Defra budget cuts spark navigation closure fears

Defra budget cuts spark navigation closure fears

26 November 2015

- Transfer EA waterways to third sector, says IWA -

Inland Waterways Association has responded to the much-anticipated cut to Defra’s budget that was announced in the Chancellor’s Spending Review on 25 November, and is urging the Government to transfer the navigable waterways managed by the Environment Agency to Canal & River Trust without further delay.

Defra faces budget cuts of at least 15 percent over the next four years to be "delivered through efficiencies within the department and across its network”. IWA campaigners fear that a lack of maintenance funding for the EA waterways will exacerbate an already perilous situation in many parts of the country, turning periodic restrictions on boats into permanent closures to navigation, with consequent economic and amenity damage to local communities.

The Association is pointing out that it has been an agreed national policy since 2012 for the EA navigations to be transferred, with an appropriate funding package, to the third sector, as was done successfully with British Waterways’ assets to Canal & River Trust. This gave much-needed certainty for 15 years to the funding available for the majority of the country’s canal and river navigations and IWA has been campaigning hard for the EA navigations to follow suit.

In the three years since Canal & River Trust was formed it has had a secure funding from government of almost £40million per year rising to £50m in 2015/16. The Environment Agency, meanwhile, has had its capital investment for navigation cut from £10.7m (2012/13) to £3.5m (2014/15) and now faces yet further reductions.

In spend-per-mile terms the comparison is equally stark. In the year to 31 March 2015 CRT spent some £118million on ’general waterways maintenance’ including major works, dredging and spending on routine maintenance, equating to around £65,500 per waterway mile, whereas EA spent £11.7million, or £23,400 per mile, on capital and operating expenditure for navigation.

“We have been warning for years about the funding crisis hanging over the waterways by having essential maintenance capital expenditure subject to the shifting priorities of direct government control,” said Les Etheridge, IWA’s national chairman.

“The previous government found a workable template to secure sustainable financial freedom for the bulk of our canals and rivers but unfortunately kept EA’s 500 miles of navigable waterways out of the package,” he said. “Each year that goes by is widening the gap between what is needed and what is actually spent.”

The Environment Agency’s own figures from February 2015 disclosed that “a minimum funding requirement of £4.25m per annum… would see a slow deterioration of overall asset condition and require a larger investment towards the end of the Spending Review period to renovate a number of assets to ensure our waterways remained open and safe.”

Based on these figures, and the forecast 2015/16 spend of only £2.2m, capital investment in 2015/16 will be less than half of that needed to maintain assets in ‘a slow deterioration’. At the very least, IWA points out, despite the best efforts of EA staff this must be increasing the risk of a significant breakdown in some major assets – and at worst an avoidable serious failure with unnecessary consequences.

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