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BLOG: View from the river bank – Club power

Ben Seal, Places to Paddle Manager for British Canoeing fills us in on what has been happening in the last month or so as part of the Clear Access, Clear Water campaign. He has had another busy month meeting with MPs and key influencers.  And so have you!

Access Luke Pollard Mp Ben Seal

Sitting at home watching the Brexit story unfold, it is very easy to feel powerless to influence the decisions made in Westminster. As many of us know, the issue around public access on English waterways has seemingly fallen on deaf ears for years; Defra continually repeating their policy line that ‘it is not current Government policy to legislate in this area….’

With Parliament preoccupied with decisions about whether to go ‘hard’ or ‘soft’, the concern might be that our campaign message is being drowned out by the ‘B’ word’.

But quite to the contrary, we are seeing the opposite. MP’s, Ministers and Shadow Cabinet all have been willing to meet with us and make positive noises about our intentions with Clear Access, Clear Waters. The narrative we are telling, the big ideas of inclusion, freedom and sharing seem to be resonating and sparking interest.  

I held very positive meetings with with Luke Pollard MP, who works within the Shadow Environment Team and also with Sue Hayman MP, Shadow Environment Minister the week previous.

But importantly the biggest wins are coming from you!

In the last couple of weeks, the new Agriculture Minister, Robert Goodwill MP opened the (very much flooded out) new white water course at Linton and then followed up with a visit to his local canoe club in Scarborough. He has come away with a very positive image of our sport, which was subsequently passed on in a meeting with the Secretary of State for DEFRA, Michael Gove MP.

We hope this will positively influence decisions taken on our proposals for future ‘Environmental Land Management Schemes (farming & land subsidies) when the time comes.

Colchester Canoe Club have been working with their MP, Will Quince, who managed to get a photo of the Charter in Michael Gove’s hands. Will Quince is joining the canoe club for their Surfers Against Sewage river clean, to see first hand, what paddlers can achieve with access on all waters.

Letters from a raft of clubs have been landing with MP’s in the last four weeks. Huntingdon, Holme Pierrepont, Macclesfield & District, Matlock Canoe Clubs – to name just a few – have all had replies and commitment to raise with the Minister. Members have contacted the likes of Philip Hammond MP, Dominic Raab MP, Anna Soubry MP – but with 533 English MP’s to contact we have a long, long way to go.

In March, the team has been busy making preparations for the Surfers Against Sewage campaign in April, encouraging as many clubs as possible to register a clean-up and invite their MP along. More and more clubs are sending us info about their clean up activities, the ‘Great River Don Clean’ was a great example of many stakeholders working together to make a big difference!  

We have been planning for a visit by Lord Gardiner (Under Secretary of State for Defra) to the April Regatta, to see check, clean dry biosecurity measures. Importantly we have just submitted a proposal to Defra for a potential pilot, making use of future land & farm subsidies, to support landowners in facilitating enhanced access points to the water.

We have continued to work with MPs to submit written questions to Ministers and are working towards oral questions and potentially a debate in the house. While written questions rarely deviate from the policy line, they are prepared by civil servants and signed off by the Minister – so it keeps us firmly on the radar.

Despite all the positivity, we have had a number of challenging situations arise on various rivers in the last few weeks. While clarity of our right remains in question, tension with other users and incidents of conflict are always likely to arise.  Critical is how we react to those situations. Remaining calm, rational and polite may not be easy, especially when faced with aggression. Logging those situations with us as an incident helps build a picture of the scale of the problem. Using your experiences to inform your MP helps build a strong case for bringing about fair, shared, sustainable open access on water, now.