UK: Public Bodies (Reform) Blog 4: British Waterways and the Big Society

Last Updated: 16 November 2010
Article by Paul Thompson

This is entry No.4, first published on 16 November 2010, of a blog on Public Bodies reform. Click here for a link to the whole blog. If you would like to be notified when the blog is updated, with links sent by email, click here.

The detailed nature of the intended transformation of British Waterways into a charitable trust became clearer yesterday (15 November) with presentations from the Waterways Minister Richard Benyon and BW's chief executive, Robin Evans, at the annual conference of the Association of Inland Navigation Authorities.

The concept, which is to be the subject of a general consultation early in 2011 followed by a further consultation on the proposed transfer order at the end of 2011, is for the new body to be up and running in April 2012, for which purpose the charity will be established, initially as an arm of BW, with 7 shadow trustees appointed by March 2011. As now conceived, the new body will be a charitable trust, broadly similar to the National Trust in terms of its governance model, with a small board of trustees appointed by a Council of 40-50 people meeting 2-3 times a year and local boards of 8-10 members for each of the 11 waterways appointed by the Council and meeting 6 times a year who will be responsible for the development of sub-national strategy, raising local funding and holding local management to account as well as agreeing the annual budget. Whilst there appears to be some uncertainty about what, if any, general membership arrangements will be proposed, Robin Evans did indicate that he thought that the new body would not be membership-based but rather would have a subscription system, and went on to venture that there would be scope for people to be elected to the Council and that, possibly, it would be a good idea for licensed boat owners and, in due course, subscribers each to elect one Council member. This suggests that the Council will be mostly appointed by specified representative bodies rather than by any general membership.

So far as the transfer of powers is concerned, the idea is that an order will be made under the Public Bodies Bill, once enacted, substituting reference to the new body for references to BW in existing legislation, so enabling it to operate as BW's successor and with BW's property assets transferred to it. A funding settlement is to be agreed with the shadow trustees, that settlement providing an as yet indeterminate level of government funding for, it was suggested, a period of some 10-15 years. The assumption is the new waterways charity can attract approximately £17m p.a. in voluntary contributions at the end of 10 years but, even if that is achieved and if the funding settlement still to be agreed proves to be generous, some significant cutback in revenue is in prospect (BW's current annual budget is some £60-70m). The new waterways charity will therefore have to cut its cloth accordingly.

As yet, it seems that no decision has been made on whether to include the Environment Agency's waterways in the proposed transfer but the Scottish Government has determined, as was announced last week, that BW's Scottish waterways will remain in the public sector and not form part of the transfer.

Whilst Richard Benyon expressed the hope that the proposals will blaze a trail for the Big Society and they have been greeted with enthusiasm by a number of interests, not everyone is convinced. Notably, the Inland Waterways Advisory Council, which is one of the quangos to be abolished, expresses quite afew reservations about the concept in its recent report Surviving the Cuts and Securing the Future. Implementation will also present quite a number of challenges including, it was pointed out by the Minister, going through the process of securing EU agreement that the proposals do not amount to illegal state aid. Overall, the hoped for April 2012 transfer date may well prove overly optimistic

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