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

Memorandum by the Chairman of the Conservators of the River Cam (IW 21)

  Under statutes going back to 1702, the Conservators are responsible for navigation on a short stretch of the river in and downstream of Cambridge. The Environment Agency (EA) deals with all other aspects of river management, such as flood control and water quality. The working relationship between the Conservators and the EA is excellent.

  The focus of Waterways for Tomorrow (DETR 2000) is the navigable, or potentially navigable, inland waterways of England and Wales. Within that remit, it is clear that the thinking is very largely derived from the history and needs of canals. Consequently, the first point to make is the need for a much clearer awareness of the different circumstances of tidal waters, rivers and canals. This evidence will concentrate exclusively on the rivers.

  The DETR document is an off-shoot of a government review of transport policy. In general terms, the desire to increase freight traffic and greater recreational use of waterways is to be welcomed. However, so far as rivers are concerned, the document does not fully recognise their multiple significance:

NavigationWater supply;
Land drainageWater quality/environmental quality/wildlife;
Flood controlRecreation.

  The importance of these aspects of river management varies from one river to another. Furthermore, these functions of rivers are inter-related and it is impossible to say that one can have absolute priority over all the others. The art of management is the reconciliation of conflicting needs, the balancing of priorities. However, it must be remembered that river water quality is one of the government's 15 headline indicators for the quality of life of citizens.

  Given the inter-related uses of rivers, one may assert that in an ideal world there would be a single authority responsible for their management. Most of the management issues for rivers revolve around environmental concerns, with navigation somewhat separate. Consequently, if there is to be any transfer of functions between agencies, it would be more logical for the EA to take over the existing navigation functions of British Waterways (BW) than for BW to assume the EA's navigation responsibilities. A transfer of navigation responsibilities from the EA to BW would serve to fragment the management of rivers, a move that would be counter to the logic of unified control of catchments.

  However, one needs to consider the magnitude of the gains which might flow from structural re-organisation, the associated transition costs, and the other ways in which policy objectives might be achieved. There is a widespread tendency to under-estimate the costs of change and to over-estimate the benefits (a recent example is provided by the re-organisation of local government in the 1990s—see Chisholm 2000a and b). Seen from the perspective of the Cam Conservators, there are no obvious benefits from the transfer of navigation responsibilities from the EA to BW, either locally or more generally. There has been no serious suggestion that the present arrangements inhibit the proper use of rivers for navigation and recreation. On the other hand, there are anxieties that the single-minded expansion of these two activities could be seriously detrimental to the other uses for which rivers are important and that it would be harder to maintain a proper balance between competing needs.

  As the Committee will be aware, BW recently made a bid to take over the EA's navigation responsibilities in the Anglian Region. Opposition to this proposal was widespread, for two related reasons. First, the deliberate divorce of navigation from other responsibilities for river management was regarded as perverse, an opinion which should occasion no surprise in an area where land drainage and flood control are ever-present and widespread concerns. Second, many of those consulted, myself included, had serious reservations about the claims made by BW.

  It is appropriate to indicate the nature of those reservations. The consultation document prepared by BW made some strong claims regarding the navigation and recreation developments which would occur if they took over navigation responsibilities. In doing so, they omitted to draw attention to the projects which were already under way or in the pipeline under the aegis of the EA, thereby conveying a thoroughly misleading impression of the potential impact of the transfer. Similar reservations also apply to the more recent "Partnership with the People" consultation conducted by BW (see BW 2000a and b). The consultation document which they issued was ambiguous as to whether the consultation concerned just their own waterways or covered all waterways, an ambiguity which it was necessary to point out. In their response document, BW calmly assert that the consultation was about their waterways only (BW 2000a). However, one of the proposals on which they consulted was the establishment of an independent trust, The Waterways Trust, with a remit for all waterways. The document did not disclose that this Trust had in fact been set up in March 1999 by BW and the trustees of the Ellesmere Port Boat Museum, with a remit extending to all the country's waterways (DETR 2000, para 5.11). Now it is of some interest that the Cam Conservators have received no communication from this Trust, not even a copy of the annual report for 1999-2000, which should by now have been completed. It is therefore difficult to accept the following claim made by the DETR:

    The Government welcomes the creation of the Waterways Trust and the steps it is taking to establish itself as a separate and accountable body with trustees reflecting its interest in all of Britain's waterways. (DETR 2000, para 5.13, emphasis added).

  Assuming that the terms of reference for the Trust are appropriate, and assuming that these will be pursued, then the establishment of this body is to be welcomed. It is understood that the Trust has undertaken some initiatives in co-operation with BW, but the failure to communicate with agencies such as the Conservators of the Cam is troubling. The Committee will understand why it is that the claims which BW make must be treated with caution.

  In conclusion, the management of the country's rivers involves complex issues and the balancing of priorities. My own judgement is that such deficiencies as there may be in the present administration of the rivers are not fundamentally structural in origin but arise more from problems over the level of resourcing and the lack of incentives for co-operative working between the agencies involved, which include local authorities, navigation authorities such as the Conservators of the Cam and the Broads Authority, as well as the EA and BW. The priority should be to improve the working of the present arrangements, rather than engaging in a structural re-organisation. If structural changes are contemplated, then it would make more sense to transfer BW's responsibilities for river navigation to the EA than to make a transfer in the opposite direction.

Michael Chisolm, Emeritus Professor

Chairman, Cam Conservators

26 September 2000


  British Waterways (2000a) Partnership with the People. A consultation. British Waterway's response and recommendations. British Waterways.

  British Waterways (2000b) Partnership with the People. A consultation. Results. British Waterways.

  Chisholm M (2000a) Structural Reform of British Local Government. Rhetoric and reality. Manchester University press.

  Chilshom M (2000b) Financial implications of major legislation. Public Money and Management, vol 20, July-September, 21-6.

  Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (2000) Waterways for Tomorrow. DETR.

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