29 April 2020

We have been working hard since the COVID-19 lockdown lobbying Government on behalf of waterways businesses across the UK. Due to the seasonal nature of waterways businesses, we were aware that they were going to be hit particularly hard by the lockdown and closure of all waterways so we were quick to raise concerns, in a meeting with Defra, around the issues faced by the waterway sector.

We ran a survey alongside Waterways World magazine to better understand the situation being faced by almost 1500 waterway businesses. The responses painted a very bleak picture, with the majority of businesses reporting that they are at significant risk of collapse and some already planning to close their doors.  This data, alongside findings from a survey carried out by British Marine, led to a joint letter, signed by IWA, British Marine, the Broads Authority and CRT, being sent to Defra asking for much needed financial assistance.

Our survey found that the vast majority of waterways businesses (around 70%) weren’t eligible for the initial round of Government grants and loans due to a lack of rateable premises. Luckily, it appears that the Government were listening and on 27 April, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak announced a new Bounce Back Loan scheme which aims to help small businesses. This 12-month, interest free loan will go some way towards assisting the 2,000 or so waterways businesses that would otherwise be unlikely to survive the current lockdown.

We feel, however, that these measures don’t go far enough and so we are calling for a further aid package for the waterways, in particular for navigation authorities. We are asking for specific financial support, similar to that recently announced for the fishing industry, which will allow navigation authorities to underwrite licence and mooring fees for waterways businesses this year. For many waterways businesses, it is their mooring and licence fees that make up the largest part of their outgoing expenses and they are becoming increasingly concerned about how they will make these payments with no income.

Jonathan Griffiths at Cambrian Cruises on the Monmouthshire & Brecon canal told us, “If we knew we wouldn’t have to pay licence fees for 12 months, it would be a huge weight off our shoulders.”

The lockdown couldn’t have come at a worse time for the inland waterways leisure industry who rely heavily on the summer months (April to September) for most, if not all, of their income. Without this income, businesses will struggle to repay any sort of loan and rather than get into further debt, many will have no option but to cease trading. The timing has hit many businesses doubly hard off the back of the hard winter which caused widespread flooding and closures of some waterways.

James Griffin from Wyvern Shipping Company, a canal boat holiday company based on the Grand Union Canal explains:
We are in complete lockdown with no income and no bookings. We just paid out £100,000 in costs to cover us during the closed season and were all set to go with this year’s boating season … except we didn’t go! We are facing a very uncertain future and know it is going to be a long, slow road to recovery as we may not see any income until spring 2021.”

Richard Clements from English Holiday Cruises on the River Severn agrees:
Our cruise holidays were almost booked out for the entire year and then in the space of two weeks most customers had cancelled or postponed until September, so we have already lost a large part of this season’s income. As a waterways business, we fall between the gaps in legislation as we do not qualify for the Small Business or Leisure Business grants. We may now be eligible for this new Bounce Back Loan scheme, but would prefer not to take on any new risk at this stage. To cap it all, we are still having to pay our full mooring fee – although have requested some deferment. It is a really dire situation.”

Our national chairman, Paul Rodgers says:
We welcome the new financial support that the Government has launched but feel that the inland waterways sector needs additional assistance to reflect the very unique set of issues it is facing. The highly seasonal nature of these businesses, plus the fact that they need to pay out for mooring and licence fees means that they are in a very precarious situation. We are asking the Government for a financial aid package to support the navigation authorities who can then pass on savings to businesses who use their waterways. Without this, there will be significant closures, which will negatively impact the colour and vibrancy of the UK’s waterways. This is an industry that holds a special place in the hearts of the British public. We cannot afford to lose it.

We will continue to lobby George Eustice MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs as well as Rishi Sunak MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer to ask for this additional support as a matter of urgency. Any delay could see many waterways businesses going under within a matter of weeks.