The Big Society cruises up local canals

In an article “The Big Society Cruises up Yorkshire’s Canals’, Len Tingle, Political Editor in Yorkshire suggests that it might come as a surprise to some that one of the first chunks of “big government” being taken over by the Big Society will be our 200 year old canal network.

As most waterways supporters know, the entire state owned and operated network is to be handed over to a charity that is being specially set up to run what has now become a vast part of our leisure and tourism industry.

The new waterways charity (NWC) – loosely modelled on the National Trust  – is expected to take control next spring amidst concerns from influential voices in Yorkshire and other parts of the 2,000 mile inland waterway network. The concern is that the government will cast off the canals without enough cash to ensure they keep afloat.

That is denied by Richard Benyon , the junior environment minister, who has piloted the changes through the consultation period which ended in at the end of June.

Bequeathed millions

“Firstly we are gifting to the new charity £400m worth of property,”  Benyon told Tingle when he interviewed him for the Politics Show for Yorkshire and Lincolnshire

“Its always been there subject to any government having a dawn raid to grab those assets and sell them for other purposes. Now they are going to the charity and no government in the future will be able to touch them.”

The charity will be able to gear up against that and increase their income from that property portfolio.”

“In fact, rental income from the huge amount of canalside property will be a major part of the future income of the new charity. More will come from existing licences and fees paid by canal users”, said Benyon.

Funding fears

But waterway stakeholder user groups  point agree with Tingle’s point that this will still leave a substantial funding gap. Insiders say that the gap appeared in 2006 when DEFRA, at the time with David Miliband at the helm, dramatically and suddenly cut waterways budgets and since then British Waterways (BW) has been running with a £30 million annual maintenance deficit. This deficit exists with a current grant from government of around £50 million but the deal offered by government for the new charity is only an annual flat-rate subsidy of £39m for the first 15 years of the charity. Tingle suggests that after that the charity will probably be on its own.

The influential Huddersfield Canal Society (HCS)  says that is not good enough. It fears that routine maintenance and future development of the network will suffer.

Tingle reports that Alan Stopher from HCS met him at the entrance to the amazing Standedge tunnel which was built 200 years ago to take the Huddersfield narrow canal under the Pennines to Lancashire.

Governance of the New Charity

“That is the big issue for us,” Stopher said. “We are concerned about governance of the new body and whether it can take on board the work of enthusiasts in the same way as the National Trust. Volunteers are the key to the canals future financial success. They will be asked to help cut costs by “adopting” sections of canal and carrying out routine maintenance such as weeding banks and re-painting locks”.

The new charity will be created by mutualising  British Waterways (BW), the government organisation which has run the canals since the 1960s. Tingle reports that, BW’s director of enterprise in the North, Julia Sharman, is confident the new charity will be a success. She believes the financial settlement is adequate:

“We need to put the waterways on a secure financial footing and we need to be able to plan for the future. From day one of the new charity we will have a funding arrangement that will last for 15 years minimum. That in itself will give us a far better position”, she said.

Too important to ignore

But BW’s own reported figures backed by a report by consultants KPMG and most waterway stakeholders do not agree with Sharman’s optimistic opinion on the key funding issue.

Tingle’s report goes on to quote Nigel Stevens of  Shire Cruisers.

“The government is playing games, but nobody else is – I feel a better agreement will eventually be achieved because the canals are too important to ignore”.

Nigel, who runs the holiday barges company Shire Cruisers from a marina at Sowerby Bridge near Halifax, is one of the industry insiders that has a different view to Sharman. Tingle reports that he says successive governments have already squeezed its subsidy – down from £70m a few years ago to around £50m now.  He rejects suggestions that in times of economic hardship canals are unlikely to be given much priority for government funding. I feel a better agreement will eventually be achieved because the canals are too important to ignore,”  he told Tingle.

“Most canal users already pay fees and licences so the tax payer should chip in for those that receive a benefit from them being well maintained but are unable to contribute anything – tourists, walkers and cyclists use the towpaths and visit the marinas but there’s no way to charge them”, said Stephens.

Waterway Watch comments:

Stephens’ view reflects the opinion of most waterways stakeholder groups and insiders. It is estimated that BW spend over £15 million each year on peripheral maintenance issues like keeping towpaths clear for local users like walkers, cyclists and anglers; rubbish removal; repairing bridges damaged by local traffic;  clearing  up the results of anti-social behaviour, etc. – all issues that would normally be paid for by local authorities. The current £39 million on offer by government makes no contribution to such important, but clearly local, costs and this will only add to the £30 million maintenance deficit.

The new charity will take on all of the statutory responsibilities of British Waterways that are described in the Transport Act of 1968. This and related acts legally binds BW – and therefore its successor the new charity – to maintain the cruising and commercial waterways in a state suitable for navigation and so, as has been happening since the cuts of 2006, the funding shortfall has left BW with no option other than to ensure that the navigation is safe and spread the funding shortfall by cutting back on the maintenance of less critical issues like towpath maintenance, optimal dredging and general good practice like preventative maintenance of many of the thousands of 200 year old navigation structures like bridges, locks, embankments, culverts, aqueducts etc.  Waterway Watch and most if not all stakeholder groups believe this at best a Penny-wise, Pound foolish policy that will cost more in the long term and is probably also risky because it significantly increases the chances of something critical failing.  As a public body BW is to all intents and purposes an arm of government and so has little choice to get on with the budget it inherits from DEFRA but it is another matter if the new charity is expected to take on the same duties with even less funding if the £39 million currently on offer is not increased. This critical negotiation is initially in the hands of the Transitional Trustees but whatever is agreed must also gain the approval of the Charity Commission. We face interesting times ahead.

This article was adapted from the  BBC News – The Big Society cruises up Yorkshires canals.

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