The Election is Over - An Analysis

British Waterways have published a full and complete analysis of the election results and we must all offer our congratulations to all successful candidates and wish them the wisdom and foresight that will be necessary to represent the interests of so many diverse users.

Above all, they will be aware that the canals would lose much of their recreational appeal and economic value if navigation was not a prime concern but equally so, they must also be cognisant of the simple fact that boaters and anglers – who make the only direct contribution to the waterways – represent no more than 5% of the estimated 13 million users that contribute indirectly through their taxes and tourist spending whilst making over 250 million visits each year.

There are many boaters who feel that boating interests will be out numbered on the Members Council but I don’t share that view. First, I think that the success of the Canal & River Trust will depend more on how well the 13 Waterway Partnerships succeed in engaging local communities than will the wisdom imparted at the twice-yearly meetings of the Council.

The Members Council will of course have some influence on how and by whom the regional Waterway Partnerships will be managed but the day-to-day activities will depend on the level of support and involvement that local communities give to the new charity and much of that will be driven by decisions taken by the members of the Waterway partnerships.

Take my community, Alrewas, a popular overnight mooring on the Trent & Mersey canal in BW’s Central Shires Region. The 3 pubs, 3 take-aways, Coop and butcher all benefit significantly from the tourist season – which comes largely from boats staying over-night – to compensate for a relatively quiet winter. Any actions taken by the local Waterway Partnership (or indeed the Members Council) that threatens that trade – for example by ignoring towpath maintenance, dredging, restricting mooring etc. – will be taken very seriously by our community. Equally so, a properly promoted campaign to explain the benefits brought to the community by the canal is likely to attract a favourable response to the clear reliance that the new charity will have on volunteer support of all kinds.

I submit, therefore, that what happens to local canals is going to be less dependent on what the Members Council decides than it will be by the number of resident users – boaters, anglers, dog-walkers, ramblers etc. who have a vested interest in protecting, maintaining and improving THEIR personal waterway environment.

There is another key element to this that I think BW/CRT have under-estimated – in fact, is the basis of why I decided resign from BWAF (British Waterways Advisory Forum) – the need for Waterway Partnerships to concentrate on working to Parliamentary Boundaries – albeit, within BW waterway regional boundaries which make sense from a maintenance viewpoint. A similar administrative device must surely already exist within BW to handle PropertyPlanning.

It would be an anomaly if any popular overnight mooring on the waterways was not represented by a single local authority – whether parish, town or borough council – and, by definition, one MP and locally-based Councillors. That very conveniently means that every mooring or navigation problem has a focal point that could be the source of both political influence and local funding. Combine that with the presence of the regional Waterways Partnership – to which the local waterways manager is a member – and therein lies the opportunity for local communities to make their wishes known. Interestingly, the recent Localism Act (2011) strengthens this point by legislating to give local communities the right for establish their own Neighbourhood Plan which will be a statutory part of local planning. This will give local communitie much more control in the planning process in such a way, that, in effect, will mean that any developments planned by BW/CRT will have to be approved by local residents BEFORE any planning application is approved. In short, we should see an end to development plans avoiding the consultation process.

But back to the election results. I take the point that we had to start somewhere and there was very little time for debate on how it should work. I also congratulate the Transitional Trustees for the formula that they devised as I think it was a very good start:

Having said that, I believe there are several important lessons to be learned.

I don’t blame IWA for supporting 5 candidates: that was only to be expected, they are naturally going to do the best they can to promote the particular aims of their organisation, but I think it was spectacularly unfair to independent candidates.

Even before the hindsight of being able to analyse the results, I considered it to be undemocratic for one organisation to endorse more than one candidate. In fact, with the benefit of hindsight, I would go as far as to say that future elections should require each candidate to carry the burden of their own campaigning. What is democratic about some candidates having more resources available for their campaign than others?

I tried to address this through Waterway Watch by giving every candidate a free page and the opportunity to add their own thoughts. I also challenged every candidate to respond to 5 simple questions, only two bothered to reply and only one answered the questions.

Of course, it was a major disappointment that, despite BW going to the trouble and expense of mailing some 28,000 boat owners with the right to vote, so few boaters felt it was worth the effort to vote.

But, to me, the greatest disappointment, was the fact that so few of the candidates made any effort to campaign for their votes. I know from personal knowledge that many candidates have without doubt made notable contributions to the waterways over many years but the reality is that most of the electorate had no idea of who candidates were or the contributions you have or could make.

I am not surprised that so few people voted without at least knowing that there was a way to ask questions about your candidacy through a personal email address, website or Facebook account. As far I am aware, none of the successful candidates made any attempt to communicate with the electorate beyond the mandatory 150 word statement and the safety of their sponsors’ website and this just goes to highlight the advantage gained by candidates sponsored by by user groups.

The Members Council has an opportunity to impress the electorate by making it a priority to discuss the election process on the Agenda of the first meeting and to resolve to form a sub-committee to recommend improvements for the future.