Broads navigation tolls set to increase

STEPHEN PULLINGER Boating interests on the Broads have expressed serious reservations about plans to increase navigation tolls by more than one third over the next three years.

STEPHEN PULLINGER

Boating interests on the Broads have expressed serious reservations about plans to increase navigation tolls by more than one third over the next three years.

The Broads Authority's budget plans - to be considered by the navigation committee on Thursday - have been drawn up amid uncertainty over whether or not Defra will continue with the £500,000 top-up to the authority's £4m national parks grant that it has paid out for the last three years.

The committee is being asked to recommend increases of 11pc for private craft and 7pc for hire boats for the coming financial year (2008-09) and to recognise the likely need for further 11pc rises - for both private and hire boats - over the following two years if the extra government grant is not continued.

Even with such double-digit toll increases, the authority has been forced to set a deficit budget to meet its dredging commitments, projecting the expenditure of nearly £167,000 more than its income next year and consequently leaving its reserves for contingencies about £75,000 under the recommended minimum of £240,000.

Under the proposed increases, the biggest group of private boats, motor boats of 22sq metres or less will see their annual bill rise from £172 to £190 next year. Five years ago, the same boat owners would have paid £109.

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Rob Holman, the authority's director of corporate services, said the government would announce its decision on extending the top-up grant around Christmas time, but they had prudently planned their budget on the assumption it would not be coming.

He explained that while the Broads Authority's takeover of dredging operations from May Gurney on October 1 had not increased the annual £750,000 bill, it had significantly now become a fixed cost - prior to running it directly the authority had always had the option of cutting back on dredging contracts to save money.

However, he described the “short term pain” of the takeover as worthwhile in the long-run as the Broads Authority was confident of being able to achieve 25pc more dredging for the same money.

And he said even without the extra government grant, the 11pc toll increases over three years would be sufficient to balance the budget.

Mike Evans, chairman of the Norfolk and Suffolk Boating Association, warned that continued toll increases on such a scale could be counter-productive - the law of diminishing returns might apply with tolls income actually falling as boat owners were driven off the Broads by spiralling costs.

And while welcoming the prospect of more dredging he described the direct takeover of operations by the authority as “a very big challenge the like of which has not been done before” - if it backfired toll payers might be left to pick up the bill.

Tony Howes, secretary of the Broads Hire Boat Federation, said they accepted the need for reasonable toll increases to fund navigation, but they were concerned by the prospect of being squeezed further every year with boating interests on the Broads picking up the financial burden.

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