I am both honoured and flattered to have been elected to serve this Trust from today as its new President following the retirement of Michael Ancram. I am sure you will all want to join me in thanking Michael for all he has achieved on behalf of our Trust during his Presidency and to wish him a long and well-deserved retirement.
It is nearly 45 years since I first became aware of the Kennet & Avon Canal. As a trainee brewer in 1966 at H. & G. Simonds Brewery in Reading I used to enjoy many a lunchtime sandwich and a pint (or two!) by the Canal as it flowed through the Brewery yard now buried somewhere beneath the Oracle Centre.
Little did I think then that I would be addressing you today as your new President but, as the saying goes, “Life is what happens to you when you’re planning something completely different!”.
Although I still have a couple of fairly demanding ‘day jobs’ to distract me for the next few years, I really do want to seize this new opportunity for me to try to help our Trust and, therefore, I intend to give it my absolute best shot for the foreseeable future.
It is still too early days for this ‘new kid on the block’ to have a clear vision yet of how best I can serve our Trust to help it to achieve most, if not all, of its many and varied objectives and ambitions.
However, I am determined to get to know as many of our dedicated and brilliant Branch members as possible during the next few months and I hope, for someone whose wife always says I talk too much, that you will find me a good listener so, please, speak up and share your views! Hopefully, arising from these discussions I will be able to devise a strategic policy for how best I can contribute to the ongoing success of our Trust.
I am conscious that this is an especially critical time for our Trust in spite of the fact that we are fast approaching its Golden Anniversary next year when also H.M. the Queen will be celebrating her Diamond Jubilee.
I know there are several members here today without whose vision, perseverance and sheer hard work over many of the past 49 years perhaps none of us would be here today. So much has been achieved during that time and the latest exciting milestone has been the recent granting of Cruiseway Status so our canal is definitely here to stay – and so, therefore, are we!
However, it is as you also know a time of great anxiety following the last government’s proposal to hand over responsibility for Britain’s canals from the public accountability of British Waterways to Parliament to a small group of new trustees who will only be accountable to the Charity Commission and the ‘jobs worths’ at Companies House. It is ironic, but also a fact that should not be underestimated, that three of the eight new trustees of the proposed New Waterway Charity happen to be existing directors of British Waterways, including its Chairman and Vice-Chairman – talk about a shoo-in!
Furthermore, it has been bad enough for British Waterways to be consistently under-funded by Defra for many years but I now dread to think how much more under-funded the New Waterway Charity will be when it becomes no longer the Government’s responsibility to the electorate – no wonder the Government is seizing the opportunity to pass off the much-love national treasure of our whole inland waterway system to a charitable trust!
Today is not the occasion for me to share my personal views in detail on this ludicrous Labour government initiative but I do, please, urge each of you to let Defra know your views on its so-called “Consultation Document” before the end of June. My fear is that “they”, the civil servants of the public sector, will probably not take the slightest bit of notice of whatever we all may say but at least you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you did at least try to influence them over this apparently already ‘done deal’!
Who knows? If enough canal enthusiasts throughout the UK (and over 11 million of them visit our own Canal each year) make their personal views heard the Coalition Government might yet heed democracy and change its mind just like it did recently over trying to remove the Forestry Commission from its public accountability to Parliament. Changing their minds again, now over proposed reforms to the NHS, is another indication that the government does listen to lobbyists at least some of the time and should further encourage us all to speak up now – there is still time, just!
On a much more positive note and having only sat in on a couple of meetings during the past month, I am hugely impressed by the experience, skills and commitment of our Trustees led by their Chairman, Mike Rodd.
It has not been an easy year for any members of our Trust’s Council and many challenges have had to be faced in securing the future of our Trust – its actual financial survival probably being the most pressing at one crucial stage.
I know from personal experience over many years that running any venture, whether it is charitable, commercial or even sometimes a weird combination of both (just like the proposed New Waterways Charity!) is never easy and there is always some big project to sort out before, inevitably, a whole new challenge comes looming over the horizon.
To face these challenges we need a strong, loyal and united team right across our membership from our part-time volunteers and general members to the elected members of our Council.
A great initiative has already been implemented recently in trying to ascertain more information about our members and their hopes and aspirations for our Trust and I’m sure Mike Rodd will update us on this later. Meanwhile, I remain somewhat perplexed to learn that much sterling work is being carried out on our Canal by some dedicated volunteers who have actually chosen not to be members of our Trust! Ironically, they obviously love our Canal but not our Trust!
However, as “’er indoors” would say, I have probably banged on long enough for my inaugural address and I don’t want to frighten too many of you on my first public appearance!
My parting shot, therefore, is just to say that if I can now effectively complement all the energy, passion and hard work that has gone into the past 49 years in getting our Trust to where it is today then I feel my future service as your President will be time well spent but I know I cannot do it without all your support.
Thank you all for listening to me and I now look forward to meeting and listening to all of you during the exceptionally interesting months, let alone years, that lie ahead!
Unfortunately, I cannot join you all afterwards for a chat over coffee as I have to rush back to Great Bedwyn Wharf where there is a long-planned retirement party for Danese Rudd, who many of you will know and has been my own Trust’s Administrator for the past 22 years. However, I hope to see lots of you at the annual Waterfest in Reading next Saturday which will be a great opportunity to have a proper catch-up, hopefully, over a beer!