IWA Talks to the Environment Agency About its Navigations

Issue date: 16th May 2012

IWA’s lobbying for the inland waterways to move from public sector control to the third sector, has included that the transfer of waterways to what is now the Canal & River Trust, should include both the British Waterways and the Environment Agency navigations.

We know the conclusions that the Government reached.  The Government Response to the New Era consultation was that it was committed to the transfer of the Environment Agency navigations in 2015, subject to affordability and the agreement of the Canal & River Trust's trustees at that time. The Government decision would be advised by a Government review to be carried out in 2014. We also understand that the Government may consult on the transfer at that time.

Tony Hales, chairman of the Canal & River Trust, told the All-Party Parliamentary Waterways Group, at its hearing on 15th March, that subject to affordability, the trustees supported the transfer of the Environment Agency navigations to the Trust in principle.

Since it all comes down to affordability, and that must be determined over the next couple of years leading into the Government’s next Comprehensive Spending Review, IWA decided to look into what is going on to determine affordability. Two years is not long if Government takes its eye of the target of the transfer being achieved in 2015 and there should be no surprises on affordability for the Comprehensive Spending Review. Government must have bottomed out affordability, made sure that this is not an impediment, and be able to present a package to the Canal & River Trust trustees that is acceptable to them.

The Environment Agency is leading on this project, so IWA has had exploratory discussions with the Agency's senior management to assess progress. The Environment Agency's chairman, Lord Smith, has said that the Environment Agency recognises the enthusiasm for the transfer. He was unable to comment upon affordability – that was a matter for the Government. But the Environment Agency would provide the Government with all the information it needed from the Agency to allow consideration of an appropriate package.

IWA has subsequently discussed with Environment Agency senior management what it is doing so that Government will have the information it needs to determine how it can assemble an affordable package.  The Agency has work underway to fully understand its asset base. That is not as straightforward as it might seem:

  • Ownership of land in itself does not necessarily fall to the Agency, so is being explored and determined.
  • The Agency needs to fully understand its asset base. For example, structures such as weirs need to be assessed for functionality – their purpose can be principally for flood defence, water management, navigation, or environment, and any combination of these.

These investigations would allow the Agency to have a better handle on cost and potential liabilities. These have not been addressed by the Agency before in the level of detail necessary for affordability to be properly assessed. Since navigation is a relatively small part of Agency operations, it has not determined a precise funding line in the past since it can simply transfer monies at the margin of expected expenditure, and it can self insure against more costly eventualities, such as unprogrammed weir repair or maintenance. The Canal & River Trust could not act in this manner. It would need to be presented with a package that is clearly affordable and taking full account of liabilities.

IWA will continue to have discussions with both central Government and the Environment Agency from time to time to keep abreast of progress with the project to transfer the Environment Agency navigations.