The All Party Waterways Group Questions the Minister

news_generic150pxIssue date: 14th December 2011

The All Party Parliamentary Waterways Group had a hearing on 8th December to give the Waterways Minister, Richard Benyon MP, the opportunity to inform the Group of progress on the Canal & River Trust (CRT) coming into being next year and for Group Members to be able to question him. The hearing, chaired by the Rt Hon Alun Michael MP, was well attended by Group Members and waterways stakeholders.

The Minister reported that progress had been made on what both Government and the CRT Transition Trustees believed was the right model on governance for the CRT to begin life. There was now a target for 50% of the Council to be elected over time. On membership, the Trustees had decided that the charity should not have a membership for fund-raising purposes, believing that other means of raising funds and stimulating voluntary giving were more effective for fundraising than a formal membership.

He could not say what government funding was going to be for the CRT since negotiations had not yet finished. But he did reveal that the negotiations were complex, including the issues of adequate maintenance of the canal network, mitigation of possible future liabilities arising from environmental or other legislative requirements and the CRT’s pension arrangements; and he repeated that the Government was committed to a sustainable and prosperous future for the waterways, wanting to give the CRT the best possible start that it could. He expected to be able to make announcements in the New Year. 

Waterways classification had become an issue. The Inland Waterways Association had raised concerns about the proposed amendments to the system for classifying waterways in the Transport Act 1968 because it was concerned that the CRT would seek to reclassify “cruising” waterways to “remainder” waterways. He gave an assurance that any application from the CRT to reclassify a waterway would be subject to a full cost benefit analysis and wide consultation with those likely to be affected as required by the Transport Act.  In addition, he was sure that the Trustees would consult the charity’s Council and the relevant Waterways Partnership before embarking on such a significant course of action that would impact on a large number of its users.  These mechanisms would help to ensure a robust and transparent process on a re-classification of any of the charity’s waterways.
In answer to questions from the Rt Hon Alun Michael and other MPs present, Richard Benyon said:

He did not want or expect to see closures of any waterways. That would not be constructive. The Government wanted to ensure that in the medium term there was scope for a reduction in the percentage of assets that were in poor and very poor condition. He added that the Government wanted the existing network to be both maintained and enhanced.

On ownership, Alun Michael, whilst recognising what the Minister had said about fund raising, suggested that in his experience, part ownership of a charity under for example, co-operative arrangements, delivered local ownership and commitment. Richard Benyon commented that he could see that possibility, locally and as a part of natural evolution.

Some Transition Trustees were present, including the chairman, Tony Hales. They were invited to comment. Tony Hales said that that the CRT would be reviewing it’s governance in 3 years and that would be the time to reflect on the suggestions made. On finance, he said that commercial activity would be the most significant contributor, outweighing the government contribution by some margin, and that the Trustees were comfortable about the future prospects for this commercial activity. The Trustees were also confident about the forecasts for the contribution for voluntary income and donations, which were expected to reach £6-8m after 10 years. There were also contributions to be made by other government departments, local government and bodies such as Transport for London and the Olympic Delivery Authority. It was a question of determining the benefits they receive from the network so that they recognised that a contribution was justified. However, he reiterated the view of the Trustees that the £39m per annum offered by central government was not enough. The finance package overall needed to be enough to secure the network’s assets in the long term and ensure that day to day maintenance was carried out together with network dredging; and to ensure that pensions were safeguarded. He recognised the duty of Trustees to be in a position to satisfy the Charity Commission that the Trust was sustainable.

Lynne Berry reported on public benefit. It had evaluated at around £500millon but that didn’t fully reflect issues such as the social return and the well being benefit etc. Trustees were currently developing the public benefit model to embrace these wider issues.

Richard Benyon offered to return to the Group to give a further report when the financial negotiations were concluded. That was welcomed by the Group. It is likely to take place early in the New Year.

Alun Michael ended the hearing by saying that it was not unheard of for charities to go wrong, volunteer led or otherwise. It would not be an easy transition. It was going to be very challenging and there was profound interest from MPs on all sides of the House. The transition would be scrutinised with great interest.
IWA view this to have been be a very constructive hearing. It was helpful to hear that the Minister was considering the need for adequate maintenance of the canal network, mitigation of possible future liabilities arising from environmental or other legislative requirements and the CRT’s pension arrangements – all points of concern that IWA has raised with central government and that IWA members have raised with their constituency MPs. It was also good to hear that Tony Hales wanted to see a financial arrangement that secured the network’s assets in the long term, day to day maintenance, and network dredging, recognising the need for Trustees to satisfy the Charity Commission on sustainability.

The Minister’s response to the IWA on waterways classification was also seen to be a helpful clarification.