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.