then he “might” re-consider the whole situation again. Unless and until that happens, Broadland will remain without any representation on the BA’s planning committee.

The comments from the Authority’s Vice Chairman reveal the staggering degree to which senior members are able to silence dissent and marginalise any member who does not subscribe to the “correct” opinions of the liberal elite. The fact that members appointed by the Secretary of State - who are elected by, and accountable to, nobody - are able to disenfranchise elected members and their stakeholders sends a clear - and unpalatable - message about accountability and freedom of speech at this publicly funded authority.

Readers should note that this article represents my personal opinions and should not be construed as being the view of the Navigation Committee. They are made in my private capacity as an individual, and not as a co-opted member of the Navigation Committee.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

BA clears itself of breaking rules by changing rules

What do you do when someone spots that you’ve breached your own rules?

Easy - change those rules.

As I reported last week, the Authority has refused to reinstate Broadland District Council’s elected representative on to the planning committee, despite this action being in clear contravention of the Authority’s Duty to Cooperate statement.

The existence of this duty was completely ignored at the meeting - even though a member asked a direct question about constitutional documents relating to committee membership. Having questioned the Authority subsequently, I was told that the document is not part of the constitution and is neither mandatory nor prescriptive. What then, I asked, is the point of having it? I couldn’t get an answer on that one.

In fact, the Authority doesn’t have a constitution as such, although there are a number of “Constitutional documents” on the website - which the Authority seem to treat as a kind of pick & mix, to invoke or ignore according to their preference.

It is a statutory requirement under the Localism Act 2011 to have a Duty to Cooperate Statement, as part of the Local Plan. It places a legal duty on local planning authorities “to engage constructively, actively and on an ongoing basis to maximise the effectiveness of Local Plan preparation”. If a local planning authority hasn’t complied with its duty to cooperate, then its Local Plan will fail examination and not be adopted.

Armed with that knowledge, you would expect the Broads Authority to comply with this duty by including all local authorities in the planning process. But why do that when you can just change the rules?

Two weeks ago, it was claimed that there was no known document which related to the composition of the planning committee. Just 2 days later, a report was completed for the August planning committee meeting featuring the latest updates to the Local Plan, including a subtle amendment to the allegedly “unknown” Duty to Cooperate. Tucked away on page 129 is a sentence which has been altered from:
“Each of the 6 Districts and 2 County Councils have representation at the Planning Committee by virtue of one of their Broads Authority appointed Members.”
“A number of the Local Authority Appointed members sit on the Planning Committee.”
This change is not highlighted in any way, and the remainder of the statement is virtually identical to the previous version. This is nothing more than a contemptuous attempt to change the rules after the event, to justify the arbitrary exclusion of a member on personal grounds, in the hope that nobody notices. Does the BA Chair and Vice-Chairman’s obvious personal dislike for one particular member really merit compromising such important documents as the Local Plan - and the BA’s relationships with other Authorities?

I recall also that at the meeting of the full Authority, the proposal not to include “all local authority members” on the planning committee was defeated on the basis that any such decision should wait for the upcoming governance review. Why, then, is it ok to sneak such changes through the back door of the Local Plan consultation process?

How much longer must it be before Members stop acquiescing to these abuses of process & power, and become accountable for the Authority’s actions?

Readers should note that this article represents my personal opinions and should not be construed as being the view of the Navigation Committee. They are made in my private capacity as an individual, and not as a co-opted member of the Navigation Committee.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Latest Shenanigans at the Broads Authority

I attended last Friday's meeting of the BA as an observer and a member of the public. I will probably be attacked (again) under the Members' Code of Conduct for writing this, but I've taken the view that any person who is attending a meeting purely as an observer cannot possibly be bound by the code of conduct if they were not part of the decision making process.

Sadly, the meeting demonstrated - for me - the continued disintegration in the processes of governance of the Broads Authority. Divisions between Secretary of State appointees and elected councillors are becoming ever more apparent, and the pre-scripting of proposals, amendments and comments was embarrassingly apparent.

As it was a long agenda, the Chair proposed that standing orders should be followed and that members should only be allowed to speak once to any motion. Unfortunately, the application of this policy was sporadic, with some members far exceeding the 3 minutes speaking time permitted by the standing orders, whilst one member was stopped after only 45 seconds and not allowed to continue with further questions.

The matter which sparked the greatest debate was the item on committee appointments. The Chair had proposed a list of appointments to the planning committee, which included the representative of every single local authority with the exception of Broadland. This followed last year's removal from the planning committee of Cllr Lana Hempsall, for disagreeing with a planning officer. Members were promised a full explanation at the September meeting, which never happened, and she has not been found guilty of any breach of any code. Nevertheless, despite the fact that all district councils have always been represented on the planning committee, Broadland was specifically omitted again this time.

A well-argued proposal by Vic Thomson (South Norfolk) and seconded by Paul Rice (North Norfolk) that all local authority appointees should be present on the planning committee was strongly opposed by a vociferous group of Secretary of State appointees, who characterised it as a plot to exclude SoS members and to create two tiers of membership. To me, however, it looked more like an attempt to put right the wrong of arbitrarily excluding one member because she happened to stand up for stakeholders and the law. Surely the Chair should be harnessing diverse skills and contributions, rather than exacerbating divisions? Her action serves only to highlight the schism identified by member feedback, and which has resulted in a record number of member-on-member code of conduct complaints in the past 18 months.

Sarah Mukherjee, invited to speak in the debate for a second time (against the standing orders invoked earlier in the meeting), was then led by the Chair to propose an alternative motion, which effectively kicked the proposal into touch by making it part of the future review of governance. This alternative motion was approved.

In reply to a question, members were informed that no constitutional documents could be found which determined or informed membership of the planning committee. Well, I would like to refer members to the Authority's Duty to Cooperate Statement, which forms part of the Authority's Local Plan and is quite clear on the subject (para 2.2):
"Each of the 6 Districts and 2 County Councils have representation at the Planning Committee by virtue of one of their Broads Authority appointed Members."
The current situation is that Norfolk County Council have representation by virtue of both of their appointed Members, whilst Broadland have no representation at all, in clear breach of the Authority's own duty to cooperate.

What was particularly ironic was the comment from Sir Peter Dixon, Chairman of the planning committee, who was most critical of the fact that Vic Thomson's proposal came "out of the blue" and without warning. Could this be the same Sir Peter Dixon who, exactly a year ago, removed Cllr Hempsall's name from the list of appointees on the day of the annual meeting - out of the blue and without warning? And was it the same Sir Peter Dixon who, along with Jacquie Burgess, canvassed members in advance of the meeting - in breach of the code of conduct and standing orders - to oppose any proposal to reinstate Broadland District Council's appointee to the planning committee?

Sir Peter also expressed the view that Members are "here to serve the Broads Authority". I must tell you, Sir Peter, that you are wrong. Members are appointed solely and exclusively to serve the public interest, not the interests of the Broads Authority. This oft-repeated mantra - that members must defend the Authority, rather than the public interest - lies at the heart of the Authority's governance failure, in my view.

The Authority also approved changes to a number of other constitutional documents, including the Code of Conduct for Members of Planning Committee and the Member Development Protocol, along with a new Social Media policy. I can't help thinking that I may have been responsible for a number of these changes, which are focused on ensuring that Members act as ambassadors for the Authority and that "the positive reputation of the Authority is nurtured and protected". Of course, all organisations seek to protect their own reputation and I have no problem with that. However, I do take issue with the code of conduct being used to prevent legitimate debate and criticism, especially when that debate surrounds the abuse of process to obtain specific outcomes. Former Navigation Committee Chairman David Broad's thoughts on the subject are worth re-reading, for context and background.

Finally, I noted the new "Guidelines for Members Appointed by Local Authorities", written to help councils select the right type of person to sit on the Broads Authority. Make of that what you will!

Footnote: Although meetings are now being formally recorded "on a trial basis", the recordings are currently only available on request. According to the meeting papers, "Investigations for making recordings available on the website are being undertaken" - though it's hard to know what possible investigation is required into clicking the upload button!

Readers should note that this article represents my personal opinions and should not be construed as being the view of the Navigation Committee. They are made in my private capacity as an individual, and not as a co-opted member of the Navigation Committee.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Thorpe Island - Episode 5

2015 image showing moored boats on river bank. EDP copyright

The Chief Executive and I continue to go in circles, with me asking him to explain why members were misled and misdirected over the new planning policy, and him failing to answer.

On 5th July, I received a 3 page letter from the Chief Executive, most of which didn't deal with my concerns. He touched on them briefly, however:
I have considered your 11 points against the recording of the May Planning Committee and the briefing provided to the June meeting and concluded that none of them have any substance.
A full and thorough Yare House “investigation”, then.

A further email received this week spent 4 pages summarising our correspondence to date (a bit like writing out an exam question in full rather than get on with answering it) before finally having a go at addressing the first of my 11 concerns. This was the business of members being told, in response to a direct question, that there hadn’t been any boats moored at the western end of the island.

I'm struggling to make out the Chief Executive’s response to this, but he’s either saying a) that officers had no idea that boats had moored historically on the river bank; or b) that they did know, but they gave a tricksy reply which required a very literal interpretation of the word “always”, and a new definition of the noun “mooring” which would require the permanent presence of a boat.

Here is the Chief Executive’s response - you decide what he meant:
I have listened to the recording from the meeting of the Planning Committee on 26th May 2017 and this is a transcript of what was said: 
Member: “The comment that there will be no moorings along the river frontage. As far as I know there has always been moorings there”. 
Officer 1: “Not on the basin. Not at the opening of the basin and along that end. No there haven't been.” 
Officer 2 : “Not at the western end’.
Officer 1: “But they have at River Green”.
If I understand it correctly, you are stating that [Officer 1] and [Officer 2] knew for a fact that there had always been mooring at the western end of Thorpe Island, and that they therefore deliberately misled and misdirected Committee members in their response. You have not provided any evidence to substantiate that allegation. 
To support your case, you draw my attention to a number of photographs, some from the 1960s and 1970s, which show mooring taking place at the western end of Thorpe Island. However, there are as many photographs that show a complete absence of moored boats at that location, which demonstrates that boats have not always been mooring there.
On the basis of the solicitor’s advice, [Officer 1] and [Officer 2]’s negative response to [Member]’s comment that there has “always been mooring there” appears to me to be factually correct in regard to the river moorings at the western end of Thorpe Island.
There was no attempt to address the remaining 10 concerns, or answer my question about why the Broads Authority is so keen to abandon these mooring rights in perpetuity.

Instead, the Chief Executive has referred the matter to the Chair of the Authority and the Monitoring Officer, on the grounds that he believes my questions to be a breach of the protocol on member / officer relations. This is in spite of the fact that I have made clear that I am asking these questions as a member of the public, and not as a member of the navigation committee.

For the benefit of anyone wanting to investigate this in more depth, I've put a collection of documents on to Google Drive. This includes the (redacted) correspondence between the Authority and myself. Anyone can look at them by following this link.

I will add to this over time, if more documents come my way.

Readers should note that this article represents my personal opinions and should not be construed as being the view of the Navigation Committee. They are made in my private capacity as an individual, and not as a co-opted member of the Navigation Committee.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Thorpe Island - Episode 4…

Readers might recall from Episode 3 that I have raised 10 instances of Broads Authority members being misled over the past 6 weeks, in respect of the proposed new planning policy for Thorpe Island.

Unfortunately, the Chief Executive is refusing to investigate these clear misrepresentations of fact and has instead given me an ultimatum to prove that officers had an unlawful motive – or withdraw my comments. He continues to duck all of the questions and instead persists in claiming that I’ve alleged a hidden, illegal, agenda - which I have not.

In place of investigating the issues I raised with him,  he’s raked back through my dossier (the one which the former head of communications reported doesn’t exist), and found a comment which I made on the EDP website 16 months ago: 
“I have at least 4 documented instances of officers altering the wording of legal documents (including the 2009 Broads Act and the Thorpe Island Section 52 Agreement) in order to change their meaning to persecute individuals.” (EDP 29th February 2016)
to which he responds:
“May I take it from this that you accept that your previous public allegation … made in a post on the EDP website, has no foundation, is unconnected with your recent allegation and is withdrawn? … You appear to be continuing to promote the view that officers are deliberately misleading members with a specific motive behind it.”
I wonder why he should suddenly raise this matter, over a year later, despite showing no interest in investigating it at the time?

He continues:
I would be grateful if you could confirm the following: 
1) Whether you are alleging any unlawful or illegal behaviour on the part of officers of the Broads Authority. If so, can you please produce evidence of this, including the documented evidence of officers altering the wording of the Broads Act and the Section 52 Agreement referred to in your post of February 2016 so that I might fully investigate the matter;If you are not alleging unlawful or illegal behaviour on the part of officers then please can you retract it in an email circulated to members.

2) If you are alleging that officers have wilfully misled members, then please can you indicate what you believe the motive behind it to be so that again I might investigate this further and could you provide me with any evidence that you have to support your claim.
Or alternatively if you are no longer making allegations about officer behaviour, can you please retract your allegations in an email circulated to members.
So, instead of addressing the legitimate questions which I’ve raised, the Chief Executive of this publicly funded authority has decided that now is the time to investigate something which should have been dealt with over a year ago, and which is of only passing relevance to my current questions which relate to far more recent events.

And I have an ultimatum which says that if I’m not prepared to provide evidence to support an allegation which I haven't made, then I must withdraw the allegations which he refuses to answer.

I have clearly stated the misrepresentations which were made to members - both verbally in the May committee meeting, and in the briefing note on the eve of the June meeting. I am seeking a point by point explanation of each item, detailing either why my understanding is wrong, or why the officers felt it necessary to mislead members.

However, protected by a Chair and Vice Chair who will do whatever it takes to preserve collective responsibility regardless of the public interest, the Chief Executive is able to act with total impunity as he ignores the misrepresentations and focuses instead on silencing the person asking the questions.

Readers should note that this article represents my personal opinions and should not be construed as being the view of the Navigation Committee. They are made in my private capacity as an individual, and not as a co-opted member of the Navigation Committee.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Thorpe Island - Episode 3

Note: The original version of this article contained an error - I believed that the bridge was not mentioned at the May 2017 planning committee meeting, due to background noise on the recording. In fact, the bridge was briefly mentioned (see revised point 5) and I am happy to make a correction.  This only came to light two days before a code of conduct hearing against me 16 months later, when I was provided with an official transcript of the meeting. Amazingly, the Chief Executive did not notice my mistake last year - despite allegedly spending 3 days “investigating” my concerns including “listening carefully to the recording”.

My first article on Jenner’s basin – which was intended to close an unhappy chapter in the history of Thorpe Island and express sorrow at the loss of moorings – resulted in two code of conduct complaints against me, both of which are still under investigation. One of them – a lengthy tirade by a senior officer – included a long appendix featuring details of my contributions to public internet forums and screenshots of my “friendships” on social media. This, from an Authority which described allegations of keeping dossiers on members as “a worrying untruth”. [Update September 2018 - the BA have decided not to determine those complaints, rather than dismiss them or make a decision].

These complaints follow a series of attempts to control the behaviour of members and to isolate, marginalise and discredit the ones who will not be controlled. This includes carrying out an “investigation” of BA members who might have had any form of contact with the Save the Island group, demanding copies of private and personal emails and other correspondence in confidence, and then circulating selected responses amongst all members in order to discredit the “offenders”. The Chief Executive attempted - on two separate occasions - to have at least one of these members removed from the Authority by their appointing Authority. Fortunately, the council leader concerned refused to accede to this clear affront to democracy.

My second piece, concerning the new draft policy for the island, resulted in a “briefing note” being sent to members of the planning committee on the eve of their June meeting, which continued the theme of misleading them about the decisions of the appeal inspectors, action taken for trespass and the historic mooring situation at the western end of Thorpe Island. 

I emailed members, concerned about the way that they were being comprehensively misled in order to persuade them to sign up to a new planning policy which continued the assault on mooring rights on this stretch of the river Yare. As usual, however, the response of certain members was to refer my email straight to the Chief Executive’s censorship department, rather than perform their public duty to scrutinise the actions taken by officers.

Instead of taking responsibility for investigating the misleading statements made to members, Dr Packman has demanded that I either prove an unlawful motive for these actions, or retract all my comments. It’s as though he thinks it’s ok to mislead members, as long as nobody can prove an illegal motive for doing so.

I’ve never claimed an unlawful motive, I’ve simply asked why the Authority is so desperate to prove abandonment of mooring rights on a navigable river, that it would spin a web of untruths to convince members to support a policy which extinguishes these rights in perpetuity. If it wasn’t in response to the relentless pressure from objectors, then what was the reason? Whatever the motive, the action is not to the benefit of navigation stakeholders, and there is no obvious wider public interest being served.

I’ve replied to the Chief Executive, asking him to respond to the following points:
  1. At the May planning committee meeting, the committee were told unequivocally by the Authority’s two most senior planning officers - in response to a direct question from a member - that there had not been any mooring at the western end of Thorpe Island. This is not true.
  2. At the same meeting, members were told that the 2012 planning inspector had said that the width of the river, and concerns over the amenity of residents, precluded mooring on the island side of the river. This is not true.
  3. At the same meeting, the chairman told members that there was no means of accessing the mainland from the western end of the island other than by dinghy. This is not true - there is a bridge. Officers supported the Chairman’s statement, in the full knowledge that it was untrue.
  4. At the same meeting, officers led members to believe that the policy could not permit any use other than that indicated by the appeal inspectors. This is not true.
  5. At the same meeting, officers claimed that it would not be possible to establish visitor moorings on the island side of the river, because the bridge was “private” and could not be used for accessing the mainland. This is nonsense - the bridge is in the same ownership as the island itself.
  6. In an email to planning committee members sent on the eve of the June meeting, officers claimed that any rights to moor on the river had been abandoned and that this point had been proven through the courts. This is not true.
  7. In the same email, officers claimed that owners of riverside dwellings have an automatic planning consent to moor a boat at the bottom of their garden, but that such a right does not extend to owners of marinas, boatyards and other commercial operations. This is not true. 
  8. In the same email, officers claimed that the right to moor on the northern (mainland) side was proven by the evidence of photos and corroboration of local people, whilst suggesting a lack of similar evidence to demonstrate the same right to moor on the island side. This is not true.
  9. In the same email, officers alleged that action for trespass was taken because Norwich City Council were "interested in trespass mooring over their land where someone was receiving a financial gain by using their land rather than domestic use”. This is not true. The action was instigated at the express request of the BA, as a more expedient means of dealing with specific moored boats than using the planning process, and had nothing to do with financial gain.
  10. In the same email, officers tried to dodge my legitimate and important concerns about the risk of Norwich City Council claiming trespass anywhere on the River Yare, by claiming that trespass is in some way related to financial gain or commercial activity. This is not true. If it was true, this would leave the Dockyard and all boatyards & moorings between Norwich and Hardley Cross open to the threat of trespass action.
Membership of an unelected quango like the BA is a privilege which comes with clear responsibilities to act in the public interest, and stakeholders are entitled to expect that members - especially the Chair and Vice-chairman - will scrutinise the decisions of the executive rather than defend them at all costs. The Chief Executive, meanwhile, has a duty to uphold all three of the Broads Authority’s statutory purposes, and the public should have confidence and trust in his ability and willingness to do so.

I will share his responses to my questions on this blog.

Readers should note that this article represents my personal opinions and should not be construed as being the view of the Navigation Committee. They are made in my private capacity as an individual, and not as a co-opted member of the Navigation Committee.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Thorpe Island Planning Policy Update

Having written about The Sad Tale of Jenner's (Thorpe Island), I had thought that this story was reaching its natural conclusion. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I read the Broads Authority’s new draft planning policy (TSA2) for Thorpe Island, which appears to continue the determined attempts to ban mooring along the river by re-writing history.

Members of the planning committee were asked last month to consider the new policy which supports mooring for up to 25 boats in Jenner’s Basin - as granted by the 2014 appeal judgement - and although it’s good to know that this principle is now supported (in contrast to the years of trying to prove abandonment), it’s a little late now that the land has been bought by the objectors who have no apparent intention of mooring any boats there. Unless the Thorpe Hall estate residents are now going to enjoy exclusive private moorings…

The draft policy for the western end also states that “Moorings will only be allowed within the basin and not along the river frontage”. Fortunately, a member queried this, but the subsequent debate was marred by misrepresentations and an extraordinary lack of knowledge of the site. The 2012 appeal inspector’s decision was frequently cited in support of the draft policy, even though the inspector made no judgement about riverfront moorings (which was outside the scope of the appeal) and his decision was in any event quashed.

To illustrate how members of the planning committee were misled, I've collated a few extracts from the recording:

Claim  Fact 
There has been no  mooring along the frontage at the western end of Thorpe Island or around the basin entrance.
This stretch of riverbank has been used for the mooring of boats for decades if not centuries. The above photo shows stern-on moorings in the 1970s and this aerial picture shows double moored vessels beside the basin entrance in the late 1960s. Even Google maps shows 4 boats moored on the riverbank at some recent point. 
The first planning inspector said that there could be no mooring along the riverbank because of the effect on the amenity of the houses opposite. The inspector commented that “a reasonable man would expect boats to be moored within the basin and along the river frontage. Nor should it come as a surprise to anyone purchasing a house on this part of the riverside to see mooring uses taking place.”

The second appeal inspector supported this view, in relation to the expectation of boats being moored along the river - “I am satisfied that views of this stretch of river will for many years have included a good number of moored boats.”

The first decision was quashed in the high court and cannot be used to support any planning policy or decision relating to Thorpe Island, unless the Authority wish to face a charge of maladministration.
The first planning inspector said that the width of the river would cause an amenity issue if riverbank mooring was permitted
The inspector made no such statement and his decision was in any event quashed by the high court.

The historical established use is unarguable, and the river here is at least as wide as at the eastern (Thorpe Green) end, where there are moorings on both sides of the river.
It would be impossible for anyone mooring on the river bank to get to the mainland without using a dinghy. There is a perfectly functional bridge right next to the basin, in the same ownership as the marina. Anyone mooring on the riverbank could easily access the mainland via this bridge.
The policy has to reflect the inspector's decision and there can't be any other use. The inspector’s remit was limited to the existing use of moorings in the basin - he had no powers to dictate future planning policy. Certainly it would be paradoxical if the policy did not as a minimum permit the use authorised by the inspector but the Authority could easily create a policy which encouraged development of the marina and recognised the right to moor along the river bank.

The thrust of the Authority's argument appears to be that moorings on the mainland side are acceptable because “they belong with the dwellings” whereas moorings across the river are unacceptable because the residents shouldn’t have to look at other people’s boats, in case they’re not sufficiently attractive. But, to quote the second appeal inspector, “occupiers of dwellings that overlook a navigable river and basin in a very popular recreational boating area should not be too surprised to see some moored boats.”

I was interested to compare the recording with the minutes, which are not, of course, a verbatim record but which are supposed to document decisions and the reasoning. In this spirit, the entire debate has been summarised thus for posterity:
“With reference to Appendix G Policy TSA2 Thorpe Island, it was noted that the policy had been amended to reflect the various decisions by the Planning Inspectorate. It was intended to have a follow-up focussed consultation with stakeholders. Members were satisfied with the approach being taken.”
That really is the entire minute - there’s no hint of the pertinent questions or the misleading answers which led members to support the draft policy.

And so, the BA’s systematic attempt to remove mooring rights along this stretch of river continues:
  • by incorrectly claiming that they never existed;
  • by wrongly attributing statements and judgements to the planning inspectors;
  • by asking Norwich City Council to make allegations of trespass against boats moored on one side of the river (but not the other);
  • by proposing a planning policy to remove lawfully established and riparian mooring rights;
  • by citing quashed inspectors’ reports that have no weight in policy or law.
At a time when we’re losing moorings due to BESL flood works and unsuccessful negotiations with landowners, it seems remarkably regressive for the Broads Authority to be actively campaigning to lose hundreds of metres more.

Clearly there is more to this whole affair than the simple enforcement of planning control. Jenner’s Basin, without doubt, has been scruffy and unkempt, and needed better control and management. But attacking long established mooring rights by any means possible - regardless of cost - simply to appease a group of noisy neighbours, would be unacceptable for any planning authority and is an unforgivable act for an Authority which has a statutory obligation to protect navigational rights.

Readers should note that this article represents my personal views and should not be taken as the view of the Navigation Committee, which will not have the opportunity of considering this policy until September - due to the cancellation of the June meeting on the pretext that there was nothing to discuss.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

The Sad Tale of Jenner's (Thorpe Island)

A couple of weeks ago, a sad chapter in the history of Thorpe Island closed - as Roger Wood was forced to sell Jenner's Basin for less than half the price he paid for it.

Not only was this a personal tragedy for Roger Wood, and for the people who have to find new moorings, but for the Broads itself. This marina was once a proud part of the Thorpe Island hire business (Harts, Jenners and Wards) and it's a great shame that this mooring facility is to be lost rather than restored.

The marina had fallen into a dilapidated state by 2008, but Roger Wood's original planning application to restore and improve the moorings faced substantial objection from the owners of the houses on the other side of the river who had, by then, become accustomed to the marina being largely empty.

It's ironic, then, that those houses would never have been built in the first place had it not been for the much discussed “covenant” - which restricted the use of the marina so that it could only be used for the mooring of private boats, in exchange for planning consent to build the new houses at Thorpe Old Hall Close.

You can see from the aerial photograph above that the basin was indeed used for mooring boats in the 1960s, and it has been used for that purpose (albeit in small numbers) ever since. It was still clearly capable of being used for mooring boats - so why was the BA so utterly determined to prove that the use had been abandoned? What possible benefit could that have for the Broads - when there is already a perception that mooring numbers are in decline?

The thing which makes Thorpe Island awkward for many boat owners is, of course, the pair of low railway bridges at each end. So it's perhaps not surprising that a large number of boat owners on the island are “live aboards” who have little need to take their boats to and from the main river. Residential moorings have long been a contentious issue on the Broads, but there is an undeniable demand for them and so the BA recently introduced a policy which supported them - in “appropriate” places. If you read development management policy DP25 (page 47), you will see that Thorpe Island would be a near-perfect location for properly controlled and managed residential moorings, ticking every box in the policy - if our planners hadn't gone to extraordinary lengths to exclude it. Instead of figuring out how to make this a flagship residential mooring site, close to shops and public transport, there was talk of “shanty towns” and “feral live aboards” - and a 6 figure legal battle funded from the public purse.

Less widely known is the fact that the battle wasn’t limited to the marina - Roger Wood also had customers moored on the river bank, a right which had been established long before the marina was created and was not the subject of any “abandoned” planning consent. There was no breach of planning control, so - in order to get the boats removed - the BA asked Norwich City Council (the owners of the river bed) to issue trespass proceedings against boats moored on the river bank - but only the ones on the island side, which seems rather arbitrary. Why were the BA so keen to have the boats removed when there was no planning breach? And why was it trespass to be moored on the island side of the river but not on the mainland side? This tends to reinforce the view that this matter had moved beyond planning enforcement and had become altogether more personal.

Last week, the screw was turned ever tighter on Roger Wood and the Thorpe Island residents, when Thorpe Town Council announced new mooring regulations at Thorpe Green - preventing boat owners at the former Hearts marina from mooring on the mainland more than once in a 48 hour period. And whilst nobody wants to see wrecks moored on the Broads, the Council's policy of only allowing “well-kept” boats on Thorpe River Green gives further credence to the arguments about gentrification and discrimination.

In the end, the toxic planning situation at Jenner’s basin ended up blighting the value of the marina, so that the only people willing to buy it were the key objectors to Roger Wood's ownership and planning applications. By aligning itself so closely with the objectors who ended up buying the marina, the BA has exposed itself to justified criticism that it took sides in a neighbour dispute instead of protecting the wider public interest. The subsequent self-congratulatory back-patting amongst those involved in the planning debacle was appalling.

Clearly the Broads Authority has a duty to enforce planning law, but this situation escalated alarmingly over several years and members were simply not involved or informed until things had spiralled out of control. For me, this demonstrates the fundamental governance failure at the BA, with members trained from the outset to believe that their duty is to defend the decisions of officers, rather than to ensure that those decisions are fair and reasonable in the first place. Members have an absolute duty to act in the public interest, but they often find themselves conflicted by pressure to protect the reputation of the BA instead - usually because they have become involved far too late in the decision making process.

Sadly, we've arrived at a conclusion where a man has been financially destroyed, a unique Broads marina has been lost and a public Authority has spent a fortune making it happen. This is a failure of scrutiny, accountability and justice, and those responsible should look to their consciences.

Readers should note that this article represents my personal opinions and should not be construed as being the view of the Navigation Committee. They are made in my private capacity as an individual, and not as a co-opted member of the Navigation Committee.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Passenger boats rocked by 27% tolls increase

I’ve been intending to expand upon the passenger boat tolls controversy for a few weeks now, though sadly it seems that I was beaten to the line by that other well known “disreputable channel for infantile sniping at the Authority”. However, now that the tolls demands have landed on doormats, this seems like an appropriate time to revisit it.

Back in October 2016, the Tolls Review Group presented the navigation committee with the fruits of their considerable labours. This ran to 42 pages and, by and large, the navigation committee went along with the proposals which were intended to simplify the system and provide a more flexible charging structure for Broads tolls.

Readers will recall that the main proposals were to move from a "fixed & variable charge" to a variable charge based on the size of the vessel. Different categories of vessel (there are 14 under the new system) would have a different rate per sq.m - so for example £12.85 per sq.m for private motor cruisers, £28.95 per sq.m for hire cruisers and £38.10 for passenger vessels.

The net effect of this was that small boats would generally pay less, and big boats would pay more.

The owners of some larger boats in particular (and remember that “big” does not have to mean “expensive”) were quite cross about this, and the Norfolk & Suffolk Boating Association made a strong challenge for the variable rate to be retained. This was supported by some members, who could see the potential PR disaster of imposing significant toll increases in one go - but the TRG were determined that the fixed rate would be abolished on the basis that it was unfair and too complicated to understand.

In all the discussion over private boat tolls, however, what everyone on the navigation committee (including me) completely failed to notice was the effect of the new system on large passenger boats - this was hidden away on page 35 and unfortunately we rather let down the passenger boat operators by overlooking a proposed 27% increase in their tolls, using the proposed figure of £38.10 per sq.m.

This was brought to the attention of the full Authority on 18th November 2016, when they discussed and ratified the recommendations of the Tolls Review Group, as amended by the Navigation Committee. In fact it was left to one of the affected passenger boat operators to raise the matter a few days before the meeting, leading to complaints from some Members about the last-minute nature of the challenge.

This might have been a fair criticism had passenger boat operators been consulted in any way at all about the proposals. But it seems a little harsh to hide a 27% tolls increase away in a spreadsheet and then blame the victims for not spotting it.

Consider also that, due to the decision to re-interpret the wishes of Parliament so that “persons who are likely to be required to pay ship, passenger or goods dues” was re-defined as “any toll payer”, passenger boat operators no longer have any representation on the navigation committee at all. So it was a miracle that they even found out before the tolls demands arrived.

At the full Authority meeting, several members spoke out strongly in support of passenger boat operators and voiced concern at the proposed punitive increase in their tolls. Members highlighted the important role that passenger boats play in accessibility to the Broads for people on lower incomes, education through schools, and their generally lower environmental impact.

Sensing that the meeting was moving strongly in favour of reducing the increase for large passenger boats, the Chief Executive moved quickly to ensure that no formal proposal was made to vary the recommendation of the TRG. In a classic example of telling each side what they want to hear in the same sentence, he managed to convince the meeting that he would go back to the Tolls Review Group and ask them how to implement the clearly expressed wishes of members, whilst giving them enough wriggle room for those concerns to be dismissed without having to come back for approval.

Here's what he said:
“ In terms of timing I do believe you need to take decisions today. I think if you want a further look at passenger boats, what I suggest you do is to give delegated authority to me to decide what might happen about passenger boats after a further discussion with the Tolls Working Group. What I would suggest is either it remains as in the paper, or - it’s not a huge amount, it’s about £20 to £23,000, so in the grand scheme of the tolls, this is a relatively small bit. I don’t believe it would be fair, if you wanted to reduce that, to shift any of that burden on to the private boats. I do think the principle of both private and hire going up by 3% is right, therefore if you wanted to shift some of that, you could reduce the proposed charges for the passenger boats so that the income increase was say 3% and shift that to the weekly hire fleet, because I think that there are only 16 passenger boats whereas there are 789 weekly hire boats. If you were shifting say £3,000 in one direction, it would make a significant difference to the passenger boats, but not much difference to the weekly hire boats. If that’s what you would like to do then my suggestion is that I work with with the tolls working group to look at that and you give me delegated authority to make a decision on the lines of what they suggest. Because I think we actually need to get on with this. ”
Anybody listening to this would have been in no doubt of the clear intention to reduce the huge 27% hike to a more manageable 3% - but by avoiding a vote and instead asking Members to give him delegated powers to “work with the TRG”, he was able simply to ask them whether or not they would like to change their recommendation on passenger boat tolls, and they declined.

In approving the overall recommendations of the tolls review group, the Chair (Jacquie Burgess) closed with the following words:
“ we can go back to the TRG to work out how that [the reduction in passenger boat tolls] would be distributed between the commercial fleets, because the new system allows us to do that ” (my emphasis on how)
However, the official minute reads thus:
Following discussion about the precise wording, the Chairman proposed that recommendation (ii) within the report be accepted with an additional clause “to delegate powers to the Chief Executive to consult with the Tolls Review Group and set the charges for passenger vessels and any redistribution of charges within the commercial fleet.”
All of the above is an object lesson for Members in the importance of clearly worded resolutions, with a vote, especially when any variation to an officer recommendation is being considered.

But it didn’t stop there. After it became apparent that the TRG were intent on sticking with their original recommendation, the Chief Executive took the unprecedented step of asking individual members to approve the minutes in advance of the next meeting, despite the clear fact that they were not a true record of members’ wishes.

We considered this again at Navigation committee in December, and by this point we were debating the semantics of individual words, with the Chief Executive arguing that there had been no decision by the full Authority to reduce the increase for passenger boats, that there had been no mention of 3% or any other figure, and that Members had merely given him delegated authority to consult with the TRG on whether there should be a reduction. Hopefully, now that all meetings will be officially recorded, there will be no room for such disagreements in the future!

Following the December navigation committee meeting, we were provided with the reasons for the Tolls Review Group deciding not to make any change to their recommendation. Some of the remarks are rather revealing, not only of the intention to ignore the concerns of members, but also the cavalier attitude towards the operators of these vessels:
“ It was absolutely right of John to adopt the position he did at the meeting. It averted a possibly damaging debate, and in no way committed the TRG to any particular course of action beyond taking another look. ”
“ these big boats are worthy of their toll. ”
 “ the BA meeting was not the place to commence a secondary debate and create a distraction from the main thrust of getting the papers proposals adopted. ”
“ I agree with our initial view on this, that it is a very lucrative business for some. ”
“ focus was specifically placed upon the passenger toll and not the overall toll costs of the business, the latter being the method used to test our proposals. ”
This last comment is interesting for the fact that it demonstrates that, in order for a toll on a passenger boat to be fair, it would have to be operated as part of a larger fleet which saw other tolls reduce. This is not a remotely safe assumption, and demonstrates beyond doubt that tolls for this class of boat are now intrinsically unfair - especially for small individual operators.

It's a great shame that this Authority, with which I became involved due to my passion for the Broads and a strong desire to improve governance and stakeholder engagement, seems determined to continue along a path guaranteed to fuel mistrust and to generate further resentment. It would have been so easy to admit to making a small mistake, and move to correct it, rather than treat it as “a distraction from the main thrust of getting the proposals adopted”.

As a result, instead of scoring a PR victory with a simpler and fairer tolls system, we are seen to have heavily penalised anyone with a large boat - and especially those who provide low cost access to the Broads. Sadly, this could easily have been avoided, if only we would get into the habit of listening instead of being stuck permanently on ‘transmit’.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Navigation Committee - Report from 15th December 2016

This navigation committee meeting turned out to be quite exciting, for unexpected reasons.

With Michael Whitaker still unwell, Nicky Talbot took the chair again and the first job on the agenda was to thank Trudi Wakelin for her sterling service to the Broads, as this would be her last navigation committee meeting before her departure to work at the Marine Management Organisation in Newcastle. She has been a friend to navigators and will be greatly missed.

The next task was to approve the minutes of the previous meeting (October 27th). The accuracy of BA minutes has long been a cause for concern, and whilst vice chairman I spent days correcting draft minutes and adding things which had been carefully omitted. The defence has been that the minutes "do not have to be a verbatim report" - but the funny thing is that we always have a detailed account of the officer reports and recommendations, but virtually no record of member contributions. The Chairman & I would usually end up negotiating with the Chief Executive over what would be included and what would be left out.

And so it was with the October minutes, which set a new record for the distillation of constructive and useful debate into one sentence or less. They didn't remotely do justice to the meeting, with almost 90% of the minutes being composed of the presentation and defence of the proposals - whereas in truth about 80% of the tolls debate was made up of contributions from members, who might justifiably have hoped that their input would be acknowledged.

So I'm rather afraid that I told the Chief Executive and Chair what I thought of their minutes, giving several examples of important matters which were entirely absent. Happily, a number of other members supported my view and we ended up having a surprise debate on the importance of good minute taking, which (even more surprisingly) resulted in the Chief Executive suggesting that maybe the Authority should consider recording our meetings - an idea which I've been championing constantly for the past 5 years, in the face of fierce resistance.

In support of this, we heard from the monitoring officer who'd been on a fact finding trip to the Brecon Beacons National Park, where they have video recording of meetings. Members learned that this had made the operation of their Authority more transparent, reduced considerably the number of Freedom of Information requests & code of conduct complaints - and disputes over accuracy of minutes had disappeared at a stroke. Hurrah!

Finally we got back to the matter at hand (the approval of the October minutes), and I voted against because they were frankly rubbish - which led us neatly into the next discussion item, which was the review of waste facilities.

Progress with this project is unfortunately rather slow. In principle, there is a possible solution which would involve the parish councils taking a lease or ownership of "strategic sites" - though it is still unclear which sites are defined as "strategic". The idea is that these strategic sites will be operated by the parish council, the district councils will transport the waste and the county council won't charge the districts for disposal. In practice, however, it appears that progress has been made with only two sites (both in North Norfolk), leaving most of the Broads without proper waste collection facilities - and the new boating season is only a few months away.

Next up was the finance report, which included a small nugget of good news for the navigation budget. Following an increase in staff costs within the operations budget - caused mainly by a rise in pension contributions - the contribution split between national park & navigation funds has been altered from 44/56 to 67/33 -  better reflecting the balance between the three statutory purposes. Other central and shared costs, however, continue to be split 60/40 between national park and navigation funds. One item of serious concern though was a projected reduction in hire boat toll income, due to an anticipated decline in hire boat numbers by a further 20 vessels in 2017. Even this reduction could be optimistic, and this would of course have a further impact on the budget.

Further expenditure on the dockyard has been budgeted, including the relocation of the existing upstream wet shed on to one of the existing slipways at a cost of £60,000 (£42,000 from navigation income).

There was a question about the impact of paperless tolls, and whether the Authority had collected less tolls from small boats due to the difficulty in identifying them without toll plaques. It seems that the Authority may have lost some tolls income - but probably not very much - and is looking at how to mark small boats in a more effective way.

We moved on to the asset management report, from which the Authority's vice chairman was "horrified" to discover the amount of money which is to be spent on the dockyard (£483k) and the Fieldbase (£251k) over the next 10 years. Having received an offer in excess of market value last year, it had been decided to retain the Fieldbase on the basis that it would produce an income - so it was disappointing to learn that it might end up costing us money to keep it. Members therefore sought clarification over what work was being considered - at both locations - over the coming years and the committe expects to receive this information in the very near future. I was particularly keen for the "Masterplan" for the dockyard to be presented to members, as many of us have no idea what the long term plans for this site might be.

The Chief Executive reported that there has been considerable interest in the vacancy on the navigation committee and that it's intended to interview candidates in February and make an appointment on 24th March. There were queries over the intended duration of the appointment, which would only be for 2 years (so that the appointment would finish at the same time as the other members). There was concern that having all (or many) members replaced at the same time was detrimental to the functioning of the committee and that here was a small opportunity to avoid the simultaneous turnover of members every 4 years. Eventually, the Chief Executive conceded that "perhaps we can have another little look at it".

We then moved into another piece of un-planned controversy, concerning the proposal to impose a 27% tolls increase on large passenger boats. We'd completely overlooked this at the October navigation committee meeting, but it was highlighted by a couple of passenger boat operators in advance of the meeting of the full Authority. Members were extremely concerned about this huge (and hopefully unintended) increase, and gave the Chief Executive delegated authority to go back to the tolls review group and ask them to figure out how to re-distribute the increase across the rest of the commercial fleet, so that the increase would be limited to 3% instead of 27%, in line with the average tolls increase across the board.

Unfortunately, the Chief Executive interpreted this as an instruction to ask the tolls review group to decide whether they would be willing to re-distribute the increase, and they declined. He even denied that he had mentioned 3% or any other figure - though this is hotly disputed by many of those who were at the meeting.

There had been a strong view advocated by a number of members (repeated at navigation committee) that it was unfair to impose such a huge increase on passenger boats, which provide an affordable and sustainable means of accessing the waterways - regardless of whether the toll could be "afforded" by the operators. Some members strongly believed that the Authority had asked for the tolls review group to decide how to re-distribute the increase amongst the rest of the commercial fleet, rather than if it should be re-distributed - but other members were less certain of exactly what they'd agreed. There was also strong criticism of the way that the Chief Executive had communicated the Tolls Review Group's response back to members, and the lack of transparency in explaining the reasons for their decision.

A number of us continued to press for the issue to be reconsidered, as we seemed to be in agreement that the 27% increase was unjustifiable and would inevitably result in bad PR for the Authority.  This was resisted a) because we couldn't possibly discuss it without having a paper in front of us with all the options; and b) because, by then, the schedule of tolls will already have been printed.

In summary, the Chief Executive stated that if everyone had been 'smarter' at the BA meeting and made their intentions clearer, then there would not have been any subsequent disagreement, and concluded that this matter reinforced the need for clearer recommendations and minutes…

Eventually, the committee were horsed into accepting the recommendation that large passenger boats should be subjected to an average tolls increase of 27%, subject only to the Tolls Review Group explaining their reasons, and a promise that it would be reviewed in 3 years time. The proposal was passed, with Greg Munford, Brian Wilkins and myself voting against. We are still awaiting the explanation from the TRG.

Moving on to slightly happier things, the committee were asked to consider 2 planning applications (this one and this one) for the removal of almost 400 metres of piling along 3 sections of river bank down stream of Thurne Mouth, and a re-grading of the river bank to give natural erosion protection now that the rollback banks have become established. 300 metres of the piling proposed for removal was leased to the BA for 24 hour visitor moorings but the lease has now ended, with the controversial loss of a significant length of moorings in a strategic location. Following negotiations with the BA, however, a late amendment to the application proposed that the bank be cut back by a further 2m to allow room for the BA to install around 240m of floating pontoons - offering the prospect of renewed moorings at this important site, albeit at a significant (and as yet un-budgeted) cost.

Many members spoke of the vital importance of this stretch of moorings, both for cruising and for racing, and their support for the principle of floating pontoons as a safe and practical alternative to the traditional piled wall. It was felt that this was one of those occasions where the money simply had to be found, in order to avoid the permanent loss of the moorings. It became apparent that the BA had already budgeted for the future replacement of the piling - at a cost of around £350k - and so it made sense to allow the Environment Agency to pay for the piles to be removed and for the BA to spend £150k on pontoons instead - albeit sooner than anticipated. The landowner is also amenable to rubbish bins being placed on the site for the use of moored boats, with the BA reimbursing the cost of disposal. So, hopefully happy days are ahead of us on that front.

There was some further good news in the shape of an amendment to the proposal to remove piling along Upton Dyke. A culvert linking land drains either side of the dyke would have left a kink in the river bank with a solid structure forming a potential hazard to navigation. Fortunately, however, the Internal Drainage Board have, just in the nick of time, decided to re-route the drain completely under the Dyke, removing the need for the culvert. Accordingly, the flood bank can now run straight & level along the entire length and the hazard can be removed.

As we neared the end of the meeting, Trudi gave an update on the Hickling Broad project, and in particular the expression of interest which has been approved by the CANAPE project (Creating a New Approach to Peatland Ecosystems, please don't laugh at the acronym). If the bid is successful, it will provide significant additional funding to the Hickling Broad vision - especially in the re-use of dredged material to improve habitats at the littoral margins of the broad. Meanwhile, work on the enhancement project has continued, with the geotextile walls constructed in the Churchill and Studio Bay enhancement areas. Some dredging at Rockland Boat Dyke is also underway as part of this winter's planned dredging programme.

After thanking Trudi once again for all her efforts over the years (there was even a suggestion that a new bay at Hickling Broad might be named in her honour), the meeting finished just in time for Christmas.