There's an old joke about a Scottish hellfire preacher trying to educate his flock about the punishment awaiting them if they do not mend their ways. He tells them that the ungodly will find themselves in the flames of hell, suffering unimaginable torments, and that they will cry to the lord for mercy, saying "Laird, laird, spare us: we didna ken whit torments awaited us." And, he tells them, the lord in his infinite goodness and mercy will gaze down upon them from heaven and he will say unto them "Well, ye ken noo".
WI and the canals
Some folk with boats on the Royal, Grand and Barrow may be feeling a bit like the ungodly at the moment, with the role of the lord being played by Waterways Ireland (WI). It seems that, as predicted here, WI is finally moving to take control of its canals.
Several new initiatives are under way, more are promised, some are predicted — and all in all it probably amounts to the biggest set of changes to boating on the canals since the end of commercial carrying. Furthermore, there are suggestions that the canals are being seen as a pilot study: that some of the changes will be applied to the Shannon and the Erne in years to come.
Until now, you could keep a boat on the canals for e126 a year. That covered as many miles as you wanted and passage through as many locks as you wanted; it also covered mooring for the year. There is a bye-law that says you must not stay in one place for more than five days at a time, but it was widely ignored and scarcely ever enforced.
So you could, for example, keep your boat near Dublin, perhaps at a location close to a railway station, and live on it all year round. Or you could keep it there in the winter and move to the Shannon end for the summer, basing your boat at Shannon Harbour (Grand Canal), just one or two locks away from the Shannon, or at Richmond Harbour (Royal Canal), just one lock away. The cost was well below that of a Shannon marina berth.
The bye-laws simply did not reflect the ways in which people actually used boats, either as pleasure craft or for living on. And the charges to users were well below the cost of competitors' products (e.g. commercial marinas' charges), well below the charges on UK waterways and, in particular, well below the cost of running the waterways.
Costs to taxpayers
In the year ended 31 December 2010, WI's operating income, excluding "net deferred funding for pensions", was e547,000. That's the total for all waterways, coming from licences (e34,000), property (e210,000), operations (e202,000), interest (e1,000) and other (e100,000). The programme costs (excluding staff and other costs) were:
• Barrow e723,000
• Grand e2,074,000
• Royal e2,873,000
• the rest e2,098,000.
So the Grand, by itself, cost almost as much as the Lower Bann, the Erne, the Shannon and the Shannon–Erne Waterway put together. The Barrow, Grand and Royal accounted for 73% of the costs but for a far lower proportion of the boats and the income.
I don't intend that as a reflection on the efficiency with which the different waterways are operated: canals are entirely different in nature to river and lake navigations, with far more waterways infrastructure, and will cost more to run. But I give the figures for two reasons. First, they show that, if WI wanted to reduce the gap between income and expenditure, it would inevitably focus on the canals. Second, the figures give some idea of the extent of the subsidy being provided by the taxpayer to canal-based boaters: if there are, say, a thousand boats based on the canals and Barrow, each of them is being subsidised by (on average) about e5,500 a year from the taxpayer.
Costs to boaters
I'm always inclined to look at the economic angle, but WI doesn't dwell on it. Nonetheless it will increase the costs to boaters and will also increase WI's income. Instead of a single e126 annual charge, boaters will now pay
• e126 for a Combined Mooring
& Passage Permit
• e152 for an Extended Mooring
• e250 as a damage deposit,
which I presume will be rolled
forward in succeeding years.
Furthermore, boaters applying for Extended Mooring Permits (EMPs) must produce insurance certificates; for anyone currently uninsured, that will be an extra cost, as will any survey and remedial work required.
There will be other extra costs, of which more below, in future years.
At the core of WI's current activity is its taking control of the banks. It is marking out lengths that can be allocated to boats; it will allocate those lengths to those applying for EMPs. It does not guarantee that boaters will get their preferred spaces, or that they will get the same space every year. But once a space has been allocated, it is reserved for one boat for the year and cannot be used by another. That probably seems obvious to anyone renting a marina berth but it will be a new practice on the canals.
The EMP system was applied first at Rathangan and Vicarstown on the Barrow Line, between Lock 34 and Griffith Bridge on the Grand and at Confey (Leixlip), 15th Lock and 45th Lock (near Richmond Harbour) on the Royal. The second batch will include places in the Grand Canal Dock in Dublin, at Pike Bridge, near Maynooth, and at Abbeyshrule on the Royal and near Lock 34 on the Royal. There will be more batches through to spring 2013; full details on http://www.waterwaysireland.org; select New Canal Permit System from the menu on the left.
Continuous Cruisers (as they're called in Britain), folk who stay no more than five days in one location, will not be required to have EMPs.
So what happens if a boater doesn't apply for an EMP but doesn't cruise continuously? If I'm reading the bye-laws correctly, WI has the power to remove a boat, store it and, if necessary, sell it, charging the owner for the costs of doing so.
Information or consultation?
There has been some criticism of WI for not holding consultation meetings before beginning to implement its new policy. My own view is that WI was right: such meetings produce more heat than light, with too much attention on minor individual matters and not enough useful comment on the principles. There is much to be said for creating facts on the ground.
But if consultation has been restricted, the flow of information has not. In fact WI has used its website very effectively, setting out its plans, explaining the procedures and providing FAQs with useful, not PR-type, answers. Whoever has been in charge of that exercise deserves to be commended.
Insurance and dry docking
One thing WI has communicated is that there is more to come.
From 2015 Waterways Ireland will be introducing the requirement for boats needing permits and wishing to use the canals to have a current hull survey to provide evidence that the boat is in good condition. [...] Your attention is being drawn to this requirement now to allow you time to prepare for 2015. [...]
The Licensee undertakes to have regular inspections of the gas and electric services of his Boat as required to ensure these are kept in a safe and serviceable condition. [...]
All Boats must carry adequate fire fighting equipment and have same serviced as per the manufacturer's recommendations. [...]
It is not permitted to re-fuel Boats at an extended mooring.
The requirement for insurance will probably mean more boats needing hull surveys; there is an explicit requirement for such surveys from 2015 onwards. That will put extra pressure on the dry docks, where WI has already introduced restrictions on the boats that can use them and the work that can be carried out. There is, in my view, an urgent and growing need for well-capitalised, well-managed boatyards along all our waterways. The requirements also suggest a need for more fuel sellers along the canals; as far as I know the only one is at Lowtown.
The Shannon and the Erne
The new arrangements will mean better management of the canals, safer boats and more income from WI, all desiderata. But the real excitement would come with their extension to the Shannon and the Erne. The legal basis for charging might have to be different, but WI must surely be planning to raise much more money from Shannon and Erne boaters. The current Shannon lock and bridge fees are pathetically small, hardly worth collecting, and they are not paid at all by those who stay on the lakes.
I am writing this before the Republic's budget is published, but I cannot imagine that it will contain good news for WI. I suspect that it will have to raise much more money itself, and that means from charges to various types of users. Robin Evans, chief executive of Canal & River Trust, which runs the former British Waterways navigations in England and Wales, said recently that his organisation gets only 35% of its funding from the State. The Irish Government must look enviously at that figure.
But it must consider the price elasticity of demand for inland boating. Usage, as measured (however imperfectly) by Shannon lock and bridge passages, has been falling over the last ten years. The chart below shows the figures for the first ten months of each year: at time of writing, figures for November and December 2012 were not available.
It may be time to reinvent the Shannon once again.