Monday, 30 November 2009

BW retaining its Property Portfolio - what price?

In its latest news bulletin for Dec, IWA puts a slightly new narrative on recent events:

BW Sale of Assets.

The IWA Campaigns team are very active on this subject at the moment and have orchestrated a political lobby in both the Commons and latterly the Lords to pressurise government – (who still haven’t yet indicated if the sale is to go ahead) - to drop any ideas surrounding a possible sale. The aim is to get them to back down in private – rather than make them entrench and publicly come out and declare this as an intention.

No mention of the fact that my sources claim that it was BW who asked people to orchestrate this!

Commenting on my previous article I've received a fairly sharp rebuttal from Will. I don't usually post comments that simply disagree - this is my blog and it's not a democratic structure! However in this case I did post the comment. It represents some views widely taken by others and I will say is representative of the 'mainstream' thinking on the issue.

I highlighted in that previous article a proposition I originally put on Narrowboatworld Forum. Quite purposefully I started the debate with a little provocation in mind, specifically the proposition that stripping BW of its property portfolio might be a good thing. Anyone who really knows my thinking over the last decade and who has looked at what I have said publicly on this in the past might have smelled a rat! Anyway my 'rat' seems to have done the trick! The responses to that string on the NBW forum were running at a healthy 46 replies last time I looked.

What rattled me in all this and provoked my opening post was the seeming unconditional support people are giving to the 'rumours' started by BW. Treasury and DEFRA are saying nothing either way.

Now I'm not naive enough to think that selling BW's property portfolio and keeping the cash is not something someone somewhere has not had second thoughts about despite the Grimstone review and the steps that BW themselves have subsequently started, to move a lot of their commercial activity into an arms length subsidiary. BW would have a right to complain (and believe it or not would have my support in complaining) if the goal posts were actually being moved to the opposite end of the pitch.

However a caveat here: government policy formulation is often about moving goal posts and this should never come as a surprise. As someone who has been involved in Local Authority housing stock transfers over the last decade or so, the sort of rationalisation and partition of functions needed to create a subsidiary company are of course remarkably similar to those that one takes as the first steps towards full privatisation.

Are BW digging their own graves? Which way will it eventually go when there is a nice discrete property subsidiary, ready to keep or sell?

For me the price BW have to pay for keeping their property portfolio is this: BW need to be totally transparent about how the commercial activities, especially the property speculation activities are being conducted. The old question of how much of the gross income from those activities is re-invested in more commercial activities versus how much of that money actually comes back to the canal network needs to be settled.

Settling that question is in my book the only test for, and more to the point the best possible justification for, BW keeping their property portfolio. A transparent demonstration of how in detail the property portfolio benefits the front line waterways is surely the best and only argument by which to defend BW's property portfolio?

I of course take the view that BW have a long way still to go to achieve such transparency.

Hence I say that if BW are not prepared to move very quickly to this sort of transparency, then I for one am quite content for Government to strip them of their portfolio.

I hope a few others will stop long enough to look behind the spin long enough to consider whether their support for the proposal that BW should keep its property portfolio should be unconditional or have some strings attached.

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