A senior member of the Broads Authority has accused its critics of being "fixated on a conspiracy theory", in the latest twist in a bitter row over how the waterways are run.

The organisation is facing claims from boaters that it intends to use ringfenced funds - raised through a huge hike in their tolls - for purposes other than maintaining navigation on the network.

The critics have accused the authority of wanting to divert the money to support other projects, such as boosting biodiversity and funding visitor centres.

Eastern Daily Press: Broads Authority offices at Yare HouseBroads Authority offices at Yare House (Image: George Thompson, LDR)

They argue that to do so would be a breach of the rules governing how the organisation is run, which stipulate that toll money must be used for navigational purposes, such as keeping the rivers dredged, cutting weeds and replacing marker posts.

But at a recent meeting, Bill Dickson, chairman of the authority, sought to scotch such allegations.

"People are fixated on this conspiracy to remove ringfenced funds," he said.

The row reflects ongoing tensions at the Broads Authority (BA) between two factions: the 'parkies' - those said to be focused primarily on its national park duties - and the 'navvies', who are more concerned in representing the interests of boaters and navigation.

Conflict between the two has escalated in recent months, following a second consecutive year of significant toll fee increases.

It has led to official complaints being lodged with the government and local MPs becoming embroiled.

Eastern Daily Press: The view from Thurne Mill on the Norfolk BroadsThe view from Thurne Mill on the Norfolk Broads (Image: Newsquest)


Things came to a head again at a full meeting of the authority last week, where the funding issue was discussed.

The BA has two main sources of income: national park grants of around £5m a year, and tolls, which raise about £4m.

At the same time, it has to fulfill two distinct responsibilities which can sometimes be in tension: its obligations as a national park, to conserve the natural beauty and attract visitors; and also to protect the interests of navigation.

Under the strict rules on which the authority was established, money raised through tolls must be used for navigation.

But officials say these costs have increased significantly - with plant growth a particular problem - stretching the BA's resources.

Eastern Daily Press: A boat from the hunters fleet sailing on the River Bure near St Benets Abbey on the Norfolk Broads.A boat from the hunters fleet sailing on the River Bure near St Benets Abbey on the Norfolk Broads. (Image: Newsquest)

It has increased tolls by 8.5pc this year, following a 13pc rise last year - prompting anger from boaters and holiday hire companies.

Yet even with this increased income, it is still struggling to balance the books so has sought extra funding from the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) to help cover the navigation costs.

It hopes to persuade the government that navigation is "not just for private benefit" and that the works carried out to maintain the waterways will help support the health of the national park itself - a public asset that contributes £711m to the area's economy.

As part of its application to Defra it has also proposed a streamlining of its accounting.

But the move has been met with concern by the navvies, who fear it will erode the ringfenced funding and undermine spending on navigation.

Eastern Daily Press: John Packman, chief executive of the Broads AuthorityJohn Packman, chief executive of the Broads Authority (Image: ©Archant Photographic 2009)


The Broads Reform Action Group, led by chairman Colin Chettleburgh, challenged the BA on the issue at the recent meeting, arguing its streamlined accounting - which would no longer account separately for navigation income and expenditure - could obscure how the ringfenced money is spent.

"Our members are deeply suspicious," he said in a formal question to the authority, while claiming the level of public trust is "at an all-time low".

But Mr Dickson, the chairman, rebutted this "conspiracy" theory and assured members that this was not the case and that there would be no change to ringfencing toll fees.

"This is not the case," he said. "The aim is to help find new funding revenue on a more consistent and predictable basis," he added.

Eastern Daily Press: A Wherry yacht sailing on Ranworth BroadA Wherry yacht sailing on Ranworth Broad (Image: Broads Authority)


The Broads Authority hopes its bid for more government money will help plug a gap in its budget and to avoid being forced to raise toll fees indefinitely.

These rises are hitting hire boat companies hard, prompting firms operating in the Broads to complain to the government about the changes.

And there are concerns further increases will be unsustainable and could price some boaters off the waterways.

But the authority is also facing growing budget challenges evident in its dwindling reserves and the loss of income due to a decline in the number of registered hire boats.

It warns that if new pots of money are not found, the prosperity of the Broads will be at "serious risk" and that a new funding model is desperately needed to ensure it doesn't fall into jeopardy in the future. 

Members voted unanimously to support the move to call on Defra to offer further funding to support navigational costs it says are also important to the upkeep of the national park.