Save Our Waterways Blog

Friday, 25 June 2010

Minister Gives Assurance on BW

It seems we weren't the only ones to spot a lack of substance in the Waterways Minister's statement earlier in the week.

Tristram Hunt, MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, asked the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Caroline Spelman) about her plans for the future of British Waterways. Waterways Minister Richard Benyon repeated what he had said in his statement a few days earlier that the government would be "looking in detail at options for a third sector model that will be appropriate for British Waterways, including the possible inclusion of Environment Agency navigations", adding that no decisions would be taken until after the spending review.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Hunt sought more detail, stating that "in order to become a proper third sector organisation, British Waterways needs an appropriate financial settlement following the comprehensive spending review and a longer contract with Government to replace annual grants". He asked whether British Waterways' property endowment could be put in a charity-locked mechanism, so that the Treasury "does not sell it down the canal".

The minister, in reply, did give some sort of re-assurance: "The answer to his question is yes. For the third sector model to work, British Waterways will have to have access to its estate, or a large proportion of it, for it to gear up funding for sustainable funding in the future. I can assure him that it will not proceed unless it is locked in in that way."

So he seemed to be saying that if BW is to move to the "third-sector" this would be properly funded, seemingly retaining a large proportion of its property, so that it would be sustainable in the future. He also seemed to be saying that the third-sector move would not take place unless it was properly funded.

As we suggested on Tuesday, a half-baked, cash-starved, third-rate new organisation would be the worst possible outcome, so we suppose we must take some comfort from whatever crumbs of good news appear on the table!

The text of the exchange can be read in full here.


Tuesday, 22 June 2010

New Minister Announces, er... Nothing

We now have a new government minister with responsibility for the waterways, in the person of Richard Benyon MP. Some people have expressed high hopes for MR Benyon, as he is a riparian landowner alongside the Kennet and Avon Canal and has an involvement with the Kennet and Avon Trust.

This week, Mr Benyon issued a statement about the waterways. Or rather, he got someone to make the statement on his behalf in the House of Lords. This could be interpreted as indicating that waterways are so low down on the government's priorities that they couldn't even find a few seconds for Mr Benyon to make his statement in the House of Commons himself!

His message gives a rather mixed message. He said that the new Government would continue to look at the possibility of creating a "third sector" model for British Waterways, as this may fit neatly with the government's so-called "big society" philosophy.

However, he warned that nothing could be decided before the outcome of the Government's Autumn Spending Revue, as the Government's main objective was to reduce the deficit.

He gave the same reason for his decision not to proceed with a new Government waterways strategy. (Can he be referring to Defra's "Waterways for Everyone" strategy? What are the implications if this is abandoned?)

Mr Benyon also suggested that any "third-sector" waterway body could include the Environment Agency's navigations (such as the Thames, the Nene and the Great Ouse). This suggestion has been welcomed by the IWA, which has campaigned for a nation waterway "conservancy" but is likely to be fiercely opposed by many boaters based on EA waters.

Today's Budget statement talked of most government departments facing financial cutbacks of 25% so there must be very little hope of any improvement in waterway funding for years to come. If BW is to evolve into a third-sector organisation or if a national waterway conservancy covering BW and EA navigations was to be created, just how effective would they be if they are not set up on a sound financial basis? A half-baked, cash-starved, third-rate new organisation would surely be the worst possible outcome for the secure future of our waterways?

The text of Mr Benyon's statement, as relayed by Lord Henley, can be read in full here.


Thursday, 13 May 2010

Your chance to influence the new government's waterway policy

So far we haven’t seen the new government policy for the waterways and we all have an opportunity to influence what that might be by writing to our MP (this can be done by email; just enter you postcode at They Work You look for 'Send a message to your MP') and ask them to express your views to the new Minister.

We suggest that you base your letter on the following key issues (it is important for you to use your own words);

a) Your concern about the future of the waterways
b) The last Labour budget endorsed BW’s plans to move to charitable status. If that is to succeed, it is vital that BW’s property portfolio remains intact
e) The outline policy document ‘Waterways for Everyone’ has wide support from all waterways user groups and it is important that the current consultation process continues.

Be sure to ask your MP to ask the Minister for a response as they are then required to respond.

Do it now, before you forget!

Will Chapman

Friday, 26 March 2010

Waterway Watch

The Chancellor's budget announcement that BW is to move to the 3rd sector is an exciting development; one that justifies much of the campaigning that has been going on since the SOW protests of 2006 whilst being a signal for us to switch from protest-mode to a more positive yet still pro-active role.

We know from ongoing consultations on BW's 2020 Vision that they foresee a future that integrates stakeholders into the management structure at the top level and closer, better defined, working relationships at the sharp end with communities.

At the top end, the favoured proposal is that stakeholder representatives would populate the important Members Council, a body which would have the duty to scrutinise activities and nominate and select future Trustees. Members of this Council would be democratically selected by stakeholder groups. Trustees would replace the current Board and be unpaid.

At the grass roots, local navigation offices would have Waterway Committees which would seek to improve communications with local users. This is where SOW's Waterway Watch initiative fits in.

We know that over 30,000 boats and 13 million users make 260 million visits each year to BW waterways. [The Thames and the Broads are each believed to enjoy a similar degree of popularity and many of the following suggestions could apply equally to other navigations.] Most boat owners and the vast majority (95%) of other users are not members of our stakeholder organisations. Clearly, we need to find a way that will engage the active support of this substantial group of largely unrepresented users.

It seems likely that the majority of users will be residents of a riparian community. Most may not be aware of contribution that the waterway makes to their way of life but SOW believe that these residents would respond with concern if it was suggested that their waterside environment was to change for the worse. As the main recipients of the economic and social benefits that our inland waterways bring, the residents of riparian communities have the most to lose if decline sets in. It is common knowledge that BW is under-funded to the tune of £30 million/pa and for each year that this continues the current maintenance backlog of £100 million will increase; circumstances that can only mean the condition of our waterways will decline even further. Given the current economic climate it is extremely unlikely that this gap will be filled by central government.

DEFRA's new 'Waterways for Everyone' draft policy document encourages greater community engagement and specifically asks the question 'How do we engage local communities?'

Most riparian communities are already covered by the extensive network of stakeholder bodies that comprise IWA branches; angling and cruising clubs; water sport clubs; community boat associations, canal and restoration societies, waterway festivals, etc.

SOW used these community links when we staged the protests of 2006/7 and we believe the change in government approach coupled with wide cross-party support for the waterways presents an opportunity to tap into that community spirit once again but this time as a call for self-support rather than protest.

Over the past few weeks SOW has been talking to BW and a number of stakeholder groups about an initiative we call Waterway Watch. The idea is simple. We call a number of meetings in key waterway communities to explain to our supporters and other local residents that without community support, there is a risk that their local waterway could fall into steady decline. We would point out that BW's move to the 3rd Sector is an opportunity for each community to make a contribution that will help prevent that decline and give its residents the power to shape the waterway for the future.

As the name implies, Waterway Watch is not dissimilar to a Neighbourhood Watch that draws on the success of schemes like Towpath Tidy. However, each community Watch would have opportunities to play a wider role than just the protection and upkeep of the waterway that passes through their community.

The range of activities in which an individual Watch community might become involved will depend largely on the skills and enthusiasms of the local supporters that they attract but a typical community Watch would aim to have the active support of:

- All users – walkers, dog owners, anglers, cyclists, canoeists, etc well as boaters
- Parish and District councils, local MP and MEP
- Schools and higher education establishments
- Business community, youth groups, local societies
- Police and emergency services (crime and access issues
- Local media

Every community is a potential source of professional and practical skills that might be attracted to a local Watch to help with opportunities and problems facing navigation authorities, examples might include:

- monitoring unlicensed boats and mooring over-stays, perhaps manage local moorings
- bidding for contracts for vegetation control, towpath maintenance....
- repair of assets and services, clearing fly tipping, locate rubbish points, etc
- acting as intermediaries on planning issues
- communicate views on matters of wider concern to local MPs and MEPs
- gaining access to lottery and EU funding for community projects
- new community initiatives - water festival, community boat; youth activities

Transferring such activities to community level will present opportunities to identify cost savings. Restoration societies have shown that there is a wide range of talent that can be tapped to assist with all manner of tasks that would lead to the betterment of one's local community. Just looking at the examples of vegetation control and towpath monitoring, SOW estimates that a national Watch movement has the potential of saving BW £2-3 million a year in costs and recovered income.

Although individual community Watches might decide to raise funds for local projects and activities, SOW don't see WW as a membership-based structure that competes with other stakeholder groups for members. Nationally, the WW movement wouldn't be run by any single stakeholder group, it would be a joint initiative by stakeholders and run locally by residents drawn from all users and vested interests in that community. Each community Watch would link with the local navigation authority through the existing user group network.

Central to the idea is the use of state-of-the-art web technology to provide a central point of focus and communication. A central portal would link together all active WW groups and thereby facilitate a constant exchange of ideas and contacts which could also be the source of donations and increased access to philanthropic, lottery and European funding.

We see members of existing waterway support groups as having the potential to form a Watch in their community and invite anyone who is attracted to this idea to contact us via letting us know how you would like to help.

We also welcome your comments - positive or negative - and any suggestions you may have. If you have an idea of how a local community can improve the way or reduce the costs of something that is done on the waterways, please let us know.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Budget Statement Confirms "Mutual" Intention For British Waterways

British Waterways has moved a step nearer becoming a "mutual" organisation, similar to a charitable trust, after today's budget statement.

The previously-announced proposals are part of the Government's plans to rationalise its many "Arm's Length Bodies".

British Waterways says that the proposals will give communities greater involvement in the running of their local waterways, provide a more stable long-term footing for the network and, over time, reduce costs to the taxpayer.

BW notes that the Budget statement recognises the importance of BW's property endowment in helping to fund the long-term care of the waterways and recommends that it be "charity locked" for the benefit of the network.

The Government proposals states: "at present the favoured option is a charitable trust responsible for managing waterways assets on a long lease with the non-operational property endowment held in a "charity locked" arrangement. However further work is needed to identify the exact form of mutual and the detail of its governance and relationship with government."

BW chairman Tony Hales welcomed the statement, saying: "This is a significant moment in the history of our inland waterways. A mutualised canal network will give the communities that have grown up around the waterways since the 18th Century an increasingly important role in the way they are run in the future.
"The proposal reflects a widely-held, cross-party and stakeholder view that the waterways are a national treasure which should be moved into the third sector if we are to unlock the enormous public support that there is for them. This is a tremendously innovative model for reinvigorating the waterways, it will ensure their continued revival and safeguard against a return to the decline and dereliction which they faced in the last century."

There are more than 600 "Arm's Length Bodies" sponsored by the UK Government, including 152 Service Delivery organisations, some of which are to be merged.

The H M Treasury document "Reforming Arm's Length Bodies" can be downloaded here. Specific mention of BW appears on page 10.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Community Support - The Future of Our Waterways

Given the economic climate that faces us over the next decade, it is extremely unlikely that any government is going to cover the £45 million operating deficit that faces our navigation authorities each year. This annual deficit has forced British Waterways to operate at 85% of the level required to maintain a steady state of maintenance for several years now and as a result has accumulated a £100+ million backlog. A backlog that clearly worsens each year.

These are familiar statistics to those active in the waterways movement and over the past few years we have made sure that our supporters are aware of the crisis. However, we have failed to get the same message across to the 95% of waterway users that are not members of our stakeholder organisations.

We know quite a lot about this vast body of users. British Waterway's estimate that 11 million people make over 260 million visits a year to BW waterways. Our guess is that similar if not greater numbers apply to the Thames. An average of over 20 visits per person implies that most live close to a waterway and they appreciate the contribution it makes to their way of life. The majority are probably sensitive to their environment and care about its future. Above all, as the main recipients of the benefits that our inland waterways bring, they have the most to lose if decline sets in.

Like boaters and anglers they will lose a valued recreational resource; like walkers and cyclists they will lose a source of exercise and a traffic free route and like us all they will lose a haven for nature and a valued part of our heritage. But as members of a waterway community, they will also lose jobs and passing trade and experience declining property values.

Clearly, the waterway movement needs to gain the active support of this group. Fortunately, they are relatively easy to reach. The inland waterways pass through an estimated 250 parliamentary constituencies. That roughly equates to 18 million people and it seems likely that they include most of BW's 11 million users as well as a significant number of our members. In many of these communities to there is already an existing network of supporters in the form of members of user group branches and angling, cruising clubs and water sport clubs; supporters of canal and restoration societies, waterway festivals, community boats, etc.

With that reach of supporters, surely we can organise gatherings in our waterway communities to explain to our neighbours that without community support, they risk seeing the waterways that are such an intrinsic part of the fabric of our community falling into rapid decline.

Taking the Opportunity
DEFRA's 'Waterways for Everyone' encourages greater community engagement and the EA is looking at how they can make better use of volunteers. BW's 2020 Vision goes a step further by foreseeing a future that draws on volunteer skills and expertise by integrating stakeholder groups into its corporate structure and forecasting income from charitable donations.

We support this general direction but concentrating on existing stakeholder groups misses a key target. The 11 million users are unrepresented by existing stakeholder groups and will remain out of the loop unless we find an initiative that will attract their attention so that they, in effect, also become stakeholders.

SOW calls this initiative Waterway Watch (WW). In some ways it is not dissimilar to Neighbourhood Watch and draws on the success of Towpath Tidy except that each community WW would be encouraged to take a wider role than simply assisting with the protection and upkeep of the waterway that passes through their community.

The range of activities in which individual WW communities might become involved will depend largely on the skills and enthusiasms of the local supporters that they attract. Typically, a local WW might take on the role of assisting the navigation authorities in monitoring unlicensed boats and mooring over-stays and taking on some of the tasks of vegetation control. Others might act as intermediaries with local parish and district councils in planning issues, etc. and communicating views on matters of national concern to local Mps.

Think of the wide range of talent that is attracted by the likes of restoration societies; a similarly broad selection of talent surely exists in local communities waiting to be tapped to assist with all manner of issues that directly affect their own well-being. SOW estimates that just looking at the examples of delegating vegetation control and towpath monitoring to a community Watch has the potential of saving BW as much as £3-5 million a year in costs and recovered income.

SOW doesn't see WW as a membership-based structure (thereby eliminating the thorny issue of competing with other stakeholder groups for members), although individual community WWs might decide to raise funds for local projects and activities.

Nationally, the WW movement wouldn't be run by any single stakeholder group, it would be a genuinely joint initiative by local residents drawn from all users and vested interests in that community and would link with the local navigation authority through the user group network. The creation of each community group would, however, clearly depend greatly on the support of the members of stakeholders and presumably would provide an opportunity to promote the interests of individual stakeholder groups.

Central to the idea is to use web technology to provide a central point of focus and communication. This central portal would link together all active WW groups and thereby facilitate a constant exchange of ideas and contacts which could also be the source of donations and increased access to philanthropic, Lottery and European funding. The creation and management of this website could be achieved by volunteers though it may be prudent to pay an outside body to create the initial structure. The cost of hosting the actual web site would be minimal and could almost certainly be maintained primarily by volunteers.

We envision that the website would be owned by a non-profit company limited by guarantee which has guarantors rather than shareholders. The guarantors contribute a nominal predetermined sum to the company. The aim would be to get all participating stakeholders to become guarantors for the company, so that all have a joint interest in making it work. Any surplus would either be ploughed back into the company to meet its objectives, or distributed for charitable purposes.

The important role of disseminating the concept and news of progress through local and national media might also be achieved by volunteers but it seems logical to suggest that this is done jointly by one or more of the professional teams that already exist within navigation authorities and larger stakeholders using feeds generated by local WW groups.

Taking the Initiative
Other than endorsing the concept, SOW doesn't believe this is an initiative that should be taken by the navigation authorities or an individual stakeholder group. In the same way that we launched 49 protests to the cuts in 2006/7, it will benefit most by being recognised as community action. I believe that if we all share the responsibility of promoting the idea to through our members to other users at large, then we will identify individuals in a selection of key communities that will show enough interest to form fledgling groups to explore the idea.
In my case I have had positive feedback from discussions in my community and I have been in touch with several individuals in other areas who are either already involved in a similar initiative or are willing to explore the idea in their community.

SOW believes that our inland waterways face dereliction if we cannot persuade our local communities to exercise some ownership of their section of the waterway, and it is up to us to convince them that the future of our waterway heritage really does lie in their hands.

2nd March 2010 - Will Chapman -

Any comments?

Download this discussion paper here


Monday, 7 December 2009

BW to keep Property and go "Mutual"?

There has been a lot of head-scratching over the weekend following an article in The Guardian reporting on an interview with Liam Byrne, the chief secretary to the Treasury. The article reads:
A total of £16bn will be saved by pressing ahead with the sale of public assets from April. Assets for sale will include the Dartford crossing, the Tote, the student loans portfolio, Ordnance Survey and the Land Registry. In some cases ministers will wait for assets to recover their value after the recession. "This is not a firesale," Byrne says. "But this is stuff we will bring to the market when the price is right over the next two to three years." Assets such as British Waterways will be reorganised as mutuals.

So what did this mean? On the face of it, BW is not being lumped in with other assets to be sold off, but it does not promise that BW won't be separated from its property assets, which is a current concern of many people, as witnessed by the Online Petition, now in the "top ten" of current petitions on the Downing Street website.

"Mutual" status suggests something that is paid for or owned by those who benefit from it. How could this idea be reconciled with the fact that only a small percentage of waterway users (boaters and anglers) contribute any money to them directly? The only practical way that the other 95%+ of users can contribute is through taxation.

Perhaps the term "mutual" is misleading and this is just another way of describing the "third sector" model that BW has said it wants to become?

The mystery may have been solved this morning, as the Government has issued a report called "Putting The Front Line First" which outlines how the Government hopes to "drive up standards by strengthening the role of citizens and civic society, to free up public services by recasting the relationship between the centre and the frontline, and to streamline the centre of government, saving money for sharper delivery".

The report states: "We are publishing now a portfolio of assets to discuss ownership options with the private sector, including full or partial sale or mutualisation. We will consider new ownership structures that release value from the government estate by creating one or more public property companies".

A chapter of the report's Asset Portfolio (pages 5 to 7) is specifically about British Waterways and includes the section:
"At Budget 2009, it was announced that BW would transfer its property activities (including
joint ventures) into a wholly-owned property subsidiary – in order to ensure clear separation
of, and focus on, both maximising gains from its property and best management of the waterways.

"This process is being taken forward by BW in consultation with HM Treasury, the Shareholder Executive and Defra. However, the Government recognises that there may be benefits in considering alternative structures for BW’s business as a whole, including its property portfolio. We will therefore consider alternative models for the business as a whole, such as mutual or third sector structures. As part of any such future structure for BW, therefore, there may be opportunities for the private sector to invest in the portfolio.

"Under any scenario, ensuring the continued maintenance and protection of the waterways will continue to be an important objective for the Government."

BW has taken this to mean an end to the speculation about a property sell-off [link]. Many waterway users will find this re-assuring although the property portfolio only contributes a part of BW's income. There would still be the problem of obtaining enough additional funding to maintain our waterways adequately.

And reading between the lines the report does not rule out the possibility of some of the property being sold off over time...

[Click below to add your own opinion.]