British Waterways taken out of state control and into a trust

Published: Tuesday, 19 May 2009
A NATIONAL debate was launch on Monday in the House of Commons at which British Waterways proposed that its waterways should be taken out of direct state control and into a new 'national trust'. It is the mounting cost of maintaining the network, coupled with the reduction of funds from the Government that has prompted British Waterways to explore alternative ideas for funding.

In becoming a trust, British Waterways believes 'it would be able to encourage greater community ownership of the waterways, more involvement from the voluntary sector and a wider funding base. If successful the move could help to make the waterways safer, better maintained and more vibrant, while increased community support would help to ensure that they never revert to the dereliction and decline that saw historic canals abandoned and filled-in during the 20th century'.

Tony Hales, British Waterways’ Chairman, comments:

“The waterways have had an extraordinary rebirth since the middle of the last century when all but a handful of enthusiasts viewed them as dangerous ditches. Today, they offer some of the greenest recreational facilities, they are breathing new life into scores of waterside towns and cities, and they collectively comprise one of the most important examples of industrial heritage anywhere in the world.

“The network is more than just a pretty place though: it is important in alleviating flooding; it provides refuges for threatened wildlife; it offers alternative transport routes and; thanks to the latest technology, it is even helping to generate clean electricity. For this to continue, we need to look at a new model of ownership for our waterways, one which provides greater certainty and flexibility over funding and gives communities more of a role in the running of their local canal or river.”

British Waterways believes that it should become a third sector, ‘public interest company’ or trust in the next decade and is suggesting that, as part of this, its annual deficit grant funding could be changed into new government contracts. This would give a clearer understanding of the public benefits which the Government wants the waterways to continue to deliver and allow British Waterways greater certainty in planning future expenditure.

Tony continues:

“The public sector model has arguably seen the waterways through difficult times and enabled their re-birth in the last decade. We strongly believe that a new voluntary sector model is the next logical step for us. It would still embrace all that the public and private sectors can offer but, more importantly, allow the passion and support amongst the voluntary sector to make a much greater contribution to the management and financing of the nation’s historic waterways.

“In the long term we believe that the waterways should join the great family of voluntary sector organisations and good causes which have achieved so much for our heritage, wildlife and landscapes. This change will take time to implement fully and successfully, so we believe it is right to start the debate now.”

Over the next six months British Waterways will be holding a series of stakeholder meetings to discuss its strategy with councils, devolved assemblies, partners, waterway communities and third sector organisations. In particular it will be discussing the ideas with Defra, which sponsors and funds the organisation’s activities in England and Wales. It will be seeking to raise greater public awareness of the contribution waterways make to modern Britain and to debate the most appropriate structure for British Waterways as the guardian of the nation’s historic waterways.