narrow boat
2020-21 case summaries

This page includes summaries of completed investigations and will be updated as cases are complete

Case no 1111 – complaint about the refusal to clear debris in the canal which was unsightly and causing an unpleasant smell

This complaint stems from an issue with the canal which runs along the bottom of Mr and Mrs L’s garden. The complaint issues were exacerbated by their timing. The problem was first reported to the Trust at the start of a National Lockdown because of the Coronavirus pandemic. Mr L has COPD, which meant he was shielding, and unable to leave his house, making the garden his only available outdoor space. It was also the start of an unusually prolonged period of hot and sunny weather. These circumstances undoubtedly had an influence on the actions and behaviours of both parties to the complaint.

Mrs L was very distressed by the issue, she felt the Trust did not treat the problem with sufficient seriousness, in terms of the effect on themselves and the canal. She feels they were not taken seriously, and their concerns were dismissed. She would like the Trust to apologise for this and acknowledge the effect this had on them. 

All parties agree there was a problem with the canal, although the extent and the severity of the problem is disputed. The complainant felt the issue was caused by debris, particularly large tree branches, which was causing a damming effect. They report this caused a build-up of algae and a thick green slime which caused a putrid smell. They were concerned the water would rise and cover their garden with debris and that the smell was damaging to their health. The Trust describe the canal as having a build-up of vegetation, they say a smell could not be detected, that it would clear itself and that it was not a danger to health or to the garden. They considered that clearing the vegetation was non-essential maintenance and planned to clear it in the autumn, circumstances permitting. 

The problem was solved when a gentleman entered the water and using a heavy duty garden rake cleared the canal. Because of the safety and environmental issues, although understandable this action is not condoned. The apparent ease with which the problem was solved would undoubtedly only add to the frustrations felt by the complainant’s, who considered it the responsibility of the Trust to carry out this action. 

The complaint is about how the issue was handled. The Trust has an internal complaints process, the aim of which is to resolve issues as soon as they are reported. If that cannot be done, then a formal response is given and if the complainant remains unhappy a senior manager investigates and responds. The first and second level responses were completed on time and contain all the necessary explanations and next steps, they also apologise that the customer has had cause to complain and say they empathise with them about any distress caused. However, in my opinion, they could have been avoided. Mrs L said on a number of occasions that she did not want to escalate the complaint, she wanted action to be taken. Had the local operational team taken the opportunity, when visiting the site, to call the complainant and provide an explanation and reassurance about the canal it is likely the numerous contacts to the Trust and other bodies may have been avoided. 

The couple were distressed by the situation, they felt the Trust was not listening to them or taking their concerns seriously. They say that calls and emails were not responded to and this forced them to contact other agencies to get a response. Time invested by the Trust at the beginning of the issue would have avoided further distress and reduced time later spent by Trust staff dealing with the numerous calls and emails. While the Trust’s advice may not have changed and they would not have been able to clear the canal, a better explanation of this and reassurance as to the safety of the couple’s property and health would have showed real empathy to an elderly vulnerable couple in a distressed state.  

The Ombudsman recommended that The Trust should formally apologise to the couple for the way they handled their complaint. This should include an acknowledgment that the way the Trust dealt with the situation exacerbated the issue and caused further distress. 

Case No 1114- how the Trust dealt with a complaint about providing a boat licence to a convicted offender and if it should have taken more punitive action against the offender.

Mrs M contacted the Trust to say that she had found out that her neighbour was a convicted sex offender and was concerned that he was moored in an area with lots of children visiting. The Trust explained its position and offered to move Mrs M and her husband to another location. The following day the offender contacted the Trust to say he had been threatened by other boaters and had left the mooring. 

Mrs M subsequently made a written complaint to the Trust. She explained the impact of discovering she had been living next door to a convicted paedophile had had on her. She found the situation extremely distressing and asked for a refund of her winter mooring fees, as she felt she should not have to pay to live next door to an offender. 

The Trust responded and apologised for the delay in doing so. The Trust’s view of the issue was explained and they said that had the Trust been made aware of her concerns with the offender’s behaviour towards her earlier they could have assisted. The Trust was not prepared to refund her fees as they had not been in a position to do anything other than offer her a move of location. That offer remained open to her although the offender had since moved. 

Mrs M was unhappy with this response, asked the complaint to be escalated and for a refund of six weeks mooring fees, which equated to the time she was moored next to the offender.   

A senior manager at the Trust responded, setting out the Trust’s position and saying that a refund would not be made as the Trust had acted appropriately in the circumstances and could not have lawfully informed her about the offender’s criminal record. Section 17 of the British Waterways Act 1995 (the “BW Act”) sets out the circumstances in which the Trust may refuse to grant a licence. These are, where the applicant does not have a Boat Safety Certificate or valid insurance in place, and the boat either has a mooring or will genuinely navigate the network on a continuous basis. The Trust is legally obliged to grant licence applications unless one of the prescribed exceptions under section 17 of the BW Act applies. The boat licence is for the boat and apart from the individual’s contact details all information requested on the licence form are in relation to the boat, its insurance, its boat safety certificate and where it will be moored. This is because the information is relevant to the boat and not to character of the individual. The Trust has no need and no rights to ask questions about the individual applicant. 

The Trust has no lawful basis on which to require all boating customers to provide it with criminal record data or undergo a Disclosure and Barring Service Check. If the Trust is informed about an individual’s criminal record by the police, or other relevant agency, it is not permitted to share this information with members of the public (including other boating customers). Doing so would breach data protection laws. It could also disrupt official processes and pose significant risks to the safety of individuals. It is the role of the police or probation service to assess if an individual poses a risk to others around them, it is for those authorities to pass on information to the relevant individuals. 

There are no rules or regulations in place which mean that the Trust are automatically made aware by the police, the probation services, or an individual boater about an entry on the sex offenders register. If they do become aware, they have legal restrictions in place to prohibit them sharing the information with its customers or the public. The police have a statutory responsibility to manage registered sex offenders. All registered sex offenders are subject to Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA)  procedures which aim to reduce the risk posed by offenders to the community. MAPPA is the process through which the police, probation and prison services work together with other agencies to manage the risks posed by sex offenders, and violent offenders living in the community in order to protect the public.

 The Trust has explained that it fully cooperates with the police and local authority requests for assistance to keep track of certain boats, and to provide any information requested for investigations or safeguarding actions. In this case, when they became aware of the relevant issue, they made contact with the police to ensure they are aware of the boat’s location, so that they were able to take any steps deemed appropriate to safeguard the community around them. 

The ombudsman was satisfied that the Trust had acted correctly in this case, it is not equipped to monitor compliance and it must leave that role to the relevant authorities. It was correct to advise Mrs M of this. The Trust could not have done what Mrs M wanted, because of its legal confines, and the ombudsman does not criticise it for that. It explained its actions and as the offender had already moved away from the area, and indeed the canal network, the delayed responses, while frustrating to Mrs M were not the cause of any further detriment. 

Mrs M has outlined how distressing she found the experience of discovering that she was moored and living alongside a convicted sex offender. It is clear that what Mrs M wants to achieve is a change in the law. The Trust and the ombudsman are bound by the current legislation and must act within the boundaries set. On that basis, the ombudsman was satisfied that the Trust acted correctly in its dealings with the offender and it cooperated with MAPPA to ensure the correct authorities were aware of his location. 

In considering how the Trust dealt with Mrs M when the complaint was raised the investigation noted Mrs M did not make a complaint about the offender’s behaviour until the day before he left the dock, which was too late for the Trust to take any action. In handling the complaint, the Trust was slow to respond to her letters which is disappointing, especially as Mrs M was clearly in a heightened emotional state. However, the Trust has apologised for this and explained the delay in the second response was due to the reduced staffing due to the coronavirus pandemic. The ombudsman was satisfied the Trust had fully explained its position and that it is not within its gift to do the things she requests.

In regard to the request for payment towards the cost of the medical fees Mrs M incurred the ombudsman concluded that the Trust should not make any contribution. The Trust has acted in accordance with the law. It cannot deny a boat licence to anyone because of their past history and it has no rights to tell others about an individual’s history.

Case no 1085 – complaint about the consequences of an aborted trip caused by the narrowing of a Lock.

Mr K complains that due to the narrowing of a Lock he is unable to navigate his Houseboat to a boatyard for its 10-year survey. Consequently, his barge cannot be surveyed and therefore he cannot get full insurance and peace of mind that the barge is structurally sound. Mr K attempted the trip in 2016 and since then has been trying to get a resolution or workable solution from the Trust.

Mr K says the barge had been a working vessel and had travelled the route for over 80 years. He wants the Trust to take some action to enable safe passage through the lock. Although the Trust has offered to help, he does not consider the options given offer real solutions and says he feels he has not been treated fairly. He pays a yearly fee to use the waterways and to moor his boat and he does not feel he is getting value for money.

As a resolution Mr K would like the Trust to complete work on the Lock to restore it to its original width to enable his barge to pass through. He estimates this to be about an inch and a half. He also wants to be compensated for the time taken to resolve the issue as he feels the Trust has allowed him to spend four years waiting for action when none was taken.

The Trust accepts there has been a narrowing of the lock width but considers the lock to be stable, the bowing of the lock is not listed as an active defect and so it is not scheduled for repair of any sort. The Trust believe they have proposed different viable solutions to Mr K which would assist him to transport the barge and complete the survey.  He has rejected all of them and the Trust says the only solutions that seem to be acceptable to Mr K are those where the Trust carries the sole financial cost and responsibility (i.e. widening of the Lock to enable his passage). 

The Trust does not accept that it has a statutory duty to enable the barge to travel through the network. The Trust quote section 105 of the Transport Act 1968 (appendix 1) and The Fraenkel Report 1975, to substantiate this. The relevant point is that that the Trust has a duty to maintain the cruising waterways in a suitable condition for the type of cruising craft that used the waterways in the nine months prior to December 1967. The Transport Act sets out the obligations on the Trust and defines the particular canal as a cruising waterway. Mr K’s barge is wider than the required size and so the ombudsman accepted there was no statutory duty to widen the lock. 

The investigation found that the Trust was aware of the narrowing of the Lock prior to the aborted journey and had noted its website of the restricted size. Had the website been checked before the journey the trip could have been avoided. On that basis the ombudsman did not consider it was fair and reasonable to compensate Mr K for the cost of the aborted trip or any other costs claimed. 

In regard to the way the complaint was handled, the ombudsman found the advice from the Trust had initially been that it would investigate and measure the lock. Once it had done this it advised Mr K it would not be completing any work on the lock and it accepted no responsibility for the costs involved in him transporting his barge. 

The Ombudsman did not uphold Mr K’s complaint. The Trust is under no statutory obligation to provide passage of his barge through the particular lock.  The dimensions of the barge are over the statutory capacity of the lock. The ombudsman accepted the Trust’s view that the cost of completing the work required to facilitate the passage was prohibitive, since this was the only vessel which had reported a problem and the Trust had to take an economic view of where best to spend its money for all users. The ombudsman concluded that the Trust had acted in a way that is fair and reasonable to all its users.