... feminist, atheist, autistic academic and historic narrowboater ...
Likes snooker, beer, tea, rivets and solitude, and is strangely fascinated by the cinema organ.
And there might be something about railways.

Wednesday 10 March 2010

Volunteers wanted to remove floating dead dogs

Perhaps this is what I missed by not going to the HNBOC meeting last weekend, at which a BW bigwig (might even have been the same one) was providing the entertainment with a talk on future spending and the involvement of the 'third sector', but never mind, I was able to read all about it in the Guardian yesterday.

Now I'm not going to get involved in discussions about whether this is the right - or only - way forward (probably not, but another time, maybe) but a couple of things leapt out of the article (shall I be cynical and say press release) at me.

The first was this:

Hales said: "Why does a taxpayer in Blackpool fund the Regent's canal in London?"

To which the answer surely is, have you not grasped the point of a national system of taxation, Tony? The point is cross-subsidy; in some areas services are expensive to provide (think of public transport in sparsely populated rural areas); in other areas economies of scale make services relatively cheap to provide. Some areas are rich and some areas are poor. If every area had to pay for its own amenities and services, inequalities would become even more entrenched than they already are. His example is in any case disingenuous; it is surely the super-wealthy residents of Maida Vale and the commuters of G.U. Metroland who have funded the Liverpool Link and the Lancashire, not the other way round.

This attitude sounds like the beginning of the end for British Waterways or a national waterways system by any name, and an argument for a break up into self-funding regions, which will, for all sorts of reasons, have vastly differing levels of income and of outgoings, and would in many cases find themselves in competition with each other. It also brings to mind shades of the post-British railway system (shudder). Will we see the return of stop locks and the Worcester Bar?

The second assertion that I would take issue with is this:

"And if I own a brand new flat in Birmingham, I'm not going to sit there and do nothing if the canal I overlook is full of floating dead dogs, or the tow paths are covered in dog shit, or the lock gates don't work, and the value of my property is going down. I'm going to get involved."

Has he ever visited an area where the streets are covered in dog shit and the street lamps don't work, and there may even be the odd dead dog, or cat, or pigeon or rat? And has he noticed the people getting involved? Because mostly, mostly they don't. If they're affluent and confident, they shout and complain until someone else (usually the local authority) does something about it; and if they're poor and depressed, they put up with it and don't see any possible alternative. And frankly, the eventual residents of all those new flats, bought-to-let-off-plan and now being repossessed or offloaded by desperate failed would-be property magnates, are likely to fall into the latter category. And I'm sure that most of them wouldn't even notice whether the lock gates worked or not, let alone care.

'Getting involved' is the New (and now somewhat tarnished) Labour mantra. It involves passing the responsibility for local problems onto the people who are suffering from them, but without giving them the power to do anything meaningful about it. The way to achieve things is by banding together, but you cannot do that effectively if everyone in an area is poor, poorly educated, and depressed. You have to spread that load more widely. At its best, at its (hardly ever reached) ideal, that is what the state does; that is what the state is for. In practice, it hardly ever works. The irony is, that in a small way, as a vestige of the glory days, that's what British Waterways, the forgotten nationalised industry fighting on without noticing that the war was over and the private sector had won, was doing.


  1. I believe that the state is an entirely self-serving entity that seeks to curtail the power and possible empowernment of individuals to help themselves or manage their own environment. To allow that would be to render the state useless and pointless, which, in my opinion, it is. The state will offload certain duties which prove too expensive and dress it up as democratisation but its grip remains total.
    We labour under the sad illusion that we need a state to do things for us. It's not that people, poor or otherwise, lack funds or a desire for beauty around them, only that they mostly feel unconnected with canals, as places for rich people to play. We are told from birth, that everything and everywhere is owned - usually by someone else, so why would anyone get involved in maintaining a canal? Boaters are the same on the whole. We don't feel the canals are 'ours', pay out licence fees, therefore expect BW to do everything for us. I'd like to see local people feeling ownership of 'the bit of water that goes through their town or village', out playing in and on it for free, boaters taking full responsibilty for their chosen lifestyle, including maintaining the waterways and all of us saying "fuck off" to the state. And when the prop gets full of weeds, maybe we'll actually get off our arses and start clearing the canals ourselves. I don't see it as a battle between the private or public sector, but between autonomy and state control.
    - ranting carrie

  2. I mostly agree. But what about the possibility that the state has become an oppressive authoritarian force largely *because* it's in hock to the private sector and has lost sight of its ideal origins as a giant mutual support network? And perhaps this is inevitable.

  3. Guess I see the 'giant mutual support network' as Society - a wonderful, uplifting gathering together of humans for our collective well-being. I don't see the state as being in hock to the private sector so much as a direct product of that private wealth, the first hierarchies, land-owning and the need to protect that elite with police and an army, it's whole purpose being to maintain that inequality. Dissent is tolerated, only until corporate wealth or governance are threatened.
    Anyway, sorry to load up your comment page with my rants, Sarah!
    - Carrie

  4. Interesting thread which is true in many aspects but misses the point of what BW (and government) is trying to achieve.

    Sarah thinks "it involves passing the responsibility for local problems onto the people who are suffering from them, but without giving them the power to do anything meaningful about it."

    Actually, it would be more accurate to substitute 'people who are suffering from them' with 'the community that is responsible for creating them'. It is after all, the local community that is allowing residents to let their dogs to foul the towpaths, use the
    waterway for fly-tipping, decorate bridges with graffiti etc.

    As for 'not having the power to do anything meaningful' that is part of what BW and government is trying to do; namely, give local communities and stakeholders the responsibility AND power for caring for their local waterways.

    If you read the details of BW's 2020 Vision you will see that the new structure they are proposing is based on a Members Council at the top (which comprises representatives of ALL stakeholder groups) and that Council will be responsible for selecting and appointing Board Members as well as monitoring BW's activities. Clearly, that will give users hugely more say with how our waterways are run.

    But there's the other end of the structure, it is envisaged that each local branch of BW will have a Waterway Committee that will forge stronger links with local communities.

    In line with this latter change SOW (Save Our Waterways) is about to launch a Waterways Watch initiative which essentially is looking to help set up community groups that will take advantage of this radical change in how waterways are managed.

    This is not only an opportunity for everyone to take an active part in the future of our waterway heritage but, given the seriousness of the current economic it could also be the only way that we can protect the future of our waterways fro future generations.

  5. Forgive my cynicism, but it is borne of many years working in, and latterly researching, the 'third sector'. And I totally stand by my description of what New Labour's 'getting involved' has meant in practice. It may not be what BW envisages, but if not then they are being utopian. Realistically, it may be the least worst option, but it is not going to herald some brave new world.

    What are 'communities'? What are 'stakeholders'? Fine to say that it's about passing responsibility for the problems to the people who created them, but given that they did create them, or at the very least allow them to happen, why on earth do we imagine that this graffiti-ing, dog crapping, fly-tipping bahaviour will magically alter? How are local residents meant to stop other residents indulging in such behaviour, for heaven's sake, especially when they're bigger than them and have fierce dogs? That is why we have the police, local authorities and other agents of the state; we might not like them, but they are - sometimes - necessary to protect some members of the community from other members of the community on behalf of all of us.

    Love your rants Carrie, keep them coming. Will, afraid I found your response rather glib and naive.

  6. Gosh, you are a terminal cynic aren't you Sarah!? That of course is your right but there are many examples out there of communities out there who are helping themselves - check out the recently formed Blisworth Canal Partnership at which looks to me like a very good attempt to be the 'giant mutual support network' that you miss so much.

    There is only so much that the police and local authorities can do and anyway their priorities can be changed by local opinion. Mind you if they can't be bothered to try and make changes then they only have themselves to blame.

    Will Chapman
    Save Our Waterways

  7. Yes, of course there are examples of local groups, particularly in waterways contexts, achieving great things. We went up the Erewash last summer and met people who have been involved in it for thirty years and more. But the point is, these are groups of enthusiasts, not 'local communities'. Can I suggest that you read some of the research that has been done on community involvement before dismissing my reservations as mere cynicism?