Examination of Witnesses (Questions 440
WEDNESDAY 29 NOVEMBER 2000
(In the absence of the Chairman, Mr Bennett
was called to the Chair)
440. I wonder, Dr Greener, if you could tell
the Committee whether you think there is need for an over-arching
body to ensure that the interests of all waterways users are taken
(Dr Greener) In one sense there is an over-arching
body and that of course is Government. We are very clear about
Government strategy, Government policy and elements of strategy
which are coming out of policy. To follow on from my answer to
Mr O'Brien's question, on what we think about the right kind of
structure, clearly we are taking about a very important and capable
regulator that exists already. That is the Environment Agency.
We are talking about a navigation authority, British Waterways
(which is actually a public body) that has an independent Board.
Alongside that we have an advisory committee taking the views
of all kinds of constituencies, called IWAAC. In addition to that
we have an Association of Navigation Authorities, and again, in
line with Government policy, British Waterways takes a lead where
the smaller navigation authorities get great benefit in terms
of the transfer of best practice from British Waterways.
441. You seem to be extremely skilful, Dr Greener,
in saying, "Not me, boss. It is somebody else". Could
you actually answer whether in fact you think the remit of the
Amenity Advisory Council would be strong enough to have this over-arching
look at the industry?
(Dr Greener) The answer to that is yes and I think
it does. Indeed, one of the positive things in Waterways for
Tomorrow is an extension of their role. I know you have had
a recommendation from their Chairman. You should cross out the
word "Amenity" and simply put "The Inland Waterways
Advisory Council". We very strongly support IWAAC and IWAAC
as it develops.
442. Do you think there is any tension or conflict
of interest between the restoration of navigations and nature
(Dr Greener) There is obviously potential conflict
because clearly if you look at the starting points of these various
organisations it is obvious that conflicts could arise. We see
it as part of our role to make sure that we facilitate the process
to make sure that conflicts are managed and that we do get sustainable
solutions which are to everyone's benefit and the benefit of environment
and heritage. All of the work that we do with bodies like English
Nature and English Heritage points in that direction because we
have a number of very successful solutions.
443. Would you say those tensions are lessening
or are they much the same as they have always been?
(Dr Greener) I would call them healthy tensions. If
you have got these kinds of issues of that sort of complexity
with the various bodies that are involved in these kinds of things,
there is bound to be good, healthy tension. I am not concerned
about good, healthy tension. We certainly have not yet to my knowledge
come up with unmanageable solutions.
(Dr Fletcher) I think the relationships are improving
as the understanding between the various elements of tension improve.
I think the relationship is getting better and we are making more
and more progress in achieving this proper balance.
444. Could I finally ask about your employees
and their involvement? There was some evidence given to us by
the trade unions that they are bit a concerned that they are not
really part of the ownership of the BWB. You seem to be sub-contracting
an awful lot of work these days. How do you respond to those criticisms?
(Dr Fletcher) I was pleased to note as I sat listening
to their evidence that they felt that consultation and involvement
in British Waterways was excellent.
445. But there were tensions about sub-contracting.
(Dr Fletcher) What they were concerned about was the
large volume of work that is sub-contracted. British Waterways
have always operated a process of seeking best value for money.
Everything we do inside and outside is benchmarked, tested, and
we seek to achieve best value for money. There is an ebb and flow
of activity done by British Waterways' workers and outside workers.
Some work is lost to British Waterways' workers and then a few
years later when they bid again, because they have learned better
and they have put a better bid in, they get this work back. What
we seek to do is to retain essential skills for the operation
and management, the heritage dimension and the quality of the
waterways. We have always retained that central skill. I can reassure
you that those central skills will not be lost. Indeed, you will
notice in recent years our staff members and those central skills
have increased and improved in quality and in number.
446. Do you intend to reduce the amount of work
you put out to sub-contract?
(Dr Fletcher) No.
(Dr Fletcher) Because we seek to achieve best value,
best performance, best quality. That is what we are required to
Mr Olner: RailTrack might be saying that as
Mr Bennett: Let us just keep to the topic.
448. You mentioned earlier about devolution
and the work partnership. What lessons if any have you got from
your experience north of the border?
(Dr Greener) A tremendous amount. I think that what
we are doing there in terms of the way we are now organised there
and the structure we have there is going to be very significant
in helping us to do things better south of the border. The experience
we have got from the Millennium Link Project, the refurbishment
of Forth Clyde, the engineering work, the social work, the environmental
work, it has been of tremendous benefit to us. All of the work
that we have done on the refurbishment of the Caledonian Canal
again has been of enormous benefit, I would say.
449. What do you put that down to?
(Dr Greener) I would put it down to excellent core
skills in British Waterways, an excellent management team in Scotland,
and also a tremendous sense of purpose, understanding the importance
of what they are doing because they want the benefits that it
is generating. When you think about the Caledonian, for example,
no less than about 14 or 15 per cent of the tourist economy depends
on that. People know that this is their livelihoods and therefore
they have been very anxious to create benefits in terms of increased
jobs, for example. I think it is mutuality of benefit that is
450. Where would you say that lies in terms
of the relationships that you have? Is it with the Scottish Executive,
with the local authorities, or is it with the Local Enterprise
(Dr Greener) Yes, yes, yes; all of those.
451. So if you were to look at that as a model,
what then can be done south of the border to reflect that which
would improve this situation as far as you are concerned with
the types of relationships you have now encountered north of the
(Dr Greener) I would say to you that there are areas
south of the border where we have almost parallel kinds of organisations
and relationships. The London Waterways' partnership is a very
good example. Because of the specific focus of Scotland I think
we are learning even more and we should be able to improve many
of the things that we translated from England to Scotland. I think
we will get a positive feedback where everything will begin to
improve and move in the right direction.
452. I used to be the Joint Secretary of the
British Waterways Board negotiating machinery north of the border.
At that time there were immense problems with the staff relationships.
Has that improved?
(Dr Greener) Enormously, yes. If I may indulge ourselves
here, it is very gratifying that one of the most loyal areas in
British Waterways to British Waterways these days is in Scotland.
453. What do you put that down to?
(Dr Greener) I put it down to first of all a deep
sense of purpose. Everybody knows what they are doing and why
they are doing it and what the benefits are together with an excellent
local management team, together with an ability to tap into very
significant core skills in areas like engineering and so on which
exist in British Waterways.
Mr Donohoe: So you are going to increase the
wages of your staff, are you? (Dr Greener laughed)
Mr Bennett: We need to get that on the record.
It is quite hard for the shorthand writers to put the chuckling
down on the record.
454. Can we turn to the financial framework
under which you operate? As I understand it there are two documents
that govern how you handle finance. There is the Framework Document
which talks about managing your non-operational land, both for
long term income and wider public benefit, and on the other hand
the Financial Memorandum which requires property to be disposed
of at the best possible overall return. How do you reconcile those
two requirements when it comes to regeneration projects of the
type we have been discussing earlier?
(Dr Greener) We reconcile a great deal certainly in
terms of how we look at what is coming into our organisation from
the standpoint of our own earned income. Indeed, we make a very
substantial contribution to statutory requirements from our own
earned income. If we look at interpretation, for example, of Treasury
rules, we are very clear about the kind of average rate of return
that we should be earning. Within that we are able to get sufficient
flexibility to do what it is that we think we need to do.
455. So if we take the example of the Wakefield
project that we were discussing at the start of your evidence
session, how would you determine the rate of return for that particular
project that you were looking for within the overall flexibility
you have just talked about?
(Dr Greener) There will be elements of all complex
projects which are very commercial and where we will get very
good returns. There will be elements where in fact we shall have
to subsidise. Indeed, we do.
456. Do you think that the overall financial
framework under which you operate inhibits your ability to participate
in regeneration projects such as the one in Wakefield and elsewhere?
(Dr Greener) In the sense that we are working under
a statute which was derived at a time when we were running a nationalised
industry in decline and probably people were projecting that that
decline would continue, and therefore there are aspects of our
statute which limit the degrees of freedom that we have.
457. Do I take it from that answer that your
involvement in regeneration would be assisted if the financial
framework under which you operate were to be changed?
(Dr Greener) Yes. If we had more freedom to invest
and increase our earnings, we could support heritage far more
458. Right at the beginning of your evidence
you talked, in relation to the Wakefield project, about your view
about what is in the public interest and the public benefit. Who
do you think in regeneration projects of that sort ultimately
should decide what is in the public interest or is in the public
benefit? Is it yourselves as the land owner or is it the local
authority or is it the wider partnership that we have talked about?
(Dr Greener) I think it is more complex than that
if I may say, because we regard ourselves as a public interest
Board appointed by the Minister. In a certain sense we would like
to think we are operating in terms of our interpretation of the
public interest, but at the same time we also have extensive consultations
with various kinds of community and user groups, so we take their
views into account. We are also advised by IWAAC. We also take
into account very much local authorities. We have very strong
relationships with Regional Development Agencies, so in a sense
I suppose we are a little bit like the spider in the centre of
the web making sure that we are consulting at a very wide level
and trying to come up with solutions which in the end will get
the appropriate kind of public approval.
459. If the public's view is that the stance
you are taking in relation to a particular project is not their
view of the public interest, who do you think should be the final
(Dr Greener) In the end, in accordance with what I
have said, we are responsible to our Minister.