Friday, 18 December 2009

British Waterways wants to become a charity...

... and says it will look for an army of volunteers to help it run things.

It says charitable status will be a way of creating a new "income stream". I doubt if the pun was intended.

Today, on Today on BBC Radio 4, there was a three minute interview with Robin Evans, the head of British Waterways.

Listen again here (from 1:21:55; available until Christmas Day).

I have transcribed the interview below. Andrew Denny brought the press release to our attention yesterday, but he didn't explain what "third sector" means. Thankfully, that phrase didn't occur in today's (or Today's) interview, which was conducted by business presenter Adam Shaw.

Others will make more informed comments than I can, but do we really want BW to become a charity? I don't think so. If funding from central Government isn't forthcoming, I think asking for increased funding from local authorities through whose areas the waterways run might be the way to go. After all, the waterways bring many economic benefits to the regions they serve. Of course, that could mean some areas suffering because of unenlightened local authorities, leading to possible breaks in waterways rings and an atrophying of the system. And there's a danger that newly elected local authority leaders will reverse previous waterways-friendly policies. I don't know what the answer is.

Justin Webb: Twenty-two minutes past seven, here's an interesting approach to hard times: British Waterways, the organisation that protects more than 2,000 miles of canals and rivers, wants to turn itself into a charitable organisation in an attempt to sidestep any fire sale of Government assets. Here with that news is Adam again, morning, Adam.

Adam Shaw: Good morning to you, many thanks. Yes, British Waterways has been in the public sector actually since 1947. Earlier this year, of course, the Government announced plans to raise three billion pounds from the sale of various state-owned businesses, some of that would have come from property disposals at organisations like British Waterways which own some very valuable riverside real estate, but now it's looking to convert to charitable status in an effort to protect those assets and raise more money. Well earlier I spoke to the chief executive of British Waterways, Robin Evans, and I began by asking him why he wanted to become a charity.

Robin Evans: I think for two reasons. We want to give the public a greater sense of ownership of the waterways. They feel disenfranchised at the moment. Um, if more people felt a sense of ownership, they'd come to that with a sense of responsibility and then they would participate more and give more.

AS: It's very ironic you say that there isn't a sense of ownership when, when it's in public ownership we do actually own it, you're suggesting you take it out of public ownership and suddenly everyone feels they own it even when they don't, I mean, it's the complete opposite of what is the case?

RE: It, it, it's very interesting but I think that's absolutely how it is. People do feel that things which are in public ownership are kind of remote. Their governance is remote. People are appointed to a board in a rather strange and remote way, whereas if they're a charity, people do see that those charities are for the people and owned by the people.

AS: Sceptics might suggest you'd be making this move at this moment because the Government's after cash and you're sitting there and you could be sold off by the Government and this is a, a way of sidestepping privatisation. How do you, how do you plead to such a charge?

RE: Well I think everyone in the public sector has a duty to try and reduce the burden on the public purse, and there must be innovative ways to do that, and this is one. This is a way in which we hope we can reduce the burden on the public purse, but at the same time, you know, create a new income stream, and create a massive new army of volunteers to come and help us run the waterways.

AS: You see, talking to you, it makes it sound to me as if this is not a philosophical move on your behalf at all, it is a funding issue, this is a way of protecting your future, which is a completely laudable thing to do, but it is not suddenly because you had a, a change of heart and you want to work in the charity sector?

RE: Let's be quite clear, um, two years ago we produced a report that said we need 30 million pounds more per annum to maintain the waterways in their current condition, in other words, we're not spending enough money on the maintenance. So this is a long term plan for the future. We need to build a new income stream from charitable donations, charitable funds, and volunteer help.

AS: Of course, the waterways were, were built for industrial purposes, er, do they still serve any significant industrial rôle?

RE: We still carry quite a lot of freight, primarily in the north, and we built a new lock recently at the Olympic site, and we're taking a vast amount of construction traffic in and out of the Olympics, but essentially throughout the 2,200 miles it's a leisure resource. You know, there are more leisure boats now on the inl, on the waterways than there were industrial boats in the time of the Industrial Revolution. Eleven million people come onto our towpaths each year, three hundred million visits, so, really it's about recreation and leisure these days, but in the north and in certain waterways, freight still has a part to play.

AS: And that was Robin Evans, the boss of British Waterways, talking to me a little earlier.

JW: Thank you Adam, twenty-five past seven...

1 comment:

Neil Corbett said...

We already have one canal funded largely by local authorities - the Basingstoke Canal which has been closed most of the time the LAs have been involved because they can't or won't keep up the maintenance funding. And I speak as someone who worked in LAs for over 30years.

Just like HMGov, the public budgets are too overstretched with things seen (rightly) as higher priorities such as care for the elderly, education, etc. If they are struggling to afford those, they certainly won't have enough left for canals.

If BW could escape the vagaries of government funding, given a decent dowery, it might be better off. Organisations like the National Trust do so quite well.