Richard Parry - CRT's New CEO Sets a New Approach

The new head of the Canal and River Trust, which became a charity last year, sets a new approach from the top by actually making an effort to meet users, ground staff & volunteers and listen to their views.

Richard Parry, the new chief executive of the Canal and River Trust,  took over the Trust three months ago from Robin Evans, who led its transformation from the quango British Waterways into one of the largest charities in the UK. Parry is optimistic about what the new charity can achieve and the fact that he has popped up unannounced at numerous events – large and small – around the country and actually listened to people’s views suggests that he is determined to get his own, unfiltered, view of how CRT works.

So far he has been spotted talking to people at large and small canal festivals, user group meetings, as well as the more predictable Waterway Partnership meetings & conferences and stakeholder meetings.

Making a point of talking to users as well as all levels of CRT staff to see how they view the charity – warts & roses – is a welcome, fresh approach. Everyone I have spoken to who has had an opportunity to speak to him has been left with the impression that here is someone who will be very well informed when he begins to address the many tough issues and delicate balances that exist between so many different user-types and special interests.

In an interview with the Third Sector publication, Parry, a former managing director of London Underground, said much of his previous experience was relevant to the new job. “I worked on infrastructure, heritage, commercial development and stakeholder engagement,” he says.

He is focused on making the waterways fit for use and building the community of people who use them. He sees the first objective as challenging but manageable. The trust emerged from government with an agreement that gives it control of the canals in perpetuity unless it suffers a significant failure. It also received what Parry calls a “relatively generous” settlement – £800m over 15 years.

Even so, there is less money than he would like: the charity is receiving just over half of what the government was spending about six years ago when DEFRA suddenly started making in year cuts. It is interesting to reflect that those cuts were the catalyst that started the Save Our Waterways campaign during which virtually all waterway stakeholders worked together to put pressure on Government to find a better way to manage Britain’s navigable inland waterways. The result was CRT and a central aspect of Parry’s job will be to make sure that this unique heritage can be sustained for future generations without loosing any of the myriad components that appeal to so many users.

“We’ve got to start with keeping the water in the canals,” he says. “The river network must be navigable, reliable and resilient. Canals are difficult to maintain: they’re an old infrastructure.”

But as well as being maintained, the network must be used. “We’re a people-based charity and we have to make the canals attractive to people,” he says. “We already have 10 million-plus visitors each year, and almost all of them come for free.”

He says a new governance structure, including a council of users, has created a “more inclusive atmosphere” for all canal users.

“We’re listening harder,” he says. “This isn’t an organisation that thinks it knows best and is led from the centre. We respond to what our users want.”

Relationships with other waterways organisations have also improved, and the trust is forging closer links with other charities, he says. He believes staff – many of whom were initially suspicious of the move – are now coming on side. Many, he says, enjoy being in the charity sector and working with volunteers.

Volunteering itself is growing steadily. “Five years ago, we had 5,000 volunteer hours,” he says. “Ten years ago, we had none. Now we’re targeting 50,000 hours.”

The charity has had 30 community adoptions – promises from local groups to commit one day a month to looking after their local canal – and has recruited 370 volunteer lock-keepers. It has also recruited volunteers to provide education about canals in schools and to carry out maintenance work.

But he is ambitious to improve this further. He says charities such as the National Trust have shown that more can be done. “There will always be a beacon for us to aim for,” he says.

Parry says support for the new charity can be shown in the early success of a campaign to attract voluntary income. After a year, the charity has 5,000 regular donors.

“Our approach is proving attractive, and we think we can grow dramatically,” he says. “We’ve tried a lot of different things. We have our own space on the towpath and we’ve tried to recruit there.

“We’ve tried to do it in a less in-your-face way. It’s not a man leaping out from behind a bridge with a clipboard and startling cyclists.”

He is also hoping for a growth in grant funding. This year, he says, the charity has secured £10m of funding for cycling alone, and it hopes to receive almost £4m from the Heritage Lottery Fund to restore the Montgomery Canal, which runs through Wales and Shropshire.

“We’re proving successful at getting grant funding from different sources because we’ve shown we’re a competent organisation that gets things done,” he says.

One remaining priority is to complete the takeover of some canals that remain under government control.

“There should have been phase two of our spin-out, which was transferring the remaining navigations under the control of the Environment Agency,” he says. “That hasn’t happened, and we’re now told it isn’t likely until after the election. We have to ensure that remains the policy of government.”

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