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View from the Riverbank: from paddles to Parliament

In the latest edition of View from the Riverbank Ben Seal shares how little steps add to progress, finding small wins in unexpected places and why getting MP’s on the water is part of the solution.

Ben Tom Watson

Pushing my way through a frenzied gaggle of Conservative MP’s untidily queuing in a corridor to cast their leadership vote, it served to remind me how utterly preoccupied government is at present...with itself and Brexit. I briefly contemplated sitting down next to Laura Kuenessberg (busily tweeting in one of the Central Lobby alcoves) to see if she would be interested in reporting on our campaign (anything but Brexit....) but I decided the time for Kunessberg, the BBC and our campaign would almost certainly come one day!

 The challenge we set ourselves was pretty big. Measuring progress against it would always important given our accountability to our members; but it is all a question of perspective. If you focus too hard on attainment of the end prize (new legislation or extension of existing Countryside and Rights of Way Act), you very much miss the small wins and gradual gains in unexpected places. 

Every week during May & June, we have taken little steps toward the end goal that us paddlers prize so highly. Little steps which are often hard to report nationally, but all add up to progress.

In May,  Kirton Kayak’s Ben Turner & his Grandpa (and BC Vice President) David Green, and Tom Watson MP, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party took to the Exeter Canal in a beautiful Prospector Canoe. Tom, (who was more than happy to be on the water and not in Prime Minister’s Question Time) is preparing for a paddling challenge in July, close to his own constituency in the West Midlands. You don’t often get to spend 2 and a half hours paddling in the sunshine with a high profile MP, but this was valuable time VERY well spent, unpacking the charter and outlining the aspiration for all waters to be fairly shared by all.

Being out on the water today in a canoe, I can see why our waterways are so popular. A place to unwind, exercise and experience our natural world. It is so important that these special ‘blue’ spaces are available to all, to be shared and protected for everyone’s enjoyment.

– Tom Watson MP, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party.

The aim is to secure commitment by Labour, to address ‘unfinished business’, to complete the access jigsaw, that saw water omitted from the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000. In June, a report was published for Labour called ‘Land for the Many’. Contained within it was a policy suggestion that access on water should be addressed by a future Labour Government.

Our campaign however is not targeted to one party. At the end of May, I met with Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake and later, Lib Dem Spokesperson on the Environment, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville MBE. Both were receptive to our asks and inclined to support the aspirations of fair and equal access for recreation on water.

 In July we hope to have a key current Defra Minister out on the water with us, again to discuss future policy and solutions to the challenges we face on inland waterways.

 Many of you will have enjoyed the Slalom World Cup. Amongst the VIPs who came for the weekend was Conservative MP, Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire), who found the extreme slalom absolutely fascinating. Pauline’s continued support is invaluable and had recently led to some helpful research being undertaken for us by the House of Commons Library. 

Possibly some of the best progress was made this last week by Richard, representing British Canoeing in a meeting with Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Defra Minister for the Environment, including Biosecurity) and an appearance in front of a panel of cross party MP’s at an Environmental audit committee. The subject at both was Non Native Invasive Species; a real serious challenge that costs our economy billions and clogs up the places we paddle. Despite getting a good grilling, it is really positive that having our profile raised by the campaign is now shining a light on us and our cause more often. Each meeting leads to new opportunities, broadening our profile and deepening people’s understanding of what we as paddlers want to achieve.

 Approaching summer recess, we have a chance to pause and reassess our plan for ‘phase 2’ of the campaign. The importance of writing to your MP has never diminished - in fact it only grows. Within the coming weeks we will almost be back to square one as a new cabinet and set of Ministers is formed by the new Prime Minister. We must be on the front foot in September to make ourselves known.

We know that the paddling community need to be given many ways in which to get involved to support Clear Access, Clear Waters. We have established a really good foundation; now we need the detail and we need greater scale of support. I hope in the coming months we can start to give our members, clubs, centres and partners even more ways to back Clear Access, Clear Waters.

Watch this space.