THE issues of uncut vegetation and what was seen as a lack of dredging in the West Midlands were just a couple of the standout issues raised during the recent Canal & River Trust regional users’ forum meeting.
Many users attended the meeting hosted by the Birmingham Canal Navigations Society in the Titford Pump House.
It was chaired by boating and customer service manager Tom Freeland, who started with a review of the trust’s activities during the Commonwealth Games and, for many more importantly, the legacy of the games. From his presentation, it would seem that the primary objective was raising CRT’s profile – something it felt had been achieved.
With viewing figures of 28.6 million, the ‘modest’ investment in marketing was considered worthwhile although no indication was given as to how ‘modest’ this amount was. With government grants in the minds of many within CRT, they feel there is a need to grow the level of support for the organisation and the waterways, in general, to help build the case for continued financial support.
Sally Boddy, CRT regional engineer, outlined the planned works for the area over the coming 12 months and beyond. With a limited budget of £13.7 million for repair and maintenance and rising costs, the challenge will continue to make money go as far as possible. To help, a significant amount of external funding is obtained from various sources, something Charles Hughes, CRT’s environmental scientist, highlighted in his presentation.
During his presentation, Charles highlighted his role in allocating resources and assessing the locations for dredging work to be carried out. As such, he had to answer a number of questions on the issue that many boaters have problems with. Like Sally Boddy, he, too, has a problem with having finite resources and significant demand for those resources.
He outlined the criteria used when deciding where this work would be carried out, including hydrographic surveys, the dredging schedule, the feedback from boaters and the traffic levels in a given area. He was asked about a number of locations within the West Midlands where audience members had run into problems – some quite literally. He was able to provide some detail on when work was to be carried out in several locations.
Charles also outlined the environmental work done to remove invasive species and the work undertaken to create and retain existing wildlife habitats. He thanked the many volunteers who have helped survey large sections of the system on the lookout for water voles, otters, bats, moths and many other species.
While Charles Hughes is working to retain and encourage habitat, his colleague, Richard Preston, regional operations manager, has the unenviable task – together with more than 90 operatives and a number of contractors – of keeping vegetation under control. The mowing of towpaths has become an emotive subject in the West Midlands.
Richard was quick to admit that the transition to the contractor, Ground Force, which won the contract for vegetation management some time ago, didn’t go smoothly. The company, hampered by Covid and an inability to recruit sufficient staff, is still working to catch up. Richard is still meeting with its senior staff to address the problems. It would seem that the West Midlands has been unlucky as other parts of the country have different contractors who have been able to carry out the vegetation work more effectively.
Head of customer service support Matthew Symonds rounded off the event by discussing the Boater Census and his plan to gather more data to enable the trust to implement a future strategy. It was pointed out that this had been done before but that ‘nothing had come of it’. In reply, Matthew said that he intended to make sure that any policy suggestions were followed up this time.
With the meeting overrunning, Tom Freeland closed the meeting by thanking the attendees and adding that any pre-submitted questions would be answered in writing.