There has been quite a lot of drama over the last fortnight at Gloucester Docks. What was it all about and where are things now?
A business in the Docks armed with some frustrated boaters and a few others called for a public meeting to give the Canal and River Trust (CRT) a good flogging for mismanagement of the canals' water, mishandling of silt from the River Severn, inadequate dredging, access problems for boats and narrow boats, lack of accessibility of moorings and reduced turnover for businesses around the North Docks. Not quite the end is nigh, but certainly woe are we, and several politicians eager to out do each other in the 'disgraceful' handling of the situation by the CRT.
What was the cause?
The worst recorded drought (in c.200 years) of history records for the River Severn.
The CRT is contracted to provide drinking water for the city of Bristol from the canal and tops it up with water from the River Severn, which last summer included a lot of silt, thereby reducing the navigable depth of the docks and canal moorings: which were unoccupied for the long Coronation weekend- reducing footfall and potential business turnover.
How is CRT rectifying the situation?
Through an intensive dredging programme that did not get off to the best start and is now done by a different contractor. This should be finished in the week of the 6th June, by which time I am assured all moorings will be available again.
Did it affect the Dragon Boat Racing weekend (Sunday 14th May)?
Not at all. Boats were coming in and out beforehand to the Victoria basin, 7 out of 9 moorings in the North Docks were available, the sea cadets were out as usual, narrow boats came in from the Severn via Llanthony Lock, the races were well attended and businesses were bustling.
What about the late August Retro in the Docks Festival?
Business entirely as usual. Ditto for the biennial Tall Ships Festival May 2024.
So was it a storm in a teacup (or Docks)?
I put the accumulated frustrations down to four things:
- Slow start to good weather dampening normal Docks' visitor numbers
- Dredging problems that prevented access to moorings as usual
- Poor communication and an unclear plan from CRT
- An element of political opportunism
...And the solutions?
I saw the Chief Exec and Regional Director of the CRT in my office in Westminster to focus on practical solutions:
- Deadline of the week of 6th June to finish all dredging and have all moorings available as usual (including the Llanthony moorings)
- An expanded stakeholder group to meet regularly and the first one asap (18th May) so that everyone has the chance to raise issues and get answers
- Better written communications to all interested after the meetings
- A focus on how everyone, working together, can make the Docks even more vibrant, and realise its full potential on and off the water. The opening of the Food Dock and the planning approval that unlocks the development and regeneration of the Dowding Malthouse and former grain silo are major opportunities ahead.
Discussing Gloucester Docks with CRT - things back to normal soon
Any misleading accusations?
Yes. It was claimed that:
- CRT makes far more on selling water to Bristol than it spends on dredging
The CRT have spent an extra £800K on dredging in Gloucester this year, and the 'surplus' generated is much smaller than imagined, although the figures can't be publicly shared unless the customer (Bristol) agrees. Worth remembering CRT is a charity; there is no dividend and every penny is reinvested.
2. The CRT is struggling financially because the Government hasn't agreed its budget
When this Government established the CRT in 2012, it agreed a 15 year budget up to 2027. Later this year (probably this summer) a settlement beyond 2027 will be made: but this has no impact on what happens at Gloucester Docks for some time to come.
So is everything sorted?
The management of all water is a constant challenge: floods, drought and accidents (e.g the lorry that bashed Llanthony Lock bridge a couple of days ago) as well as looking after customers, other stakeholders and public expectations. Again worth remembering that events like Dragon Boat Racing and Retro on the Docks are organised and run by unpaid volunteers.
Everything is sorted until the next mini crisis: what matters is how each one is resolved and communicated and how tolerant stakeholders are of each other: whether they want to blame and score points off each other - or work together. After all, negative media publicity from acrimonious public meetings has never generated much footfall.
The Docks, Britain's most inland port, are stunning (see my photos). There are now more restaurants and cafes and two good Museums. Tommy Nielson's Tall Ships are a joy and Llanthony Secunda's gardens are looking great. The Quays are busy and their turnover is up sharply. Time for CRT to communicate better and stakeholders to pull together, not apart.
Small cities thrive when they have pride in themselves and keep the arguments off the airwaves. Otherwise tourists and investors go elsewhere!
P.S. Let me know what you like about the Docks...