It was Aickman’s dream – a joined-up model for managing our inland waterways that wasn’t subject to the vagaries of government. The establishment of the Canal & River Trust (the charity responsible for filling former operator British Waterways’ shoes) in 2012 went some way towards realising his vision, taking some 2,000 miles of canals, rivers, docks and reservoirs into its control, along with a 15-year government financial settlement, massive property portfolio and the flexibility to pursue and develop new income streams.
Yet, despite assurances that EA-controlled waterways would follow (over 500 miles of them in all), the government announced in 2013 that it would shelve plans until after the general election. Now, with the battle for No.10 decided and news last November that Defra’s budget was to be cut – on top of previous cuts – tackling the issue has never been more timely.
Photo: Welches Dam Lock looking towards Horseway Channel
Subject to a satisfactory funding package to protect both CRT and EA navigations, the transfer would enable EA waterways to benefit from improved maintenance through long-term asset management plans, third party funding opportunities and the economies of scale to be gained from being part of a larger navigation authority. It would also offer opportunities for extension of the network, such as the Fens Waterways Link. At present, many river navigations run by EA are deteriorating due to lack of maintenance. Th is is no refl ection on EA navigation staff, who are doing their best, but rather the impositions on their jobs due to an ever-reducing budget. Left as things are, IWA campaigners fear this funding shortfall 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 current situation is that funding for EA navigations is largely dependent on annually determined grant-in-aid from the government. Since CRT was formed it has had secure funding from government totalling almost £40m per year. The EA, 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.
The EA’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, despite the eff orts of EA staff this must be increasing the risk of a signifi cant breakdown in some major assets – and, at worst, an avoidable serious failure.
The bleak assessment comes as no surprise to IWA’s national chairman. Les Etheridge says: “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.
“The previous government found a workable template to secure sustainable fi nancial freedom for the bulk of our canals and rivers but unfortunately kept EA’s 500 miles of navigable waterways out of the package. Each year that goes by is widening the gap between what is needed and what is actually spent.”
Comparatively, CRT’s robust funding from government, on top of its other income streams, adds up to a compelling case for immediate transfer of management.
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