nbta protest birmingham

nbta protest birmingham

angry boaters march on crt office

Picking Sides

A bright, blue-sky day in November, I happened upon a clutch of banner wielding, trumpet tooting crowds. On a whim I had decided to see for myself the protest march on the CRT’s head office in Birmingham. Initially my feelings were mixed; true the rise in licence fee was annoying; for the first time ever I’d had to pay my boat licence in two parts, paying the full annual in one go had become impossible for me; yet at the same time, I wondered if marching on the CRT was the right course of action as, the price hike was, in my view, down to central government cutting all funding to what, was an important, if not vital part of national infrastructure.

However, bitter experience, and being a liveaboard, skewed my impartiality, it was impossible not to be biased. The last time I was in Birmingham, was February, I was moored there aboard my own boat, Ella, and, was to be one of the last people there to take advantage of the full fortnight in the city centre. Even while moored there, notices were going up about ‘limiting the inner city moorings to 48 hours. I’d also seen gentrification; Lichfield Basin in Stourport, excellent moorings but closed off to all boats since the early 21st century; penthouse developers feeling that while ‘life was better by water’ such water should not be encumbered by boats - heaven forbid! And along the towpath, new signs announcing, ‘Attention Dog Owners, Please pick up after your dog’ followed by the irritatingly twee, ‘Attention Dogs; Grr, Bark, Woof.’ Surely responsible owners know to pick up after their furry chums and irresponsible owners would hardly be swayed by this whimsy.

Any boater who uses the system will have their own horror stories; interminable stoppages, locked Bin yards and Elsan points and now we were faced with a 25% rise in all licences with an extra surcharge for continuous cruisers.

As we waited for more arrivals to swell our dwindling band, I met an old friend of mine whom I’d not seen in nearly a year. Over a pint of Pale Ale, he told me he was moored on my old stomping ground on the Worcester and Birmingham, telling horror stories of landslides at Shortwood Tunnel and yet another stoppage at Tardebigge.

It did not take much convincing for me to seize a banner, helpfully distributed by the Bargee and Travellers Association. So much of impartiality.

angry boaters march

boaters' march crosses canal bridge in Birmingham

Compelling Arguments

I’ve a confession to make; I’m a continuous moorer. In my four and a half years on the boat I’ve spent 15 months in boatyards and marinas, and only 15 months outside of Worcestershire. No matter, I was still a liveaboard and while, by virtue of having a home mooring, I would not be subject to the surcharge of 25% increase over five years, I was still acutely aware of the increase to my own licence.

The Narrowboaters, Bargees and Travellers association argued that the surcharge would only generate 0.6% of CRT profits, whilst disproportionately affecting a minority of boat owners. CRT’s own figures bear this out. In their March 2022 survey of 9530 boaters, 79% had a home mooring, while under a third of licence holders, 21%, did not.

From my own experience too, I’ve observed that much of the strain on the system comes from people with less vested interest. Not that I wish to make generalizations, because I’ve seen many a responsible skipper of a hire or ‘shiny’ boat but I have seen irresponsible weekend skippers too, dropping paddles, leaving litter, speeding to complete a circuit. I’ve also experienced exploitation personally from one, very well-known hire company, which took me on as casual labour, boat-blacking. I worked 13 hours over 3 days and was not paid, despite repeated attempts at asking for payment. Businesses, like hire firms, I would venture are far more responsible for wear and tear on the system and one wonders whether a surcharge would be better deployed there.

Another solution; posited by none other than David Suchet at the IWA’s annual general meeting, (which I gate-crashed) was passing on the costs to towpath users; such as licencing cyclists, or installing secure donation boxes at various points on the system. The view of the IWA however was that with 4,700 miles it would be almost impossible to police such a task of licencing cyclists, without being prohibitively expensive, and that to rely on goodwill of towpath users alone would be inadequate, especially during a ‘cost-of-living crisis.’

My own view is that the waterways should never have been made into a Charitable case, though this may be covered by hearing tales from the old timers about how much better things were in the days of British Waterways. It’s no surprise that the CRT came into being during David Cameron’s first term as P.M. seeing as Tory party policy is based on Wildean principles of cynicism; ‘Knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing.’ Besides, had they not have abdicated responsibility for the waterways, they wouldn’t be able to reap the fortunes of all those wonderful profits made by private water companies for pouring effluence into our waters. Ultimately it’s a political problem requiring a political solution but the CRT picking on the poorest, often most vulnerable group on the waters is a far cry from what anyone expects of a ‘charity.’

boaters on boat as part of demonstration

angry boaters in Birmingham

On the March

It had been twenty years since I’d protested; that had been in Birmingham too. In 2003 I marched against the Iraq war along some of the same streets I was marching now. We numbered over a thousand but I recall that protest as being a column of quiet, dignified silence, placards declaring ‘Not in our name’ doing the talking. This time we were a tenth of that number; just over a hundred, but by God, we made up for it with noise.

We did not have the strength of numbers for quiet dignity but with the loss of self-consciousness that comes with living for long period in isolation we made a loud, and colourful mob. One lady, whose Father and Grandfather had been coal-carriers on the cut, told me she’d attended protests throughout her life and throughout Europe; “I’ve been arrested for protesting in three countries,” she told me with pride.

This was an extraordinary demonstration, boaters had come from all over the country; I spoke with people who had come from the K&A, Lincolnshire, and London. Many the very image of the Continuous Cruiser, tough, weather beaten, dreadlocked, dressed for comfort, not style, every inch of them exuding the rugged pioneer spirit that comes with frontier living; enough to put the fear of God or the disdain of squires looking to empty their wallets in the boutiques and bistros of a Black Friday weekend.

Call: “From the Med to the Lea!”
Response: “One licence, one fee!”
Call “Boats are homes!”
Response: “Scrap the Surcharge.”
Call “1,2,3,4-
Response “Where are we supposed to moor?”
Call “5,6,7,8”
Response “We just want to navigate!”

Not everyone was indifferent or disdainful. Along the way many bank dwellers smiled on us, a couple of times onlookers stopped and offered us fist bumps in solidarity and on the flanks of our column, leaflets were distributed.

Reaching the foot of Richard Parry’s office, one red-headed lady really vented; “Come down here, Parry you b*****d, I’ll stick this placard where the sun shines!”

Even I, with previous form for penning satirical snatches and ditties couldn’t resist making up my own; “Parry is a Dick, Parry is Dick, Richard Parry, Richard Parry, Parry is a Dick, oi!”

We were a column of merry-pranksters, come to freak-out the norms, come to show that we were still here and would be heard. What little police presence there was, seemed more bemused than threatened by this confederation of angry hippies, new agers, travellers and bohemians. Compared to most protests (and there’ve been a lot lately) the tone here was more mischief than violence, angry but still at heart, good-natured, as most boaters are.

angry boaters with placards

boaters' march in Birmingham

The Flotilla and Continuing the Fight

At the water’s edge, beneath Parry’s office, boats made doughnut wakes at Ozell’s street loop, displaying their banners. I especially recall a beautiful old tug; at its bow a man with a Methuselah beard and a roll up. ‘One licence one price.’

The March concluded at Cambrian Wharf where we were addressed by the bigwigs of the Narrowboaters, Bargee and Travellers association. As I was straining to listen, some-one in the crowd approached me; “You a boater? Where did you come from?”
I told him. “Great, you’re the first person I’ve met from that port - here” - he handed me a wad of flyers; “Distribute ‘em around your town will you?” Gleefully, I agreed.
Then, gradually, we dispersed, handed in our placards and went to the pub.

News Blackout?

The community of Continuous Cruisers is probably the smallest single community in the country. True there had been plenty of photographers there, yet, when I started scanning the News there was little to no-reportage on the march. A brief article on the BBC Midlands website, but very little else, though what could one-expect in an age of conflict Israel versus Palestine grabbing the headlines. “Never mind,” I reassured my companion “Still early days yet, I’ll bet the Birmingham Mail ‘ll cover it.”

A day later an article did appear in the Birmingham Mail; “We sold our three bedroomed home to live on a narrowboat.” I rolled my eyes; how many times have I read articles about middle-class people selling up and taking to the water. Scanning it I found very little different from this type of story. “…sold their three bedroomed house in Sussex…” The couple in question were notable only by their absence on the march, but then having just sold a three bedroomed house, down south, I doubted they would be much affected by the price rises. Perhaps this is the shape of things to come, these of the new boaters being the kind that the CRT appeal to; genteel, with kids, moneyed, don’t-make-a-fuss, gentrified types. Not that swarm of passionate, raggle-taggled water gypies. Who knows, when the next issue of Waterways World, or some-such publication may run a paragraph on it.

For what it’s worth then, here is my account. From one who was there. From one who cares.

AN INTERESTING TAKE ON THIS FROM Richard Vobes on YouTUBE...watch now....