Waterway Partnerships – success or failure?

September 2017 - C&RT’s Waterways Partnerships are now in the sixth year of operation. The ten regional based Partnerships have between them around 100 members. However, over 50 members including all but one chair are due to step down in the next few months on expiry of office. Allan Richards investigates whether they are serving any useful purpose.

Six years ago, British Waterways stated the role of Waterways Partnerships was to “help shape plans for each waterway.” It added “They guide the Trust’s decisions about spending and help develop local engagement, external funding while championing the interests of the waterways.”

However, within a year of British Waterways becoming Canal & River Trust , the role of Waterways Partnerships was already being questioned. The All Party Parliamentary Group for Waterways, led by Sir Tony Baldry MP and Huw Irranca-Davies MP, both former Waterways Ministers, conducted an inquiry to evaluate the progress and plans of C&RT's Waterway Partnerships.​

The inquiry found no Partnership had a completed plan and recommended that strategic plans were put in place within a year. Furthermore, it was found that Waterways Partnerships lacked clarity of role.

One WP member stated the relationship with his Waterways Manager was poor, adding "my impression so far is that the Waterways Manager is leading our Chairman and every time we raise an issue we are told that it is operational and therefore not part of our remit. We are being treated as a glorified PR and fundraising group with no input into how the waterway is actually managed."

The parliamentary report made the following recommendation - “To ensure that Waterway Partnerships have clarity of role and stakeholders are clear of the purpose of the Waterway Partnerships in order to maximise their effectiveness and utility.”

Today, that clarity of role is as elusive as ever ...

The report also stated that funding is a crucial aspect of the WP's with CEO, Robin Evans quoted as saying that he expected the Partnerships to be self-funded and a source of revenue to C&RT.

The committee were told that one Waterway Partnership had already won an £80,000 grant and were working on finding more. This claim, it transpired, was simply untrue. Indeed, none of the Waterways Partnerships that exist today are self funding. ... and none have become a source of revenue to C&RT.

Instead, it appears that the Trust has been funding projects so that Partnerships can be involved - or offering to fund Partnership initiated projects. Even that now appears to have ceased.

A follow-up report, in August 2014, noted that Waterways Partnerships development of income streams had, so far, been unsuccessful. It reiterated recommendations made in the previous report.

C&RT’s response to the first parliamentary report was to work with each Waterways Partnership to produce strategic plans. The work was undertaken by Roger Hanbury (Head of Governance Services, now retired), Heather Clarke (Head of Planning, now Strategy and Planning Director) and Julie Sharman (Head of Enterprise, now Asset Management Director) in conjunction with the Partnerships.

The project resulted in two documents per Waterway. By the middle of 2014, each Waterway Partnership had published a ten year strategic plan and a three year rolling action plan on C&RT’s website.

So how have Waterways Partnerships performed against the plans they agreed with C&RT just over three years ago.

Simply, nothing can be found that documents progress against rolling plans or extends those rolling plans for future years. Indeed, with the exception of Kennet & Avon Waterway Partnership, links to rolling action plans have been removed from the ‘Our Regions’ part of C&RT’s website where other information related to partnerships (including some of the ten year strategic plans) is held.

At face value, it would appear that C&RT and its Waterways Partnerships do not wish to be judged on achievement against these plans.

Worse still, with a couple of notable exceptions, Waterways Partnerships are failing to publish minutes or notes of meetings held. Here is an analysis, of minutes/notes published taken from C&RT’s meetings calendar over the last six months (i.e. the first half of C&RT’s 2017/18 financial year) –

Waterway Partnership Meetings Held Minutes/Notes Published
West Midlands 5 5
North West 3 3
London 2 1
Kennet & Avon 2 0
Manchester & Pennine 1 0
North East 3 0
North Wales & Borders 3 0
South East 2 0
South Wales & Severn 3 0
East Midlands 0 0

From the above, it can be seen that six Partnerships have failed to provide any notes/minutes of meetings for six months. This assumes that meetings scheduled actually took place! A further Partnership, East Midlands, has not had a meeting for six months according to the calendar.

At the other extreme, West Midlands has had five meetings and produced an average of three to four pages of notes for each of them. Sad to say, this achievement is rather spoiled by the ‘actions’ column being completely blank in the more recent ones.

To sum up, after more than five years, Waterways Partnerships are not self funding. After five years, they are failing to be a source of revenue. ... and, needless to say, any clarity of purpose provided by the publication of three year rolling action plans has been negated by the removal of those plans and the absence of minutes or notes which might record any progress or achievement.

So what is C&RT doing about this? Earlier this year, the Trust commissioned a review of its partnerships by an outside body. Whilst there will be changes, Partnerships have been told that they will be minor as they are 'doing a good job'.

Indeed, there seems to be a move to extend the terms of office of existing Partnership chairs and some members.

Perhaps C&RT are concerned the failures of Waterways Partnerships are linked to a failure of the Trust.

Which, of course, they are ...

Photos: (1st) Ten year plan, (2nd) K&A Three year plan, (3rd) John Best South East Partnership chair, (4th) Mark Penny North East Partnership chair, (5th) Peter Matthews West Midlands Partnership chair, (6th) Sir Brian Fender, London Partnership chair, (7th) Tasmin Phipps Kennet and Avon Partnership chair, will keep her job (8th) Walter Menzies Manchester, Potteries and Pennine Partnership chair (9th) Bob Pointing, North West Partnership chair (10th) Brenda Harvey North Wales and Borders Partnership chair (11th) David Haggs South West and Severn Partnership chair.

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