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.