Thursday, 15 October 2009

Smoke and Mirrors? British Waterways’ Annual Meeting 2009

This has in previous years been the high level annual event for waterways representatives to question and review BW on the past year’s performance. Once a year the Board and Directors in theory host a full and frank questions and answers session.

However with true BW ambiguity it is not a full public meeting and attendance is by invite only. (I attended on the strength of a NABO invite). In their favour BW do dutifully publish the details of the meeting in full and those of you who have the time and interest should start from the BW website page on this to see what you make of it all.

Thanks to problems with ‘overhead power lines in the Watford area’, I arrived late and apparently missed, (to my deep personal disappointment!), BW directors running around before the main event, as they tried to disperse a protest line outside the venue, organised by staff trade union members, highlighting the ongoing restructuring and redundancies exercise!

BW this year had foreshortened the meeting to a half day event, (when in previous years it had been all day). Some would say it was 'fixed' this year so that questions about the past year’s performance were not given an obvious slot or certainly less opportunity for discussion. The headline topic of BW’s choosing was their 20/20 vision and on that at least I will give them credit, for there was a detailed and frank discussion of BW’s present thinking on this and ample opportunity for points from the floor.

However not withstanding all this I asked the question!

“There is a feeling among a lot of the people I am talking about that the main subject you are talking about today (20/20) represents, with respect to the gentlemen who have come to talk about it, a lot of smoke and mirrors. The fear is, as was mentioned, this doesn’t address your £30m a year funding gap. The last Annual report showed, what I would call, a devastating year for British Waterways in terms of your property portfolio and I ask the question, will British Waterways actually be in any viable position to implement any of this in eight or ten years time?"

Both Tony Hales (Chair) and Robin Evans (CEO) responded at length and rather than take up space here you can see (or listen to) their responses from the BW website link above. Nothing unpredictable and it was acknowledged they have just had a very bad year financially.

(The full details of my question and their answers are are on pages 7 and 8 of 41 here - opens large pdf file!)

What their replies highlighted to me again is that BW remain heavily dependent on their property activities to fund the core waterways and the question that follows from that is, what happens when that income stream plummets, as it has in the last year?

In response to a later question from yours truly, Robin strenuously defended my suggestion that there remains a conflict of interests within BW.

"I would just like people to comment on what I see as a fundamental conflict of interests. On the one hand you have a British Waterways as a stewardship body. On the other hand you have British Waterways' commercial activities. If you are serious about increasing volunteering and donating, do you need a clearer separation between those commercial and if you like, social activities than you have at the moment, because the fear must be particularly as has happened in the recent past, that money that is being raised is not going into the front end of the waterways – it is propping up “bad luck” shall we call it politely at Gloucester Quays or wherever else. How do you make that clear, because that is something you are going to have to sell to people: where is their money going if you want them to donate and volunteer?"

In fairness I reproduce Robin’s answer in full below where he flatly denies there is any issue here:

"A common misapprehension is that money from our property has subsidised, or we have used money from the network, to subsidise the property. That simply isn’t true. We have two pots of money in the organisation. We have a property capital endowment dowry which we try and invest to create income which then feeds into waterway maintenance. None of the Government money, none of the waterway maintenance, our revenue streams, fund into the property. They are entirely separate and the losses that we have incurred this year have been entirely taken up and been funded from this capital endowment fund. It has not robbed the waterways of any money. It is very important, very important for us to ensure that that happens. We will not do these things if we felt that it was going to deteriorate and reduce the amount of money that we already have on the waterways."

What this confirms for me is that there are actually two businesses called British Waterways: British Waterways the property company and British Waterways the navigation authority.

This begs the obvious question; Is BW now principally a property company or a navigation authority?

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