Bridgewater Canal boss speaks

February 2017 - Peter Underwood has been looking at what some see as a highly autocratic approach to running the historic Bridgewater Canal

Since Peter Parkinson took over as General Manager of the Bridgewater Canal two years ago boaters have seen costs more than triple for liveaboards, aggressive enforcement has been reported, a reciprocal agreement with the Canal & River Trust has been torn up and a long stoppage has been imposed closing the vital north-south route well into late Spring this year.

Despite protests from the Inland Waterways Association and, somewhat more muted, complaints from C&RT he seems to rarely give ground and is widely seen as putting the financial, and property interests of the canal's owners, The Peel Group, ahead of the well-being of Britain's first commercial canal.

Although C&RT and the IWA have found him difficult to deal with, Peter Parkinson has been speaking to The Floater about what some see as an anti-boater revolution on the Bridgewater Canal.

Although the Canal has a Board that includes local councils it is emphatically owned by The Peel Group, which has a complex business structure, consisting of 320 registered companies and subsidiaries in the UK. Its ultimate parent company is the Isle of Man-based Tokenhouse Ltd and 73 per cent of Peel is owned by the Billown Trust, controlled by the chairman John Whittaker, who has overseen Peel's massive expansion since the 1970s.

In 2013, a report by Liverpool think-tank ExUrbe criticised the Peel Group's excessive influence on affairs and development in the Liverpool region, claiming that Peel had "blurred the boundaries between public and private interests".

In June 2013, Margaret Hodge, Committee Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, accused the Peel Group of tax dodging, and stated that some parts of the group pay on average 10 per cent Corporation Tax, and that some of the more profitable parts of the Peel Group pay zero per cent Tax.

The ruthlessly commercial approach to the Bridgewater might have been forseen when Peter Parkinson's appoint was announced.

Louise Morrissey, Director of Land and Planning at Peel Land & Property said, “Peter comes to the diverse position with commercial and property skills which will benefit the Canal greatly.”

The new General Manager told the world: “My immediate priorities are to ensure continuity of service to our customers, to become familiar with the canal and acquainted with its stakeholders, and to identify potential areas for improvement for the benefit of the Canal and its users.”

Within a few months he had pushed licence fees up more than 300 per cent for liveaboards – who now pay £1746 for a 60 ft boat, instead of a little over £500 and that on a canal a small fraction of the length or complexity of C&RT's 2,000 miles.

That was achieved by introducing a so-called Platinum User Licence, limited to a maximum of 2 named persons on the craft, 'permitting extended hours of stay on your vessel on the Bridgewater Canal with unrestricted holiday periods on board throughout the year'. All at a cost of £1200 a year on top of the licence fees.

Peter Parkinson also ripped up the reciprocal agreement with C&RT allowing boats to travel for seven days on each other's waters and imposed a new rule saying that if any C&RT boater returned to the Bridgewater within a month it would have to pay a £40 transit fee.

He claims those actions were brought about by complaints from Bridgewater boating clubs about visiting boats taking over the moorings in areas like Castlefield Basin in the centre of Manchester.

“Boats were moored all over the areas and not moving for months at a time,” he told The Floater. “Our enforcement officers were dealing with scruffy boats and bad behaviour, with people falling in the canal drunk.”

He claims that overstaying and abuse of the Canal by some boaters was far more widespread than initially envisaged with over 70 statutory enforcement notices served and seven craft removed from the Canal for failure to comply and therefore we have had to act to protect the Canal.​

It wasn't an argument that impressed the IWA who issued a statement saying: “Current enforcement activity along the Bridgewater Canal already seems to be discouraging CRT licensed boaters from making the transit from Preston Brook to Leigh and Manchester as they may be charged a £40 supplementary licence fee for the return journey.

“It is expected that if this trend continues the local businesses along the Bridgewater will suffer as visitor numbers reduce.

Mike Carter, IWA North West Region Chairman, said “IWA is campaigning for a system that allows suitably licensed boats to be able to visit all locations surrounding the Bridgewater Canal, including Manchester, Liverpool, Wigan, Blackburn, Middlewich, Barbridge and Kidsgrove. IWA considers that both CRT and BCC should be encouraging visitors to the area by maintaining a reasonable licensing policy that avoids isolating these locations for both Bridgewater and CRT licensed craft”.

Nothing much happened to change the view of Peter Parkinson and Peel and it is only in his interview with that Floater that the Bridgewater General Manager revealed that talks have finally been taking place with C&RT's Head of Boating. That was confirmed by C&RT who said: “Yes, the Trust has been in contact with Peel. Obviously Peel isn’t beholden to us in any way, but we’re keen to find a way forward.”

Peter Parkinson said: “The discussion is at a very early stage but we have a few ideas, nothing yet that we could put to a formal consultation.” He did say he planned to consult with Bridgewater boaters and assumed C&RT would do the same.

The latest upset for boaters is a stoppage blocking the entire north-south route along Bridgewater canal. It is to replace Vicars Hall Bridge, west of Boothstown Marina and the initial stoppage ran from mid February to mid June. Such a major intrusion into the cruising season brought lots of protests, with the IWA asking for it to be shortened and for 'windows' when boats could be allowed through.

The stoppage has now been shortened to end on May 24 but Peter Parkinson insists it was not a response to the IWA but a result of his negotiations with contractors to get things done more quickly.

The IWA confirms it has not yet received a reply to the letter sent to Peel Holdings back in January which asked for some windows of opening to canal traffic.

Certainly Peter Parkinson's hard line has seen Castlefield Basin cleared of visiting boats – to the extent that he has been able to establish marina moorings there, bringing in another income stream – especially as anyone taking them up has to pay the Platinum price of another £1,200 a year on top of a Bridgewater Licence as well as marina fees.

He insists this doesn't discourage visitor boats in Castlefield: “The basin is enormous and this only takes up a small part.”

Despite such protestations actions speak louder than words and it is not difficult to predict that the combined impact of an extended closure, the removal of moorings in Castlefield Basin, the threat of hard-line enforcement and having to pay a high price if you return to the Bridgewater a day or two early, will mean many boaters won't bother.

The victims will be the businesses alongside the canal as well as the reputation of the canal itself – although the tax-avoiders of Peel Group may find a few more pennies in the offshore bank account.

Photos: (1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th) Castlefield Basin before it was 'cleaned' of visiting boats, (2nd) Most moorings on the Bridgewater are run as Boat Clubs, (6th) an Open stretch of the rural Bridgewater Canal, and (last) Peter Parkinson - General Manager of the Bridgewater Canal.

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