Ministers float plan to impose 'water' tax on sailors

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There's a shipping warning for the owners of Britain's armada of light vessels, and the general synopsis, from Cromarty to German Bight, is poor.

There's a shipping warning for the owners of Britain's armada of light vessels. And the general synopsis, from Cromarty to German Bight, is poor.

Much to the disgust of amateur sailors, ministers are harbouring a desire to impose a new tax on Britons who mess about on the water.

Small boat-owners, they believe, should pay to use off-shore navigational aids such as buoys and lighthouses which until now have been provided free of charge.

In a consultation document ­ which some of the more suspicious yachting club commodores believe was sent out under cover of the Iraq war ­ the government is proposing that boat-owners of vessels below 20 tonnes should be made to pay what are known as "light dues".

In response to a submission from commercial shipping companies, which pay up to £16,000-a-year per vessel for the use of the navigational aids, the Department for Transport is considering what it describes as a "flatter charging regime". This is Whitehall-speak for spreading the burden to pleasure craft owners. About £70m is raised every year by the Government's three lighthouse authorities from commercial craft to keep inshore waters safe for mariners.

But the Royal Yachting Association is unhappy. Edmund Whelan, a spokesman for the association, said: "People are upset about it. This is a most unreasonable and expensive way of gaining very little. This is a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It should all come out of general taxation like it does in the rest of Europe."

Mr Whelan said that many yachts rarely needed lighthouses, which were largely used by ocean-going craft at night. Most of the buoys used by yachts were close to shore and paid for out of harbour charges, he added. Trinity House, the authority established by royal charter in 1514 to provide navigational aids, begs to differ. "Our view is that the user should pay, including yachtsmen. The problem is that a lot of people who use the facilities don't pay a penny," a spokesman said. The organisation provides about 600 navigational aids of various kinds around the coast, including a satellite-based system.

A Department of Transport spokeswoman said: "We are simply trying to see if we can make the whole thing fairer. There have been complaints from some shipping companies that coastal ferry operators should pay more because they use British facilities so often."

One option being considered is a system whereby a licence is bought at the same time as a boat. But one sceptic at the Department said the Government could encounter considerable difficulty in making the system stick. "It could end up like dog licences. Fine in principle, but very little in the way of enforcement," he said.

At the prestigious Royal Southern Yacht Club in Southampton yesterday there was concern over talk of a tax. "This is a very complex issue and comes at a difficult time," said Tony Lovell, former commodore and chief race officer at the club. "We are aware that the Government and its agency, Trinity House, is seeking to cut costs and increase revenue but we have not been formally consulted. We do not know whether this would apply equally to all boats regardless of size and regardless of their use. Most boats are not registered so setting a charge and collecting it would be a major headache."

Steve Hutty, of the Independent Light Dues Forum, which represents the interests of shipping companies, said Britons own about four million leisure craft and that some 200,000 were already registered because they often sailed outside British waters. "These are already on a database and they can be charged about £200 a year. But making the owners of small dinghies pay would be more difficult."

Mr Hutty also suggested that there could be a higher rate of taxation on marine diesel, which was relatively cheap in Britain.

As they hauled their boats out of the water yesterday and returned to the clubhouse for a well-earned drink, sailors were indignant at the prospect of paying out extra money to fund their hobby.

Bill Ward, 71, a retired civil engineer from Durham, who sails his cruiser Smoke Signal out of Sunderland Yacht Club, pointed out that he already already pays £100-a-year to the harbour authority.

"I have sailed for 40 years and I have a passion for the sea but I am not what you would call 'loaded'. The stereotype of those who yacht as well-heeled toffs is not true, especially in the North-east. Most of us are moderate earners who start off with dinghies and buy yachts in partnership with others."

At Liverpool Yacht club the mood was also angry.

John D'Helin, 68, a retired design engineer from the Wirral, sails his 30ft yacht Quilla on the Mersey. He bought it five years ago for £20,000, and believes his yearly mooring costs of £1,500 are payment enough. "Is the government trying to be a killjoy? This is my hobby and I took it up because I could finally afford the time and money for it. I would consider this as another form of taxation, rather like road tax, if the government goes through with it," he said.

But Mike Hempstead, 56, a committee member of Colne Yacht Club at Brightlingsea, Essex, who had just returned from a day on the Colne estuary on his 33ft cruiser Sigducer was more sanguine.

"I would not complain about such a charge because I feel a sense of collective responsibility," he said. "I have to add that I do not use off-shore lighthouses and buoys ­ we pay for inshore facilities through harbour authority fees ­ so I cannot see how such a charge will be justified. Some people who object may simply begin dodging the charge."

One place where the suggestion of increased fees for light vessels looks certain to cause a degree of froideur at family meals this weekend is the House of Windsor. Prince Philip is the figurehead at Trinity House ­ he is known as the Master of the Corporation of Trinity House.

At the Royal Yachting Association however the Princess Royal is President, and the Queen is patron.

YACHTING WORLD

Four million leisure craft sail in Britain's waters. Some 200,000 of them sail in international waters.

The Royal Yachting Association is the national body for all forms of sailing, windsurfing, motor cruising, sports boats, personal watercraft and powerboats. Set up in 1875, it has 93,000 personal members and 1,460 member clubs.

170 marinas dot the British coastline. A large increase has occurred in the past decade, with 35 of the 170 created or enlarged significantly.

Sir Francis Chichester was the first person to sail a single-handed circumnavigation of the globe in 1967 in his yacht, Gipsy Moth IV.

Circumnavigating has now become an annual event, with many high-profile races.

Of these, Around Alone and Vendée Globe are single-handed. The Volvo Ocean Race is crewed, with sailors who are professionals, while the Clipper Round The World Race and Global Challenge are crewed by paying amateurs (with a professional skipper). The Global Challenge is the only one that goes round the world "the wrong way" – east to west

Emma Richards, a Briton, is on the final leg of Around Alone. Her compatriot Ellen Macarthur, a previous runner-up in the Vendée Globe, was forced to pull out of this year's Jules Verne Challenge with a broken mast.

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