Boat users to be billed for using the waterways of the Fens

PUBLISHED: 09:47 14 November 2020

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

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

ARCHANT

The days of cheap use of the waterways of the Fens have ended – with added charges and tough enforcement to come.

Middle Level Watermans club. West End, March. Picture: Steve Williams.Middle Level Watermans club. West End, March. Picture: Steve Williams.

Middle Level Commissioners (MLC) agreed the charges despite being urged to re-consider by MP Steve Barclay who described them as “totally disproportionate” to the services boaters receive.

The MLC navigation advisory committee decided it was “reasonable” to align charges to the higher sums paid by boat users elsewhere.

An MLC spokesperson said the committee appreciated that boaters “who have for years been able to benefit from Middle Level waters for nothing, will not welcome paying fees, however fair”.

The spokesperson said they had listened to call for a phased introduction of fees and resolved to “reward those who currently use our waters”.

Middle Level Commissioners are under fire over new charges for boat users. But chief executive David Smith  defended himself from criticism by MP Steve BarclayMiddle Level Commissioners are under fire over new charges for boat users. But chief executive David Smith defended himself from criticism by MP Steve Barclay

Fees will be set at the same level as the Environment Agency’s Anglian waterways but for those vessels that are licenced before December 31, 2020 a discount of 25 per cent will be offered against the 2021/2022 fees. Any boats licensed after this point will not receive the discount.

“The requirement to be licenced before enforcement action is considered will now similarly be extended to December 31, 2020” said the spokesperson.

Middle Level said that the many boat owners that have already applied for licences will automatically receive the discount.

“It is hoped that vessel owners yet to apply will appreciate that the advisory committee has been listening to concerns over charging,” said the spokesperson.

She also hoped they would accept that the balance of general and agricultural ratepayers subsidising navigation needs to be redressed.

MLC needed to invest in new facilities and a licensing system that requires policing needed adequate funding.

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Mr Barclay said he had been in touch with the Middle Level after being contacted by boat owners unhappy with the imposition of new fees.

“I agree and have raised these concerns with the chief executive of the Middle Level and other bodies involved in its operation,” he said.

“Whilst I accept a charge is necessary in order to invest in the waterways given the original legislation was based on a previous era when waterways were not used for leisure.”

He accepted that the MLC has plans for improvements including dredging, replacement moorings, refurbishment, as well as a full-time navigation officer but he felt “the pace of change proposed was unreasonable.

“This is particularly so given the wider economic pressure from the pandemic”.

He said the discounts offered by Middle Level do “not go as far as many would like, but at least it reflects some improvement following my letter on the previous position. “It is important that the Middle Level Commission demonstrate value for money by now delivering the promised investment schemes that this revenue provides, and I hope they will work closely with boaters in the months ahead.”

MLC reminded Mr Barclay that they are one of the four largest navigation authorities in the country and control over 100 miles of navigable watercourse with six locks and two permanent lock keepers.

“This year the team has been expanded to include a full-time navigation officer,” said their spokesperson.

“Annually the MLC spend more than £200,000 on managing and maintaining the navigation elements of the system. This is set to increase with the introduction of licencing, policing, and improvements to the system.”

The spokesperson said: “After extensive discussion the navigation committee determined that it was reasonable for navigation fees to be set in line with those of the Cam Conservators and the Environment Agency Anglian.

“In coming to this decision, they took account of the fact that although the EA (Environment Agency) have more waterway by length, this unlike the MLC system is not always navigable over its entire length due to strong stream warnings.

“The Cam Conservators offer substantially less length for navigation hence length alone should not be the only factor.”

The spokesperson said that the EA have as many as 15 times the number of boats in their system “hence the licencing income is closer to £2.5m as compared to the Middle Level equivalent income of £150-180,000 assuming licencing charges are aligned”.


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