CRT National Council Jottings
Canal and River Trust's National Council meets once every six months and follows a pattern of one meeting taking place immediately after the Annual Public Meeting in September and the other in various locations around the country.
You may recall that my first March meeting took place at Liverpool Docks, last year was in Bath and this year we gathered in the Yorkshire Museum in York.
I have to admit that I find this roaming approach to the spring meeting very informative, even if it creates travel issues. The formal meetings run from 11.30 till 4.30 but on each occasion there is an optional site visit and thhis time the reward for showing up at 8.30 was a coach trip to Naburn Locks and a boat trip back to the meeting venue in Museum Gardens. Its surprising what you learn on these trips. Did you know that whilst CRT owns the river navigation of the Ouse through York, they own no land in the city and the Naburn Locks site is their closest bit of real estate? They are therefore, with much volunteer assistance, developing the flood prone lock island into something of a visitor attraction which is well worth a visit and how better to travel the six miles than by boat. Its good to see aspects of CRT in action as it "grounds" discussions. These informal site visits also offer an opportunity to have a chat with CRT staff, the Trustees and other council members which is a massive plus. I sometime think that my greatest influence on the Council is via the informal discussion opportunities it offers rather than formal questions raised "in session".
Given the numbers involved in these meetings they tend to be a succession of presentations and information dumps, designed to inform and offer some scope to challenge in question and answer sessions which follow each segment. However, time is limited and we have to crack on to keep to the timed agenda.
What follows is a precis of my notes, which are not formal minutes and are simply the things which struck me during the meeting and may well contain personal misunderstandings, errors or omissions. With those caveats in place here goes:
- With an operating turnover of over £200m the trust had a small surplus of £800k last year.
- Income was slightly above plan
- £2.7m was received from the Postcode Lottery and the Trust is now a "Direct beneficiary" (which is a good thing)
- There have been lengthy legal appeals regarding water abstraction on the River Lea and currently they find in CRT's favour, which may have a positive impact on future income.
- Public safety - 300 recorded incidents last year which was about average.
- Towpath satisfaction stands at 91%
- Volunteers offered 490,000 hours and were 96% satisfied
- 205 community adoptions are in place
- Donating friends stand at 23,500 vs a target of 28,500
- Public brand awareness is rising but stands at 36% vs target of 40%
- Breach as Middlewich is significant but not as large as Dutton last year. Access is difficult and the closure will be lengthy. Limited damage to third party property.
- Lea Navigation at Pyms Brook - a tanker full of oil was illegally dumped in the brook and has been very difficult to clear up and has resulted in a 5 week stoppage.
- Following another towpath death in Manchester there have been renewed public appeals for the installation of barriers which is being balanced with boater needs and heritage issues.
- 240 planned stoppages
- 180 gates replaced
- Marple Locks have included a near complete rebuild of one lock which was not expected. Canal opens in early May. Aqueduct railings added to offside funded by Postcode Lottery.
- Extensive pinning needed on the Mon and Brec.
- Significant repair work to quadrants on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal which had developed cavities beneath.
Engagement and Participation
- 8 open days took place attracting 15,000 visitors (2 cancelled)
- There has been a focus on safeguarding this year
- The CRT re-organisation has seen an emphasis shift and the exec roles have been reduced to 7. Senior manager numbers have dropped from 78 to 60 of which 42 are filled and 18 are open.
- No gender pay gap exists within the Trust.
- The Trusts aim is moving progressively to a Waterway and Wellbeing Trust. In effect this is extending its aims to a wider audience.
- The quality of contractors used is being closely scrutinised following well known issues with Carillion etc.
- The EA transfer now appears unlikely.
- BWML is seen as a non core operation and a buyer is being sought.
Jenny Abramsky - appointments committee chair
- Terms of Reference amended to reflect the new Regional Advisory Boards
- Recruitment of chairs is underway in the 6 regions (was 10)
- It defines the max and min number of seats on regional committees.
- Following the departure of some experienced trustees replacements are being sought
National Council Review
- Group discussions took place and concluded that a Council Member handbook would be of benefit, defining what a council member does, how its is done and how best to maximise the influence membership offers.
Long Term Debt
Stuart Mills (Chief Investment Officer and Sandra Kelly (Finance Director)
- At its inception it was agreed that the Trust should carry some debt, initially via a £25m revolving credit line upped to £50m in 2016.
- This debt was consolidated in a private placement of £150m at the end of 2017.
- This debt is agreed over a 30 year term at less than 3% interest, offering stability.
- The money is invested in the Trust's investment portfolio of which property is making 10.8% and non property 9%.
- In effect the trust is borrowing cheaply based on its asset base and inherent strength, investing the money is assets which are earning a return which is higher than the financing costs and the difference (called arbitrage) is profit applied to the trusts wider operations.
- (Andys comment 1. Dont get blinded by this high finance stuff. In simple terms the trust owns investment assets of £800m which is an endowment providing income. They see an opportunity to make more money from this source and are borrowing some long term money to buy more commercial property. Its a bit like a glorified "buy to let" where you use the value of your home to support a cheap second mortgage to buy another property which you then let out.)
- The private placement was to a number of well known North American and European institutions which, we were assured, do not carry reputational risks. (Andy's comment 2 - I was rather worried about this because the names are not in the public domain).
- (Andys comment 3 - I am comfortable with this overall arrangement which appears prudent and well stress tested, however, as with personal debt, a bit is fine but one can overdo things. The Trustees assured us that they have no current intention of any further placements beyond £150m and in my view any further increase in long term debt should be discussed before it is entered into)
John Horsfall (Interim Head of Boating)
- 32,000 leisure licenses and 1,000 business licenses covering 2,000 craft.
- Generates £27m of income
- The rules covering licensing are within the BW Act of 1995 and are "opaque". (Andy's comment - Think of the Pirates Code - not so much rules as guidelines...)
- There has been a dramatic increase in the number of boats used as dwellings since the act was passed. Mostly these are on a continuous cruising basis.
- The recent review is about fairness, not income generation.
- Consultation elicited 11,000 responses and an overriding desire was to see area included in the calculation.
- The details of the new structure are in the public domain and have so far generated 15 to 20 complaints.
- Some areas such as discounts such as Electric, Historic and areas of high demand are subject to further ongoing review to ensure that they deliver the desired outcomes.
- Brand awareness has been growing and has risen from 30% in April 16 to 37% today.
- The cascade of engagement is : Beneficiary (say towpath user) to Follower (say Facebook) to Friend and then Volunteer.
- The slower than expected growth in public awareness is a major issue as it is inextricably linked with the bid for further government grant funding when the existing package expires.
- Focus groups were convened to identify the key message needed. Well Being emerged as the key message we are not getting over - the benefits of being able to spend time beside water which has a proven link with peoples emotional and physical wellbeing.
- The resulting strapline is "making life better by water".
- This altered strapline will be accompanied by a change of logo
- The colours will be blue and green and the logo will be circular to better fit on social media.
- This new identity will launch of 21 May (I havnt seen a draft)
- There will be a 2 to 3 year roll out
- The cost is being bourne be the normal Marketing budget and we are assured that this exercise has not involved expensive consultancies. It appears quite home grown.
- Assets bearing the Trust Logo will be rebranded as they are replaced in the usual cycle.
Andy's comment on re branding
- As soon as I saw this my heart sank and like many of you I thought "here we go - another go at rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic where the only winner is the PR agency commissioned". Actually this is far from the case and in my view this step is essential - let me explain why.
- As boaters and canal lovers we all know the benefit of time by the water but this message isnt getting out there fast enough
- A massive 25% of the Trust income is from the government grant which is subject to renegotiation and possible termination in a few years time.
- The trust is doing what it can to increase income from other areas such as friends, investments and utilities but this is not enough to replace the grant should it stop.
- Its clear that if we want to see the canals and rivers maintained in the next decade the continuation of the government grant is essential.
- Governments are always looking for ways to cut costs and the CRT grant is a sitting duck for the butchers block.
- Maintaining a pretty canal network for a handful of boaters isnt a compelling argument but if the millions who benefit form the canal environment recognise the benefit they receive and use their voice to lobby the government the chances of success are much higher
- Put simply, if we want to keep our river and canal network we have to see the public engagement increase dramatically. At the moment they use the asset but dont recognise who CRT are. If we dont get this cracked we will be in serious trouble in a few years.
- Everyone realises that the current logo is fine for us existing users - but its not hitting the spot for the wider world.
- If something isnt working you have to bite the bullet and make the change. The Logo / strapline is in exactly this position and I would argue strongly that we embrace the change, and move to being active advocates of the Waterways and Wellbeing concept asap.
- For me this is pure self interest. I want to see my watery playground continue and improve and if it takes a switch of emphases - fine. Bring it on.
I think thats about it. I am sure I missed some issues but these were the stand out's from the event. Please give me feedback of issues you think should be considered / communicated.
Its probably fair to say that the boating and business issues are mostly addressed at working group meetings which happen two or three times a year than at these big National Council meetings.