Sunday, 14 November 2010

Be careful what you wish for

The new message from British Waterways is that the new Waterways Charity will not be the old BW. Depending on your point of view this is either an important message or a statement of the blxxding obvious!

This message appears to have been delivered with a three line whip at two public meetings recently. It is interesting that on both occasions, this mantra was offered in the context of and in direct response to people raising concerns about the competence and track record of the current BW management.

If I really believed that the coming of the new waterways charity meant we would be sweeping away most of the current Board and Management Team and replacing with something better and closer to the public, I would offer my support. Problem is I see no sign of this. It seems to me that emperor is  is just getting a new set of clothes, and like the old ones, best not subject to too close an examination.

The emperor and new clothes idea... The IWA Chairman seems to very much like the new clothes and seems already convinced they are better than the last wardrobe. More worryingly he seems to have become  increasingly agitated with those who say, what clothes?

Thames River users are for instance openly at loggerheads with the apparent national IWA policy that we should move to a single national Navigation Charity: The thought of the Thames navigation and more importantly the huge water and flood management functions of the EA Thames region being passed to something that looks likely to be dominated by a re-branded BW is deeply feared and opposed by many, (including I suspect, by many within the Environment Agency), as a recipe for disaster.

Reality is also likely to be that such a change will lead to two bodies running the Thames instead of one, especially given the EA's much wider environmental protection duties many of, which will by no stretch of the imagination will be passed to any new navigation body that might emerge. That being the case, I can't see any sense in the current largely effective and well integrated management structure for the non-tidal Thames being broken up just for the sake of the empire-building that some seem to be engaged in right now. It's BW which is all messed up, so why pollute a navigation which most people I know think is very well managed, with BW's problems?

Those of us who dare question the appropriateness and validity of a single navigation authority, (which many believe will be dominated by the former BW senior management team and their cronies), are at present being vilified by certain people. (Oh of course -  that would be the still very much alive current BW Management and their cronies!)

This does a huge disservice to the waterways and goes to the heart of my many years of vocal criticism of BW. Dissenters are vilified it seems not because their arguments are weak but because those in power in the waterways Establishment do not have the courage or honesty to face that dissent head on and listen to and properly and openly work through the arguments.

The thing that still most worries me is that apparently all the people who got us into the mess are supposedly the people who lead us out of it (and by the way continuing to be paid loads of money for their trouble - Bankers!)

It is notable that the one part of that Establishment that seemed most open to offering a more balanced view of the potential flaws and lack of clear benefits in the current proposal, IWAC, is being scrapped.

There are strong signs that there will be a Public Consultation starting on all this very shortly through DEFRA. Many of those who are already planning for their vision of the future, seem to think this is insignificant and that the die has already been cast. We will see, though it would not altogether surprise me if they are right and that we are about to be consulted on a done deal. That would follow the pattern of many other consultations BW has a hand in!

The current supervision of BW by DEFRA and the, albeit very distant and at tenuous, line to elected politicians is still one valuable line of accountability, and despite its ponderous reality, is something that I am very reluctant to see given up. Whatever the many faults of the current system, it remains the case that with persistence, ordinary waterways users still have an independent political route by which to get some independent scrutiny of BW from time to time. That is not something in my view that we should give up lightly.

Of course there is the old elephant in the room. None of this goes anywhere to dealing with the funding of the Waterways. Even the most strident promoters of the new way will, with not much badgering, admit that no-one has an answer to that yet. BW is still haemorrhaging by millions a year thanks to its property porfolio and no-one I know has yet provided anything close to a credible answer about how that is going to be countered.

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