More waterway units for BW but 100 more staff to be axed

Published: Wednesday, 29 April 2009

IT HAS been announced today (Wednesday) that BW is proposing an internal restructure of its operations in England and Wales with the creation of 11 smaller waterway units, the removal of a layer of management and approximately 100 redundancies from office staff.

It is thought that together with other planned changes these proposals would enable approximately £10 millions per annum to be 'redirected to waterways maintenance'.

Third sector or charitable status

Of these proposals, British Waterways states they are to: 'increase efficiencies; open up new funding and partnership opportunities; create closer links with local communities and; start a gradual move over the next decade towards the waterways achieving a ‘third sector’ trust or charitable status'.

The exact boundaries between each will be the subject of a customer consultation. Certain functions currently carried out in existing waterways units, such as managing moorings, developing partnerships and carrying out major engineering projects, will be undertaken by specialist teams.

More volunteer and local community involvement

British Waterways is hoping for both more volunteer and local community involvement, and the development of new relationships with community stakeholders and funding bodies at both a local and national level.

Robin Evans, BW chief executive, comments:

“In the last decade we and our partners have successfully eliminated a massive backlog of safety repairs on our canals and rivers, we have generated record levels of third party and commercial investment, and the network is bigger, busier and in a better shape than for generations.

"The waterways are visited by millions of people each year and offer a huge range of public benefits, including leisure, health and wellbeing, flood mitigation, wildlife havens and investment opportunities. This is an extraordinary change from the 1950s and 1960s when, with the exception of a few enthusiasts, the waterways were largely looked upon as derelict ditches and a public health risk.

“Despite this turnaround the waterways today still face serious challenges. The global downturn has reduced our ability to earn additional funds for the network, public funding will come under considerable pressure for the foreseeable future and we are already short of the money required to maintain the network properly.

“With this in mind, our absolute priority must be to maintain investment in the waterways and this means reducing spending elsewhere. Our proposed new structure will both redirect important funding to essential maintenance work but also make us much more responsive to customers and partners.”

Public debate next month

Next month BW will be launching a public debate on the role of the canals and rivers, highlighting their modern-day contribution to society and seeking views on its proposals for how they should be used, run and funded in the future.

Central to the debate will be BW’s view that the time is now right to consider the option of changing its structure to turn it, by 2020, into a third sector ‘public interest company’ or trust. It believes such a change could stimulate far greater participation in the waterways by volunteers and other individuals; enhance openness and accountability for communities and waterway users; create opportunities for new sources of income such as grants and donations and; ensure the historic network is held in trust for the nation.

Still require public funding

It is accepted however, that the waterways are still likely to require public funding some time into the future, however BW believes that in the long term this could evolve from annual deficit funding into a contract with Government. This would allow BW greater certainty in planning future expenditure and give Government a clearer understanding of the public benefits, such as flood control and public open space, which the waterways deliver.

Robin continues:

“Over the last year, at our Annual Meeting and elsewhere, waterway stakeholders have told us that we should get closer to local authorities and communities and adapt ourselves to be more responsive to volunteers. Many organisations have shown how this approach can add to their stability, both financially and practically. I believe that the best way to embrace this is to start the gradual process which could see the ownership structure bring a greater sense of belonging and responsibility to communities and individuals, and eventually move into the third sector.”