How to make tolls part of Broads vision

View of Turf Fen Mill on the River Ant at How Hill, Norfolk Broads

View of Turf Fen Mill on the River Ant at How Hill, Norfolk Broads - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2010

It is a furious row that seems to rumble on most of the year - and then it is time to start all over again. Stephen Pullinger looks at the thorny issue of setting the annual Broads tolls.

One year it might be the fury of almost everyone at the steepness of the rise, the next it could be the ire of the hire boat industry, screaming at the injustice of the dreaded 'multiplier', meaning they have to pay 2.65 as much for each boat as a private owner.

This year the headline theme was the fury of small boat owners enraged at being asked to pay a higher percentage increase than those with the biggest boats on the Broads - disparagingly referred to as 'gin palaces'.

In fact, the leaders of the biggest boating group on the Broads, the Norfolk and Suffolk Boating Association (NSBA), who recommended this year's tolls structure in a joint proposal with the Broads Hire Boat Federation (BHBF), make the quite reasonable point that many of the biggest boats are not 'gin palaces', they are often ex-hire boats bought by families of modest means.

With equal vigour - but possibly less convincingly - they attempt to justify the fact that a modest-sized motor boat is facing a 5.1pc tolls rise compared to 1.2pc for the largest cruisers by insisting it is merely 'righting the wrong' of last year.

This year's tolls bill, they argue, should be examined in conjunction with last year's when big boats got the raw deal and some of the smallest craft actually benefited from a tolls cut.

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But however impeccable they believe their logic to be, there most certainly is another side - and one compellingly put to last week's meeting of the Broads Authority.

Some members there indignantly contested the notion there was any wrong to be righted, insisting that last year's settlement had been a cogent attempt to alter the differential between small and large boats - bringing the Broads more into line with other waterways, such as the River Thames, where large craft pay relatively much more in tolls than small ones.

The decline in the number of small motor boats on the Broads over the past five years compared to the relentless rise in numbers of the biggest cruisers is put forward as a further argument that the tolls economics need to favour the smaller craft - although this is hotly contested by NSBA leaders who say owners changing up to bigger boats is a more likely explanation of the decline in small craft than toll rises.

The confusing claims and counter-claims were matched by the wavering direction of last week's debate where authority members appeared to be building up to rejecting the proposals of the navigation committee - a somewhat modified version of the original NSBA/BHBF recommemdation - before narrowly approvingly them by seven votes to six.

The feeling emerged that it was possibly a pragmatic decision to end the festering feud between the full authority and the navigation committee ahead of a survey of toll payers this year that will be used to try and find a common way forward.

Let us hope that the interests of different groups can be somewhat put aside and that the exercise can begin with a blank canvas.

While one lesson of the past two years is that any move has to be incremental - last year's plausible attempt to encourage boating newcomers to the Broads had an unwelcome impact on bigger craft, especially hire boats - it is not wrong to think about fundamental changes.

The point was well made at the authority meeting in respect of tourism that what was needed was a clear vision of the future.

The authority needs to levy a certain amount - in this year's case £2.92m - to pay for dredging and the maintenance of assets such as 24-hour free moorings, but then its vision can help determine where the burden should fall on its 12,000 toll payers.

A fundamental point which, perhaps surprisingly, appears to be agreed by all sides - including the small boat owners - is that supporting the hire boat industry is of paramount importance.

Hire boat firms are still at the heart of the Broads' £470m tourism economy and yet have been hit quite badly by the economic downturn; moreover the 'multiplier' on the Broads - justified by the number of weeks hire boats are out on the water - is considerably more than on other waterways.

So it would seem to make sense to have a long-term aspiration to gradually reduce the multiplier to help a hire boat fleet that has dwindled from 2,000-plus boats to fewer than 900 over the past two decades.

But accepting the trend towards larger, more luxurious hire boats does not mean you have to necessarily welcome a move toward larger private boats.

As one member said during the authority debate, too many large boats can spoil people's experience of the waterways.

Another point is that while hire boats are becoming increasingly 'green' in their design and energy efficiency, as has been acknowledged, many large private boats are far-less-green ex-hire craft.

The Broads is well placed for the future as a playground for residents from the rapidly growing greater London area, but this will surely only happen if the waterways retain the right balance to be welcoming for a full range of activities from canoeing and sailing through to motor boat cruising.

It would therefore make sense to use the tolls structure as an economic regulator to try to curb the relentless increase in the number of large boats.

Correspondingly small tolls at the entry level for boating would have the benefit of encouraging newcomers to the waterways.

The challenges of arriving at a fair tolls structure, which does not have unforeseen negative impacts must never be under-estimated.

But let's hope the survey of toll payers that will take place leads to a harmonious way forward - and one that will ultimately benefit the Broads.