Friday, 10 July 2009

Where to now for the Basingstoke Canal?

The Basingstoke Canal is in crisis: there is a considerable shortfall in funding and there is a definite lack of commitment from the owners. Because it is owned by local councils, this means that effectively it is run by local politicians. And we all know how good politicians are at running anything. Those involved with the canal locally are extremely concerned for the short-term future of the canal.

But is the current crisis something that should have been considered and assessed a long time ago, when restoration was first being planned and executed? Is this a lesson for other restoration projects elsewhere?

Today, all around the country, canal restoration projects continue to whistle up support for their programme, promising a few new miles of waterway for the user. My sense is that the majority of the subcribers to these projects and the restoration volunteers primarily see themselves as boaters.
The evidence suggests that there is a plethora of supporters when the waterway is a weed-filled ditch, but decades later when money and personnel are still needed for maintenance and sustaining the reopened waterway, the numbers dwindle and age. This summer's Basingstoke Canal News - the newsletter of the Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society - mentions meetings in 1979 when 500 people attended, while their recent AGM scraped just 40. The magazine is littered with references to the need for new and younger members. It really doesn't help that the back cover contains two rather sexist advertisements for volunteers: one for a female "crew manager" and one for a male"mechanic". A younger generation is typically much more sensitive to those kinds of sexist comments and may feel that that kind of 'old fashioned' attitude is par for the course at the Basingstoke. It's also not helped by a fairly woeful website.
Yet the members of the Surrey & Hampshire remain fit, active and dedicated, undertaking significant structural restoration work each year, and they deserve huge credit for this.

But how much of this is remembered at a time when councils are changing, politicians are becoming more weasly and the purse springs get tightened? The society needs to find creative and innovative ways not just to appeal to the communities in their constituency but also to the local government officials, the flunkeys from ME and the EA, to policiticans (for goodness sake, five out of ten Vice Presidents are MPs.....surely even you can find a use for Michael Gove - perhaps as a ground paddle!?)

The Surrey and Hampshire is, however, not the only waterways society suffering a generally aging population: I have heard similar stories in connection with the IWA nationally and locally, the BCN, NABO and others. The situation is not helped by a tendency for societies to become increasingly a clique where it can be difficult for all but the most extroverted to break in to established routines, procedures and friendships.
It is very difficult because it is this older generation - of good, warm people in their 50s, 60s, 70s - who are the 'heros of the revolution' - toiling through the dark days of the 1950s and 1960s to save what we have now. Their ownership of the whole waterways movement is extremely strong and they have good reason to feel that they should be in charge, brooking no dissent from the younger generation.

But the truth is that change is needed if today's societies are to appeal to a younger audience or a wider audience tomorrow. Yesterday's leaders - who are still, by and large, today's leaders - need to take a deep breath and let go: they need to open the doors more widely and take more time to meet new people, new members, the partly interested and even outsiders. It's not just waterways societies that are struggling though - it can be seen in different sectors and even in different countries. Both Robert Putnam and Francis Fukuyama have written extensively about declining and changing social capital.

With massive government funding cutbacks absolutely inevitable, the waterways community is going to need to rely on itself even more in the coming years and that will need stronger, more cohesive groups than we have at present.

We may well yet be fighting again to stop closures of remainder waterways again. And the first campaign may be the Basingstoke.

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