The worst aspect of the piece published by the Indo last Sunday is that information is presented entirely without context. Persecuted boatowners are, it seems, to be forced to pay money, and the economy of the canals (such as it is) is to be damaged, for no reason whatsoever. The assertions of the boatowners go unchallenged.
Happily, this site provides a bilge-cleaning service. Here is the news.
1. Waterways Ireland is in dire financial straits
I have written extensively here about Waterways Ireland’s finances. I pointed out that there is a continuing dispute between the NI minister responsible for waterways and her southern counterpart, but that if the RoI government gets its way WI’s income will be cut by one third between 2010 and 2016. I showed that WI’s operating income is negligible and that most categories of expenditure have already been cut; I also showed that retirements will increase the cost of pensions benefits from just under €1000000 in 2011 to just under €2400000 in 2016, which will account for 10% of the total real staffing budget.
The combined effect is that Waterways Ireland needs to make further cuts in its spending, but that its scope for doing so is extremely limited: further cuts are bound to affect the staffing budget. WI’s only other option is to increase its (pathetically small) operating income.
2. canals and Barrow are disproportionately expensive
Here, I gave WI’s programme costs for 2011, taken from the annual report for that year (the most recent available). Here they are again, rearranged:
Royal Canal €2908k
Grand Canal €1556k
Total Canals + Barrow €5064k
Erne & Lower Bann €478k
Shannon–Erne Waterway €658k
Total other waterways €3018k
There are all sorts of caveats to be entered about these figures: for instance, as I observed here, WI has different levels of non-navigational responsibilities on different waterways, and programme costs do not include staffing costs; nor do they include overheads like IT, marketing, personnel and so on.
But the Canal-and-Barrow costs clearly offer more scope for cutting than those for other waterways, as WI’s Corporate Plan 2011–2013 recognised. I showed here that it proposed these cuts for the period:
- Grand Canal €910,000
- Royal Canal €503,000
- Barrow Navigation €387,000
- Shannon Navigation €662,000
- Shannon–Erne Waterway €232,000
- Erne System €70,000
- Lower Bann €69,000.
That’s €1800ooo in reductions from Canals + Barrow, €1033000 from the rest. However, budget developments since that plan was drawn up are likely to have increased the amounts required to be cut.
3. Canals and Barrow boaters get huge subsidies
I do not have up-to-date figures for the numbers of boats on the waterways, but suppose for the sake of argument that there are 500 on the Canals + Barrow and 8000 on the rest. I am confident that those figures are of the right order of magnitude.
In that case, counting only WI’s programme costs for the waterways in question and excluding staffing and central overheads, the costs to the taxpayer are:
- Shannon, Erne, Shannon–Erne, Bann: €377.25 per boat
- Grand, Royal, Barrow: €10128 per boat.
I hope to be able to provide better figures later, but the exact figures don’t matter very much: the point is that every boat on the canals and Barrow is benefiting to an enormous extent from taxpayer support. The poor persecuted boaters are seeking the continuation of a very, very privileged position: owners of camper vans, for instance, get no comparable benefit.
4. Canals and Barrow boaters contribute very little
I have figures for the numbers of boats on the canals and Barrow that held permits in September 2013. I have sought those for December, but I suspect that the number did not greatly increase by the end of the year.
- 254 boats had Combined Mooring and Passage Permits
- 134 boats had Extended Mooring and Passage Permits.
So the total contribution by boaters to the cost of the canals and Barrow was (254 X €126) + (134 X €152) = €52372, about 1% of the programme costs for the three waterways, which means it was considerably less than 1% of the total costs including salaries and overheads.
Let me dwell on that for a moment. The poor persecuted boaters, some of them members of organisations that claim to value the canals, themselves think that the canals are worth only €50000 a year, because that’s all they’re prepared to pay. It is not clear to me why anybody else, like the taxpayer, should pay more.
The poor persecuted boaters are now being asked to pay more than 1% of the total cost of the waterways they use (and, presumably, support). I would have thought that they would welcome an opportunity to contribute.
These figures also suggest that the level of compliance on these waterways is low, although I accept that my figures are inadequate and I will try to obtain more comprehensive information.
5. canals and Barrow are a poor use of public money
It is not clear how the taxpayer benefits by keeping the canals and Barrow open to navigation. Suppose Waterways Ireland were to open all the racks, drill holes in the bottoms of aqueducts and run off all the water. What then?
I suspect that it wouldn’t be that simple: that there are engineering-type reasons why some structures would need to be maintained and some water flow kept up. Perhaps the Morrell Feeder would suffice to keep the Grand Canal in Dublin looking nice; the flow from the Milltown Feeder, the canal’s main supply, could be sold off to Irish Water to relieve the Dublin drought. The Royal could simply be abandoned altogether; the Barrow would continue to be navigable by canoes and small craft. Shannon Harbour and Richmond Harbour could be kept in water (by pumping if necessary) and operated as commercial marinas, charging commercial rates.
Staffing could be reduced: even if there were no immediate redundancies (or transfers to Irish Water), the need for any new recruitment would be avoided for some time. Overtime would never be required and Irish Rail wouldn’t have to lift Effin Bridge.
So who would lose? The Irish tourist trade would hardly notice: as far as I can see, very few tourists go boating on canals or Barrow. There are two small hire firms on the Barrow Line, but apart from them there are (as far as I know: correct me if I’m wrong) only individual boats for hire here and there. Unless a large, well-capitalised firm, with a large marketing budget, moves in here, I can’t see there being any significant tourism activity that relies on there being water in the canals. Walking and cycling routes could be improved along the towing-paths, while the Barrow could also cater for canoeing and kayaking.
Who else benefits from having the canals and Barrow navigable? A publican or two in rural areas will sell an extra pint or two to passing boaters whose money might otherwise have been spent in Dublin; a takeaway in Tullamore will have a tiny increase in turnover … but that’s about it. This vast expenditure moves the spending of a few quid from Dublin to Daingean, but I doubt if the total is enough to create even one job in any location. I cannot see that there is any multiplier effect worth talking about.
Furthermore, such business as there is is highly seasonal, with very few boats moving any considerable distance other than in short periods in spring and autumn. Traffic is low in winter and summer.
Over the last ten years canal businesses have closed down. There were four hire fleets on the Barrow: they’ve all gone. Various trip boats have gone. Lowtown Marina is for sale. All of that during a period when capital expenditure on the canals was rising, facilities were being improved and charges to users ranged from low to non-existent.
I suggest therefore that spending on the canals and Barrow is not of any benefit to the tourist industry and is of minimal benefit to commercial service providers along the waterways. Instead the benefits go largely to two groups: the employees, who work for what they get, and the boat-owners.
6. Waterways Ireland should share the benefits
The cost of a year-round berth for a 60′ barge at a marina in a small village on the east (Dublin) side of Lough Derg is €3000. Lower rates are available on the west side.
The cost of a year-round berth for a 60′ (or any other size) barge in Shannon Harbour, a small village on the east (Dublin) side of the Shannon is currently that of an Extended Mooring and Passage Permit, €152. Thus Waterways Ireland is providing a benefit worth over €2800 to someone keeping a barge at Shannon Harbour.
I can see no good reason why Waterways Ireland should allow the Shannon Harbour owner the whole of that benefit: it would seem reasonable that Waterways Ireland should claw back at least half of it. Most marinas charge by the foot (or metre) of length, so rates for other boats could be worked out in proportion.
A berth at Shannon Harbour enjoys easy access to the Shannon; a berth in (say) Pollagh is less favourably situated and might thus be charged for at a lower rate. But berths closer to Dublin – say at Sallins or Hazelhatch or at the Leinster Mills on the Naas Branch — should attract a premium. And folk who are saving money by living in boats should be happy to share part of their savings with Waterways Ireland. (I don’t know what the premiums should be but, in another post, I’ll discuss pricing.)
The point here, the point ignored by the Indo, is that Waterways Ireland needs to narrow the gap between income and expenditure on the canals and Barrow. It is entirely fair that it should charge for the services it provides and that the burden should be borne by those who benefit.
However, it should be noted that WI’s charges are not inescapable: anyone who does not want to pay them is at liberty to remove his or her boat from the canal or Barrow and place it elsewhere, or to sell it and buy a camper van.
That being so, I see no more ground for objecting to any level of charge that WI might bring in than there is for objecting to the prices in, say, Brown Thomas.
If (as seems to be the case) boaters’ organisations are incapable of engaging in rational discussion of the funding and management of the waterways, I suggest that Waterways Ireland should ignore them. Just pull the plug, shut down the canals and spend the savings elsewhere.
WI and the state should not continue to spend ridiculously large amounts of public money subsidising the leisure activities of a small number of people, who don’t themselves value what they’re getting, when there is little benefit to the economy as a whole. There has to be some better balance between income and expenditure on the canals and Barrow.