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Conservators remodel upkeep of River Cam



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The way the River Cam is looked after has changed following the Conservators of the River Cam decided to restructure and outsource the responsibility for its upkeep.

One of Conservators of the River Cam’s maintenance vessels, Berky Harvester. Picture: Keith Heppell
One of Conservators of the River Cam’s maintenance vessels, Berky Harvester. Picture: Keith Heppell

River and Rural, led by the organisation’s former river manager, Tom Larnach, has taken over the role of the maintenance of the Cam between Mill Pond and Bottisham Lock in a move designed to improve the service for river users and make it more sustainable.

The Conservancy is a statutory navigation authority responsible for the upkeep and running of the Cam between Mill Pond and Bottisham Lock. Its existence, duties and powers are derived from Acts of Parliament – the earliest was passed in 1702.

The modern era began with the River Cam Navigation Act of 1851, which was replaced in 1922 by the River Cam Conservancy Act.

However, the Conservancy has not been operating at maximum efficiency for some years – and the time came to do something about it, says one of the 13 Conservators, Clive Brown.

Clive, who is on the general purposes committee and chairs the business planning working group, told the Cambridge Independent: “Three of the conservators are appointed by the university, two by the Environment Agency, one by the county council and seven by the city council.

“The business planning process began in 2020, with the idea being to produce a five-year business plan. We came up with the belief that we needed a restructure, which involved outsourcing and a restructuring of how the Conservancy works.

“We hope to have the business plan out by the end of the year, but we’re putting in the changes now – we’ve done all the hard work. We’d considered outsourcing for a long time. If you go by the number of registered boats per mile, we’re the most heavily populated river in the country. Because of this, it needs more maintenance than others, and we maintain it to a high standard with a very small team, including two part-timers and Tom, who came in as river manager in 2018.”

Helen Cleary, CEO of the Conservators of the River Cam with Kate Hurst, chair, and Sammy. Picture: Keith Heppell
Helen Cleary, CEO of the Conservators of the River Cam with Kate Hurst, chair, and Sammy. Picture: Keith Heppell

The efficiency drive became more urgent last year.

“The bailiff left just before Covid struck,” Clive continues, “and we didn’t replace him as the finances at that point looked like a dismal black hole. We cut back to essential staff only. Fortunately, the punting sector came back.

“Having fewer staff made it very difficult in terms of rostering – for a long time it’s not been a viable economic structure. Just in terms of having the equipment maintained it’s very expensive – we’ve just had our biggest piece of kit, Berky Harvester, refurbished at a cost of £130,000, so there’s major costs plus capital costs with maintaining two locks. The Environment Agency does a major refurbishment of its locks every ten years and ideally we should do the same. A major refurbishment can cost an estimated £250,000, which means that we should be setting aside £50,000 a year to provide for the maintenance of our two locks.”

Financially, the Conservancy of the River Cam is primarily funded by boat registrations both residential and commercial.

“Boat registrations are our primary source of income; it’s about 70 per cent, and 60 per cent of that comes from the commercial punting industry,” says Clive. “The other sources include landowners’ licence – for the new bridge over the Cam [the Abbey Chesterton bridge] the county council pays quite a bit in fees, including easements. We also sold Jesus Lock House and the lock house at Clayhithe, though the revenue from the sales is ring-fenced.

“We’re very privileged but there’s an enormous mix of vessels on the river, including punting, rowing and residential.”

The Conver weedboat fulfilling its duties on the Lower Cam. Picture: Mike Foley
The Conver weedboat fulfilling its duties on the Lower Cam. Picture: Mike Foley

Once the outsourcing route was decided upon, the model fell into place.

“Initially we couldn’t find anyone, and then Tom came up with his proposal,” explains Clive. “We gave it a pretty exhaustive examination, and it was the best solution. With River and Rural, we’re not outsourcing to a totally unknown organisation – we’re outsourcing the services to people who have known the river for years.

“The changeover took place on October 8. At that point Tom ceased to be river manager, and the contract with Rural and River started. The two navigation officers who worked with Tom also left and joined Tom at River and Rural. They have a lease at a workshop and yard, and use the Conservator’s equipment and even workwear, so the public won’t notice the difference.”

Tom has a separate, six-month, contract as a part-time control officer and part-time clerk..

“The posts of clerk and control officer are statutory,” explains Clive, “and were held by the river manager. We are recruiting new people to fill those roles, one of whom – the control officer – will also broadly undertake the duties previously carried out by the bailiff who has not been replaced.

“Helen Cleary will step into the senior officer role now, she has two licensing and finance staff. It’s going to make quite a significant difference – to turn it around and make a surplus. And I think we will be doing a better job. The whole idea of the restructuring is to make the Conservancy more efficient and more cost-effective.”

Tom said: “We are delighted to be able to continue to deliver services to the River Cam. Our aim is to provide the very best possible level of service we can to ensure the river remains available for all to enjoy.”



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