Wednesday, 15 July 2009

20/20 - Visions or Illusions?

The winds of change may finally be breaking through in Watford. British Waterways recently launched “2020 – A vision for the future of our canals and rivers”.

That British Waterways needs to change and modernise is self evident. A £30M deficit, no prospect of Government bail-out, plus the emperor’s new clothes having fallen off BW’s planned reliance on the property market, all focus the mind, even in BW!

The immediate consequences for those most intimately connected to the waterways however are that we are paying the price.
  • Boaters, the largest and most valuable group of individual fee paying customers, are seeing licence and mooring fee increases at the hand of BW of typically 7-10% per annum.
  • Mooring vacancies are now only offered to the highest bidder.
  • A thousand BW staff including their frontline patrol teams (but not the board and directors who led them into this mess!) is having to re-apply for nine hundred vacancies (i.e. rather than upset a hundred members of staff with redundancy notices, let’s upset a thousand!).

A bit of history

Two summers ago the EFRA committee’s enquiry tore to shreds Robin Evans’ and Tony Hales’ mantra - that thanks mostly to their property portfolio, BW was moving to be largely self sufficient by 2012. The committee's scrutiny of these claims confirmed what many of us already feared – that the numbers did not add up.

In the summary to their 2007 Report the Committee concluded they had not managed to get to the bottom of BW’s finances and were still seeking: "correct interpretation of the conflicting accounts given by the Department [i.e. DEFRA] and BW about BW's finances between 2002 and 2012".
BW then took the second hit of the credit crunch and its inevitable impact on the property sector they had put so much faith in.
KPMG were called in to check the finances but their report simply re-confirmed what the rest of us had already diagnosed. Compared to where they had planned to be, BW were now running £29M in the red.
The ERFA Committee’s 2008 report was also pretty scathing about BW management on this, commenting that:

"We are unconvinced by the need for BW to spend up to £600,000 on a report by consultants on its future structure when it is by its own admission short of money. We find it hard to believe that analytical capability does not exist within BW, Defra or other public sector organisations that could have conducted this study at lower cost to public funds

As a result of all this BW have inevitably had to go away and do some thinking. It seems the net effect is that 2012 has now been revised to 2020. So whats's new?
I'm still fully absorbing ‘the 2020 document’, but one theme has leapt out of the pages at me and I hope I am not dreaming.

My experience is that BW has for too many years treated vocal critics of their actions as heretics and in some cases have pursed them with vengeance through the legal and political systems, solely it seems to try to suppress unwelcome voices.

The problem is that they have done so too often without firstly fully considering the merits of what those voices are saying.
This contempt and arrogance towards their customers has in the past been as likely to manifest itself is likely at the level where I sometime play, lobbying politically both locally and nationally, as to an individual customer who complains about lack of maintenance on their mooring or the broken sanitary station, you name it. Many of you who try to engage with BW seem to share my experiences in this regard?

I must however after that rant acknowledge at least the possibility that maybe that penny has finally dropped. On Page 16 of 'the 20/20 document', in the “Starting the Journey” section BW says.
“We believe that eventual third sector status potentially offers the waterways many benefits, including:
governance arrangements that allow greater participation by stakeholders”

and further down the list:

“[offers] the potential to make the most of the support from individuals and communities, increasing volunteering and potentially fundraising”

I am still in a state of shock but this appears to me to be some sort of acknowledgment of something I and many others have consistently criticised BW over for the last twenty years.

There is a huge underlying reservoir of commitment and good will for what BW is supposed to be doing – stewarding the waterways for the nation. The problem is that BW has been so poor at building relations with their biggest asset potential asset in achieving this – the punter.
Perhaps this is now going to start to fundamentally change?

However words are cheap. (As a new blogger should I be saying this?!)

My challenge to BW is to start putting actions behind those words and it had better not take the full ten years to get there!

And do I trust the present leadership at BW that got us into this mess to get us out again?


  1. British Waterways' Press Release on all this is available at:

  2. Other online coverage of this one:


    The Times