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Waterways for Tomorrow Review

Published 2007


1.1 Waterways for Tomorrow (WfT) was published in June 2000 as one of the follow-up reports to the Department of the Environment, Transport and Regions’ 1998 White Paper A New Deal for Transport. It was the outcome of the first comprehensive Government review of the whole of the inland waterways system in England and Wales since the Transport Act 1968. The 1968 Act recognised that the future for most of British Waterways (BW) canals and rivers lay in their use for amenity and recreation, with only about 20% of their system designated as commercial waterways.
1.2 Government has asked IWAC to report on the progress made in implementing the policies contained in WfT. This is our report.  In Chapter 2 we describe the background to WfT, in Chapter 3 we examine how the inland waterways have been funded during the period, and in Chapters 4 to 10 we assess the progress made since 2000 in each of seven policy areas identified in WfT.  Chapter 11 discusses whether, seven years after the publication of WfT, we need a new policy agenda for the waterways.  Our conclusions are given at the end of each chapter and our recommendations are set out in chapter 12.
1.3 Scotland’s Canals: An Asset for the Future was issued by the Scottish Executive in 2002 and IWAC also plans to publish a monitoring report on it in 2008.

Summary Conclusions


12.1 The analysis in this report has shown that the implementation of the policies in WfT has improved the waterways immensely.  In many respects the implementation has been thorough and the results have been impressive. In addition, the period since the publication of WfT, at least up to the in-year cuts of 2006, has been one of unprecedented support for the BW-managed sector of the inland waterway system.
12.2 This support and investment, plus the performance of BW in tackling the safety maintenance backlog – pulling in third-party and commercial investment and achieving, with its partners, record levels of restoration, mean that today the bulk of its system is in better shape, is more attractive and more accessible to users, and more appreciated by authorities in urban and rural areas, than perhaps it has been for decades. This represents real progress.
12.3 The EA-run navigations system, even though it accommodates the largest number of boats and the most waterway users of any of the three major public navigation bodies, was a little slower to pick up the challenge of WfT. However, EA’s strategy, the organisation and the partnership mechanisms are now in place and it has won government support for a multi-year capital programme to tackle its maintenance backlog. Its aim must be to continue to improve its river navigations, above all the Thames, to rival the best in Europe.
12.4 BA, too, has done well in meeting its various responsibilities but it needs to find more funding, both internally and externally, if it is to maintain progress on navigation improvements as well as its long-term conservation needs.
12.5 Unfortunately, it is impossible to be sanguine about the smaller navigation bodies. Some may be challenged just to survive as independent organisations. The port and harbour authorities will, of course, thrive but have far more profitable activities to focus on than inland waterway freight and recreation activities.

Weaknesses and uncertainty

12.6 Our analysis has also identified some weaknesses in the design of policies and implementation of WfT. The legislation under which the navigation authorities carry out their work is not fit for purpose. The planning framework is still inadequate. The improvements in access that WfT wished to see have rarely been achieved. While many regeneration success stories have been recorded, we are still concerned that EA, with its restrictive financial structure, might not be able to complete its ambitious programmes. It is also disappointing that so many local authorities and most RDAs still do not appreciate the regeneration opportunities that are available to them. We are also worried that the absence of good quality market research will mean that the waterways might not be promoted successfully. Later in this chapter we recommend how these problems should be dealt with.
12.7 A serious problem is the absence of a robust funding plan for the waterways. WfT made no attempt to meet this challenge and that remains a major weakness in the strategy designed in 2000. Last year the weakness was highlighted by the in-year cuts in Grant in Aid from Defra. Both BW and EA can cope with the relatively small cuts in Defra funding if they apply for only one year. However, sustained cuts in real terms over the medium term are a different matter. These would bring the threat of the waterways not just failing to make further progress but actually regressing – a situation which we have not faced for many years. Already the uncertainty created by the cuts and, by the implication in ministerial statements that Government is seeking to provide less funds in future, has damaged morale in the waterways communities and has produced a sense of disillusionment which is far greater than Defra Ministers can have expected.
12.8 What matters, of course, is not only grant income but total income, including direct earned income and third party funding. While BW’s property-based income has been buoyant in recent years, nothing can be guaranteed and we have expressed concern about the possible effects of cuts in income on BW’s restoration and heritage work. Of course, EA and BA have no significant property income and no way has yet been found of obtaining significant income from the tens of millions of non-paying users.
12.9 The other major earned income stream is fees and charges to users. EA has already raised boat licence fees significantly and intends to apply further large increases in each of the next two years. BW is likely to follow suit and is also likely to raise charges for moorings. BA is also under pressure to raise charges. Partly because of the absence of robust market research, it is unclear how far these increases will constrain the demand by users.
12.10 For BW, in particular, there is also concern about the future of third party funding. Local authority financial support looks
likely to become more difficult. More Lottery funding is being diverted to what are seen by Government as higher social and development priorities. Significant RDA support still remains the exception rather than the norm. All navigation authorities will have to work much harder to attract third party funding for waterway improvement and development.
12.11 The Waterways Trust has had to scale down its fund-raising operations to concentrate on its core museum functions for which it urgently needs extra funding. Some of the smaller navigation authorities continue to live from hand-to-mouth with little or no capacity to provide the range of economic and community benefits called for in WfT.
12.12 The funding issue is so serious and the threat of inadequate income so severe that IWAC has decided to focus on this issue during the current year, with the aim of producing a major report by the middle of 2008.
12.13 There are also unanswered questions about the status of waterways in Government. In some respects, the publication of WfT can be seen as a high water mark of interest by Government as a whole. The department which produced WfT, led in Whitehall on environment, transport and regional development, all key areas now fragmented amongst three other departments. The goodwill is doubtless still there, and we have shown that most of the specific promises made in WfT have been fulfilled. Nonetheless, since 2000, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the waterways have become a more marginalised policy area for Government as a whole. Hence, there has been a continuing struggle to make the case for the potential value of waterways and their benefits in national policies and programmes for urban and rural regeneration, waterborne freight development, and planning and regional and local government.
12.14 In Chapter 7 we expressed our concern that heritage issues do not have a high priority in Defra because heritage issues are led in Government by DCMS. Similar points can be made about freight transport, where the lead department is DfT, or regeneration and spatial planning issues where the lead department is DCLG. The preferred method of dealing in Government with issues that do not fit neatly into one department is an inter-departmental committee, but we know of no such committee for the inland waterways. From time to time Defra makes representations to other departments, as it did in respect of funding for the new infrastructure on the Olympic site. But these are ad hoc initiatives when what is needed is a permanent arrangement which will ensure that all relevant departments are engaged in delivering a jointly agreed policy.