Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Time for another royal commission.

I am no financial wizz kid, but I am smart enough to know that the inland waterways are facing a dire future.  Brought about by the slowly growing awareness that the 2007 floods, the 2012 floods and the ongoing 2014 floods are an ominous portent for the future. Climate change is here -wake up and smell the coffee -  its here to stay.  There is a wealth of expert knowledge available still in the Environment Agency especially in managing their waterways. However, the EA is hamstrung by environmental pressure groups, politicians and the treasury dictating how and where the money is spent. 

However, I fear that the expert knowledge to be found on the bank side of the CaRT controlled waterways, disappeared at the same time as the length men. My biggest fear is that another canal should give way this time flooding an area of housing. In this event, the full weight of the media will come to play. Every inch of CaRT's performance past and present will be dissected in fine detail. Including the huge funding gap that continues to grow.

No matter how you look at it - the Canal and River Trust has a number of serious financial problems that sooner or later the trust will have to overcome. The most significant issue is with the underfunding of maintenance. This year alone there have been figures published of £130 million spend is required just to stand still.  However, the actual spend is going to be £80 million in the current year. That is a huge amount of underspend. The underspend is not new and has continued year on year for a decade or longer. 

So the funding hole just gets bigger and bigger, in ever increasing amounts. Wetting my finger and testing the wind, I estimate that we must be around £600 million down on maintenance spending over the last decade. If we continue to balance the books by underspending on maintenance. The prognosis is both obvious and dire.

There is the postcode lottery that chips in with a few quid. The co-op bank has quietly tiptoed away as they have their own funding problems now. The 'friends' it would seem are only the fair weather version and are much reduced in number despite the predictions. Add into this mix the recent unforeseen issues such as the waste disposal problem in Leeds that has a cost implication to CaRT of £2.4 million as given on TV. Or the much higher figure as reported to the Trustees. There have also been a number of significant failures in the canal infrastructure in various parts of the country. From collapsed canal banks at around £1.5 million a pop, through to collapsed locks with costs between £200 and £800 grand a time. As the number of such incidents seems to be growing, this does not bode well for the future. The solution seems to be having a national appeal to raise the money on an incident by incident basis.

We have seen significant increases in the costs of licences and manipulation upwards of directly managed mooring fees. But this is has as a bye product the prospect of creating an increase in the numbers of CCers. The numbers of CCers given seem to vary between 4 and 5 thousand. There is also a corresponding reduction in the number of licensed boats. I understand that there is a small income from fishing. So this leaves BWML, commercial activities. The return is apparently less than the investment that's going in! So what's happening with the income from the property portfolio and is that going to make up the short fall. Presumably the rest of the much needed income is to be made up  from drainage and abstraction plus donations from Joe Public. Is it me, or are we sleep walking into a financial meltdown. Can someone point out what we need in terms of money and where that money is going to come from.

I have yet to see any sign of a coherent short and long term plan for the future, without huge redacted sections. Which begs the question, what is in there to hide.  If the shortage is so bad that CaRT does not have the intestinal fortitude to publish. This is already leading to a return to the mutual distrust that was enjoyed and encouraged by British Waterways.  Leading to even more speculation of just what is being formulated for the future of the Inland Waterways. 

So maybe it is time to speculate on what CaRT might do in the short term. CaRT could start with doing away with the 10% discount on licences paid up front. CaRT could also do away with the 10% discount on directly managed moorings that are paid up front. A question to ask yourself is why a charity does not want a paying membership. One that could be bringing in many thousands of pounds. However, membership would bring with it ever closer scrutiny. So someone has to have an ulterior hidden agenda in mind.

Joe Public demands value for money and would only see the continued funding of waterways for 'rich boaters' with their aquatic second homes as a waste of their money. With the current internal redundancy meltdown in the Environment Agency. Add into the mix the political fallout from the flooding in London and the Somerset levels. Is this going to to bring about the whole Inland Waterways being subjected to a level of political and public scrutiny that has not been seen since the 1906 Royal Commission. 

Climate change and the continuing risk of even more devastating flooding is going to be another driver to bring about a political rethink of the whole waterways management and funding issue. You might think this is a rather bleak future, and highly unlikely, but it has happened before. Some non boating people would actually put quite a positive slant on revisiting such issues.

Will Joe Public want our Inland Waterways managed as a much fragmented structure. Some rivers and canal managed over here by an agency. Some rivers and canals managed over there by a company. Some rivers and canals managed by CaRT. In today's world where all charities look to streamline the workforce and cut overheads. This will call into question CaRT's deliberately engineered top heavy and fragmented structure. That has been devolved into directorates and waterway partnerships.

Will Joe Public want our Inland Waterways managed by a charity. It would in the current climate (no pun intended) be political suicide for any government to hand over the EA waterways to a charity with the existing ongoing funding and maintenance issues. Charities where some of the maintenance and operation are subject to the whims of volunteers. Imagine the political meltdown if a charity happens to manage waterways that through lack of maintenance spend creates significant flooding. It would however make a great deal of sense to remove the fragmentation and consolidate the whole of the inland waterways into one coherent management structure. A structure that would allow for a consistent funding and management ethos. 

Recently I have taken to reading old newspapers. I have discovered that when it comes to the inland waterways, what goes around comes around. In the period from 1906-20 the canals went through a period of speculative risk of abandonment and closure. Starting in 1945 the canals went through a further period of abandonment and closures. The common scenario was - earmark a canal for closure - and a small number of people will publicly lament its passing. However, it was already recognised at the time that the majority of the public preferred to see the old canals used for the creation of nature reserves. With all the fluffy, furry habitat creation schemes that are currently going on. I would not be surprised if in the not to distant future we go through another similar period. 

Then I found a rather lengthy article in an old copy of 'The Spectator' about the doom laden 1906 Royal Commission on canals and inland waterways. The commission took four years to conduct its deliberations. The full report was eventually published way back in 1910. Arguments around canal closure continued in parliament right through the first world war and for a further 10 years afterwards. The publication of the commissions report seemed to stir the public imagination. However, it was not to protect canals from closure. It was to create wildlife habitat upon abandonment that grabbed the public psyche!

The Spectator.
1st January 1910

"In the Black Country, and there is a certain fascination in the picture; the murkiness, the steam, the dark sky, the noise and hard work everywhere have their own distinction. But elsewhere the canals and their reservoirs add brightness and new life. Birds multiply wherever there is water and the undergrowth which springs up by the waterside. Coots and waterhens make their nests in the sedge which lines the banks of adjoining reservoirs; warblers climb about and nest in the reeds. Herons flap up from the side of the towing-path as the barge-horse sweeps his flickering rope over the tops of the meadowsweet and willow-herb half in and half out of the canal water. Swallows and martins hawk for gnats and flies high and low over the the slow current; sparrows seem to choose canals particularly to sit in the branches of pollard willows and dart fluttering out after moths or mayflies. Sometimes a canal is chosen as the route for a line of telegraph-wires, and the telegraph-wire is a favourite point of vantage for the red backed shrike. 

"But perhaps the completest, and in some ways the most permanent, addition to the life and scenery of the countryside brought by a waterway is when the canal is left derelict. A derelict canal, dry for part of its length and half filled with water in other parts, is a kind of sanctuary not only for birds but for flowers. All hollows in the general level of the land are sanctuaries of a sort; they present difficulties, slight or great, to the casual intruder, they are left untouched by the ploughman or the forester, and flowers seed themselves and birds nest in them the more readily, and with lessened chance of disturbance. A derelict canal is a sanctuary along almost its whole length. If there is water in it, the water is impassable, and objects desired by the casual visitor may very likely be situated on the far side, or they may be flowers, such as water-lilies, in the middle. If it is dry, undergrowth shoots up rapidly in it, and, being out of the line of any road or path, birds nesting in the undergrowth are undisturbed. Indeed, derelict canals, such as the Wendover Canal in Buckinghamshire, or the Wey and Arun Junction Canal in Surrey and Sussex, are in some ways the most permanent additions to landscape scenery imaginable. Even in these days, when money is spent by public bodies on almost everything, nobody is going to the expense of cleaning or filling in a derelict canal."

Some 18 months later the furore still continued as people still did not want the canals filled in. Neither did they want them to be saved other than for leisure pastimes such as birdwatching, walking and fishing. The public wanted them turned into a watery habitat of lakes and linear water parks.

The Spectator 
 11th November 1911

About a year and a half ago, when Mr. Edwin Pratt issued his little volume, "Canals and Traders" a writer in the Spectator expressed the opinion that "even in these days, when money is spent by public bodies on almost everything, nobody is going to the expense of cleaning or filling in a derelict canal." Apparently the prophecy will not be justified by events. According to a communication which Mr. E. Southgate Day (care of Messrs. Hannaford and Goodman, 57-59 Ludgate Hill, E.C.) has sent to Tuesday's Times, the canal which runs from Weybridge to Basingstoke is to be closed. The bridges are to be thrown down into the channel, roads are to be driven across the bed, the water is to be drained off or allowed to revert to its natural channels, and the land used for building sites or other purposes. As Mr. Day points out, this would mean that the present enjoyment which the public derives from the canal would be lost for ever, and he asks anyone who is interested in preserving the waterway to communicate with him at once.

Edwin A Pratt published 'Canals and Traders' in 1906. The document can be viewed freely on line here: Click Here

John Phillips published 'A general history of inland navigation' in 1803. The document can be viewed freely on line here:   Click Here

So its time to speculate even more on what CaRT might do in the future. CaRT could identify possible canal closures or mothballing from a boating perspective as the cost of the necessary maintenance becomes more and more prohibitive. In this strapped for cash era, some saving on maintenance costs on the more expensive to maintain canals could be the only option. Thus, a form of abandonment could be helping to plug the funding gap. At the same time creating from the canal closures. Swathes of land for developers with watery themes. Which would be in turn linked to a series of linear watery nature reserves, cycleways and undisturbed fishing areas. This would also fit into the token 'heritage' look and feel. For the environmentalists the creation of thousands of miles of habitat would be a dream come true. For the fisherman, sitting undisturbed by the passage of boats it would be a dream come true.  For the boater - who cares!

I know that not much has changed in the mind of the fickle but pound wise public. Joe would be quite happy to see a change of use. Rather than continue to throw increasing amounts of money at the canals. Developers will also be happy to fill in sections to build new homes while at the same time creating a water feature for their new housing complex. The creation of the trust as one of the UK's largest charities brought with it a requirement for generating large amounts of money. However, the trust has certainly not caught the public's imagination. Canals as a charity for raising money does not compare with cancer or starving children. The mothballing of the Environment Agency Waterways that were subject to transfer, demonstrates the ever tightening of the public purse.
As I said at the beginning I am no financial wizz kid,  but then I don't think I have to be. Even I can see that there are issues that need to be addressed. I had hoped that since the formation of the trust, there would have been sufficient time to draw up and publish its long and short term plan for the future. 

So what could the trust do. Well it has to get rid of the reputation for bad publicity. I don't know of any other charity that has had a public petition with around five thousand signatures brought against it. In particular  so soon after the charities inception.  The continuing series of regular appearances in Private Eye magazine. The eye is not known as the whistle-blowers Hansard for nothing. Its read by business leaders, politicians and mandarins alike.

As Jim Royal would say - openness and transparency - my donkey!

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