THE Environment Agency has come in for a lot of stick in recent years.
The agency has been criticised for failing to take enforcement action against people who fail to pay their boat registration fees, for putting up the cost of those self-same fees above the rate of inflation, for cutting back on the number of staff on the river and, most recently, for failing to do more to prevent the flooding which affected so many people in our area.
I’ve had a lot of dealings with agency personnel since I’ve been writing this column and I’d like to reverse the trend for a while by extending my thanks and congratulations to the man responsible for looking after our stretch of the river – Harbour Master and Non-Tidal Thames Waterways Manager Matt Carter.
He’s the guy who stands up to take most of the flak aimed at the agency from disgruntled boaters, householders, businesses and, virtually, everyone who uses the Thames.
But to be honest, I’ve rarely met anyone more dedicated to maintaining the river in good condition or more driven about clamping down on the law-breakers.
So it is with regret that I can tell you that he is about to move on to pastures new.
Matt is going to be given the task of leading the EA team responsible for the London river – a huge task that will include overseeing the EA’s role in the construction of the new Tideway Tunnel from Acton to Beckton sewage treatment works, designed to take much of the weight off the city’s outdated and vulnerable sewerage system.
That’s a huge task in itself, but in his new role, Matt will also be responsible for overseeing the planning, design and, ultimately, the start of the implementation of a replacement for the Thames Barrier – a £7.5billion project that could take up to 80 years to fully implement.
I wish him well in his new role but I caught up with him shortly before his departure from the non-tidal Thames to talk about what was happening in our area and how he saw the way forward for his replacement, when appointed.
He said: “We’ve faced massive budget cuts in recent years as the Government has tried to clamp down on spending in a lot of areas.
“In the current year alone, our budget has been reduced from £6million to £5million – and that follows on from a number of similar sized budget reductions in the years before.
“We can complain about that all we want but in the final analysis, we’ve just got to get on and do the best we can with the resources we’ve been given – and I’m proud of the fact that in the current year we’ll do that without making anyone redundant.”
Instead, Matt has initiated a number of schemes either designed to conserve funds or to think ‘outside the box’ and come up with ways to increase cash flowing into the EA by other means.
“Sure, we’ve had to increase boat licence fees and a lot of people think those charges are just to pay for the lock-keepers and other operational staff on the Thames – but the money is used for a much wider range of things than that.
“Boat fees and angling licence fees help to pay for the upkeep of the capital assets on the river – lock chambers and gates, mooring facilities, weir maintenance and replacement – a whole host of things.”
On the question of licence fee dodgers, Matt Carter is proud that the campaign of regular checks on boat licences has reduced the number getting away with it significantly.
“Last year we issued a number of warning notices most of which resulted in the fees being paid. And those that didn’t pay up, we took to court. We are determined to get the money because if we don’t it’s not fair on all the honest people who do pay for them..
“That policy will continue this year and we’re going to be targeting marinas along the Thames to catch people there whose boats don’t have proper licences.”
Next week, I’ll be presenting the second part of my interview with Matt – talking about the agency’s need for more volunteers and about the impact of having fewer relief lock keepers available – complete with an explanation of how to work a lock if there is no keeper on duty.