Urgent Intervention Sought for Waterway Businesses

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Created on 15/05/2020

The Window of Opportunity is Closing

On 14th May the APPG for the Waterways was addressed by IWA Chairman, Paul Rodgers on the matter of the effects of Covid-19 on the waterways. 

Paul's Opening Statement to the meeting was hard hitting and passionate.  Read on to see what he had to say.

"I’m delighted that we’ve been able to convene this important meeting of the APPG for the Waterways and I’d like to outline the position of waterway businesses and the need for urgent intervention to cope with the challenges of COVID-19.

I am going to cover things in four main areas:

  • First, I would like to provide some context by outlining the timetable of events over the past two months;
  • Second, I would like to summarise my assessment of the landscape;
  • Third, I will share my observations on the response by government as they relate to waterway businesses;
  • In closing I will outline my views on the actions that I believe will be needed following this meeting.

The Timeline

First off I hope it’s useful for those participating in today’s meeting to have a picture of what has been going on over the past two months as we have sought to seek support for waterway businesses both as individual organisations represented here today and in a collaborative initiative that brings a comprehensive, balanced and commensurate call for action.

On 19th March, The Inland Waterways Association met with Defra – almost 2 months ago. Following that meeting we provided a range of basic information outlining the key stakeholders in the waterways ecosystem as well some statistics and background data. I put it down to my having only recently taken on my role and my relative inexperience of the waterways that such basic information wasn’t already understood by the Department.

On 23rd March, the Broads Authority, British Marine, and the Canal & River Trust sent a letter to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs asking for urgent support for waterway businesses.

On 3rd April, a letter was received by the three organisations from the Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for the Department (Rebecca Pow) providing generic information regarding the support measures that had already been announced by the Chancellor. This disappointing response (six weeks ago) shone a light on the lack of understanding in Department the dynamics of waterway businesses. This was to be further amplified in the weeks of inaction that were to follow!

On 8th April, The Inland Waterways Association joined the Broads Authority, British Marine and Canal & River Trust in responding to the Parliamentary Undersecretary of State’s letter, reiterating the call for a support package of £20 million to cover all commercial boat license and mooring fees for one year from the 1st of April 2020.

Further requests for information from the waterways team at Defra were being requested on a regular basis over this period and have continued in recent weeks. Each of the organisations involved have provided information to Defra based on surveys across their respective client base and constituencies of stakeholders.

As part of this, on 9th April – Thursday before Easter, The Inland Waterways Association conducted the largest survey of waterway businesses by partnering with Waterways World who provide the most comprehensive directory of waterways businesses in the UK. The survey of almost 1500 businesses resulted in responses from over 250 organisations within the first week, providing a comprehensive view across almost every business type in the waterways ecosystem.

Photo: Canal Cruising Company, Stone.  Hire boats ready and waiting

On 22nd April - 3weeks ago - the four organisations provided a detailed analysis to The Head of Inland Waterways and Navigation at Defra which left no doubt about the immediate, catastrophic challenges that waterway businesses were facing. This analysis also served to highlight that many of the chancellor’s support measures were inappropriate for businesses in this sector.

More recent measures announced by the Chancellor, particularly the Bounce Back Loans Scheme (BBLS), and the Small Business Grants Fund (SBGF) and Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Grant Fund (RHLGF), have provided some slightly more appropriate support mechanisms for waterways businesses but, for many, taking on any additional debt when they are facing three off-seasons in a row will mean that such options are not in line with prudent business management.
Following the announcement this week by the Prime Minister that some small measures could be taken to lift lockdown in England, we have prepared further info to Defra to augment the sketchy guidelines that have been issued over the past few days on sport and recreation.

My Assessment of the Industry Situation…

…through discussions with stakeholders across waterway businesses, together with the IWA/WW survey reveals a wide range of businesses where reserves are understandably low given the seasonality of these businesses. These seasonal businesses are being hit hard due to the timing of the lockdown.

The Inland Waterways leisure industry is worth approximately £1.5bn a year to the UK economy, but almost 90% of these businesses rely heavily on the summer months (April to September) for most, if not all, of their income.

Without this income, they will have no means to repay any sort of loan and rather than get into further debt, will have no option but to cease trading. The timing has hit many businesses doubly hard off the back of the hard winter which caused widespread flooding and closures of some waterways.
It is clear that the ability for waterways businesses to avail themselves of the measures that were put in place by the Chancellor are very limited.

Assessment of the government response so far…

…can be best summarised by my view that waterway businesses should be seen as a patient with a critical, life changing injuries that should be in ICU but is still in triage six weeks after the case was presented to those that could help. Given the response by the Parliamentary Undersecretary of State to at least one Member of Parliament following a business constituent’s letter, my conclusion is that even the triage system is flawed. My view is that this patient is effectively being left to die and I find that unacceptable.

That the fishing industry received support on 17th April in very similar circumstances – four weeks ago – can only serve to reinforce this view.

We have sought to provide detail at every stage in the requests for information from Defra, yet when this week’s ‘clarification’ of what was now possible under the controlled lifting of lockdown was published, that detail was not reflected and has therefore led to a very wide range in interpretation of the advice and many stakeholders being at a loss as to what it means in practice.

The inland waterways of the UK represent a network and a system which requires interoperability and consistency - the responses so far from government so far do not reflect that or promote mechanisms for support that provide a unified approach for businesses to gain support funding.

In Closing

I would reiterate the call for the £20 million support package that we have all been calling for for almost 2 months. This is by far the best way of providing a cascading intervention where funds provided to the navigation authorities can be passed throughout the waterway business network in the most equitable fashion, thereby ensuring that the support package reaches the widest possible number of affected businesses, using a mechanism that should give government clarity and confidence about how that support will be distributed.

The window of opportunity is closing if government is going to offer support. Failure to offer that support within the next few weeks could precipitate the most widespread and rapid decline of businesses on our waterways. As a representative of the very Association that was set up 75 years ago to campaign for the regeneration of the waterways, my assessment of the current situation suggests that what we now face is at least a significant as what we were tackling in the late 1940s in terms of the change of use and the decline of the waterways. I urge the government to intervene at the earliest possible opportunity to save this vital sector of the British economy and what could be a core element of the British stay-at-home leisure and holiday sectors in the coming years.

Thank you"

Photo: Paul Rodgers on the Oxford Canal with Oxfordshire Narrowboats in the background