Reflections on Changing Times

A look back at his tenure as Society Chairman by Philip Riley, who stepped down in July 2020

At the Committee meeting on 16th July I did not put my name forward for re-election as Chairman of the Society. I have been indicating to the other Committee members, for the last 2 or 3 years, that the time had come for me to move on and that they needed to seek a new face to lead the Society into the next decade. That time has now come.

 I originally joined the Committee in December 1981 and I have remained a Committee member ever since then. My first appointment was as the Society’s Secretary. Late in 2005, I moved up to become Vice Chairman and in 2011 I became Chairman following the untimely death of Peter Redway. Since its formation in 1966, the Society has been very fortunate in having a small number of very effective and visionary Chairmen. Initially David Gerry chaired the Committee but needed to stand down following his acceptance of a management position with Hampshire County Council during the restoration phase. David was succeeded by Robin Higgs who very ably led the Society through the whole of the restoration period leading to the re-opening of the canal in 1991. Robin had that rare quality of being able to deal with authority at all levels whilst, at the same time, having the ability to relate closely to the volunteers in all corners of the Society. After Robin retired, he was succeeded by David Millett who very effectively steered the Society during the early stages of the operational phase when the Society, having been formed to restore the canal, needed to adapt its role to become a very active participant in its management, upkeep and development. Peter Redway followed David and laid the foundations for what has become an extremely effective partnership between the volunteers and the owners and managers of the canal. Peter deserves particular credit for the work he did in driving through the back-pumping schemes in Woodham and St Johns but he also made very important contributions in other areas particularly in establishing very fruitful relationships at working level. I took over from Peter in 2011 and I have now been Chairman for 9 years.

Throughout my period of service on the Committee, I have been able to experience all the key aspects of canal restoration ranging from my early years laying bricks at the Deepcut locks through to our campaigns to keep the canal alive during periods when it was threatened with closure to today when the canal is thriving albeit against a background of increasing financial pressure. I have also been very fortunate to meet and become friends with many people whose commitment to the canal has been truly outstanding. It is clear to me that without the vision of the original campaigners, the massive effort put in by the volunteers throughout the long years of restoration and our steadfast dedication to take the canal forward and build on its undoubted success as a major asset to the communities it serves, we would not have the magnificent waterway that we can enjoy today and that we shall be able to pass on to future generations.

On retiring as Chairman, my principle regret is that, so far, it has not been possible to find a satisfactory basis on which to transfer the canal to the Canal & River Trust. As we know, it is a historical accident that the canal was not brought into the ownership of the national waterways body when the majority of waterways in Great Britain were nationalised in 1947. Looking at the position today, and standing back from the complex relationships which exist between central and local government, government agencies and various quasi-government bodies, it seems to me that moving the canal from the ownership of two County Councils to a national body ultimately accountable to government should not prevent a sensible decision being taken to incorporate the canal into the C&RT portfolio. In saying that I do not wish to suggest that the County Councils have not performed an effective job in protecting and maintaining the canal. However, it is clearly the case that inland waterways are not ‘core business’ for local authorities and the whole waterway network could be more effectively and efficiently managed if it was brought under one umbrella. It will be a matter for my successor to continue to make the case for the transfer which, I am convinced, will take place one day. It is also a matter of concern to me that, since the canal was re-opened, the regulator charged with safeguarding the ecology of the canal has consistently failed to accept the obvious fact that without a thriving navigation the canal will inevitably revert to a derelict state bereft of the exceptional flora and fauna which it is anxious to protect.

Although I will no longer lead the Society, I am intending to remain on the Committee to offer what support I can in the areas that are particularly suited to my skills and experience. It remains for me to thank everyone for their support and encouragement over the many years that I have had a central role in guiding the Society’s fortunes.