Failed bid may be end of the road for EA waterways transfer

February 2018 - On 17 October, C&RT wrote to Waterways Minister, Therese Coffey, setting out terms for transfer of Environment Agency Waterways. More than three months later, on 25 January 2018, a meeting of C&RT’s board of trustees were told that the bid had failed. Allan Richards asks if we are now at the end of the road, and all hope of C&RT getting the Environment Agency's navigations has dissappeared?

The morning after the board meeting The Floater broke the news of the rejection and, that evening, C&RT's bi-weekly Boaters Update had a short statement appended to it saying that the transfer would not proceed.

Back in October 2010, the Government announced that British Waterways would move from a public corporation to a charity and it also looked at moving EA waterways to the new charity on its formation.

However, plans to incorporate EA waterways were quickly shelved. On 28 February 2011, Waterways Minister, Richard Benyon stated that the government was committed to a transfer but that it was deferred to 2015/16 and subject to affordability and agreement of the charities trustees. He added that, in 2014, the performance of the new charity would be reviewed and options considered for the transfer of the navigations. This never happened.

In August 2014, The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Waterways produced its ‘Report from the Inquiry into the Progress and Future of the Canal and River Trust’. Whilst part of the inquiry dealt with the Environment Agency navigations transfer to C&RT it certainly did not consider transfer options.

The Group was told by Richard Benyon’s replacement, Dan Rogerson, that it was still government's intention to transfer the EA waters. However, it was no longer a priority and no money existed in governments 2015/16 three year spending review to finance it.

It would appear that Rogerson had kicked the ball into the long grass for a second time.
The APPG were told that C&RT, EA and IWA all supported the transfer. However, the National Association of Boat Owners (NABO) took the opposite view saying that CRT had not demonstrated that they are able to fully manage their own Waterways and were therefore not ready to take on more navigations.

APPG politcians were assured by C&RT’s chief executive, Richard Parry, that C&RT would be able to run the transferred navigations at equal or lower cost. They were also told by C&RT chair, Tony Hales, that ‘a few million’ would be required to resource a due diligence process as EA/C&RT would need to carry out an analysis on a ‘weir by weir’ basis. APPG suggested that ‘due diligence’ proceed with the cost being split between Defra, EA and C&RT.

Government did not take up APPG’s suggestion of partially funding ‘due diligence’. Why should they, having said that that transfer was no longer a priority and no money existed?

Instead, EA met with C&RT occasionally to kick the transfer ‘ball’ around. The two organisations eventually decided to proceed without government sanction or funding.

Almost two years ago, in February 2016, EA/C&RT announced that they had formed a joint working group ‘to explore different options for running the 620 miles of EA-managed river navigations.’

Later that same year, C&RT were privately briefing that they would know by Christmas if Defra was still interested in a transfer taking place. Then silence until mid 2017 when it was reported the EA was planning on the transfer NOT taking place!

Contrary to expectations, towards the end of 2017 it became apparent C&RT had secretly made a proposal to Defra . Nabo were quick to express concerns to MP’s: “We are NOT in favour of CRT taking over responsibility for the waters currently managed by the EA. In our view, from a boater’s perspective, CRT has yet to demonstrate that it is able to maintain and improve the canals and rivers. Indeed there remains an ongoing and increasing need for dredging and lock maintenance to ensure year-round navigation.

"We also do not feel that splitting the role ofsome time in the f the EA between navigation and flood relief will be efficient, nor will CRT be able to adequately assess and future-proof the funding required to manage its increased responsibilities.

“Our further concern is that the Waterways Partnerships, which were seen by DEFRA as key to the introduction of additional, locally-sourced funds for CRT, have failed miserably and are instead now an additional expense.”

It is not known if current Waterways Minister, Therese Coffey, took note of NABO’s concerns. Certainly she should have done as NABO had sucessfully argued against BW taking over EA waterways as long ago as 2001. Suffice to say, C&RT eventually quietly admitted in its ‘Bits and Bobs’ section of Boaters Update that the bid had failed.

Its words were: “We are disappointed to report that Defra has indicated that it is not minded to proceed with the transfer of the river navigations currently managed by the Environment Agency to the Canal & River Trust. Having worked positively and collaboratively with the EA over the past 18 months or so to put forward a proposal, we remain convinced that the transfer would be in the wider public interest. It would deliver the real essence of value for taxpayers, and benefits for the users of these waterways whilst securing the long term future of the navigations themselves. We will of course continue to cooperate actively with the EA in the running of our respective navigations to ensure the best possible experience for all river and canal users.”

The more perceptive will note, contrary to EA and IWA statements on the failed bid, C&RT makes no mention of a transfer happening at a later date.

So are we at the end of the road for EA transfer? Certainly it would seem so in the short to medium term. C&RT has made a proposal and it has been rejected. In the longer term,who knows? Maybe it will rear its ugly head again when government funding for C&RT ceases in in less than ten years time.

Sadly, we are unable to bring you details of C&RT’s proposal and Defra’s rejection letter. Back on December 8 2017, C&RT were asked to provide a copy of its proposal and subsequent correspondence. Currently, they are refusing to do so.

What are they trying to hide?

Photos: (1st) Richard Parry claimed to Government that C&RT could run EA navigations at 'equal or lower cost', (2nd) Tony Hales said due diligence would cost millions.

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