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

Memorandum by the Chairman of the Environment Agency, Thames Region, Fisheries, Ecology and Recreation Advisory Committee (IW 62)


  1.1  This memorandum is in response to the issues raised by the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee in its Press Notice (20 July 2000) regarding the Inquiry following the DETR Document The Potential of Inland Waterways (July 2000).

  1.2  I write as Chairman (appointed by MAFF) of the Statutory RFERAC of the Environment Agency, Thames Region. The Committee is composed of members (and chairman) who in that role are independent of the Agency and of any affiliations they may have.

  1.3  Due to the timing of the ETRAC notice and the required date of submission, it has been impossible to have full consultation within the RFERAC to formally agree a text. However, I am submitting views and comments which I believe to be broadly supported by the members.

  1.4  We would be pleased to give oral evidence to the Select Committee.


  2.1  The Government's real interest, as evidenced by the DETR document, in the future of inland waterways is greatly welcomed. However, it is felt that the DETR document poorly recognises the role of the Environment Agency (and other river navigation authorities) as regards rivers. There is undue emphasis on canals and British Waterways—so some issues do not get sufficient attention.

  2.2  There are major differences between rivers and canals in terms of their physical structure, ecology, ownership, uses and potential—hence management needs may differ.

    —  "Waterways", which clearly must include both rivers and canals, have many uses, benefits and environmental features—discharges, abstraction, fisheries, habitats, recreation and flood defence etc—much wider than navigation per se. These diverse aspects are generally of more relevance in the river systems and need to be co-ordinated there in a holistic fashion. This "integrated river basin management" is a vital feature of river control, investment, operation, use and ecology.

    —  Riparian rights and ownership of rivers are in many hands. This creates issues for the ability to affect use and development which are not prominent on the canal network where considerable ownership lies with the canal authority.

  2.3  Funding is of enormous importance for successful and sustainable management of waterways. The Agency's resources for its fisheries, ecology and recreational responsibilities are inadequate and uncertain—and have been declining. In some areas and for some topics there are shortfalls in service, serious deterioration of assets and a loss of scarce skills.

  2.4  The benefits from waterways are widespread amongst a broad range of people, communities and aspects of the total environment. There is a need to accept and promote the proper role for central and other sources for funding; yet grants are being reduced with the outcomes that particular users (anglers and boaters) are carrying an unfair burden of the costs, and total budgets are insufficient.

  2.5  The Environment Agency is hindered in the performance of its roles by the imposition of inflexible budget heads (ring fencing) which do not easily permit sensible "cross spending" between functions and the establishment of overall priorities. Even minor shifts in expenditure or emphasis could have significant benefits.

  2.6  The Agency and the other bodies concerned should welcome the many positive messages in the DETR report. Progress should be made to achieve the aims of the recently signed collaborative agreement between the Agency and British Waterways. A task of the Regional Committees should be to examine progress on that agreement.

  2.7  AINA and IWAAC have important unifying roles; especially for navigation. Their presence, and hoped-for success, should ensure that the main agencies and private bodies can sensibly work together while carrying out their wider roles.


  (The headings in this section broadly follow the content of the Press Notice of 20 July 2000.)

3.1  Urban and rural regeneration

  3.1.1  Environmental enhancements and suitable facilities can be a powerful force in revitalisation. Conversely, care must be taken that regeneration is carried out with sensible recognition of protecting and enhancing the environment and of the needs of leisure and recreation.

  3.1.2  The Agency has a unique role for the rivers, but does not always have the leverage to properly influence sensitive development along the river—it needs to adopt a more strategic and important role within the planning system. It is felt that British Waterways has done more in this respect aided, in particular, by its ownership of canalside land and a much greater level of funding.

  3.1.3  Property development and riverside properties often have greater value because of a clean, active or quiet river environment. The potential of specific financial contribution to the river and canal agencies needs further exploration.

3.2  Leisure, recreation etc

  3.2.1  The impact of the river for social, recreational, economic and environmental reasons is much greater than the particular benefits to those who make specific financial contributions—mainly anglers and boaters. This means that the grant in aid to the Agency (and, in particular, the Thames Region), which has been reducing rapidly, should be a significantly greater proportion of the total budgets and needs to be substantially increased. It is believed that the price of boating and fishing licences are already at a level where an increase would lead to declining total revenues.

  3.2.2  Thames Region of the Agency is making good progress with its "Thames Ahead" initiative which is examining major options for improving finances, developing commercial opportunities and partnerships for improving the infra-structure and services whilst, of course, respecting the environment. This activity is requiring a change of emphasis and the introduction of new skills.

  3.2.3  The Thames recreation and navigation functions have an urgent need for capital of around £10-15 million to remedy serious asset defects and for an additional annual expenditure of some £1 million to maintain the current agreed levels of service. These amounts—say the equivalent of a shortfall of £2 million per annum—are in the context of an annual spend (capital and revenue) of around £4.5 million—the deficit is huge.

  3.2.4  Canal restoration and provision of river/canal linkages and improved access agreements could play an important part in increasing the utility of the total waterways system.

3.3  The environment and enhancement of wildlife

  3.3.1  The Agency has a huge range of expertise. It is contributing well to the protection and improvement of the water environment and is delivering major parts of the national bio-diversity plan. Given the other pressures and needs of the river, this is a vital part of the integrated approach and of having a sustainable environment.

  3.3.2  Apart from its own direct responsibilities the Agency is a valuable source of advice and information for other bodies involved in environmental matters-ecology, habitats, fisheries etc.

3.4  Water transfer, drainage etc

  3.4.1  The Agency, together with utilities, is successfully involved in the movement and management of water via rivers for resource and supply purposes. The Thames is a major example. The present cost recovery basis of abstraction charges should be examined with a view to including a wider range of financial and other costs (possibly reflecting environmental pressure) into more "incentive" based charges. Additional income could be, in whole or part, hypothecated to river-associated budgets (and similarly for abstraction).

  3.4.2  Land drainage/flood defence schemes often involve care over environmental impact—such as the implication of piling on flows. Further, they often give opportunities for environmental enhancements such as creation of specialised habitats and mudbanks. On the Thames there are operating synergies between lock keeping (mainly summer), weir operation (mainly winter) and minor works effort on the river and bank. And flood defence policy is concerned with development planning, especially as regards building on flood plains. Flows in rivers may be effected by abstraction; so abstraction licensing has to take account of the flow regime and the ecology.

  3.4.3  Attention is drawn to other matters which should be addressed:

    —  water transfer and abstraction require considerable monitoring;

    —  canal transfer schemes can be expensive. Even where waterways are in existence they are likely to require new infrastructure for backpumping etc;

    —  water quality in canals is generally not as good as for rivers, so treatment costs can rise;

    —  transfers between catchments can involve the introduction of different nature (chemical or biological) of water which may harm the native flora and fauna. Disease transfer can become more frequent;

    —  water quality/natural characteristics need very careful consideration;

    —  leakage rates from canals can be high; and

    —  high rates of flow in canals are generally not possible.

3.5  Increasing commercial freight transport

  3.5.1  There is a need for continued study. In the Thames Region and elsewhere potential uses and issues include:

    —  river transfer of waste;

    —  bulk haulage of aggregates;

    —  passenger traffic near urban areas (eg Park and Boat?). Subsidies might be needed;

    —  local transport plans should include consideration of river use potential;

    —  wharves are being lost; and

    —  improvements in infrastructure would be necessary.

3.6.1  Structure of ownership of waterways

  3.6.2  The Agency, which for example manages the major part of the River Thames, owns very little of the river or the riparian land. This affects its ability to act or influence river use or bankside development. The Thames Ahead initiative is actively examining the use of Public/Private Partnerships and the Agency's role as a co-ordinating agent.

3.7  Navigation

  3.7.1 The Agency Board's recent confirmation of its commitment to its navigation responsibilities and the appointment of a Board Member with special responsibility for navigation matters are much welcomed. The Agency Board should build on this by more overtly supporting Navigation and Recreation in terms of direction, manpower, materials and finances.

  3.7.2  The collaborative agreements between the Agency and British Waterways, the Agency's membership of AINA and its involvement with IWAAC should help to ensure partnerships between bodies and the adoption of sensible overall complementary policies for navigation and recreation.

3.8  Organisation

  3.8.1  The Regional Fisheries, Ecology and Recreation Advisory Committee members consulted considered that the Committee should not have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of waterways organisation and responsibilities. The Committee's concern is in improving the use and environment of the river. The organisational structure should be driven by the issues, funding and desirable forms of control, including integrated river basin management. This is not a criticism of the Agency—it is clear that the Agency, even given all the financial and organisational constraints, generally provides a good service. This stems, in large part, from its structure and range of associated functional responsibilities which permit the integrated approach.

3.9  Other matters which might be considered

  3.9.1  These include:

    —  respective roles of the Agency alongside other Government and voluntary organisations;

    —  role of Maritime and Coastal Guard Agency, Police etc;

    —  access onto water—including the provision of slipways and moorings;

    —  community benefit from river and the overall social, economic and environmental benefits—a balance is vital.


  3.10.1  We would wish to highlight:

    —  the low level and limited sources of funding for the Agency's recreation, ecology and fisheries responsibilities—the shortfalls are huge and the costs may lie unfairly;

    —  rivers and canals differ in many ways—therefore they may need different organisational and management structures;

    —  the Agency's Vision and Frameworks for Change give an opportunity to clarify and give more emphasis to its work in these vital areas;

    —  integrated River Basin Management, as developed and practised in the UK by the Agency and its predecessors, has proved successful. It is a model copied and envied worldwide.

  The River Thames, and its tributaries, have a proud heritage. Much has been done by successive organisations and individuals to ensure its present quality, ecology and utility. It is a very valuable asset for direct and indirect reasons for a wide range of people, communities and businesses—water supply, leisure, tourism, trade, ambience etc.

  We hope the Select Committee will seek to consolidate the position and encourage improvements to the River and all other waterways, and their uses, for the benefit of future generations.

28 September 2000

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 5 April 2001