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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400 - 419)



  400. That was not the point I was making, Dr Fletcher.
  (Dr Fletcher) I will answer your point specifically. I just wanted to make that point quite clear to you, because you suggested that these things were booted up to the Minister for resolution. That suggestion is untrue. It does not apply in this case or in any other case, incidentally. What we are doing is land assembling on the Wakefield Waterfront site. What the board will authorise tomorrow, I am very optimistic, is over a million-pound purchase of additional land and buildings, and it is by taking this more integrated approach to the Wakefield Waterfront by this land assembly that we hope to produce an integrated and sustainable solution to where this gallery will go. I would also point out that this building that we are talking about is a Grade II* listed warehouse, so it is a very important and precious thing and we take great care before we move into these things.

  401. Had it been standing empty for 25 years?
  (Dr Fletcher) It has been standing empty for a long time. Whether it is 25 years I do not know, certainly ever since I have been in British Waterways in five years, yes.

  402. A bit of a dirty jewel then, by the time you got your hands on it?
  (Dr Fletcher) Yes. Many of these public assets have been not best used for many years and one of our particular remits is in a sustainable way to return them to public use so that they can benefit the public. If I could mention the other site, Chairman, this is at Sowerby Bridge, the salt warehouse, we have an excellent partnership there with Yorkshire Forward, the RDA in that area, and also with HLF. In our discussions with HLF on the bid that we submitted for funding they suggested that if we submitted it at a slightly lower level there would be a positive outcome, so there are some additional funds that we have put in there in our priority repair programmes to the salt warehouse, so the combination of ourselves, Yorkshire Forward and HLF looks like producing a very positive result. It will be just one of dozens and dozens of heritage structures. You heard of one of them in the evidence earlier when you had the local authority from the River Trent where we have refurbished a Grade II* listed warehouse there, so there are many other people that are quite delighted with what we are doing.

Miss McIntosh

  403. Could British Waterways explain to the Committee how in their view the collaboration agreement between themselves and the Environment Agency is currently operating?
  (Dr Greener) I would say that the collaboration agreement is enormously important. It extends of course way beyond an agreement on navigations, and in fact by far and away the most important aspects of it are not in the navigation area. At the operational level it is working well. Perhaps you would like to comment, Dr Fletcher.
  (Dr Fletcher) Eighty per cent of the agreement is working brilliantly and I think the recent collaboration in these disastrous floods we have had has demonstrated just how well we and the Environment Agency work together, the people that are working side by side, joint call-out, joint share of equipment. All that has gone very well. There are areas where there could perhaps be better activity and it is where we have some difficulty in having a proper remit on the ground because we do not in all areas have navigation responsibilities. It is this area where we do not have any navigation responsibility where we are less able to assist the Environment Agency in that collaborative effort. The agreement is going very well.

  404. Can I just raise a parochial problem? The boom at Boroughbridge came very much into play during recent floods and I have made a submission to British Waterways locally that apparently it is the angle at which the boom was put in place that is the problem. This highlights some of the problems we have between two agencies being involved. How do you envisage these problems both locally and nationally can be ironed out in the future?
  (Dr Fletcher) I do not actually know of the Boroughbridge boom issue.

  Chairman: We do not necessarily want to get into the angle of the boom just at the moment. I am sure it is tremendously important but not quite this second, if Miss McIntosh will forgive us.

Miss McIntosh

  405. I was just using it as an example of how we can iron out these difficulties. I understand that the Government has said in its paper that this was meant to be reviewed this year and this year is rapidly running to an end. What mechanisms do you have in place to iron out such difficulties?
  (Dr Fletcher) We have regular meetings at director level with the Environment Agency to go through our policies, so we have an action plan appended to the agreement that we have, about a 20-page action plan, with specific items in there with actionees down the side. That is what we review regularly with Dr Mance whom I think you are going to see later. He and I meet, and I also meet regularly with the Chief Executive and the Chairman meets regularly with the Chairman. The major activity takes place on the ground where our operational staff work intimately with each other. When I go on the bank it is often difficult to distinguish between an Environment Agency guy and my own employee because they work that closely. It is an intimate exchange in our water control, flood measures and environmental issues and this is going on hour by hour, day by day, and by and large it works really well.

  406. In your submission you have said that you enthusiastically support the targeted assistance to put in more freight on the waterways, and you conclude that freight traffic on the waterways can be doubled in the next five years. That seems a very ambitious plan and, bearing in mind that freight facilities grants are already heavily over-subscribed, how do you envisage that we can meet that target?
  (Dr Fletcher) We think that is quite a moderate target. I would set probably a higher target. I think we should try and triple that amount. That is not incomparable with what we have done some years ago. We think we can do that by moving waste, recyclable materials, aggregates and construction materials. If we can provide the wharfs and the channel capacities so that the freight operators can at least level the playing field with the roads and the railways by using track access grant and freight facilities grant (which I am told will be made available; I have been reassured there will be sufficient funds will be made available and they will not run out on the current rate of claims, although those claims have been much higher recently), that combination and renewed enthusiasm by ourselves to exploit freight can quite reasonably be done, doubling in five years. That is the target we have set. In partnership with the operators I think we have a high probability of doing that.

  407. Finally, do you envisage linking in much more strongly with coastal shipping and shortsea fleet shipping under these proposals to try and do something?
  (Dr Fletcher) Yes, we do indeed. We are working with the Government, the DETR, in the Freight Working Group, so we have partners in that group and that involves coastal people, Manchester Ship Canal people with our coastal activities, so yes, we are absolutely integrated.

Mr O'Brien

  408. Can I put it to the Chairman that you made a bid for the navigation responsibilities from the Environment Agency. Is there any evidence that the Agency's dual role causes problems in practice?
  (Dr Greener) To say it causes problems would be too strong but if you had put the question: are there opportunities by having the most appropriate body doing particular things, then the answer to that is yes, there are. If you look at what has been achieved relatively speaking in areas of regeneration, if you look at the progress that has been made on navigations for example that we have taken over, if you look at the speed with which we could probably introduce improved methods on asset management, if you look at the kind of increase in facilities that we could provide for users, if you look at the support that we could give for commercial operations, then I think for example to put it in summary we could advance what is implied by the Government White Paper, Waterways for Tomorrow, at quite a pace.

  409. What about the rivers themselves? The rivers are a complex means of travel. There are problems as we have witnessed over the past few months. What would be the attitude of British Waterways to the care of the rivers and the involvement of the rivers?
  (Dr Greener) The answer I would give you is that we would not say that there is a significant difference between rivers and canals. Many of our canals are canalised rivers and we do understand integrated river basin management pretty well. After all, integrated river basin management is not a new thing. We have been working within the context of integrated river basin management for quite some time. Do we cover all aspects of integrated river basin management? No, we do not. Do we need a very good, powerful, competent regulator to oversee what we do on navigations? Yes, we do. Is there a very important regulatory role in addition to the operational role that we have? Yes, I would say there is.

Mr Stevenson

  410. Can I just take you back to the Wakefield project. There are a couple of questions I would like to ask for clarification in terms of trying to understand better your priorities. We are told by yourselves that this building is extremely important, the whole area is extremely important, and that the building has been in your possession over a number of years. You cannot be more specific as to how long it has been in the possession of British Waterways?
  (Dr Fletcher) Presumably since British Waterways were formed, I would imagine, in the 1950s and 1960s.

  411. A long time.
  (Dr Greener) A long time.

  412. Who initiated this development proposal? Was it yourselves or somebody else?
  (Dr Fletcher) I do not know, sir, is the answer. I know we have been working closely—

  413. You do not know? Dr Greener says it is a vitally important approach: jobs, environment and so on, and yet here we have an important Grade II listed building, you say it is important, that has stood derelict for 25 years or more in your possession for the whole of that time and yet you do not know who initiated this project that there is so much controversy about.
  (Dr Greener) If I may, in answer to the question, when I say I do not know, it is because I absolutely do not know. If you ask me what do I think and what do I think in—

  Chairman: No, we are not asking you that, Dr Greener.

Mr Stevenson

  414. I simply want to understand. This has been in your possession for all this time. By your own admission it is important for jobs, heritage, the environment. What I want to know is, who initiated this important and, by definition, controversial project, and you do not know?
  (Dr Greener) No.

  415. I just find that, and I am sure if you were sitting in my position you would find that, a bit difficult to understand.
  (Dr Greener) No, I would not, sir.

  416. You would not?
  (Dr Greener) No.

  417. Oh, right. Well, that says a lot. Could I then ask another question? If you do not know who initiated this project why, if it is so important over the years that it has been in your ownership, have British Waterways not brought forward and initiated the project? Presumably you would know whether your own organisation brought forward the project or not.
  (Dr Greener) Yes.

  418. You did?
  (Dr Greener) Yes, and projects of this nature, including this one, have been brought forward and indeed many others. The thing I would like to suggest to you is the timescale under which people have been looking at these kinds of things. If, for example, you take a parallel example of Clarence Dock in Leeds, the site assembly and the visionary process that went into thinking about that, which is now a very successful, very important development, went on for how long, Stewart? Fifteen years?
  (Dr Fletcher) Yes.

  419. I understand the complexities. I think we all do. What I am just trying to get at is, at any time over the last 25 years, taking that 25-year period, has British Waterways initiated a project development on this site?
  (Dr Greener) I would stake my reputation and say yes.

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