NBTA member and writer Ian Hutson describes the progression of a complaint to Canal & River Trust (CRT) after he received an enforcement letter from CRT stating that he had not travelled far enough during the Covid-19 pandemic:
Some Boring Background
My name is Ian Hutson and I retired six years ago to live a small-footprint, “tread as lightly as possible upon the Earth” life on my narrowboat; Cardinal Wolsey. I am not a hippy, I’m a crabby pensioner. I’d love to be a hippy but I’m far too square for admittance to the union.
I neither have, lack, nor want a “home mooring”. They’re the dog’s knees and the bee’s cojones for some, but not for me – in a marina I feel like a sardine lined up in a tin. I do not have any desire to rush around the entire canal system. Other folk love marinas and some want to rush around, and that’s just fine, but I don’t.
My choice is to remain in rural areas (currently the system’s north-west corner), to live quietly and to just pootle about, looking pretty. A two or three-hour cruise and a handful of locks is plenty for me. Give me even an hour on an early-morning canal with a light mist and a low sun and I’ll show you a big grin. When I moor up I want time to walk around and explore and enjoy. Where else but the canals of England could a chap come nose to nose with a stampeding badger at three in the morning? I retired onto my boat to wallow in the beautiful, odd juxtaposition of the countryside and the still-wet remains of the Industrial Revolution, not to set any world records, not to be buried under a regime reminiscent of National Service (not that I ever did any).
When the pandemic began to hog the headlines it seemed that my only logical approach was to keep even further out of circulation than is the norm. In March of 2020, in accordance with CRT’s standing wishes, I emailed the local “Licence Support Officer” with a plan and asking if he saw any problem with it.
The agreement would see me cruising between three Service Areas for the duration of the pandemic, and would still give me an eleven-mile, two-canal “range”, which I considered in a period of apparent global crisis to be not an unreasonable nod to CRT’s purely whimsical twenty miles range suggestion. In rural peacetime of course such a range, while still whimsical, is also whimsically easy and I always then far exceed CRT’s suggested twenty miles range. In peacetime, as well as a far wider range between farthest points, I cruise several hundred happy, slow, peaceful miles per licence year.
It was not as though the canals would be crowded or short on moorings, since most folk generally weren’t allowed to even visit their boats, let alone cruise. I would stay within hailing range of my septuagenarian brother, and stay in areas where people I knew would actually do something if my boat began to smell of Eau de Dead Body. I don’t run a car, and supermarkets summarily stopped delivering groceries to folk such as me, they being too busy somehow “feeding the nation”. Options became limited to reliance on very good friends – friends in this general area.
This was my response to the pandemic, not my response to other people’s responses – a fine distinction, but an important one. I was doing what I thought sensible. The government could order us all to wear spangled tutus and to sing The Marseillaise if they thought it medically efficacious, and if it were law then I’d not be seen not doing so (if you read me carefully). In 1665 I’d have avoided kissing black rats and working for flea-circuses; in 2020 the only logical thing given the lack of reliable information was to avoid most people for a while, and I was lucky to be able to so easily formally arrange to do so.
The Licence Support Officer replied swiftly, suggesting that I do whatever was necessary and reasonable to keep safe and well, and added [and I quote] ‘I see no problems whatsoever with your proposals’. Nice man. Sensible man.
What a sensible, reasonable agreement that was
2020 trundled past at a sick snail’s pace, with lockdowns, not-lockdowns (but-watch-this-space, there may be one tomorrow), tiered 1 2 3 restrictions, local measures, and even more confusion. We were all constantly urged to avoid one another. Fines of £1,000 and then £10,000 were introduced for all manner of minor transgressions. Little old ladies were warned and “moved on” by Her Majesty’s Police Service for sitting out in the fresh air on park benches. Helicopters were used to film evidence in order to prosecute couples who went for walks in the wilds of National Parks. Schools closed, and the nation’s roads, railways – and canals – went eerily, apocalyptically quiet. I mention all of this because it seems to me that CRT corporate have forgotten it.
Daily ministerial and prime-ministerial televised briefings came and went, government experts lived and died (professionally speaking) by their expert guesswork. Sometimes we could cruise, sometimes not – and I didn’t go on any wild voyages because often, if you remember, we only had a matter of a day or three before restrictions were changed again. Except during the various total lockdowns I stayed nowhere for more than fourteen days, during not-lockdowns I moved far more frequently. I just moored and cruised and serviced and isolated as befitted one who is in his sixties and has enjoyed several transient ischemic attacks (“mini strokes”). I got in nobody’s way and I caused zero problems. I also stayed safe, although as always tomorrow is another as-yet unscripted day, so who really ever knows?
CRT Reneging On The Agreement, Months Later
On 22nd December 2020 I received an email from a “Licence Support Advisor”. They considered that I hadn’t cruised enough in the first six months of my licence (that period being long, long before December) and, in classic “passive-aggressive” language, there was every possibility, she wrote, that I “might” have ‘trouble’ renewing my licence.
Merry Christmas, lots of love, distanced air-kisses from behind masks, and elbow-bumps from CRT.
The Complaint Begins
The “Licence Support Advisor” didn’t reply to her emails – possibly having sent the email at close of business and then scarpering to enjoy singing carols about love and joy and goodwill to all men. However, neither did she answer a second email sent politely in the first week of January once the holiday season was over. I’ve since been told that these emails, like numerous others to come, disappeared into something called a “SPAM folder”.
I then emailed the general “customer service” address and, on the advice of NBTA, copied in the “National Customer Support Manager – Licence Support” chap. They received the email; a formal complaint was raised and, after a while, responded to. The “National Customer Support Manager – Licence Support” chap advised me that my “sightings record” for the period in question showed me as having travelled only some 3km. In real money that’s what? Less than two miles. Inaccurate, but not surprising, given that (according to my conversations with rural real-world CRT staff) some of the towpath spotters had been mothballed on furlough, and the remainder were at times on reduced rounds due to not being able to share drop-off/pick-up vehicles. Anyone else remember “bubbles” and “support groups”? He suggested that I provide photographic evidence of my boat with recognisable landmarks in the background and/or till receipts as evidence of a wider range.
Given how water and diesel and gas and coal and groceries and household rubbish and toilets work on a narrowboat it was very obviously simply not possible in this area that I had moved less than two miles distant over the time-span in question. Happily, I keep both a comprehensive blog that details my travels and a separate on-line cruising log that records dates, CRT-style location references (in the format CC-NNN-PNNNN), a highlighted map of the stretch of canal just cruised showing distance and a photograph (with latitude and longitude logged by the camera in EXIF data) of my boat in each fresh mooring. Just what the “National Manager – Licence Support” had ordered.
Not good enough. Insufficient. Rejected, in spite of clearly showing me covering the range of movement as agreed in writing with the local Licence Support Officer, during the period in question.
The cruising pattern agreement itself? Well that, he considered, would have expired at the very first “government rule change” of the pandemic (a couple of weeks in)! I ought, he wrote, to have checked on a frequent basis whether the agreement was still in place. How often ought I to have bothered already busy staff I asked? What was the accepted norm for checking on whether an agreement had been quietly, unilaterally lapsed – yearly, half-yearly, monthly, weekly, or daily? Why, if CRT considered the agreement lapsed, had they not done me the courtesy of telling me? I did not receive an answer.
On 4th February I asked for my complaint to be escalated to a “Stage Two” complaint. That request was repeatedly …missed… I suspect that the gentleman was possibly just so busy that he didn’t notice it. To be scrupulously fair, one or two of my gentle reminder emails to him did disappear into his “SPAM” folder again, so that won’t have helped.
On 23rd March I pressed the point and noted that the Waterways Ombudsman would not accept my escalation to them until CRT had thoroughly exhausted me with their “Stage Two” process.
On 29th March I received an email from a “National Customer Service Co-Ordinator” ‘…responsible for administering the Trust’s complaint procedure…’, asking for clarification of my dissatisfaction with the “National Customer Support Manager – Licence Support” officer’s decision.
On 8th April I received an acknowledgement advising that the complaint would be allocated to a second manager, and a response forthcoming within fifteen working days.
The Complaint Eventually Ends
On 28th April – bang on fifteen working days later – I received an email from the “Head of Commercial Water Development”, to whom my complaint had been escalated.
The gentleman advised me that they (CRT) had clearly failed to meet my expectations of the Trust as well as their own high standards of customer service in their communication with me. He expressed regret that this had increased my anxiety and uncertainty during the pandemic and made a difficult situation much worse. He acknowledged that I had clearly identified things they should have done better and been more sensitive to and advised that he had spoken to [the other chap] who had already reviewed and changed the wording in the original email template, removing the word “trouble”. He gave me a guarantee that my licence would be renewed without ‘trouble’. Added that he enjoyed reading my blog (surprisingly, and wherein I am generally juvenile and always less than awestruck regarding “The Watery Wellness Trust Ltd”). Offered me £50 as a token of CRT’s apology.
I thanked the Head of Commercial Water Development for his consideration, used the link sent to renew my licence for twelve months, and declined his offer of fifty quid (because I regard the Trust’s funds as hard-won public money and better spent on the canals than on apologies). It took me four months and forty-nine emails sent and received to just get to the “Stage Two” complaints process. It then took just one email to immediately end the silliness and restore a modicum of good faith, common sense, and integrity.
So now then
Where does that leave me? My boat and I are still in a forced marriage with a monolithic monopoly that very clearly harbours few charitable thoughts towards me. The office of “National Customer Support Manager – Licence Support” is still in place, has had my name and that of my boat under its nose for months. I can’t help but wonder what might occur should, for example, my watch stop (the one that I haven’t worn for years, being on “canal time”) and I be accidentally guilty of staying forty-eight hours and one minute on some “visitor mooring”. What if I’ve had one shower too many and at my usual dawn o’clock services-raid one day it takes thirty-five minutes and not the prescribed thirty maximum to refill the Cardinal’s water tank? Will there be a pair of sideways-blinking eyes watching me from the shrubbery, looking down only to tap my boat number into a ruggedized iPad? It’s not a pleasant atmosphere.
There appears to be no system in place to prevent customer complaints from simply being lost and “going silent”. The only way to keep a complaint moving is to successfully land an email in the appropriate manager’s in-tray rather than in his SPAM folder. That in itself speaks volumes to me about the real value and effort and serious attention that CRT invests in customer complaints – and here’s a hint; they did away with the tin tuppence ha’penny coin long ago.
The pandemic restrictions – still around now – flowed seamlessly into a winter of huge numbers of planned and unplanned stoppages in this region. As well as scheduled work we had multiple land-slides and several failed culverts. At one stage – for weeks – all directions were actually already blocked or about to be closed. When you could cruise anywhere more distant there was really no material likelihood of timely return being possible. Had I been milder in character or less prepared to defend myself I would almost certainly now be in the throes of some licence restriction and an even more uncertain future. Until the decision of the Stage Two Complaint there was not a whiff of the true customer/service-provider nature of the relationship. The presumption seemed to me to be that CRT were Judge, Jury, and Executioner, and that I was completely passive and subservient; the guilty customer standing in the CRT court dock, looking up at the Bench for some improving wisdom and corrective sentencing.
Perhaps the most insulting and worrying part of this sad, silly process was the evident total conviction that without such hectoring and bullying I would swiftly and by my very nature fall into some bovine state of over-staying and reluctance to cruise at all. During the more intense periods of last year (that would be most of the year then) ought CRT really to have been chasing anyone around any of the system? The Trust are perhaps not many things, but one thing that they are most definitely not is expert epidemiologists. Nor ought they to behave as my gaolers – or even as my nanny.