A stunned silence from user groups has greeted British Waterways 2008/9 Annual Report and Accounts with the realisation that reserves are being used to prop up its failing property businesses, writes Allan Richards.
Last year British Waterways lost £33.3 million on its joint ventures (companies in which British Waterways owns a share) to add to its more modest losses of £2.4m the previous year.
The big question
Of course the big question is 'If British Waterways can find over £30m to prop up its commercial activities when it is making a loss, why hasn't it been able to find £30m in all the years it has been in profit to plug the funding gap?' British Waterways needs to spend about £125m each year to maintain steady state—to stop the backlog of maintenance work growing. It has claimed, year on year, that it only has sufficient funds to invest £95m in maintenance, calling the shortfall of £30m the 'funding gap'.
The answer to the big question is that government, taxpayers, boaters and user groups have been subjected to a massive con. Information released under the Freedom of Information act clearly shows that British Waterways has invested profits approaching a quarter of billion pounds in recent years in its business interests—mainly property and joint ventures—to the detriment of waterway maintenance. British Waterways has a statutory duty to maintain our canal system, but has been gambling with a quarter of the money needed for that maintenance. Sadly, it will probably continue to do so in an effort to avoid having to admit its failure.
User groups must act now
Nobody likes to own up to being conned. However, user groups owe it to membership to speak out. One prominent member of the National Association of Boat Owners (NABO), although not speaking on behalf of the organisation, has called for BW's Chief Executive and Chairman to be sacked. Perhaps, his organisation and others will follow this lead.