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Thursday, 11 August 2011

Waterways Charity is a dangerous con trick

Today we have a guest blogger. Peter Underwood is a waterways journalist and a regular contributor to Towpath Talk and other waterways publications. He has owned boats for many years and lived afloat for the past eight years, travelling all over the system. You might disagree with his outspoken views – I certainly reserve the right to argue with him – but he does have a talent for saying what many people feel. Let us know what you think.

Regards, Simon.

Waterways Charity is a dangerous con trick.

It started with a chorus of cautious approval from the various waterways organisations, the IWA in particular, but the consensus of opinion is slowly changing about the idea of dumping our waterways on a dubious, unaccountable, undemocratic and underfunded charity version of British Waterways.

Now the parliamentary group of MPs with waterways interests is saying the new charity will be unacceptably short of cash and undemocratic. The Residential Boat Owners Association, even though it still thinks it is a good idea to have a charity, also has severe doubts about the levels of cash, the lack of accountability and the complete failure to make either the charity or the government responsible for actually keeping the waterways open.

Even the IWA is worried that we are on the receiving end of a massive political con-trick – although they wouldn’t quite put it like that. It seems to be slowly dawning on the waterways community no BW successor can run the system properly without adequate financial support and Cameron and crew have no real interest in canals other than abandoning all financial responsibility for one of our great national assets.

Now I know the IWA has hung on to the dream of a ‘waterways conservancy’ running the system but it must now be dawning upon them that what is being proposed for the NWC is not the Rolt dream.

The politicians have only two interests, neither of them canals. The first is to cut the amount of money spent by government in keeping this wonderful national asset going and the second is to get at least one example of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ up and running as the rest of the concept falls apart around him. They won't care if boaters are driven off and all the canals slowly silt up into weed and rubbish filled ditches - not their problem once it is a charity.

It is partly because our otherwise wonderful voluntary waterways organisations have convinced themselves that if they can run their smaller organisations it is only a matter of scale for volunteers to run an enlarged British Waterways charity.

If those volunteers were selected by those with a real understanding and knowledge of the waterways, and elected rather than appointed, the charity might have some faint hope of success – given proper funding over an extended period.

Instead we are liable to get a bunch of appointees put in place by politicians or their minions who are simply part of what used to be called the ‘great and good’ – usually white middle class businesspeople or all-purpose do-gooders with more interest with the kudos of being consulted by ministers than in the future of our waterways.

We also get an organisation that could easily go out of control with legislation already going through the commons allowing it to make its own by-laws and enforce its regulations using forced entry into people’s boats and other draconian powers - all without any accountability either to its own electorate or even parliament.

Given that we also seem likely to have the same very expensive bunch of former accountants and estate agents running the new charity at management level – take a bow Evans and Co – the possibility that many ordinary boaters will be priced off the water and others treated as third class citizens by NWC staff (or volunteers) in their role as traffic wardens is extremely high.

The truth is that there is nothing wrong with expanding British Waterways to include other navigations but keeping it as a public sector body, if means the Government remain responsible for keeping the navigations open and is obliged to provide the necessary cash to do so. I would like to see better oversight of BW, a crackdown on stupid pay packages and a proper development of the skills of employees rather than farming out jobs to cowboy contractors, but none of that needs a charity, just a minister doing his job properly. It is not as if this wonderful asset needs much cash, in national budget terms. The rational approach would be for the taxpayer to provide the tiny amounts - about ten bankers bonuses a year. We wouldn't even notice the 0.02p of tax it would take. That option seems to have been abandoned by just those organisations who should be protecting the waterways and boaters in particular and we seem to be forced to go through this 'big society' farce for reasons of political dogma.

The losers will be boaters and canal lovers and I wish the IWA and the rest would rediscover their crusading spirit and tell the greasy politicians they should be spending whatever it takes to keep such a fantastic national treasure in tip top condition. They are still spending £100,000m a year on the banks and the £100m needed to be spent on the waterways is much better value. Let’s get back to a properly funded government operated system of British Waterways.


  1. We have just received this comment by email.

    Thanks Graham

    I absolutely agree with Peter Underwood.

    The Big Society was a daft election marketing idea which means nothing. While I totally support volunteering – look at all the canal volunteering which goes on at the moment and look at what it has achieved in the last few decades – but you can no more run a complex organisation like our inland waterways with volunteers than you could run the NHS (please don’t give Mr Cameron that idea). Volunteering on the waterways should be the icing on the cake not part of the core function.

    The unaccountable nature of charity trustees is a major issue which few people raise and, in my opinion, Peter is correct to raise it and to be worried about it. By appointing unaccountable trustees the government is relinquishing all responsibility and liability for the waterways while keeping total control.

    The result of the proposed changes will be a waterways system which will fall even further into disrepair and also be more expensive to use.

    Personally, I’ve abandoned plans to buy a boat until I see where all this is going. My fear is that I will buy a high cost asset which will become increasingly expensive to own while at the same time, because of the deteriorating state of the waterways, it will be far less pleasurable to use. Don’t forget that we also have all the concerns about the cost, tax and composition of diesel. At the end, when I can no longer tolerate cruising conditions and / or afford running costs, I will find that my expensive boat has become almost worthless as everybody else feels the same as me.

    The result will be fewer boats, therefore fewer licences sold, therefore less income for an already impoverished organisation. Before long our waterways will be in the same condition that they were in the 1960’s.

    Canal jobs are often in relatively remote areas, where I suspect jobs are hard to find. If the canals decline then these rural jobs will be lost, and the benefits bill will increase; but that’s OK as it’s a different department. Look at the number of jobs created by a relatively small enterprise like Norbury Wharf and the adjacent BW yard.

    If the government is serious about freeing the waterways from the shackles of the state, while at the same time safeguarding a vital national asset, they should come up with a guaranteed and transparent funding formula. They should create a vital and accountable body, which represents all waterways stake holders and which is responsible for appointing managers whose primary qualification is common sense.

  2. I have received this reply this morning by e-mail.

    Peter's article is so full of inaccurate assumptions that I don't even know where to begin to set the record straight - so as I am cruising (and supposed to be relaxing) suffice it to say that of course all the major stakeholders have expressed concerns about funding.

    What is on the table from Govt is woefully inadequate and no-one is of a mind to accept it. But it should be recognised that it is just Government's opening offer and we can all rest assured that the Transitional Trustees will be working hard to negotiate a better deal and all of the stakeholder groups will behind them.

    If that better deal is not forthcoming then Peter will have his preferred option of BW remaining as is. But frankly, that won't solve any problems - the funding crisis will still be there; users will not have more say in how the navigations are run; there will still be a highly paid Board (instead of unpaid Trustees) etc., etc.

    Trust in those user groups and individuals who have been working closely on this for the past several years; we all agree that leaving BW as it is, is the worst option and it is already apparent that the charitable course is a much better option. But instead of knocking what is going on I just wish that people would look more closely at the options and give credit where credit is due; we have enough problems without making up others that don't exist.

    Regards, Will Chapman