The Battle of Audlem Locks

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Peter Underwood is a narrow boat enthusiast from Birmingham and has sent AudlemOnline this article as a follow-up to last week's article by him about the Canal and Rivers Trust decision to withdraw the lease at Lock 15 for George's Pork and Poultry to operate there.

Audlem Online has spoken with Peter who says around 400 boaters and others have signed the petition supporting this local business. Peter writes:

A David and Goliath battle between one of the country's biggest and newest charities and a young father trying to establish his business and provide for his family seems about to be settled with the charity doing everything in its power to crush the young man.

The charity is the Canal and River Trust, the first and only fruit of David Cameron's Big Society, which was created to take over the former British Waterways and look after the UK's unique canal system.

The young family man is Danny George, who gained the former British Waterways' permission to establish a small shop beside a canal lock at Audlem to sell his local reared pork and poultry and to grow vegetables on the waste land by the lock.

From the start a couple of years ago, passing boaters and people in the village were delighted at this innovative and sensible use of a piece of waste land and a tatty brick-built lock shed and Danny's business grew. He eventually needed more space and created a wooden lean-to addition to the lock shed and expanded his vegetable beds to take in more of the waste land.

And that was when he upset the mandarins of the Canal and River Trust (CaRT), who started to try to close him down.

Petition

Cheshire

A petition on the Internet, signed by hundreds of boaters, gave them some pause for thought and CaRT promised to do everything in their power to ensure Danny could remain by the lockside and keep his business.

According to boaters and others who have been giving their time to help Danny negotiate with CaRT, they exhibited little understanding of the fact that they were dealing with a young man starting out in business rather than a big company. However, just before Christmas everyone was convinced Danny and the CaRT had finally agreed a deal that would involve him replacing the the lean-to shed with something better.

CaRT had suggested a Portakabin, despite claiming to be concerned about the 'heritage value' of the lockside site. Danny wanted to put up a temporary building more in keeping with the wooden constructions used by CaRT itself to house canal stop planks.

However, he indicated that it would take some time to put the money together and that seems to be when CaRT lost patience and decided George's Pork and Poultry was for the the chop.

Wrath

The Trust obviously knew that the decision would bring the wrath of boaters and local people on their heads and briefed their public relations spin doctors who operate on Facebook and Twitter to make their case.

Bob Cartwright

The CaRT decided to issue Danny George with notice to quit, a decision which will not only destroy his business but also make it even more difficult to care for his children.

Despite this the Trust, led in this instance by Wendy Capelle, the Waterway Manager for North Wales and Borders, decided to have a go at Danny, all guns blazing.

In a special briefing document and in emails they asserted that not only had he not submitted plans for changes on time he had grown vegetables on waste land not authorised by them and had gone outside the lease agreement.

CaRT complained Danny's lean-to and subsequent building designs were out of keeping with the heritage value of the existing hut.

They also played the health and safety card, claiming to be concerned about people having to cross the lock beams to buy their vegetables. That was laughed out of court as boaters from across the country pointed out that thousands of of them cross lock beams every year and that, within 200 yards of the business there are locks that have to be crossed from the towpath to reach moorings on the offside and there is another canal-side shop by the top lock at Adderley where buyers have to cross the lock beam to buy eggs and cakes.

Email

Veg-box from George's Pork & Poultry

Wendy Capelle first distanced herself from the heritage excuse for closing down Danny's business. In an email to me she said: "With respect to the suggestion of a Portacabin we were simply trying to put the point across to Mr George that any proposals would be considered, he simply did not provide anything up until the end of January, having been initially asked in May 2012. It was used in the context that there are some available which have water and WC facilities integrated which were one of Mr George's requirements."

So much for heritage then, but what about the flawed health and safety argument? I asked Wendy Capelle: "Just how is it safe for the public to cross locks on the same flight carrying their shopping back to CaRT offside moorings, or to carry food across from the shop on Adderley locks but not safe for Danny's customers?"

Ms Capelle's response was to back away from that argument and pass the buck to the Estates department. She e-mailed back: "The decision to serve notice was due to the non-compliance of the terms of Mr George's current licence, rather than any health and safety issues regarding people crossing the locks."

So everything her PR people had been telling online protestors and the media about health and safety is now admitted to be a smokescreen and nothing to with their decision to evict Danny.

Then boaters in Facebook forums offered to crowd-fund Danny's new building. Would Ms Capelle halt the eviction to allow that to happen? The only answer was more buck-passing: "I will forward your email onto my national colleagues who are dealing with the tenancy."

Escalated

Meanwhile the anti-Danny George campaign by CaRT's online team had escalated a further step. One Anja (no surname supplied) had taken to sending private messages on Facebook that can only be described as part of a smear campaign.

She claimed: "You must understand that we have really tried to help him again and again, this is not our fault." Saying she didn't "want to slander Danny" she went on to label him as
abusive and aggressive claiming 'he is not an easy person to work with". She also claimed, in obvious outrage: "he started planting vegetables all over the place without our permission."

It is not clear whether this hate campaign was authorised nor at what level permission was given to CaRT's spin doctors to destroy the reputation of a small businessman working hard to provide a living for his young family.

Disturbing

The fact that such tactics are being employed by a large and powerful national charity must be disturbing to everyone who loves the canals and wants to see them thrive and prosper with a wealth of innovative small businesses like Danny George's popping up everywhere.

I would suggest this shows an organisation out of control and the elected and non-elected members of the Canal and River Trusts' Council need to be asking some serious questions about the motives and tactics of their paid officials.
Peter Underwood
(Full address supplied to Audlem Online)

Two members of the AudlemOnline team must declare an interest as they grow vegetables on the site (see the second photograph) at Lock 15.