AFTER a two year study, the Inland Waterways Advisory Council (IWAC) has identified 'serious flaws' in the organisation and funding of the inland waterways of England and Wales, believing the outcome to be bleak.
The long awaited statement has called for a comprehensive programme of reform in its Report Surviving the Cuts and Securing the Future, that describes the present structure as 'cumbersome' with many 'inefficiencies and weaknesses'.
Fragmented and under-resourced
Introducing the Report, John Edmonds, Chairman of IWAC, described the inland waterways' system as 'fragmented and under-resourced', with limited engagement with either local authorities or the private sector. Pointing out that 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'
Number of opportunities
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.
IWAC also proposes the reform of out-dated legislation that impedes effective management of many waterways.
Third sector body
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.
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.
John Edmonds, summed-up:
"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."