Uncertainty clouds IWA meeting as £450,000 deficit revealed
Updated 3 October 2023
A procession of several chairs and chief executives in barely 18 months contributed to an air of uncertainty at the Inland Waterways Association's 2023 AGM on 23rd September. And by the end of the meeting the association stood leaderless, as both top roles were unfilled and awaiting a decision from the trustees. The situation wasn't helped by a disorganised and somewhat unrehearsed presentation, ripe with microphone feedback screeches.
Stop-gap chair Les Etheridge, who had already committed to standing down at the meeting, gave a valedictory speech. He was followed by trustee/treasurer Nick Dybeck revealing an accounting deficit of over £450,000 for the year ending 2023. In a bid to fill the accounting gap subscription rates have been hiked from £36 to £51 a year.
With no replacement chair or chief executive to manage the meeting, it was a curious lopsided affair as seven of the association’s nine trustees, all on one side of the podium, took questions from the audience.
Veteran waterways supporter Chris Coburn (WW November 1998, 'A Waterway of Life') was the first to raise what he called the “serious turmoil” in the organisation.
A surprise attendee was actor, celebrity boater and IWA member David Suchet. He gave a short but impassioned speech from the floor, saying he had done a lot of cruising this year, and questioned the level of support he had seen for the waterways from boaters. It was clear, he argued, that the waterways were changing in ways not acknowledged, and that too many boats were simply “static”.
The IWA's rudderless state was expected to be addressed by a meeting of trustees on 30th September, with an announcement the following week. Serious questions are now being asked by a rebellious core of members about the organisation’s future role. Should it be restricted to meet its shrinking budget and influence?
Earlier this year the trustees clearly had high hopes with the appointment of Sarah Niblock, a senior academic, administrator, journalist and experienced boat-owner, whom they must have thought had the experience and personality to introduce the far-reaching changes needed.
WW understands that she resigned because she felt she had not been made fully aware of the extent of the challenges IWA faces when accepting the role and that both the part-time nature of the job and her skills and experience were not the right match for reforming the ailing organisation. It does seem that it will need someone in a full-time role with a wide range of experience in senior leadership roles to turn round the organisation.
Watching from the wings was former chair Paul Rodgers, whose resignation last year triggered the current crisis, after his proposals for reform were rejected by the trustees. He described this year’s AGM as “shambolic”.
“I still think that there is a strong need for an independent body covering all major aspects of the waterways,” he told WW. “But I can’t see how the existing IWA leadership can turn it around. They are talking about restricting the scope of activities, which takes away one of the strongest pillars of IWA – namely its diversity of waterways interests, relationships and expertise.”
The choice of Stourport-on-Severn for the meeting was timely, since it has just been announced as a Heritage Harbour by National Historic Ships. IWA Birmingham, Black Country and Worcester chair David Struckett led members on a local exploratory walk afterwards.