Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



Mr O'Brien

  80. What concerns do you have about the current structure of navigation responsibilities for inland waterways?
  (Mr Edwards) One of the main problems we feel is a lack of coordination between the different navigation authorities and, for example, the different licensing arrangements that are required for different navigation authorities. We are very pleased that British Waterways and the Environment Agency have taken some moves to create some sort of licence that will allow boats to transfer from one navigation to the other without separate licensing. We believe an awful lot more work needs to be done in this respect. There needs to be a much closer working together between all the navigation authorities involved in the country. They are different bodies with their own sets of rules and some of them have very antiquated legislation. It can be very difficult for users of waterways to appreciate all the different parts of the regulations that apply to different authorities.
  (Mr Pearce) The two major navigation authorities are British Waterways and the Environment Agency. In my written evidence, I refer to the fundamental dichotomy that I believe is current in the Environment Agency. To be absolutely blunt, whilst cooperation has gone a long way between these two navigation authorities on the subject of navigation, I do not think it is ever going to work properly and I believe that the navigation authorities' role—that is, the development for all purposes, leisure, freight, whatever—should be divested with British Waterways. This would help. We ought to have some form of over-arching planning structure, but perhaps you will want to come on to that.

  81. What are the stumbling blocks? Why do we not have the system that you have suggested? Obviously it has been suggested before. What is the problem?
  (Mr Pearce) Maybe inertia?

  82. On whose part?
  (Mr Pearce) This has been suggested before. In fact, I have suggested it before. The Environment Agency jealously guards its right to plan in given river basins but this does not mean to say that we should not allow another professional operator to operate the waterways as a navigation authority. For whatever reason, the cooperation that has been going on in the last five years since the Environment Agency was created has not really got to the stage of making this seamless navigation work. We are interested in a fully integrated system and, whilst gold licences for use of craft on both the Environment Agency waters and British Waterways' waters are a step forward, there is still more that can be done.

  83. Can you give us some indications of the benefits if the waterways were under one authority?
  (Mr Pearce) There would I think be no hesitation about standards, maintenance standards, standards of operating the waterways, if there were one organisation that could set the standards. I am not necessarily saying that all the minor trusts should be included in a major authority, but if there is someone setting the standard, leading the way, I think this will give advantage, not only for leisure use but indeed for developing freight.
  (Mr Edwards) It is very difficult for the smaller navigation authorities to provide sufficient investment to develop waterways and to attract new users to them. If the waterways were better coordinated between them and the funding between them was better coordinated so that the big ones could support the little ones a bit more, that would help an equal development of standards and the future restoration of the waterways to enable the network of the inland waterways to gradually expand on an even basis, encouraging people to use it at the same time. At the moment, it is rather uneven, depending upon the resources of individual authorities. British Waterways have a bigger resource so their waterways can often attract new uses and new developments and action slightly easier than some of the other authorities can because of sheer size, experience and the breadth of the staff and so on.

Mr Brake

  84. What conflicts do you see between your activities, freight activities and wildlife biodiversity issues?
  (Mr Edwards) We see very little conflict between all three activities. Most waterway users would see themselves as conservationists and certainly the early members of our organisation saw themselves very much as conserving the waterways and wildlife. The voluntary sector has put in at least hundreds of thousands of pounds to benefit wildlife on the waterways. It is one of the main attractions for boaters to see a kingfisher or a heron along the waterways. As to freight, we tend to work, all parties, with freight transport. There do not seem to be any problems at all. Very often, the freight traffics are a major attraction, not only for other boaters but also for visitors and tourists who see the older barges, narrow boats or even the larger craft along the inland waterways. It is something that people will come and look at, marvel at and want to see. In some instances, there needs to be careful planning to try and ensure that all the different users of the waterways do not fall into conflict with each other, but underlying there is a very close liaison between all the different parties in the inland waterways. Those small numbers of conflicts that do occur at the extreme edges tend to be noteworthy themselves in that they are the very few which appear in the press.
  (Mr Pearce) I would largely agree with that. There is room on the waterways for us all. Thinking particularly of freight, I am convinced that a professional navigation operator can indeed resolve local difficulties if they arise. Thinking more about the natural environment, all boaters, all my members, delight in the beauty of the natural environment in which they cruise. One of my own club members was really delighted to have seen a kingfisher in London the other day and to see it feed as well. Fair minded people can get together and take a balanced approach when it comes to matters of the natural environment because, after all, it is navigation on these waterways that keeps them vital and alive.

  85. I am very pleased to hear you say this but I wonder if you are not presenting too rosy a picture in that there must be conflict between, say, the wildlife or biodiversity interests where they want to maintain the bank in a very natural form, which I would have thought conflicts with freight operations and possibly your type of activities.
  (Mr Pearce) Could I suggest that you might like to go and see some of the work that has been done, mainly on the South Oxford Canal, a very popular canal for leisure cruising. The banks have been particularly tackled here to make them not only robust but friendly to things like water vole so that they can get on and off. There are ways and means of looking at this sympathetically. I would hope that we can all continue to live together and that we would not get to a situation where navigation on a restored waterway is banned simply because one particular species might, I emphasise "might", be disturbed.
  (Mr Edwards) There are occasionally instances where certain sites on waterways, particularly those under restoration, are deemed to be of particular wildlife importance. Therefore, there are obviously very understandable fears from people that development of those waterways might lead to loss of wildlife benefits. Indeed, some such sites have been declared Sites of Special Scientific Interest and Special Areas of Conservation and so on. In such instances, it is nearly always possible to put in place special mitigation measures, whether it be extra bank protection or extra expense on the construction or all sorts of things. Where perhaps there is a difficulty and where help is needed at the moment is when such sites are suggested, identified and so on, they are usually announced and the waterways lobby has to try and live with that, adjust for it and cope with it, but there does not seem to be any finance to go with it to help solve those problems. Usually, when a site is declared of particular wildlife interest, it means additional expenditure to help preserve that wildlife interest, which I think everybody is pleased to see happen, but that expenditure tends to fall on hard pressed restoration societies, the voluntary sector, who are trying to restore the waterway for another purpose. What is needed is further funding to recognise the importance of that wildlife by providing sufficient resources so that solutions can be found and the very need for any potential conflicts is rooted out at source.


  86. You are not saying that there is a conflict between restoration and conservation in the terms that it could be easily ameliorated by extra cash? Is that what you are saying?
  (Mr Edwards) There ought not to be need for conflict.

  87. We all know what we ought not to have. What about the present situation in the Montgomery Canal?
  (Mr Edwards) I believe that is one where equitable solutions will be found because all the parties including the Wildlife Trusts, the Countryside Council for Wales and English Nature are talking together through the central body of the Montgomery Waterway Restoration Trust. It would be wrong to hide that there have been difficulties in the past and there are sensitivities. There are members in each of these organisations who are perhaps at the extreme ends of views. Within every organisation, there are people who believe so much more strongly in their view that they may fall into difference of opinion with those who are at the very extreme of the other end of the view. There are cases where people have fears and a lot of it is worry and concern for what might happen rather than what is scientifically shown to happen. It is the job of all of us to ensure that those conflicts are resolved. We do not think it is impossible to do that. We believe it is a main aim we should try for.

Mr Olner

  88. Is there any evidence that the standard of maintenance and facilities varies between those facilities provided by the Environment Agency and those provided by British Waterways?
  (Mr Pearce) I believe there is variation within those two bodies, maybe on a regional basis. Yes, much has been done in British Waterways to set standards and to make advances in this respect. In some respects, they have got there quicker than the Environment Agency, but there are some concerns, I know, within the people who use the Environment Agency's navigations at the moment, on the standard of maintenance.

  89. Could you give the Committee a feel as to how wide these regional variances are? You did not answer the question directly as to who was the best, British Waterways or the Environment Agency. You skirted around that and said, "There are regional variations." Which are the worst regions and which are the best?
  (Mr Edwards) Taking the Environment Agency's navigations, if one looks along the Thames you will see high standards of maintenance in terms of the attendance of lock keepers, electrically powered gates and so on. There are many, many users of the Thames. Therefore, they justify a very high expenditure to keep them up to standard because the income is there for them to do so. On the other hand, if you looked at the agency's navigations in East Anglia, particularly on the River Nene and the Great Ouse, you would find those navigations in a very run down state and a lot of work being needed to get them into good order. Perhaps because there are so many more structures that require maintenance and there are fewer boaters using them. That is one area where, within one authority, there are great differences in standards. British Waterways have, over recent years, been trying to improve their standards and to recognise that there has been an awful backlog of maintenance work. They are trying to pull that forward, but the Environment Agency has greatly been disadvantaged because its navigation is seen as such an extraordinarily low priority within the Agency and its funding has been cut so dramatically within recent years that, despite the valiant efforts of lock keepers and members of the agency staff on the Thames, they have struggled to maintain standards and generally they are recognised as not being as good as they used to be. It is no fault of the individual staff members concerned; it is down to lack of funding.
  (Mr Pearce) I would agree with all that.

  90. Mr Pearce, you mentioned inertia earlier. Do you think there ought to be a new national navigation authority?
  (Mr Pearce) I wrote a paper along those lines five years ago. Whether we would call it a navigation authority or a strategic body or an over-arching planning authority, I believe we need something. We should encourage British Waterways to take the lead as the main professional body, and I have already given my view about what should happen to the Environment Agency navigations. We need some form of strategic body.

  91. How would that body be composed?
  (Mr Pearce) I think that is a leading question.

  92. It is an important question.
  (Mr Pearce) I believe we have to work with what we have. On balance, I believe we should look to enhance the role of IWAAC, the Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council.
  (Dr Squires) The fundamental problem is that we do not have a means by which there can be an over-arching strategy for waterways. Whether this is because the different elements of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions are each following their own particular avenue rather than looking at an over-arching strategy is a question that you and your colleagues only can answer, but it must be that a national conservancy which is looking at all of the many benefits and aspects of the use of our waterways is a far better way of dealing with the issues. The problem is that we have a history of a large number of individual navigation authorities, a large number of vested interests and a large number of structures, none of which can easily be dismantled without a major work on your part.

Mr Bennett

  93. You have suggested that there is no conflict between boat users and nature conservation. What about the question of paying for it? Do you think the balance between what the taxpayer pays at the moment for the system, what the boat users pay and what the anglers pay is about right?
  (Mr Edwards) At the moment, the boaters and possibly the anglers, who are the main groups who directly pay for their use of the waterways, pay as much as the market will stand and at least as much as is equitable. The general taxpayer, if you like, benefits enormously from the waterways and therefore it is not unreasonable to expect a budget to come from both central and local resources, from the taxpayer. The reason for this is that most of those who use the waterways and most of those who benefit from them cannot be directly charged. You could not conceivably put turnstiles on the towing path. You could not charge people who feed the ducks and appreciate the boats going past. You could not very easily charge all those who benefit from regeneration through city centres and rural areas of the waterways. So many people visit the waterways out of the population. British Waterways could provide more accurate figures from their research, I am sure, but the vast majority of the population of this country, one way or another, at some time or other, appreciates, uses and benefits from the inland waterways. Only a minuscule proportion of that number, the boaters and the anglers, pay for the direct privilege. All the rest of the people pay for it through their taxes. The proportions of people who pay directly and those who pay benefit indirectly are so far outweighing that there is a very good argument for more money going in from central resources. It should not just be seen as lost money; it is very much an investment to regenerate city centres and rural areas.

  94. You would firmly argue that the taxpayer should pay more but is it not the boaters who have pressed for the restoration of very substantial amounts of canal? The Rochdale Canal is now being restored. The Huddersfield narrow one is being restored. Boaters were the ones who campaigned. As far as nature conservation as far as walkers are concerned, they were perfectly adequate as they were. That adds very considerably to the overheads, does it not, of maintaining the waterways by having all that brought back into use. Ought not boaters to contribute a bit more?
  (Mr Edwards) No. If you took each individual restoration society and canal society and analysed how many of its members owned or used a boat, I am confident you would find in virtually every canal society's case it would be less than half. The vast majority of the people who are members of canal restoration groups are local people who want their local area improved. They want to see amenity for their particular area. The individual canal societies tend to be fairly parochial in their membership and they tend to be a very diverse cross-section of people.

  95. The hirers of boats: it seems to be an industry that is in decline. Why is that? Is that because there is too much crime on the canals?
  (Mr Edwards) I do not think that is the cause. I think the causes are very diverse. Partly it is the competition of other attractions and partly it is to do with management.

  96. Going on a narrow boat is boring?
  (Mr Edwards) Certainly not but conveying that to people is very difficult. 20 years ago, the range of holidays that people could afford to go on was much narrower than it is now. There is now so much more competition and people can afford to go to many far off places that they could not afford previously. Drawing attention of potential hirers to the benefits of being hirers and the wonders of waterways is a much more difficult thing than it was previously.

Mr Blunt

  97. On the issue of public subsidy, how much does it cost leisure boat users to license boats?
  (Mr Edwards) It depends upon the length but for a full length narrow boat it would be in the region of about £500 per year on British Waterways, and there are also mooring fees up to about £1,000 to £1,500.

  98. What proportion of that, if you are paying to run the boat, goes towards running costs and maintenance costs?
  (Mr Edwards) It obviously depends upon the size of the boat but it is a very substantial proportion of it. It depends if you include the depreciation of the boat and all sorts of things like that. Boating can be an expensive hobby. One of our fears is that it is becoming a pastime for the better off and this is a serious concern because we strongly believe that the waterways should be for all classes and all incomes. It is difficult for the smaller newcomer to the waterways to find a starting point at a modest rate because of the high charges that exist for licences and moorings.

  99. What would those charges be for the average sized recreational gin palace?
  (Mr Pearce) I can give you a precise example. My boat is 40 feet long. The annual licence is, in round figures, £400 and I believe at St Pancras Cruising Club I have the cheapest moorings in London but they are £1,000 a year. A lot of people have gone out of boating and narrow boats in recent years because of considerable cost to implement the boat safety scheme. Those of us who are practical and do much of the work ourselves, a few hundred pounds maybe, but people have been involved in thousands of pounds in terms of modifications to meet the standards.

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