Registered Charity No. 702429
CHAIRMAN’S REPORT - A.G.M. 2007
Firstly, may I extend the warmest of welcomes to all of you, our members, and thank you for being here this evening. One of the greatest strengths of the Lichfield and Hatherton has always been its very strong membership base and it is a great tribute to the work of David Moore, his Marketing Team and Trevor Morris, our Membership Secretary that this continues to grow steadily. Not only does this give us a reliable income stream but greatly strengthens our ability to lobby politicians and enter discussions with businesses. As we will see later, when we need support our members always come to the aid of the Trust both financially and morally. May I also welcome our Founder President, Eric Wood, who remains a constant source of help and inspiration.
Before we go any further I would like us to reflect on the life and generosity of one of our Patrons, Sir John Smith who died a few weeks ago. To my knowledge he never came to Lichfield and certainly declined all our invitations to come to see us and the fruits of his generosity. He was adamant that we should not name any structures after him. Twice, and arguably three times, he came to our rescue with substantial donations from the Manifold Trust. The aqueduct and the cottage at Ogley were funded from this source and the mortgage on the cottage has funded the vital culverts under the Birmingham Road in Lichfield. His generosity to the wider canal movement since the 1940s has become clearer in recent times through various extensive obituaries. I think it is appropriate that we should now observe a moment or two of silence in his memory.
These annual reports are, by their very nature, retrospective and almost out of date. It is rather like what television now calls a “continuing drama” (I think they used to be called soaps) where we need to be reminded of “the story so far”. Thus, last year, I left our then main story line as an exciting cliff-hanger. We were in urgent discussions with Staffordshire Highways about the routing of the Lichfield Canal along the line of the Lichfield Bypass. These talks were long and complex and I must pay tribute to the invaluable part played by British Waterways, particularly Tony Harvey, then in charge of Central Shires, and of Vaughan Felton who did much of the design work. We called in Roy Sutton, honorary consulting engineer to IWA, who provided the technical support which we needed as well as many of the suggestions as to how we could carry the canal from the old Lock 19 around Lichfield to the Birmingham Road. We were also able to achieve the crossing under Birmingham Road by modifying the already planned storm water balancing reservoir so that it would be built as a future canal channel. All this was done within a very tight time frame with results which many of you will have seen. When the canal is fully opened around Lichfield a vast amount of money would have been required and considerable disruption had the culvert not been built now. Sadly, the very considerable down side of this achievement has been to saddle the Trust with a bill of close on £½m which could only be met by raising a mortgage on our property at Ogley and another phase of the David Suchet Appeal. Thus we could allow ourselves only a brief moment of rejoicing and I am certain that the larger battle remains to be fought. It seems strange, bordering on unjust, that a voluntary organisation should be called on to pay large sums of money to pay for what is clearly destined to become a public asset – be it the road or the canal.
Yet, there are always silver linings to be sought within the darkest clouds. Our relationship with British Waterways has always been very positive in tone and is now immensely stronger and we look on in horror as it goes through its current trauma. We have now entered a new and constructive phase in our relationship with Staffordshire County Council and we are working closely with Highways on the design of the next stage of the Lichfield bypass from Birmingham Road to London Road. We have reached a new understanding with Lichfield District Council the strengthening of which is vital to the future of the Trust. We are grateful to the ever steady support of Michael Fabricant MP who arranged for us to have a meeting with the then Waterways Minister. The way forward for all restoration organisations as we face up to the inevitably diminished role and assets of British Waterways must be in the building of partnerships or alliances with local authorities, business and Advantage West Midlands.
Meanwhile, our work on, or more often under, the ground has continued, on both the Hatherton and Lichfield Canals. At Tamworth Road the progress is very visible and there for all to see. Locks 25 and 26 with their adjacent pounds have been transformed. Lock 24, after a trial excavation has been back filled as a temporary conservation measure and dressed with lock gates at its tail. Much of this work has been carried out by our own team of volunteers who have grown in number in recent times. We owe much to their dedication and hard work, especially those who seem never to be off duty! – I see Barry Parkes, Brian Davis, Keith Grice and others here tonight. They have been supported by several visiting groups as part of the “Dig Deep” scheme and others such as our Green Team led by Mike Battisson.
Our Finance Director, Bob Williams, swapping spread sheet for soil spreading nobly took on, for the short term, the management of the Tamworth Road activities following the resignation of Phil Sharpe in the autumn. We are grateful to Phil for all his hard work on the practical side. Peter Magee, whose duties are nominally in plant maintenance, has undertaken much of the work load as has Bob Mullarkey who accepted co-option as a Director last autumn. Bob does much for us on the practical side and is now Health and Safety Officer. We began to address the next stage of the project, mindful of current budgetary constraints, notably how to remove the large stormwater pipe and then work towards re-watering all or part of the section from Lock 24 to the A38. We have to work closely with Severn Trent Water and other agencies if we are to get this right but the prize of floating a boat alongside the A51 is tantalisingly close.
On the Hatherton our work is much lower profiled but no less important. Denis Cooper continues to direct his team which keeps the section from the A4601 to the M6 in good order. Denis also keeps a watchful eye on our interests. We have maintained contact with both South Staffordshire and Cannock Chase District Councils and with land owners. Provisional plans for the widening of the M6 have been announced and these could prove very helpful to the Trust. At Calf Heath, the additional carriageways are planned to be on the eastern side and the Highways Agency is currently indicating that it will provide a navigable culvert. It may also be that it will provide a similar culvert under the reconstructed existing carriageways. Your Directors have learnt the hard way that it is only when such structures have been built that you can relax. Completion is expected by 2015. We have also been in discussion with Little Wyrley Estate, Countrywide Homes and two possible marina developers. All this underlines the obvious fact that canal restoration is long, complex and requiring much patience and determination. We are much indebted to Mike Smith, who has served as Land Officer and Vice Chairman, for all his meticulous work on both canals and who has played an invaluable part in all the discussions concerning every major issue. It is a great loss to us that he is standing down as of this AGM.
Another bright spot in the year was the strengthening of our relationship with our Vice-President, David Suchet. He visited our display at the IWA National at Beale Park and then spent a long day with us last October to boost the re-launched David Suchet Appeal and to catch up on our activities. Jointly with the Chairman, he cut the first sod at Birmingham Road and was then shown Tamworth Road and Cappers Bridge before taking tea at The Garrick Theatre by invitation of the management and Nina Dawes, Chief Executive of Lichfield District Council. In the evening David and Sheila attended a reception at the Art Gallery in Brindley Place, Birmingham where he accepted the painting of Huddlesford Junction from our artist member, Dr Ted Hiscock. This was then auctioned to raise £1000. We are grateful to David and Sheila for sparing so much time from their busy lives.
The Trust is well aware of its responsibilities towards the environment and has continued to take proper care of its work sites although essential construction and earth moving still limit the scope for environmental recovery. Natural English wild flowers at Darnford Lane and garden bulbs planted at Tamworth Road have bloomed to preserve the distinctive ambiance of each site – biodiversity at Darnford and parkland at Tamworth Road. Funded by the Green Arc Partnership, a Birmingham company of landscape architects has been engaged to make recommendations for the design of environmental and community features to support the engineering works at Tamworth Road. This is encouraging for the future and should help to attract visitors to Lichfield and make the approach along the canal attractive for walkers and boaters.
The Trust is also aware of its duty to link to the wider community and continues to stress that bringing boats back to Lichfield, and indeed Cannock, is not just a scheme to help boaters. We must be holistic in our approach and stress the advantages to walkers (both serious and dog-walking), anglers, business and young people. We have stressed in our conversations with councillors and officials that the Trust’s activities have already brought an inward investment of over £2m into Lichfield since 1990.
A further significant step forward in community relationships has been the setting up of educational visits by students from Great Barr School (who have come to Darnford Lane to help with maintenance and to study and learn about our project.) This has resulted from our partnership which aided the School’s attainment of Special Science College status. By government decree this will give us the opportunity to apply for significant restoration funding that might otherwise be beyond our reach. Over the coming year our newly appointed Environment and Education Officers will be co-operating closely to ensure that the benefits accrue to both Trust and School. The importance of this “community” aspect has been emphasized recently by both British Waterways and the Inland Waterways Association in representations made to Government prompted by funding cuts resulting from the Defra debacle. In this respect we are doing our bit.
Unfortunately, “doing our bit” has proved very expensive and placed great financial burdens on the Trust. You have heard from Bob Williams, our Finance Director, just how heavy these burdens now are. I must pay full tribute to Bob without whom we could not have resolved the Lichfield Bypass issue and who puts in untold hours of work in his efficient management of the Trust’s financial affairs. To this we have to add his commitment to marketing, public lectures, organising work parties and, just last weekend playing the lead role in organising the Canal Walk. There can be no doubt that we face a very challenging financial environment. We have a very heavy debt to manage and service and most of our fundraising activities are devoted to this end and will be for the near future. We have been fortunate in again benefiting from the generosity of enthusiasts and supporters around the country who have contributed to the David Suchet Appeal. However, we must face the hard reality that it is immediate crises which stimulate such giving while over 20 years of loan repayments are far less likely to do so. Difficult financial decisions lie ahead. Well-meaning people in official positions often say “We must try to help you guys”. I am convinced that we must persuade these people that, on the contrary, “we guys” are providing the impetus to finance a project of major local and national importance which they should be doing for themselves. There is always the danger that the Trust will be seen as able to look after itself and not in need of help.
I have tried to pay tribute to the work of our Directors and Officers who toil long and hard to ensure that the Trust survives and prospers but in so doing I can touch only the surface. I must mention the work of Sue Williams who is our Secretary but who does so much more. She is involved in almost everything we do and manages our award-winning web site. Members of the Williams family are seen at most of our events, including the dog. In his absence, I must also single out Mike Smith who stands down as a Director today. His work as Land Officer has been invaluable and he has extended his activities into the engineering and surveying fields. As Vice-Chairman this year his support for me has been of untold value and we are happy that he will continue to help us when he can. I also pay tribute to the long and devoted service of Phil Sharpe who stood down as a Director after the 2006 AGM. We have gained the services of Bob Mullarkey as a Director adding the final seal to his many years of support. Steve Pitt continues to deliver our excellent quarterly magazine.
However, we must always be looking for new and talented volunteers and I am pleased that several new people have come forward and are discussing with us ways in which they can help the Trust. Some potential helpers can be deterred by the prospect of committee work or by becoming over-extended. We are very happy for people to play to their own strengths and interests. Volunteers can chose their own “package” and join in where and when they can. Most of us started that way! We are especially pleased that we have steadily built up our engineering team in recent months. We have attracted engineers, skilled in their own fields, prepared to offer advice and ready to run an eye over our plans. At the practical level we have a slowly expanding team of bricklayers and general excavators who have performed miracles in the last year or so. The Marketing Team has always “been there” when needed and are the too often unsung heroes of all we do. Please go out from this meeting and spread the word that the L&H is a happy organisation which is fun and rewarding for all who get involved.
We are still asked that most difficult of questions “When will the canals be open?” We have been engaged in this great task since 1988 and set ourselves a 20 year target which we can now see was just a little ambitious. 2025 has been mentioned as a more recent and realisable completion date. When we look at well-funded and nationally supported projects such as Wembley Stadium and how they can fall seriously short in their completion dates we see how challenging such ambitions can be. The recent and unjustified cuts to the funding of British Waterways must have serious implications for the whole restoration sector. We have never received direct funding from BW but much help in kind and in lobbying. The expectation has always been that our scheme will follow the path set by the Huddersfield Narrow, the Droitwich and others where BW became the lead partner in driving the project to conclusion, once the volunteers had laid the foundations. We cannot foresee how the current crisis will be resolved but it would be prudent to assume that the volunteers will have to do far more than they ever anticipated. This will have an inevitable knock-on effect on completion targets. We must broaden our approach for support especially into the whole West Midlands Region where the regeneration issue is one which we must tap into and explore.
Nobody ever promised that the restoration of our two canals would be easy. We have achieved much but there is so much more to do. It comes back to you, the members here tonight, and to the much wider membership who cannot be here. If you give your Board of Directors your continuing support in 2007 and beyond, we will succeed.
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