The Middle Level Commission has the responsibility of managing the Middle Level waterways around the fens.
Their primary role is to manage the drainage of rainwater off the land and safely out to sea. For this role they charge farmers and other land owners in the area a levy and also claim money from the government as part of Britain's flood defences, essentially money from tax payers.
Their secondary role is to ensure that the rivers, drains and creeks are navigable to boats so they can cross between the River Nene and the Great Ouse.
When the Middle Level system was created in the 17th century, it was decided that pleasure boats were allowed to use these waters free of charge and this was written in law. The people of the Fenlands have always used boats to get around and it was decided that they should retain this right even after much of it was drained.
Apart from maintaining 6-locks and the occasional dredging of the drains, something they need to do anyway to keep the water flowing, the Middle Level Commission does very little for boaters. They provide no real facilities for boaters, but this is fine as currently boaters are not expected to buy a licence, which is often the case on other British navigations. Local marinas offer water and pump out facilities to boaters for a small fee.
Over 300-years have since past and now the Middle Level Commission is seeking to overturn these bylaws to enable them to charge boaters an annual fee.
In return they have said that they will be providing some boating facilities and some extra moorings!
The issue is that many boaters prefer things as they are. The proposed licensing could cost every boater hundreds of pounds a year and this would be considerably more than the cost of using marina facilities occasionally.
Furthermore, in 1702, the Conservators (Authority) of the nearby River Cam sought a similar Act of Parliament to overturn their bylaws to enable the charging of boaters, which still exists today. The River Cam Conservators charge licensing fees to each vessel of around £500 to £1000 per year for a typical narrow boat and for this they offer little more than a water-point!
Don't let the Middle Level go the same way. Once these rights are lost, they can never be reclaimed.
Finally, the Canal & River Trust is a private organisation that likes to think of itself as a charity, but it is not!
It is responsible for over 2000 miles of waterways, essentially the old canal network created during the industrial revolution, but the Canal & River Trust are not respected by a large number of boaters for good reasons.
They too charge boaters for access to the canal network and have been in negotiations with the Environment Agency, supported by DEFRA (Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs) to take ownership of the River Nene and the Great Ouse. These two rivers lie to the north and south of the Middle Level.
The Canal & River Trust could quite easily take over the River Nene and Great Ouse because these two navigations have an authority that can charge boaters to use them, but the linking drains of the Middle Level represent the Canal & River Trust with a dilemma. They can't currently charge boaters a licence fee and therefore why would a private organisation be willing to take over the management of this navigation and the costs that go with it?
Perhaps the timing of the Commission's proposals to amend the bylaws and charge boaters is a huge coincidence, but perhaps not!
Please support this campaign by signing the online petition. That way when the Commission seeks an Act of Parliament to overturn the bylaws, we will have a strong mandate from the people to show we won't give up our rights easily. Thank you.
To contact the team, please email us at email@example.com
In simple terms, as a boater, what would all this mean to me?
The Middle Level Commission may say that they will provide boaters with some new facilities including some extra moorings, perhaps a water point etc. but this is essentially a bribe! As already said, the River Cam authority promised much, charge between £500 & £1000 per boat, per year and don't even provide a water point. Once the bylaw has been changed to allow the licensing/ charging of boats, the door is open to abuse, so don't fall for it!
A new licence fee/charges initially promised might sound quite small to begin with. Perhaps a nominal fee of say £50 per boat per year, but again, this will be initially set low to reduce the majority of opposition to the proposals! Once the bylaws have been amended, prices can and will increase later!
The licence fee will apply to every boat on the Middle Level waterways and is likely to be based on the length of the boat.
There are high level talks for the Canal & River Trust to be the official inland waterways authority of all connected navigable UK waters. They have already been in talks with the Environment Agency to discuss taking over the River Nene and the Great Ouse.
If the Canal & River Trust took over the management of the River Nene and Great Ouse, it is highly likely that boats on the main canal network, currently on CRT licences, would instantly have access to the River Nene and Great Ouse and boaters currently paying the Environment Agency to navigate the Nene and Ouse, would be expected to buy a CRT licence instead. These boaters would automatically have access to the main canal network too. It is likely that many of the 30,000 boats on the main canal network would now be tempted to enter the River Nene at Northampton, because they no longer need to buy another EA licence or a special licence (Called the Gold Licence) currently offered by CRT at an extra cost.
It is currently not possible to reach the Great Ouse without navigating through the Middle Level, so this extra boating traffic would need to cross the Middle Level and back, increasing wear and tear on already tired locks and using scarce water supplies.
We believe that the Middle Level Commission is trying to mitigate any extra costs that could come their way if the additional boats come through the ML and one solution would be to hand over any navigational maintenance costs to the Canal & River Trust, given that they are making money from the licence fees they charge all boaters using the canal network, River Nene and the Great Ouse.
This could mean that the Canal & River Trust is responsible for collecting levies/ duties from land owners too, or the Middle Level Commission would focus on land drainage and sea locks, with the Canal & River Trust managing the unmanned locks and navigation related infrastructure.
Why though would the Canal & River Trust be willing to take over the management of the Middle Level as they cannot force boats already on there to pay a licence fee and it is also difficult to include the Middle Level within the licence fee structure, given that it is free to use anyway.
So there seems to be a bit of a stalemate until the bylaws have been changed. The Canal & River Trust seemed to have ceased talks with the Environment Agency until they know the outcome of the Middle Level Commission's attempts to amend the ancient bylaws.
If they are successful, the eventual outcome appears to be that the Canal & River Trust will manage the main canal network, the River Nene, the Middle Level and the Great Ouse.
It is likely that they will increase their licence fees to all boats because they are offering a larger area of inland navigation, but the number of extra boat licences they will pick up from the relatively quiet Nene, ML & Ouse will mean a sizeable fee increase to cover the additional large area they will need to maintain.
This is unfair to many CRT boaters unlikely to venture this way and visa versa.
We may see the peace and tranquillity of the waterways in this area change forever and the cost of moorings in the area increase as demand increases.
Our advice is to join hands, sign the petition and show parliament that we wish to maintain the status quo. The Canal & River Trust will hopefully lose interest in the River Nene/ Great Ouse and things stay the same in terms of licence fees, mooring fees and boat numbers.
Don't fall for the bribes of more moorings and new facilities. The River Cam authority has already proved that they take the money and spend little/ nothing on the boaters.