IWAC Proposes Major Overhaul of the Inland Waterways

After a two year study, the Inland Waterways Advisory Council (IWAC) has identified “serious flaws” in the funding and organisation of the inland waterways of England and Wales, and has called for a comprehensive programme of reform.

IWAC’s Report, entitled Surviving the Cuts and Securing the Future, describes the present structure as “cumbersome” with many “inefficiencies and weaknesses”. The inland waterways are operated by more than 20 navigation authorities which vary greatly in size, structure, governance, objectives and funding.

Introducing the Report, John Edmonds – Chair of IWAC – described the inland waterways’ system as “fragmented and under-resourced” with limited engagement with either local authorities or the private sector. The two largest navigation authorities (British Waterways and the Environment Agency) are “heavily dependent on public funds and the level of public funds is not secure”, while many of the smaller navigation authorities “lack management capacity and relevant specialist advice”.

The Report sounds a strong warning about the likely damaging effects of cuts in UK Government funding that are expected to be announced later this year:

“Substantial reductions in funding will have a long term detrimental impact on the condition of the network, and will very likely lead to reduced standards of service provided to users, such as deterioration or loss of towpaths as footpaths, and over time to the loss of some existing waterways. This bleak outcome is particularly likely if serious breaches and collapses occur and, against the background of funding cuts, funds for repairs cannot be found.”

IWAC finds the case for a measure of public funding to be “strong and convincing” and argues that instead of each year’s funding for the waterways being set by short term decisions, the level of public funding should be based on a framework of funding principles recommended in the Report.

The Report reminds the UK Government that any “intention to apply cuts in public expenditure in the immediate future does not relieve it of the responsibility to preserve the important national asset in the long term”. The UK Government should use the funding principles to establish “the basis and trajectory for long term public funding” and, “although immediate economic pressures might mean that Defra is unable to follow this trajectory for some years, Government will need to return public funding to this trajectory as rapidly as possible.”

To reduce the reliance on public funding, the Report points to a number of opportunities for the inland waterway authorities to increase their income in the short and medium term, including a substantial increase in retail and franchise revenue, the use of sponsorship, and working with volunteers to increase “the potential of the inland waterways to deliver valuable benefits and to improve the quality of life of local communities”. IWAC also proposes the reform of out dated legislation that impedes effective management of many waterways.

In a detailed assessment of the proposal to create a third sector body to replace British Waterways, IWAC lists the potential advantages but concludes that “the move of BW into the third sector will ….. not resolve many of the current funding problems of BW and will do little to address the inefficiencies and weaknesses in the structural arrangements of the inland waterways sector as a whole”. The Report sets out the case for a substantial level of public funding for the new third sector body during the lengthy period while it develops new sources of revenue.

In the final Section of the Report IWAC proposes that the change in the status of British Waterways should be the first step towards a more comprehensive reform of the whole inland waterways sector. “It would be a great disappointment and a significant missed opportunity if BW’s proposed move into the third sector were to be regarded by Government as the last word on structural change in the sector.”

The Report concludes that the best chance of remedying the problems of the inland waterways is by creating a highly decentralised organisation to manage and develop the inland waterways based on local business units with a small strategic authority at the centre. The new organisation should be based on “principles of participation and stewardship” with a very high level of engagement with users and local authorities. These principles should be reinforced by suitable governance arrangements, with a governing body which includes representatives of users and local authorities; at local level, advisory committees should be given real influence.

IWAC proposes that the new reformed structure should be implemented in a stage by stage approach, making efforts to preserve the identity of local navigation bodies and providing the offer of affiliation to smaller navigation authorities that do not wish to be part of the new reformed organisation.

John Edmonds, Chair of IWAC, said:

“Comprehensive reform of the inland waterways would bring substantial financial and social benefits. Not only can significant savings be made but a new decentralised organisation would be closer to users and local communities. The potential benefits of inland waterways are enormous and reforming their present archaic structure would provide the best chance of ensuring that they are secured for the nation.”

IWAC’s report “Surviving the Cuts and Securing the Future” is available online at http://www.iwac.org.uk/reports. Hard copies are available via email request to iwac@iwac.gsi.gov.uk.

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