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...
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