Save Independent Punting

Letter to Cllr Ian Nimmo-Smith

A response to this was received on 10th March 2008 inviting Tim Campbell to meet with Cllr Nimmo-Smith to discuss the points raised in the letter. A meeting is being arranged.

29th February 2008

Dear Mr Nimmo-Smith

I appreciate you are a busy man and apologise for the length of this letter. Unfortunately the length is necessary to fully illustrate the situation and do justice to the facts.

I believe you are already aware of the publicity campaign to 'Save Independent Punting'. I write to you as the leader of that campaign as I felt you would be interested in my reasons for starting the process. As you may or may not be aware I am an independent punt operator and have worked on the river Cam since 1999, initially for Scudamores, then as an independent, then at Tyrells for many years until the Scudamores buy out and since then as an independent. Clearly I have a vested interest in seeing independent punting continue. However my motives are not entirely self-serving.

I attended all of the relevant public meetings of the city council's strategy and resources scrutiny committee (although I have to admit that it appeared that the decisions had already been made prior to the meetings and the decision on the day was effectively a 'rubber stamp'), I wrote (in conjunction with my colleague Jamie Collinson) a number of letters making what I had hoped were constructive suggestions. As I actively sought out the information on the process, I was also the only independent punt operator to be sent the original consultation questionnaire by Phil Back and Associates on the moorings review. Unfortunately it appears that these efforts were not heeded by the council.

Having worked on the river for many years I actively support the regulation of punting and touting in the city. I have personally witnessed (and on occasion been the victim of) aggressive behaviour by punt touts and can attest to the fact that contrary to popular belief the problem is not a recent one and is not solely the blame of independent operators. In fact I would argue that it is far from the truth.

The rapid expansion of independent operators only occurred following the closure and takeover of Tyrells Punt Hire and the subsequent loss of jobs. Having failed to eliminate their competition at Quayside I believe Scudamores are now attempting to use the Council to assist them in removing competition by imposing harsh restrictions on independent punt operators. The industry requires fair competition to ensure good service and market led prices. If independents are overly restricted, either by complete removal or uncompetitive license terms then it is consumers who will suffer.

Far from being the "win/win situation" you described in the meeting of February 8th, the only long term winner will be Scudamores having further consolidated their already dominant market share. As I'm sure you are aware they occupy all the prime mooring locations, totalling 5 of the 7 commercial punt stations along the river. It is interesting to note that none of these moorings are put out to competitive tender.

Rod Ingersent (General Manager of Scudamores) has repeatedly claimed that his company relishes further competition. If Scudamores are in favour of fostering competition I would have to ask the reasons for their claim of security of tenure on the "La Mimosa" punt station and why they are attempting to influence the inclusion of restrictive terms in the proposed licences for the stations operation by independents?

Scudamores have been guilty of all of the following in the past (and more) and evidence can be provided: (taken from user input to the "Save Independent Punting" internet group)

  • Pushy touts who follow people all the way down Bridge Street refusing to take no for an answer until the person eventually gives up.
  • Harassment of a former employee when he set up as an independent in Summer 2000. The council were made aware of this but with no positive outcome.
  • Stepping in on mobiler (independent) touts and undercutting or telling mobiler customers (who are walking up to Jesus Green) "it's just down the stairs" to get them to go with Scudamores from the Quayside steps. Effectively stealing business and 'crowding' members of the public in and around the Quayside area. Precisely the main concern and gripe of the public and Council.
  • Having touts on the boardwalk/at La Mimosa station offering to take customers for half the price of the fares any mobiler offers them. Using their business size to destroy the competition through highly unethical means. I believe this practice is known as predatory pricing and is against competition laws
  • Employing staff on so
  • called 'bastard duty' to steal customers from mobilers and do nothing else.
  • Repeatedly (incorrectly) telling mobiler customers mobilers are illegal and that they shouldn't go with them.
  • Harassing independent punt operators by repeatedly taking photographs of them and instructing their chauffeurs to obstruct independent boats.
  • They have even physically thrown mobiler touts down the Scudamores Quayside stairs.

I understand that there are also rogue elements within the independent punting community who are not without sin and I would gladly see them removed as I believe that they are bad for the entire industry. I have been actively encouraging any one associated with these kinds of touts to stop employing them as have a number of my peers.

I believe that it is unfortunate that despite approximately 40 complaints that were received last summer about aggressive touting, not one was successfully followed up. I am aware of the full details of the successful prosecution on the basis of obstruction, including the fact that there were 2 touts mentioned in the evidence, one Scudamores and one independent. I find it very troubling that only the independent had a prosecution brought against him. It is also my opinion that the success of this prosecution owed more to his failure to mount a proper defence than the weight of evidence brought against him.

It is clear from the numerous comments made on both the group set up on the internet site Facebook and those made on the petition that not only are a large number of the public supportive of independent punt operators but furthermore they can corroborate the unpleasant behaviour of Scudamores and are not in favour of them being allowed to dominate the punting industry in Cambridge. We have over 1000 people supporting our campaign and this has been achieved in a very short space of time, with very little publicity.

I would like the opportunity to present the petitions to you so you can see for yourself what the public really think about this subject.

There is sufficient tourism in Cambridge to sustain a number of punt operations running in competition with each other. It is unfortunate that last summer saw a combination of a number of people 'jumping on the bandwagon' combined with poor weather and a consequent reduction in the number of tourists that led to the issue coming to a head. However it would be interesting to know how many complaints were received in previous years compared to last summer.

I believe a solution is attainable and if planned correctly could work for the long term benefit of independent punt operators, the city council and tourism in Cambridge. Furthermore all credible independent punt operators will be happy to work with the council to achieve such ends. However such a solution can not be based on the demands of the largest commercial punt operator and must not remove the ability of smaller operators to compete effectively for trade.

I am not sure if you are aware of the recent article in the Cambridge Evening News (published Saturday 23rd Feb) but I have included the letter that I sent them in response below.

Once again I appreciate you taking the time to consider this matter and look forward to being able to reach a resolution.

Yours sincerely

Tim Campbell
Leader of 'Save Independent Punting'

To whom it may concern

In response to your article published on Saturday with regards to the proposed ban on independent punters using Jesus Green.
Please publish my letter supplied below. It is my belief (along with that of many people who have provided comments on the petition) that Scudamores Punting company have been heavily influencing the council's decisions and I have access to a number of letters written by their solicitors campaigning vehemently to have us shut down altogether. These letters are in the public domain and were available at council meetings. I would be happy to discuss these matters further with yourselves. We are in correspondence with the council and wish to work with them to resolve this matter. We will be presenting the petitions to them shortly and hope that this could be covered by your publication.

For your letters page:

I am the leader of the 'Save Independent Punting' campaign.
The petition now has around 1000 signatures.

We are not against regulation in the punting industry, especially with the view of reducing the problem of nuisance touts.

Despite the 40 complaints last year not one prosecution was brought for aggressive touting. It would appear that rather than use the existing byelaw the City Council are making independent punters the scapegoat. There is no evidence to indicate that independent touts are responsible for causing these complaints. The Council are acting in a way that effectively kills competition. Competition benefits both business and the consumer by keeping standards high and prices competitive.

Once again we see an example of small business owners being forced out of the market. At present we have not been given firm details as to when (or if) a viable alternative will be provided.

If these proposals are successful a large number of people will lose their jobs. Scudamores lease on the La Mimosa station ran out in October 2007 and they have been in a legal battle with the City over it since then. What possible final details could they be tying up?

Tim Campbell
Leader Save Independent Punting campaign

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