THE leaking of a Cabinet Office document to the Daily Telegraph includes British Waterways as a quango to be abolished, writes Allan Richards.
The quango bonfire, as it is dubbed in the Press, includes BW as one of 177 quangos to be wound up. A further four quangos are to be privatised, 129 merged with other quangos, 350 retained and the fate of 94 yet to be decided.
A similar document leaked to the BBC's Politics Show, dated 26th August, gives slightly different figures with 180 quangos, including BW, to be abolished, 124 to be merged, 56 to be retained 'with substantial reform', 282 to be preserved and 100 yet been decided.
In a letter to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has said that the changes 'are intended primarily to increase accountability, but will also support the aims of the spending review by reducing costs and support our ambitions for a Big Society by encouraging alternative devolved or non-state delivery models'.
Leaks and rumours
Of course, BW will be abolished. We have known that for some time. However, it will not be done at a stroke. Leaks and rumours will continue to abound until 20th October when government will announce its spending plans.
What can be stated with some certainty is that the part of BW's vision for the waterways to become largely self sufficient (i.e. independent of government grant) by 2012 has become self fulfilling prophecy. Government will probably announce cuts of between 25% and 40% in an already reduced grant.
However, with Defra minister Caroline Spelman being given the title of 'Queen of Quango Cuts', the possibility exists that the reduction of grant could be even larger.
Even the property portfolio is not safe but one suspects that any government grab will be limited to those parts which can be sold quickly and easily for substantial gain.
In a nutshell, the government wants to cut spending and BW must play its part. Dumping the waterways on the public via a 'non-state delivery model' and reducing or eliminating grant is the easiest way for government to do that.
Whilst the enticing possibility exists of new governance arrangements for our waterways sometime in the future, it will be at the expense of adequate funding.
If the government really wants to increase accountability for BW prior to it being abolished perhaps the best way to do this is by replacing the five current board members whose terms of office expire over the coming months by unpaid volunteer directors who have the interests of the waterways at heart rather than personal gain.
Is that too much to ask?