C&RT still failing to fix the waterways

June 2017 - It seems C&RT is simply not repairing the network as fast as it is falling apart – something many boaters suspect from their personal experience – Allan Richards has been crunching the numbers.

Some months back, The Floater described how C&RT had failed to meet its most important maintenance target for the 2015/16 financial year. At the beginning of the year (April 1 2015), the Trust had some 59,133 recorded defects on its 2,000 miles of waterways (up from 50,579 the previous year).

It designated 5,807 (9.8 per cent) as ‘high priority’ to be cleared within 12 months. High priority defects are those that take precedence over other defects due to safety or customer service impact.

Such was the importance of clearing these defects that they formed part of the Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) reported to the board on a bi-monthly basis throughout the year. The KPI stipulated that '95 per cent of planned High Priority Customer Service/Safety related Infrastructure Defects cleared' by year end.

However, despite very early and ongoing signs that the Trust was severely under-performing during 2015/16 against interim target figures, the board failed to take any action. As such the year-end result was 50 per cent. The Trust only managed to close 2,910 of the 5,807 defects designated high priority that year. This was not only well below the target of 95 per cent, but below the 81 per cent actually achieved in 2014/15.

Boaters might have hoped that the Trustees, having ignored ignored the in-year warning signs, would have acted to ensure that the failure was not repeated the following year. In particular, one would have hoped that the the 2897 defects outstanding at 2015/16 year end would be tackled the following year. After all, they were designated high priority due to safety or customer service impact and should take precedence over defects.

Unfortunately, no action was taken by the board. They did not even ensure that a KPI was set for 2016/17 and thus were not in a position to monitor C&RT's performance in the year following the disastrous results. This inaction happened despite the number of recorded defects on the system having risen over the twelve month period from 59,133 to 63,279.

Responding to a Freedom of Information request, the Trust has admitted that it only closed 2,809 high priority defects last year (at a cost of £12,808,982). That's 101 less than the 2910 it closed in 2015/16.

The perceptive may have noticed that the 2,809 high priority defects closed last year is also less than the 2897 outstanding from the previous year! The figures split down as follows. At the start of the year, 1 April 2016, C&RT had some 63,279 recorded defects on its system with 2897 high priority defects carried over from the previous year. During 2016/17 it managed to close just 1,088 carried over defects and 1,809 new ones.

It is estimated that the total number of defects is now over 65,000 - that's 32 per mile of waterway. However, when asked a precise figure for 1 April 2017, C&RT said: “'The total number of defect notifications as at 1 April 2017 was 9,183. We initiated a notification project in June 2016. This project has reviewed all open notifications as well as new ones being raised. New business rules have been developed to re-categorise all notifications across 3 categories. These categories are faults, defects and condition. The approach follows best practice in asset management in the utility sector.”

Is this the waterways equivalent of fiddling whilst Rome burns? Figures for the two new categories have been requested but, to date, not provided.

In 2008, British Waterways estimated that it had a maintenance backlog of £200m. An £800,000 report by KPMG found that this figure was only slightly pessimistic. The report explicitly stated that, without increased investment, the backlog would grow. However, C&RT now refuse to supply updated figures for its backlog, claiming it would be too costly to do so.

Based on the 2016/17 defect figures provided, it is probable that the maintenance backlog is now well over £300m. That figure excludes dredging where, as far back as 2011, the Waterways Minister gave the backlog as as £40m - a figure that some commentators believe is unrealistically low.

C&RT's board currently has the following committees -

Appointments Committee
Audit and Risk Committee
Investment Committee
Fundraising Committee
Remuneration Committee
Nominations Committee

Perversely, In the five years of its existence, it has never had a 'Maintenance Committee' to oversee its statutory duties regarding maintaining its waterways and, of course,its related charitable objects.

Now it might be that C&RT would say that maintenance is too important to delegate to a committee comprising of just a few of its Trustees. However, minutes of its board meetings tend not to support this.

Its minutes suggest that that Trustees are much more interested in growing C&RT's property portfolio and other non-operational assets at the expense of actually maintaining the waterways ....

Photos: (1st) Schedule of KPI's for 2015/16, (2nd) No KPI set for 2017.

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