LETTER: ‘Good to see Middle Level Commissioners finally making an effort to sell and justify new licensing scheme’

Council bosses joined officials from Middle Level Commissioners (MLC) on a narrowboat tour to see how a revamp of Fenland...

Council bosses joined officials from Middle Level Commissioners (MLC) on a narrowboat tour to see how a revamp of Fenland waterways could boost tourism. Picture: Harry Rutter / ARCHANT - Credit: ARCHANT

May I please have my ‘two-pennorth’ in response to the Middle Level’s CEO, David Thomas’s response to Steve Barclay MP’s perfectly reasonable questioning over the legitimacy and fairness of the Middle Level Commissioner’s new licence scheme?

Council bosses joined officials from Middle Level Commissioners (MLC) on a narrowboat tour to see how a revamp of Fenland...

Council bosses joined officials from Middle Level Commissioners (MLC) on a narrowboat tour to see how a revamp of Fenland waterways could boost tourism. Picture: Harry Rutter / ARCHANT - Credit: ARCHANT

I should point out that I am in favour of fair charges and supported progress of the ML bill through its parliamentary stages whilst at the same time seeking and securing improvements on behalf of East Anglian Waterways Association.

Here are my thoughts:

It is good to see the Middle Level Commissioners finally making an effort to sell and justify their new licensing scheme.

Sadly, they seem to have lost the goodwill of many ML boaters who were otherwise generally supportive by the manner in which they have gone about introducing a licence fee this year, not least their lack of proper communication and dialogue with boaters.

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For many years, almost all of the major boating organisations were supportive of the need for new legislation to enable the Middle Level to raise income from the navigation to finance much-needed investment, improvements and provision of facilities.

Some of us tried just a little bit harder than others to secure important safeguards for all boaters and assurances that at least some of the money raised would be spent on the navigation.

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We succeeded in the House of Lords Select Committee in gaining improvements to the Middle Level Act and a number of important undertakings from the MLC before the Act was finally approved.

Properly administered, the introduction of the new registration and charges scheme could have been smooth, trouble-free and acceptable (although understandably there would always inevitably be a few boaters unhappy with new charges.)

But what did the MLC do instead? They decided to introduce ‘licence’ charges before the Byelaws necessary to implement and enforce a proper Registration and Charges scheme had been approved, as required, by the Secretary of State at DEFRA.

Those by-laws have still not been approved and it is hard to see how the MLC can effectively enforce the current ‘licence’ charge.

They initially announced that those ‘licence’ – use of the waterway – charges would commence on April 1 2020 and that the ‘licence’ fee would be 75 per cent of the EA Anglian annual charge.

That seemed to many like a reasonable concession although it still seemed to others an extremely high charge for such a small patch of waterway with no facilities.

Later an announcement was made that ‘due to the Covid-19 emergency and potential hardship to boaters’ introduction of the licence fee would be delayed until 1st September.

However, the fee prescribed on an annualised basis would now be equivalent to the full EA Anglian charge – no discount, no concession.

So much for consideration of boaters’ potential ‘hardship – they now had to pay the full EA charge! When asked why this was considered fair the MLC CEO stated “Well, they’ve had the summer free so why shouldn’t they pay the full price now”.

In fact, there seems to have been almost a deliberate attempt to mislead boaters by claiming that the fee was just 50 per cent of the EA Anglian fee and by not pointing out that the EA already discounts its annual charge by 50 per cent from Septembe 1. That has now been corrected.

Back at the House of Lords in June 2018, the MLC chief financial officer told their lordships that ML registration and charges would be of the order of £300.

Pressed, he conceded that the biggest influence on charges would be market forces and that the fee could reach up to £1,000.

Many ML boaters are already being asked to pay an equivalent annual charge of well over that £1,000. Are these charges “reasonable” as required by Section 5 of the act?

Where has the navigation advisory committee (provision of which was one of the hard-won improvements secured in the process of the Bill) been in all this?

It seems to have approved the current charges and perhaps that isn’t entirely surprising given its current make-up.

The commissioners are bound by the act to disclose their reasons for appointments to the NAC and provide a list of the appointed persons’ interests. They have not.

They have also failed to fully publicise their charges as required as required by the act. They can’t, it seems, even be bothered to place a schedule of charges on their website, relying instead on referring boaters to the EA site with its complicated scale of fees for an entirely different and much larger waterway system.

There are no reciprocal agreements yet in place, as promised, with Canal & River Trust or the EA and total confusion over who needs what licence.

There has also, it appears, been scant regard by the MLC for some of the Undertakings they gave to the House of Lords.

Most importantly, they undertook to “not set navigation charges at a level which they anticipate is likely to cover the costs of exercising their navigation functions unless the commissioners consider that the level of use of the waterways has changed to such an extent that it would be fair to all users to do so.”

They undertook to produce a protocol for removal of vessels and to prepare a residential mooring strategy. They have done neither.

So, in summary, the MLC has introduced unjustifiable charges before they have the full statutory authority to impose registration and charges and has failed to implement parts of the 2018 act and undertakings given to the House of Lords before the act was approved.

It is no wonder that there is some disquiet and it is entirely appropriate for Mr Barclay to take it up on behalf of his constituents.

How much more sensible it would have been if the MLC had delayed introduction of charges for just a few months (April 2021) by which time the ML by-laws should be approved and in place and the commissioners will have full statutory authority to seek registration, insurance and boat safety requirements and charges and power to enforce those provisions.

They could have spent the winter months fulfilling their undertakings and commitments under the act and, most importantly, communicating their intentions and reasons for their decisions with boaters. Dealt with properly, there would have been much less confusion and disquiet.

The MLC will, quite rightly, expect all boaters to abide by the law when using their waterway. Is it really too much to expect that the Middle Level Commissioners will also fully abide by the letter and spirit of the 2018 act of parliament that they worked so hard to achieve?

With, currently, no realistic legal authority to enforce charges, I doubt that licence fee receipts for the period September 2020 to March 2021 will even cover the costs of responding to the legal challenges that will surely come.

I hope the MLC will review its position and work to regain the trust and goodwill it has squandered in the last few months.

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