This is the text of my Evidence the the EFRA Select Committee during Spring 2007 and explains much of what I think is wrong in BW. (Source and Copyright : http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmselect/cmenvfru/345/7041610.htm )
Memorandum submitted by Simon Robbins (BW 23)
To improve and succeed in the areas the Sub Committee identified, I believe British Waterways must improve performance on Openness and Accountability.
1. I believe progressing in this direction will enhance BW's and DEFRA's stated aims and ensure BW's activities remain relevant and closely attuned to the needs and aspirations of existing and future stakeholders.
2. BW have made some progress with this issue, but I believe that such progress,
- — has not been consistent across all areas of operation,
- — has often been painful in its inception,
- — has consequently often been many years late in happening and in too many instances only commenced following prolonged pressure and criticism.
- A—Separation of duties
- There seems to be little clear separation between BW's duties to maintain and improve a much-valued heritage and leisure structure, which the majority of recipients do not pay for at the point of use, versus its need to generate independent income. In the extreme the supposed custodians of the waterways are also now its asset strippers.
- B—Lack of Confidence over outcomes
- Operational matters and BW's property development activities and other commercial income streams should in consequence be subject to measurable targets and standards. Outcomes should be independently scrutinised perhaps using a methodology akin to the Audit Commission's Key Lines of Enquiry for other public services.
- C—Commercial Exposure to financial risk
- Financial management mechanisms in BW's existing commercial activities are opaque and just through uncertainty many users do not have full confidence in them. Many stakeholders are at best reluctant to offer confidence over the proposal that increased commercial activity represents a reliable or sustainable income stream.
- D—Failing to add value through public involvement
- I believe there is a wealth of experience and goodwill available towards BW but which is at best being left untapped and at worst, when overlooked or rejected, is translated into outright hostility and frustration at feeling excluded from the decision making processes surrounding a national treasure which most stakeholders are passionate about and wish to see succeed.
4. My main experience of British Waterways (BW) is as a craft licence holder of many years standing. I have owned narrowboats for over 17 years, and have lived on my boat as my main and principal home since 1991.
5. I have campaigned actively on boating issues throughout this time. I am a member of the Residential Boat Owners Association, (RBOA), the Barge Association (DBA) and the National Association of Boat Owners (NABO). I am currently a member of NABO Council.
6. This submission is offered in a personal capacity.
The financial framework of British Waterways and the impact of changes in DEFRA's budget
7. I offer the general observation that BW ideally needs a predictable financial framework. Variations in Grant in Aid at short notice are particularly damaging and make it impossible for BW to plan strategically.
8. Other contributors are likely to comment on this so I will not elaborate here as I am confident the Committee will hear much on this which reflects my views.
9. I have attempted to highlight other issues of personal concern which I believe are also relevant to BW's financial health and sustainability in the comments below.
Current users of the waterway network and their relationships with British Waterways
10. Access to the waterways is free at the point of use to most users and that is right and proper.
11. However I am unashamed in suggesting that of boat owners are worthy of special consideration.
12. BW is geographically the largest single inland navigation authority and custodians of the lion's share of our inland waterways. Their network is also usually links the other smaller navigations to each other.
13. The reason boat owners are unique among waterway users is because we invest large amounts of capital in our craft, frequently amounts comparable to owning a second home.
14.We collectively bring many millions of pounds a year, every year, to the inland waterways' economy through services we buy through waterways businesses we trade with. A significant proportion of this money flows directly and indirectly to BW.
15. While backlog repairs to navigation and infrastructure have greatly reduced over the last decade there are still many areas where general upkeep is not consistent. One is used to having to use facilities which are imperfect. The network is still fragile in places and if overall funding levels are not sustained, recent gains in the physical health of the network could quickly be lost.
16. On the positive side all main navigational routes remain passable and all the main structures are functional for most of the year. This is to the great credit of BW's front line maintenance and operational staff.
17. The towpath and immediate vicinity of the canals and rivers under BW's control in general remain highly attractive to the general public for a variety of leisure and amenity activities and this is again largely to the credit of frontline staff.
18. However as a boating customer I do not always feel BW value me as a loyal customer and from my experience as a Council Member of NABO I can say with certainty that many other boaters share these feelings.
19. Pricing policy towards BW managed permanent moorings has seen fees rise by amounts well in excess of inflation each year, especially since 2001, often in exchange for no improvement in service. The policy that led to these increases was introduced with grossly inadequate consultation.
20. In my case BW are my mooring provider and despite seeing higher fees, in January 2004 I had to engage the Waterways Ombudsman to get essential repairs done to the mooring, despite complaints and constant dialogue with BW going back to 1997. Remedial works were even then only completed in the Summer of 2006.
21. BW has in my view attempted to side step the primary legislation intended to offer limited security of tenure to customers (such as me) occupying properly established residential moorings. In my case they would only positively admit my status under such legislation when I issued a second Ombudsman complaint.
22. Lack of consistent consultation with boaters and other sections of the community means BW at times make major oversights in their operational business. Recent examples include:
23. In 2006 less than 20% of BW's funding bid to Transport for London to improve towpaths was actually applied. The scheme was initially presented and marketed as being principally for the benefit of cyclists. It was seemingly only after the initial phase of works were completed that BW realised they had omitted to prepare a suitable health and safety audit. They then commissioned consultants only to discover that the intimate nature of towpaths means that there were a high number of incidents where cyclists and other users came into conflict. BW have now recognised the oversight but they only came to this realisation after the event, and under pressure of a welter of legitimate complaints, ironically from, among others, cyclists.
24. In 2005 BW replaced the lock mechanisms throughout the Kennet and Avon Canal. Despite complaints about the work from the earliest stage they pressed on with the full programme of works. The following year having admitted that the mechanisms they had fitted were unfit for purpose they had to undertake a second contract to replace the brand new mechanisms they had fitted the previous year with a second set.
25. In both instances lack of consultation or involvement with the stakeholders led to wastage and created a raft of bad feeling with canal users.
26. There are numerous other examples I could cite. These are usually smaller in their scale and impact than those described above but my conclusion is that BW's performance when it come to specifying and executing projects is at best inconsistent. While in some matters they consult well and work closely with stakeholders and their representatives, and achieve commendable outcomes, there remain glaring omissions. This lack of consistency is unacceptable.
27. People like myself who are passionate on this subject are also in the main (though not exclusively) committed stakeholders. Most campaigners and activists put our energies into the work we do in connection with waterways as volunteers. In my case in spite of the sorts of difficulties and concerns described above I remain committed to the inland waterways to the point of making them my home.
28. Sadly I believe that BW still does not consistently demonstrate the skills or will to engage fully with people like myself.
29. There have been notable attempts at improvements in consultation and involvement in some areas most dear to boat owners in the last year, especially over management of the navigation and related facilities, and more improvements are promised. I reserve judgement as to what extent these initiatives will lead to better outcomes.
30. But in other areas, particularly when it comes to commercial activity, I see very limited progress and little mutual trust. This inevitably tarnishes the more positive aspects as do all too frequent failures of outcome in individual projects.
31. There is at times a feeling that boaters are perceived principally as another revenue stream and that we have nothing to offer beyond that.
Recent developments in the stewardship work and commercial activities of British Waterways, including its property portfolio
32. It is clear that BW are expected by DEFRA Ministers to be increasingly financially reliant on commercial activities and of these their property development business is the single most significant element.
Conflict of interests
33. BW promotes much of their property development as being regeneration activity and that is not unreasonable.
34. However organisationally BW face a fundamental dilemma—the board and management team are charged with protecting a national asset and heritage structure but are simultaneously charged with in effect privatising elements of this heritage in order to generate sufficient revenue for running costs.
35. Concerns over failure to consistently consult adequately with stakeholders in advance about the appropriateness of individual schemes frequently arise.
36. It seems to me one element of finding a better way through this dilemma might be to seek a much greater level of involvement and scrutiny of potentially controversial decisions by stakeholders than is typically applied at present.
37. I also have concerns that some BW staff, and particularly the senior management, are far too heavily incentivised in favour of commercial projects over stewardship considerations. I believe it would be of benefit and comfort to all concerned to greatly clarify these relationships.
Actual performance in Property Development
38. Delays and associated costs, in part as a result of strident objections to individual BW redevelopment proposals, when stakeholders feel involvement and scrutiny have been ineffective, mean that BW's returns on individual schemes may not at times be what it could or should be.
39. The case of Castle Mill Boatyard in Oxford is perhaps the worst case scenario to date.
- — BW appear to have mobilised the whole of the local community including the local authority against their proposed redevelopment plans.
- — They were strongly criticised by a planning inspector who reviewed the proposal and by the judge who evicted protestors who occupied the site for a while.
- — The site is currently disused and has lain empty for many months. BW are incurring major expense to maintain vacant possession pending any possible sale. Local campaigners estimate the overall expenditure on this project is now close to exceeding any proceeds that BW might receive from any sale.
- — The market value of the site has been greatly reduced by the history of events and the ongoing hostility to redevelopment from the local community.
- — There is a deep and now embedded mistrust of BW generally in the local community in Oxford and confidence in BW will probably take many years to rebuild.
41. I believe other contributors are likely to offer other examples of this.
Speculative activities versus Financial Risk
42. I believe BW has moved beyond the original intentions of the powers they were given a decade or so ago, to behave more commercially. I believe the intention at that time was that BW should be empowered to realise income from redundant non-operational assets and also be allowed to engage in medium to low risk commercial activities. This was not an unreasonable direction.
43. However I believe BW have reached the point where most of the family silver on which to base such activities has been exploited (not always successfully). There is therefore a fear and increasing evidence that BW are becoming engaged in much more speculative activities.
44. Although BW try to manage risk in their most speculative schemes, for instance through subsidiary businesses and partnerships with the private sector, it also appears that the speculative costs of entering such arrangements are high.
45. When individual users seek to scrutinise or influence these activities, especially to get a feel for front end costs versus longer terms outcomes and potential gains, we are consistently met with what I can only describe as a wall of so called commercial confidentiality.
46. The result seems to be that BW's most risky and speculative schemes are those least subject to direct scrutiny by stakeholders.
47. The financial risks are much more severe where the assets concerned were purchased speculatively, as opposed to being those held historically.
48. A fear is that major errors of judgement are being concealed or downplayed.
49. There is also a fear among some stakeholders that BW are currently so financially fragile and that they are unduly commercially exposed. It might only take one large scheme to fail and their commercial programme as whole may stall through lack of cash. Some of BW's public comments about the effect of cuts to grant in aid seem to support such a fear.
Potential for growth in leisure and freight use of the waterways network
50. I will simply say that I believe there is great potential for BW in these respects but I have grave doubts about BW's ability to deliver on such objectives, for the reasons discussed herein and others.
Relationships between British Waterways and central Government departments, Regional Development Agencies and local authorities
51. Much could be said on this but I will limit my comments to the context of BW's property and regeneration activities.
False reliance on the local planning process
52. A trend I have observed is that in the local planning process, because BW have often not consulted effectively, local communities and individuals frequently feel obliged raise objections to redevelopment schemes with the local authority.
53. My impression is that BW are relying far to heavily on local authority planning processes to do (or not) the sorts of consultation that they should ideally be undertaking from the outset.
54. In a number of cases even after permission for a scheme is not granted at the first attempt, BW still refuse to fully engage with the relevant parties or the local authority. Instead BW frequently proceed to planning enquiries.
55. BW also frequently apply sometimes sophisticated (though sometimes not very -allegations of dirty tricks are far too frequent), and presumably expensive, PR to the problem.
56. This way of dealing with objectors seems a highly inefficient and ineffective use of resources when simply sitting down with the parties and consulting and negotiating effectively before the initial planning application might have in many cases improved matters, even if only to clarify and fully assess the merit of individual objections.
57. This is also a relatively expensive way to proceed because BW often cause significant resources to also be expended on the part of local authorities as such case are pursued through the appeal system.
58. As a consequence relationships with some local authorities appear strained. This in turn probably makes some local authorities much more sceptical of future proposals.
59. There is consequently at best a degree of scepticism in some communities about this aspect of BW's work, communities, which might otherwise positively influence local authorities and other agencies to support BW's work. This in turn feeds a strong general sense of mistrust over this area of BW's work from "ordinary" users.
60.The executive summary I have offered deals with my conclusions arising out of these comments.
61. I would be happy to offer further evidence to elaborate or clarify anything contained in this submission and I confirm that I am content with these views being publicly available.