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

Memorandum by the Transport and General Workers' Union (IW 05)



  The Transport and General Workers' Union represents the majority of the manual workforce in British Waterways. We also represent substantial numbers of workers in the employment of other employers in the waterborne transport industry and related industries.

  Our membership working in the industry prides themselves on their commitment to the industry, and the positive role they have had in the improvements and innovations, which have taken place in the industry, and wants to continue being fully involved in the future success of the waterways.

  Our response will focus on four main areas, these are:

    —  the Potential for Increasing Commercial Freight Transport;

    —  maintenance;

    —  partnership with the people; and

    —  the Waterways Trust.

  The response to this document has been obtained through the Union's delegate democracy system drawing on the considerable experience of our lay officials working within the industry, the people who know the industry from the bottom upwards.


  In this section we will outline our views of the limited potential for increasing commercial freight transport with the existing infrastructure.

2.1  Freight, a Historic Review

  The original purpose of the waterway network was to link major centres of production and population. With the construction of the canal system between the mid 18th and early 19th Century the waterways played a leading role in serving the country's transport needs during the Industrial Revolution. The infrastructure reflected the industrial organisation of that time. This infrastructure has remained much the same since 1905 when the New Junction Canal on the Leeds and Liverpool was the last major expansion of the canal system, while the industrial structure of this country has changed dramatically.

  Even though the waterways were able to move goods cheaply they lost out to the railways, the infrastructure of which reflected the changing nature of British industry. The railways replaced waterways as the main method of transporting goods in bulk, although even they were eventually replaced by road haulage as the dominant form of transport for freight.

  After the Second World War the waterways came under the Docks and Inland Waterways Executive of the British Transport Commission. But it failed to achieve a consistent and constructive national canal policy. It classified waterways into three types. The first were the waterways with a commercial potential, and meriting investment and the second group were those with little commercial potential and barely justifying maintenance. The third group, were those with no commercial future, and were probably best abandoned. Between 1948 and 1953 the mileage of waterways open for traffic fell from 1,953 to 1,751.

  In the 1950s there was a dramatic rise in the number of licences issued for pleasure crafts, increasing from 1,500 in 1950, to 4,070 in 1952. This marked the beginning of the huge post-war expansion in canal cruising holidays, the importance of which the Executive failed to appreciate. It gave advice on routes and the location of boat hiring firms but did not become an operator.

  Looking back on the period, the problem of the canals was one which the politicians and civil servants had failed to tackle ever since the Ministry of Transport was created in 1919 (Bonavia 1987: 113). The Commission and the Executive were subject to conflicting pressures. The Act expected a revival of the waterways under state ownership. On the other hand, the financial duty of the Commission, to break even, made the canals something of an embarrassment. The solution of getting rid of the worst loss-makers was therefore attractive but hardly consistent with the hopes of canal traffic revival.

  It was only in the 1960s that steps were taken to save the canal system by developing the existing network, in the main for recreational use, rather than expanding the system.

2.2  The Future of Freight

  We welcome the recommendation in Waterways for Tomorrow: p 43 that "The Government wishes to encourage the transfer from road to water-borne transport where this is practical, economic and environmentally desirable".

  According to the 1999-2000 British Waterways Annual Report and Accounts 3.5 million tonnes of freight are carried on our waterways each year, enough to save over 200,000 lorry journeys. However, the DETR in its document Waterways for Tomorrow: 41 points out that unlike continental Europe, much of the country's inland waterways system is unsuited to carrying significant volumes of freight. This is due to both the size limitation of the existing canal infrastructure, and that canals do not exist where existing users of bulk materials operate.

  However, waterborne transport is best suited for cargoes of bulk materials, and we agree with the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution's Report Transport and the Environment: p168 that "it is desirable that maximum use should be made of freight-carrying waterways for cargoes of that nature". However, we believe that it is unlikey that that there will be anything other than a marginal increase in freight traffic on the existing waterway system.

  Real growth in freight traffic can only be achieved if new infrastructure is created, which reflects today's trading pattern with Europe, through the main East Coast ports. In 1998 41.4 per cent of foreign and coastwise road goods vehicles went through Dover, Felixstowe and London. At the same time 40 per cent of all foreign and domestic non-oil traffic went through London, Felixstowe, Grimsby and Immingham, and Tees and Hartlepool (Maritime Statistics 1998: 83).

  If the canal network is to develop it has to emulate the rise of the road network, in providing a flexible infrastructure which meets the future needs of the manufacturing and service industries. To achieve this purpose our membership would want to be fully involved in the inland waterways freight study group.

  We would want to see full consultation and the involvement of those working in the sector at all levels, and in all the proposed forums through their trade unions. The changes, which need to take place, must have the support and understanding of those working in the industry if they are to succeed.


  The Union and its membership in the waterborne industries welcome the announcement by the Government about the future of British Waterways and its recognition that the waterways are a valued public asset. One of our members has described the British Waterways canals as "a 2,000 mile national park". This we feel not only demonstrates the kind of commitment that our members have to the industry but also the unique combination of roles that the waterways have to balance.

3.1   Maintenance

  The increase in the grant to British Waterways so that the serious public safety maintenance backlog should be eliminated over a seven year period was welcomed by our members. This will enable British Waterways to reduce the backlog of urgent maintenance from £90 million to £40 million. However, some of this money is being used to bring in contractors to alleviate the backlog. We appreciate that it is not possible for the existing British Waterways staff to undertake all these urgent work programmes. However, the workforce is concerned about its future job security, and has fears that they could be deprived of the opportunity to utilise their skills they have gained through training and working in the industry if the use of contractors is increased on a permanent basis.

  These concerns can be understood by looking at British Waterways Report and Accounts for 1999-2000 page 38. In the financial year 1999-2000 overall expenditure on major repairs and renovations increased by 102 per cent, while staff costs increased by 8 per cent. The waterways, which are not fully navigable, were the main beneficiaries of this increase in spending. Spending on repairs and renovations in this sector increased by nearly 600 per cent from £5,715,000 to £39,783,000, while staff costs increased by 67 per cent from £3,611,000 to £6,014,000. These waterways account for 11 per cent of the total waterways controlled by British Waterways.

  There is also considerable disquiet amongst our members that contractors have been brought in without proper consultation with them or their representatives. In a situation of rapid change it is important that full and meaningful consultation and involvement mechanisms are established and used, and that the workforce and its representatives are fully involved in the consultation process. Without this it is unlikely that the considerable contribution that the workforce can contribute to the change process can be fully drawn upon.

3.2  Partnership with the people

  Our members recognise that the main user of the waterways is the general public and as a public corporation British Waterways is there to manage the inland waterways, docks and estates on behalf of the nation. There is however concern that the introduction of a membership scheme would change the relationship between those providing the front line services and those who would subscribe to the membership scheme and feel that they have certain rights above those of the general public. We feel that there should be more detailed consideration given to this scheme taking into account these concerns.

  In regard to 4.23 about the introduction of improved consultation procedures at local and national level to represent a wider range of users more effectively we would like to see this extended to those who work in the industry. Consideration should be given to the establishment of a national forum, which would include all the stakeholders in the waterways.

3.3  The Waterways Trust

  We welcome the Waterways Trust initial task of securing the future of the waterways museums at Ellesmere Port, Gloucester Docks, and Stoke Bruerne. However, there is some concern about the wider remit of its involvement in restoration and development projects. There are concerns about the possibility of British Waterways handing over to the Trust restoration projects which could be done by its own workforce, and even ownership of certain assets transferred to the Trust. This would be of especial concern if existing employees of British Waterways were to become employees of the Trust. We would like to see more detailed consideration given to the role of the Waterways Trust and assurances given that the assets would not be transferred to Trust.


  The membership of the TGWU welcomes the commitment to waterborne industry in the Water for Tomorrow. However, we believe there is only limited expansion for freight transport within the existing infrastructure. Expansion of waterborne freight transport will only come about by expanding the canal infrastructure.

  Moreover, we have serious concerns about the use of contractors becoming a permanent feature of the industry, and the effect that this could have on the existing workforce.

  The Partnership with the People scheme, we feel, would change the relationship between those people who are members of the scheme and our members who provide the front line services, and we would like to see further consideration given to this scheme.

  There are concerns that the Waterways Trust could permanently take over assets and employees from British Waterways, and we would like assurances that this would not be the case. As we feel that this could have serious consequences within the industry.


  BONAVIA, Michael R (1987) "The Nationalisation of British Transport: The Early History of the British Transport Commission, 1948-53" New York: St. Martin's Press.

  BRITISH WATERWAYS BOARD (2000) "Annual Report and Accounts 1999-2000" Watford: British Waterways.

  DEPARTMENT OF THE ENVIRONMENT, TRANSPORT AND THE REGIONS (1998) "Transport Statistics Report: Maritime Statistics 1998" London: HMSO.

  THE ROYAL COMMISSION ON ENVIRONMENTAL POLLUTION (1995) "Eighteenth Report: Transport and the Environment." Oxford University Press.

September 2000

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