BW's 2012 Vision—what went wrong?

Published: Friday, 05 June 2009

By Allan Richards

Replacing a ten year strategy early with a different ten year strategy has led boaters to greet British Waterways' new '2020 vision' with a unhealthy combination of apathy and scepticism.

Calling a strategy a vision does not help—it suggests a hazy way forward without much thought as to how that strategy might be achieved. Even those who would welcome a 'National Trust for the Waterways' understand that the word charity is not a magic wand with regard to funding and that BW's current executive and board directors are very ill equipped to manage a charitable organisation.

BW announced its new strategy without a mention of its old 2012 strategy. Has the old 2012 strategy succeeded early so we can now move on to a new one? Has the old strategy failed? In the absence of any mention of the success (or otherwise) its 2012 vision this article explains the old vision and measures its success.

So what was BW's '2012 Vision'? A casual visitor to BW's website at would be able to answer that by simply clicking on 'Our Vision' on the home page. Is British Waterways so arrogant that it does not care or just plain incompetent allowing old and new strategies to co-exist on its website?

Expanded, vibrant, largely self-sufficient

It tells us 'Our ambition is that by 2012 we will have created an expanded, vibrant, largely self sufficient waterway network used by twice as many people as in 2002. It will be regarded as one of the nation's most important and valued national assets. Visitors will be delighted with the quality of the experience and as a consequence many will become active participants'.

(Perhaps BW is suffering from double vision rather than 2020 vision!)

This article will not attempt to explain what BW means by 'vibrant'. The very word suggests that BW can not be bothered to explain in plain English what it means. Additionally, consideration is not given to what is meant by the second and third sentences to avoid having to judge issues such as 'is the NHS more of a national asset than our waterways?' and what exactly an 'active participant' is.

Instead, we will look at the measurable:

  • The number of people using the waterways and BW's target to double the number between 2002 by 2012.
  • Self sufficiency and BW's reliance on government grant.
  • BW's objective to 'expand' the waterways.

Robin Evans was appointed Chief Executive in December 2002 and within a few months British Waterways' published its 'Plan for the future 2003-2007' which confirmed that its intention was 'that by 2012 we will have created an expanded, vibrant, largely self-sufficient waterway network used by twice as many people as in 2002'.


In 2004 Robin Evans was set a yearly recurring target:

Achieve increased visitors to ensure target of doubling numbers by March 2012 is achieved. The indication of success will be annual progress compared with the targets.

A graph gave a baseline figure of 3.6 million for 2003/4 doubling to 7.2 million for 2011/12. However, the following year (2004/5) showed that he had only achieved 2.7 million against a target of 3.7 million. Furthermore, figures released with BW's new 2020 vision indicate that for 2008 Robin Evans missed his target of 5.4 million by a staggering 2 million (only 3.4 million achieved). To make matters worse (if that were possible!) BW are now indicating that the number of visitors measure will only be 3.5 million in 2010/11.

In summary, under Robin Evans leadership British Waterways' strategy was to double the number of visitors by 2012. However, despite a massive investment in marketing to promote use of the waterways (estimated at over £4 million per year) British Waterways will not have achieved any increase. In other words, visitor numbers will be still be around the 2002 figure of 3.6 million in 2011/12 rather than the targeted 7.2 million. How could they get it so wrong?

Self sufficiency

In 2004 Robin Evans was set a yearly reoccurring self sufficiency target. However, it was not a target showing a year on year decrease in government grant taken up but a rather meaningless 'self sufficiency indicator'. No figures are available to show recent performance against this target. 'Largely self sufficient', however, can only be interpreted as meaning a dramatic decline in reliance on government grant so this is the measure that will be considered.

In 2001/2 (the last full year prior to Robin Evans appointment), British Waterways took up the government grant to the value of £64.6 million. The latest set of accounts (2007/8) show that government grant is actually higher than this figure at £67.9 million. It is the same story for all the intervening years! Whilst BW has a policy of reducing its dependence on government grant it seems that it has simply taken all the grant on offer every year. To add insult to injury, BW has been claiming for several years that it is under funded by £30 million—the difference between what it spends on maintenance (about £95 million a year) and what it should be spending (£125 million) to prevent backsliding into chronic disrepair.

It can be stated quite categorically that British Waterways has simply failed to make any headway in its ten year drive for self sufficiency.

Again, how could they get it so wrong?

Eager to take credit

Unlike 'visitor numbers' and 'self sufficiency', Robin Evans was set no year on year target to expand the network. Perhaps this is just as well as BW tends to avoid making more than a token contribution in financial terms to network expansion despite having the money to do so.

It is, however, very eager to take credit for others physical effort and financial contribution. Many people recall the Cotswolds fiasco where BW simply withdrew financial support pleading poverty. What is perhaps less well known is BW's contribution to expanding the network for the Olympics. The claim that 'BW is playing a leading role in maximising the opportunity the waterways can make to a successful Games and lasting legacy', simply does not hold water (like many BW locks!) as its contribution will only be in the order of 25%. In the case of the Liverpool Link, for which it has claimed credit, it is even less at 10%.

The bottom line

British Waterways, under Robin Evans leadership, has failed to make any progress whatsoever towards realising its 2012 vision. It has reneged on its promise to create an expanded network and has simply not delivered on 'visitor numbers' and 'self sufficiency' failing to achieve even baseline results.

Tony Hales and Robin Evans seem to have forgotten that British Waterways is a navigation authority not a property developer. The strategic steer developed with the Minister for Inland Waterways reiterated that BW's most important priority was 'maintaining the waterway network in satisfactory order'. By under spending by £30 million per year on maintenance in an attempt to achieve the second priority of 'a shared Government/British Waterways longer term vision of moving towards greater self sufficiency' it has failed completely in both priorities. It has also failed to deliver on the third and least important priority of 'delivering a range of additional public benefits', as visitor numbers indicate.

When BW removes the '2012 vision' statement from its website it may care to replace it with the following '2012 reality' statement.

Our reality

Our reality is that by 2012 we will have created a static, decaying, underfunded waterway network only used by the same number of people as in 2002. It will still be regarded as one of the nation's most important and valued national assets but visitors will be devastated with the quality of our management of this historic asset and as a consequence many will stay away.

Active participants will question why we are only spending 45% of our income on maintenance (2007/8 figures) whilst investing heavily in our property portfolio and other commercial interests.

The Operational Efficiency Report indicates that the government is aware that funds are being misused. Let's hope it is prepared to act.