The Nene-Ouse Navigation Link is part of what is primarily a drainage system known these days as the Middle Level. The Middle Level drainage and navigation functions are administered by a body known as The Middle Level Commissioners. When I lived in a house I received annually a bill from the Commissioners for the services I received in terms of drainage. I think this may have been on account of having a narrow dyke (known everywhere else as a ditch) marking the boundary at the bottom of my back garden. The dyke was overgrown and rarely tended by anyone during the fifteen years I lived there, but the bills kept coming ... at least I assume they kept coming because after a while they were absorbed into council tax bills and it all happened rather less visibly.
I don't have to spend long thinking about the number of houses in Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, to realise that drainage money for not actually doing very much probably brings in a tidy annual amount. On top of this farmers and other landowners pay per acre for drainage and they pay again if they want to take the water that has already drained off their land and into the waterways to use it for irrigation. Commissioning must be nice work if you can get it.
The Middle Level Commissioners used to have offices in March (a town in the Fens, not the month ... they do actually have the offices all year round) and they still do, but a few years ago they sold off the old offices by a busy set of traffic lights in the town centre (the building is now The Hippodrome Hotel owned by Wetherspoon's), and borrowed a large sum of money to design and erect a new building next to the river. It is a very nice building as modern buildings go. There are, allegedly, some eighty-plus to ninety-odd miles of navigable waterway on the Middle Level according to the guidebooks, or a hundred according to the MLC website, and it is acknowledged pretty widely that one has to be a certain kind of person to enjoy using them. I count myself in that special breed although a high boredom threshold is a necessity since travelling along most of the wider drains, such as the Sixteen Foot, The Forty Foot and probably even the Twenty Foot (although I haven't yet tried that one out in the boat) is akin to riding those boring bits of train journeys that pass through cuttings with high embankments on either side permitting neither a view of the adjacent countryside nor any kind of mobile phone connection. The reason for this being, of course, that the Fens have lost so much top soil in the centuries since they were drained and used for growing crops that many fields now lie below sea level, below any roads that pass beside them and below the rivers and drains that keep the arable land in a fit condition for arable farming. Water needs to be pumped up into the drains to prevent flooding in some places. Without the drainage work that has been carried out since the middle ages, but most dramatically during the seventeenth century at the behest of successive Dukes of Bedford and under the direction the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden, the Fens would not have developed into one of the most important and fertile agricultural areas in England.
People tend to be wary of change; history has often shown they have good reason. Those who for centuries had learned how to live in the Fens, through wild-fowling, fishing, eeling or collecting reed for thatching found their livelihoods greatly diminished as the newly-reclaimed land was being sold off or given in favour to interested parties and vested interests such as the fourteen Adventurers who underwrote the reclamation. These adventurers awarded themselves 43,000 acres, gave 12,000 acres to Charlie Wag (King Charles I) and rented or leased off another 40,000 acres that was expected to cover the costs of the upkeep of the drains. The Fourth Earl of Bedford, Francis Russell, acknowledged that there was an imperative for recompensing people for removing their freedom of movement and their livelihoods. The continued sabotage of drainage works by Fen Tigers must have helped focus his mind; it is unlikely he acted wholly altruistically. He set in place, through an Act of Parliament, the rights of the people to enjoy free passage in perpetuity. This applied to a class of traveller known as the "pleasure boater". Boats engaged in commerce or trade would be required to pay for a license with the exception of those carrying specified goods and raw materials, including pigeon dung! Reading though these details recently has reminded me of the opening spoken section of the Lonnie Donegan song, "The Rock Island Line", one of my favourite songs as a child (and one of John Lennon's too if the stories of him playing the record so many times he wore it out, getting through several copies, are true). In The Rock Island Line the engineer (train driver) has to declare what goods he is carrying. He claims, "I got all livestock, I got all livestock, I got all livestock," but as he passes the toll point and picks up speed he calls back, "I fooled you. I fooled you. I got pig iron!" pig iron being subject to a toll whereas the livestock weren't. I wonder how many commercial vessels on the Fens carried cargo that went undeclared?
The Middle Level Commissioners were set up as an independent body by another Act of Parliament in the nineteenth century. This had the effect of separating them from the Bedford Level Corporation that had been established two centuries previously . The rights of people to use their boats through the navigable part of the drains has remained. It was ever so from Roman times, enshrined in Magna Carta and confirmed in all subsequent Acts from the drainage programmes of the seventeenth century onwards.
Regarding facilities specifically for boaters, there aren't any. The Middle Level Commissioners have no towpaths to maintain; they provide no facilities for boaters - no moorings, no refuse collection, no sanitation or pumping out facilities or indeed any water points for taking on fresh water. They certainly don't provide any laundry, shower or refuelling facilities. There are three privately owned marinas, two near March and one near Ramsey. I only know about one of the facilities at March, which I have used on a few occasions and where I have refuelled and used the water, sanitation, shower and water points whilst having work done on my boat in their yard. Any facilities, mainly 36-hour moorings - few and far between as they are - are maintained by the relevant town or parish council, a local trust or a pub.
The Middle Level Commissioners have tried a few times over the years to get the law changed so they can begin to charge boaters. At the moment there are no means of registering one's boat and no requirement to buy a licence. Any change in this arrangement requires a new act of Parliament. People who own property adjacent to one of the rivers have traditionally been able to use their river frontage as they see fit. They have, after all paid a premium to own the property. If they have a property where the waterway frontage is one of the drains the situation is different and they do not have those same rights or ownership.
Two weeks ago the MLC sponsored a Private Bill through its first reading in the Commons. This Bill is their latest attempt to get the law changed so that they can start milking boaters for money in return for ... well, nothing actually. There is nothing in the proposed Middle Level Bill, which offers boaters the facilities available on other waterways. They claim they may undertake to provide some services, but there are no binding commitments on them to do anything. They seek to force upon boaters many obligations though, through obtaining powers to introduce new bylaws. I could maybe accept something for something (albeit grudgingly), but that is not on offer. Instead, the MLC are wanting the power to make me pay them to register my vessel, charge me an annual license fee, pretend they are a "local authority" without any of the obligations a local authority has to observe, accept new powers for them to enter my boat, to confiscate it, to sell it along with my personal belongings, and propose a number of ways that I can be turned into a criminal which do not exist in statute for either house owners or road vehicle users. I find this is not acceptable and I fail to see the fairness in their proposals. The proposed bylaws also seek to firm up the power that the Commissioners claim to have to tell people how they can use their gardens or fields if they are close to a waterway.
The MLC claim to have notified all interested parties of their intentions in a consultation which, quite by coincidence I am sure, ended a week after last year's EU referendum. I am pretty sure most of us were preoccupied with other matters at the time. The first I got to hear that the long-rumoured Bill was actually ready to roll and had a date for its first reading in the Commons was just before Christmas, about two weeks before it was due to happen. Of all the "interested parties" that had responded to their consultation last year only one boater's club was represented and three angling clubs; other respondents included some genuine local authorities. No unaffiliated boaters were represented and certainly no one who lives full-time on their boats was consulted; strangely, neither were farmers who pay to drain and irrigate their fields nor the property-owners who pay annual drainage rates to the Commissioners.
I have seen the work they do at close enough hand to know that if they get more power they will want to use it. From my boat there is only one tree visible. It is a home or a shelter to many birds, including my beautiful kingfisher neighbours, and who knows how many other species too. More than once Middle Level workers have come to cut it down because it interferes with the park-like quality they wish to impose on their "easy-care" river banks. If I kept the river bank next to me in the state the Commissioners would like to see I would be very surprised if the grass-snakes, lizards, buntings, warblers and the variety of small mammals (all of which I have seen in the past twelve months) would stick around. I was under the impression that plant life held river banks together. We know that here near the farm their scorched earth gardening style has caused the bank to subside and slip into the river. That caused the bank to start leaking, a serious threat to the credibility of their flood defence responsibilities.
More controversially, when I first arrived I used to see a particular boat pass by quite often. I never met the owner of the boat, but I did exchange a few e-mail messages with him after a very sad incident when his boat was broken into and his engine stolen while he was on a mission taking one of his dogs to a specialist vet many miles away for treatment. Without this treatment the dog would have been put down. After stealing his engine the thieves set fire to the boat, presumably to destroy any evidence. Everything the man owned was lost in the fire and he was too far away, in Yorkshire, to do anything about it immediately. Obviously there are more details and at least two sides to the story, but the Commissioners salvaged his boat and confiscated it until he could come up with nearly £6,000 to cover their "costs". The man had pleaded for time to recover the boat himself, which was not granted. When the boat owner could not come up with the salvage money the boat was advertised and eventually sold on eBay for £3,000. The Commissioners continued to demand the balance of their "costs". The man did not only lose all his belongings in the theft and fire, but what was left of his home was taken from him and sold at a price that left him with less than nothing. He had been prepared to recover the boat and he was prepared to re-fit it so that he could have his home of fifteen years back. There was a campaign on one of the funding-type websites which raised nearly enough to cover what the Commissioners eventually accepted on eBay, but to no avail! What a tragic state of affairs.
I would hope that no "local authority" would have it in their power to evict a home-owner and sell off the paid-for home of anyone living in their area with absolute impunity. A local authority would also have to take some measure responsibility for anybody that they themselves had made homeless. The Middle Level Commissioners, through this Bill are seeking the power to take people's homes, but seem to be very quiet about responsibilities that must come with new powers.
Those of us living on and using the Middle Level waterways are watching the outcome of the petitions that have been lodged against the Bill. While HS2, a similar style of Bill, may have attracted hundreds of responses in opposition, the relevant office at Westminster consider the Middle Level Bill campaign unusual in that this relatively unimportant Bill has attracted as many as six petitions against. Most Private Bills go through unopposed. The office has mentioned that representations in person are made against Private Bills maybe only once or twice a year. The six petitioners against this Bill presented themselves at Westminster on two consecutive days. This alone is an indication of the strength of feeling. The campaign is continuing.