Monday, 4 July 2011

A New Era for the Waterways

The K&A Canal Trust’s response to the Defra Consultation “A New Era for the Waterways: A consultation on the Government’s proposals for moving the inland waterways into a new charity in England and Wales”:


This paper represents the formal response of the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust to the DEFRA consultation on the future of the waterways in England and Wales (hereafter referred to as the Consultation Document). As such it has been formally approved by the Trustee Council.

The Kennet and Avon Canal Trust (hereafter referred to as “The Trust”) is a long established and well respected voluntary organisation with charitable status. The Trust has successfully campaigned for restoration of the Kennet and Avon Canal and now works with local British Waterways (BW) management and with riparian local authorities to improve the operation and upkeep of the restored waterway.

The Trust currently has ~2500 memberships involving over 3500 people (many memberships are on a family basis). Members are drawn from all sections of the community and have a wide variety of interests in all aspects of the Kennet and Avon Canal, its use and its history.

The Trust holds regular member meetings through local branches along the 85-mile length of the Kennet and Avon Canal. Trust volunteers operate two historic pumping stations (one powered by steam, one by water wheel), four passenger trip boats, a canal museum and a shop. Volunteers also undertake work on the towpath in conjunction with BW and operate a maintenance boat.

Trust Members have been encouraged to read the Consultation Document. Three member meetings, attended by 103 members, have been held at towns along the Kennet and Avon Canal to discuss the proposals. The meetings were supplemented by a postal / on-line questionnaire survey of all Trust members, which attracted 694 responses.

The questionnaire survey indicates that a majority of Trust members are prepared to work closely with the NWC at a local level. Current reaction favours a “let’s work closely with them to see how things develop” approach rather than immediate integration.

As acknowledged in Box 3D of the Consultation Document, the Trust has been at the forefront of developing a trial Local Waterways Partnership (based on an existing and highly successful K&A Partnership Board which led, and continues to monitor, the £25 million HLF grant awarded jointly to the Trust and BW for restoration of parts of the K&A) as a prelude and pilot scheme to the proposed “Local Partnership Boards” of the NWC.

The Trustees are seriously concerned that the short timescale for intended implementation has not allowed the many important lessons learned from the pioneering work on the Kennet and Avon to be adequately reflected in the current proposals.


The proposals arise as a result of political opinion and action. This is recognised as a” given” within this response. Nevertheless, the speed of proposed implementation leaves minimal time for the introduction of any necessary changes in response to this consultation. A longer introduction period is required to ensure that the details match the objectives and to incorporate the results of the pilot schemes.

The concepts of “giving waterway users and the communities that live alongside them greater involvement in how they are managed”, as clearly indicated in Richard Benyon's introduction and developed in the early part of the consultation document, accord with the current political emphasis on “localism”. They are endorsed by the Trust. Unfortunately, the highly centralised management structures (largely reflecting the current worst features of BW) put forward in the consultation document are the opposite of these worthy principles.

A new NWC requires a totally new organisational structure. It also needs a totally new management culture which replaces the centralised autocracy of BW by cooperation with partner organisations and respect for their views. The current negative perception of BW among many waterway users is not a good foundation for a new NWC.

The list of organisations invited to respond (Annex E) wholly omits the many voluntary societies and trusts involved with BW waterways. The Consultation Document also lacks clarity on the future relationship of these organisations with the NWC. Comments by BW staff referring to “when we take you over” in their dealings with local canal societies increase concerns that the cooperation (or extinction) of current societies is being taken for granted.

The new NWC should not be a clone of the current excessively centralised BW, under which local management is largely restricted to operational engineering and regularly over-ridden by seemingly arbitrary action from the centre. Some BW managers have described this as “the 20/80 approach”. These figures require reversal so that local decision-making becomes 80% and centralised control no more than 20%.

The intention to include EA waterways only if “subject to affordability” increases concerns that the prime intention of the changes is to relieve the Government of the financial albatross of BW rather than give waterways a viable future. If the proposals are correct for the future of one state-owned navigation authority they should be equally applicable to similar inland waterways.

The predicted level of donations to the NWC appears optimistic, whereas the proposed level of the Government Funding Contract (GFC) is significantly lower than that provided to BW in recent years. Lack of any reference within the Consultation Document to the future of the waterways should the finances fail to meet DEFRA expectations is of serious concern. There is no “Plan B”.

Finally, the fundamental question of accountability of the new organisation deserves careful examination before this great national asset passes into the hands of a less accountable board of charitable trustees. The new organisation must be both transparent and open. We suggest that

a) The NWC must, in its Charitable Purposes, mention responsibility for protecting the heritage of the Waterways.
b) The NWC must remain bound to provide public access to information, otherwise it will become a law unto itself. Keeping some aspect of the organisation publicly accountable matches its on-going stewardship of this strategic, public resource.

Responses to particular questions

Chapter 2

The implied comparison with the National Trust can be misleading. The National Trust embraces properties with a viable financial legacy for on-going operation. In contrast, the NWC will inherit the legacy of an underfunded BW with a backlog of deferred maintenance.

Question 1

Those EA navigations which are (or could become) part of a through route between current BW navigations should be included in the NWC, thereby creating a unified navigation authority. Integration should be based on local control of waterways and not become an excuse for further centralised control.

The NWC should also seek to include waterways already in the voluntary sector. Failure of the Trustees of these waterways to transfer them to the NWC can only be interpreted as a lack of faith in the NWC.

Question 2

Consideration should be given to declaring the NWC assets as inalienable in similar manner to the National Trust.

Question 3

Broadly, the charitable objectives are appropriate. The following additions are recommended;
 Operation of museums and archives should be an objective in its own right and not merely merit a parenthesis as an add-on to education.
 Preservation of the NWC's inherited historic infrastructure, together with development of public access to these structures and provision of proper interpretation facilities, should be included.
 There should be a recognition that the NWC’s objectives overlap with those of other charities and a commitment to work in partnership with other like-minded organisations.

Question 4

The “mission statement” should be widened to include protection of access to the waterway, whether on foot or by boat.

Question 6

The important factor is achievement, not theory or weasel words.

Question 7

The NWC should have similar statutory powers and duties to those currently exercised by and imposed upon BW. In particular the statutory requirement to maintain “Cruiseway ” waterways to minimum defined standards must be maintained.

As the NWC remit includes canal restoration, the limitations on expenditure on “Remainder” waterways, currently arising from the same legislation, require revision before application to the NWC.

Unrestricted free (no charge) pedestrian access to towpaths must also be maintained, as should free access by cycles where towpaths are suitable for their use.

Question 8 (also including parts of questions 11 to 20)


As with the current BW, the proposed NWC structure appears centralised and cumbersome to excess. The ideals of a “bottom up” approach set out in Section 3 of the consultation document and the worthy expectation that members of boards will act in the wider interest of the waterways rather than as delegates for a particular interest are wholly negated by the “politically correct” formulaic approach to the proposed Council.

The proposed Council of 36 to 51 people is far too large for effective decision-making. Local Waterways Partnership Chairpersons will be minority members of the Council. Their practical experience could be swamped by polarised interest groups with wider agendas beyond those of the waterways alone.

Even if one accepts the Council as a workable body, the number of members for each interest is open to question. Box 3A shows towpath users (290M visits) warranting 2 or 3 representatives whilst boating (8M visits, albeit involving 3 or 4 people each) warrants 4 to 8. Boaters are an important user group and revenue stream, but both user categories are potential donors to the NWC.

Box 3B places the proposed “Local Waterways Partnerships” (LWPs) at the end of the responsibility chain with no link back to the Board of Trustees. LWP Chairs have the ability to be members of Council but not to influence decisions of that huge body. It is difficult to envisage Local Waterways Partnerships attracting members of adequate calibre when they have minimal influence on the policies that they are expected to implement.

Box 3B also shows no direct link between the LWPs and the Local Waterway Management Units. The command chain is from the Board of Trustees directly to “National Management” and, through the latter, to the Waterway Management Units. This perpetuates the current BW culture of excessive central control with local unit responsibility confined to peripherals. It allows perpetuation of a highly paid central staff remote from the points of service delivery.

What could be done.
The current 20% local responsibility, 80% central control structure used by BW should be reversed.

Central control should be kept to a minimum. Central organisation should be confined to undertaking the legal oversight duties of the Trustees, ensuring that the waterways remain a national boating system, liaison with large fund raisers and allocation of centrally provided grants and funds in consultation with LWPs / LMUs.

Central contingency provision also remains necessary for meeting emergency repair costs which could not have been reasonably foreseen at local level (e.g. breaches / floods / fire etc) but the centre should not micro-manage the Local Waterway Management Units.

Local control through joint working by Local Waterways Partnerships (LWPs) and Local Management Units (LMUs): these should be the main units of control, responsible for all local operational matters, including:
• upkeep and maintenance at or above defined minimum standards,
• riparian property,
• promotion of the local waterways,
• local fundraising and
• revenues.
LMUs should be free to choose between “buying in” central services or procuring/ providing such themselves.

Each LWP should be able to benefit directly from funds raised locally, thereby allowing donors to see the results of their input. Local success (whether directly financial or by attraction of volunteer work) should not be penalised by a reduction in central funding.

The number and geographic division of the proposed Local Waterways Partnerships wholly reflects current BW organisation. In some cases (as on the Kennet and Avon) these match complete canals; others do not. Some adjustments may be required, particularly if the EA waterways are to become part of an integrated local management network.

To operate effectively, the LWPs need effective input to policy. An NWC policy board should have LWP members in the majority, supported by appointees with recognised skills and expertise in specific specialist disciplines as minority members and/or advisors.

Finally, the experience of the Trial LWP on the K&A and B&T needs to be analysed very carefully. A major issue has been the un-democratic way in which LWP membership is derived, causing much anger from many important, and often fund-providing, stakeholder groups. At the same time, where existing organisations with similar objectives to the proposed LWPs exist (in the case of the K&A, the existing and wholly democratically-selected, K&A Partnership Board, and the Somerset Waterways Advisory Committee), the question arises as to whether new stakeholder groups are actually required?

Question 9

Donors, both private and corporate, are more likely to contribute to clearly defined local schemes with a demonstrable result than to the generalised costs of a large organisation. Lottery grants (and similar) are allocated to specific (and closely specified) projects with a measurable outcome.

Question 10 (also questions 18 and 19)

The emphasis for representative members of central councils (if used) and LWPs should be on effectiveness and expertise and not on quasi-representative appeasement of vested interests.

Question 13

This is covered in detail in the response to question 8.

Questions 16

Many local canal societies already have a core of trained and willing volunteers capable of taking a greater role. Regrettably, recent clumsy attempts by BW to set up their own centrally controlled volunteer working parties plus BW staff comments on “when we take you over” are counter-productive and treat canal societies as competitors rather than partners. Conflict and disdain are not incentives to the offering of voluntary assistance.

Question 17

A successful volunteer programme, developed in conjunction with local canal management, can supplement the work of a competent core paid workforce. It should release paid staff to undertake more complex work but should not replace them. Volunteers do not wish to feel that their input is adding to unemployment levels or is furthering a particular political agenda.

Questions 18 to 23

The over-riding need is to develop an effective management structure rather than to add gloss to the unsatisfactory system currently put forward. The response to question 8 also refers.

Question 25

The Government Funding Contract should not be viewed in isolation. The NWC will inherit the current BW statutory duty to maintain canals at or above minimum standards according to category. This duty does not include the caveat “subject to available finance.” The immediate measure of NWC effectiveness will be the ability to meet this duty across the whole network (as reflected in user satisfaction) through a combination of revenue, donations and the Government Funding Contract. Weakness in any of these areas detracts from the utility of the others.

The ability to attract (or lose) members is a direct indicator of support levels. The National Trust enjoys subscription income from “membership”. So too do most canal societies. No such “membership” is proposed for the NWC. The NWC Management Board and Trustees will thus have no immediate indication of support levels to show to potential donors. Without member feedback, canal users will be “customers” who view the NWC as “them” rather than “us”.

Question 26

Voluntary societies and charities, including the Trust, already raise considerable funds which are then donated to projects on BW waterways. They have a recognised “brand image” among potential donors. Direct diversion of these donations to the NWC does not increase the sum raised and risks de-motivation of current volunteer fundraisers and alienation of current donors. The NWC should therefore seek to develop new funding streams rather than duplicate the work of current societies by competing with them.

The predicted revenue from donations in the Consultation Document appears optimistic. Past success in obtaining large Lottery grants (as on the Kennet and Avon) is unlikely to be repeated in future years. In contrast, the proposed level of the Government Funding Contract (GFC) appears to be set at an arbitrary and low level. One would have expected DEFRA to have already investigated a wide range of methods to increase NWC income before advising Government on the appropriate level of the GFC.

Even if the Consultation Document expectations on donation levels are achieved, many donations (especially Lottery and similar) are likely to be directed to specific local projects with a measurable outcome rather than to generalised costs of a large national organisation. Reduction of central funding to local waterways attracting high levels of local project support is likely to be regarded as an abuse of process and thus discourage repeat donor support.

BW income from angling is extremely low (only £0.7M) and arises from length use. Rod fees are believed to remain with the EA. Integration of EA waterways into the NWC should be accompanied by the integration of angling revenues together with associated costs and responsibilities.

Question 26A – These comments relate to possible adverse effects of attempts to increase direct revenue, a factor which does not feature in the Consultation Document.

The predicted level of NWC donations is not guaranteed. As the GFC is fixed, the obvious ways of meeting a funding shortfall are by increases in rents and user fees together with disposal of property. Safeguarding conditions are therefore required to prevent excessive rises in user fees and to avoid conflicts between short-term financial benefit to the NWC from sale of lands and excessive riparian development of new property, and long-term safeguards. These provisions may not need to be invoked but they need to be available.

Many of the fundraising activities proposed for the NWC (shops, trip-boats, marinas, etc.) are already undertaken by commercial companies and voluntary groups using property leased from BW and/or licences issued by BW. Having the NWC as both landlord (or licence issuer) and competitor requires safeguards to maintain fair competition.

Question 27

The response to question 8 refers to the benefits of Local Waterway Management units having a free choice between “buying in” centrally provided services and either purchasing them locally or undertaking the work themselves using paid or volunteer labour. The current BW practice of granting large block contracts to contractors remote from the waterway served (e.g. for tree cutting) precludes cost comparisons with local resources and prevents the use of volunteers.

Question 29

At a national level, “British Waterways” is widely regarded as synonymous with underfunding and underachievement. Any title that suggests that the NWC is a re-brand of BW will attract the same negatives from users and potential donors.

“New” is inappropriate as the intention is for durability, not novelty.

“The National Waterways Conservancy” is recommended for consideration. Although covering only England and Wales (and hence not fully national) this title maintains historic use of the final word (as in Thames Conservancy) whilst heavily implying that the purpose is to conserve our waterways and their heritage. Coincidentally, it also uses the initials NWC.


The consultation document includes 29 questions. As requested, this response largely refers to the given numbering, although there is overlap between some questions. Where such overlaps are obvious, responses should be taken as referring to particular questions, even if the numbers are not quoted.

Where no direct or indirect response is given to a particular question this should not be interpreted either as support for or opposition to the ideas and proposals made.


The above document outlines the views of the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust, based on member feedback. It is, of necessity, a brief summary. The Trustees would be very pleased to discuss these views further with DEFRA and/or other involved bodies, should this be considered of mutual benefit.

The Trust has no objection to DEFRA making the above views known to third parties, provided that the source is acknowledged and the wording and context are unchanged.

Contact for any queries arising from this response:

Dr M G Rodd FIET CEng
Chairman of the Trust Council
The Kennet & Avon Canal Trust
Canal Centre
Couch Lane
SN10 1EB

Phone: 01380 721279

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