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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280 - 299)

WEDNESDAY 15 NOVEMBER 2000

VISCOUNTESS KNOLLYS, PROFESSOR IAN MERCER, DR JOHN EATON AND MR DEREK GOWLING

  280. I see, thank you. Did you want to add to that?
  (Mr Gowling) When the Council prepared its `Undervalued Assets'[1] report in 1996 it did look at ways of splitting the cost of maintaining waterways between central government and local government, because this was a way of recognising the local service to communities, which Dr Eaton has talked about. This got us into a mine-field about local government finance, and, as the Chairman has already said, we think, therefore, the way forward is to exploit the funding possibilities from property, from telecommunications, water, sails, and so on. I do not think there is any way we are going to get direct payment from local communities to maintain the waterways.

Mr O'Brien

  281. Lady Knollys, can I refer you to your evidence submitted to the Committee and look at the priority objectives, where you were saying waterways for all, that is the policy, and then you go on to say there is also vast potential for restoring further waterways. The question is, who pays; and, in view of the comments that we have just heard, that there is little possibility of receiving Government money for that, who will pay for the restoration?
  (Viscountess Knollys) I think, to be fair, IWAAC has been looking at the 80 plus restorations that are, if you like, under way at this present moment in time, and up to date the vast majority have been paid for by the local group, whoever is supporting them and advocating their restoration, and they will then key in funding from outside, like either the Regional Development Agencies, from any form of local authority help they get, encouraged by the feeling locally, and there is very little chance of funding elsewhere. The new Waterways Trust is something which I think we are all welcoming, because this is going to access, hopefully, more funds from a wider area.

  282. You heard previously, from AINA, that they are looking at the question of, or supporting restoration, supporting new development, actually, so there must be some money coming from somewhere then, if there is that kind of view from AINA. Where does IWAAC fit into the view that was expressed earlier?
  (Viscountess Knollys) IWAAC would cautiously support the new navigations; obviously, there are so many issues, each one requires, there are enormous environmental impacts, which have to be assessed, but we would cautiously welcome the idea, particularly if it improves the network and provides something on the Government agenda, like, for instance, water transfer, but rather cautiously. I know others would like to comment on the funding issue.
  (Mr Gowling) Just to say, Madam Chairman, there is no more inventive group in the world than the local voluntary sector at putting together packages to support waterway restoration. We have just gone through what you might call a `big bang' period, Millennium Commission money, Heritage, Lottery Fund money, and so on; now we are in the period when we will have to put together inventive packages with RDAs, with local authorities, and so on. Now we are trying, in our assessment of restoration work, to give helpful advice to these local voluntary groups in putting together these kinds of packages.

  283. Can I just change that subject now. A couple of years ago, BWB, British Waterways Board, introduced their Boat Safety Scheme, and IWAAC are critical of that because of the effect that it is having on some of the members and supporters of IWAAC. Can you give us a little bit more information as to what you would like to see with the Boat Safety Scheme?
  (Viscountess Knollys) I would rather not go into exact detail, because it is an absolute mine-field, but I would like just to say that, at this moment in time, it is being examined very closely by a working group, and IWAAC has two observers on that, there are four of them involved. And, I think, from what I hear, that, at the end of the day, the issues that are very contentious and have been debated over the last couple of years will be resolved, and the rebirth of the Boat Safety Scheme, in its slightly changed format, I think will satisfy people. But none of us actually knows the detail, it is the two colleagues who are not here who are sitting in on that, and, hopefully, will provide some new scheme by after Christmas.

  284. There are two points that have been raised by IWAAC, and one was the burden on boat-owners, and the second one was training for safety. Can you comment on those two points?
  (Viscountess Knollys) There is a financial burden, but I think IWAAC would say that if it is a fair scheme which applies across to all boaters, if the requirements are genuinely for safety, then we would obviously support it. I think the training issue is to make sure that the inspectors and people who are certifying the boats are doing it fairly and administering it fairly. And, again, that is something which is being looked at, and I hope will satisfy the boaters who do have a problem with it. It is onerous, in financial terms, but if it is found that those requirements are for the safety of boats I think IWAAC would support it.

  285. Finally, can I just say that, obviously, if we are going to encourage people to use the waterways then these burdens that you refer to and the training of people who would use the waterways is very important. When would this working group that your members are a part of expect to report?
  (Viscountess Knollys) I think the last I heard it was going to be after Christmas, but we can advise you on that.

  286. Thank you.
  (Viscountess Knollys) Madam Chairman, I think, on the training issue, perhaps I misunderstood the question. I was thinking you meant the training of the inspectors who are administering the scheme. Training for people who are, for instance, hiring boats, I think IWAAC would agree that that is something which we would hope all hire boat companies would aspire to, and I think the British Marine Industries Federation are also looking into this, and hopefully the situation will improve; it is patchy.

Mrs Ellman

  287. How should current guidance on planning be changed?
  (Viscountess Knollys) We have asked, at IWAAC, in our final recommendations, that there should be a special planning waterways PPG, and in `Waterways for Tomorrow' this was not one of the things that came through, and I think we are disappointed. We feel that, the way planning is administered, it is becoming more and more locally focused, I think, happily, in that it is totally reliant now on local plans and development plans and transport plans and structure plans, and they all have a different timescale, they begin and end at different stages. And some waterways go through several local authority areas, and this does give rise to confusion, and it does mean that a local waterway manager, or trust, has to be in touch with all those planning authorities, and it is onerous for them to be in touch with everything that is going on locally, in every stage of every local plan, every inspector's inquiry. We felt that a PPG would perhaps remove some of that problem. We have been asked by the Minister in `Waterways for Tomorrow' to do a planning good practice guidance, and I think this is something which hopefully will make local authorities more aware of the waterways in their areas, and how they should be developed. But I think we would like to see more planning consideration given to waterways, because they are delivering so much of what the Government actually is asking for at this point in time.

  288. What are your links with the regional Chambers, regional Assemblies and the Regional Development Agencies?
  (Viscountess Knollys) IWAAC's links; we do not have direct links. Our position is that we advise British Waterways and advise Ministers. Obviously, we keep in touch with all the programmes that are put out by the different Development Agencies, and I have to say that I support what was said earlier, that the response has been patchy to waterways and the need for restoration and for encouraging development. But I think Mr Prescott has actually written to all the Chairmen of the RDAs, asking that they should take waterways into consideration favourably, and I hope that that will perhaps shift the emphasis more in favour of the regeneration issue and development of waterways.

  289. But do you have any connections with the regional Chambers and regional Assemblies, where planning issues of the sort you are talking about are actually discussed?
  (Viscountess Knollys) The answer, Madam, is no, we do not directly, but, because we are producing this planning good practice guidance note, we have a working group formed which has involvement from everybody.
  (Dr Eaton) May I add, Madam Chairman, that on the Council we do see waterways as being the centrepiece, in many cases, of corridors of high environmental quality. What I mean by that is, it is not just the channel and the banksides alone, the landholdings of the navigation authorities are often quite small, it is not just that limited strip of water and land, but it is all the surrounding areas, the waterside properties, and maybe even a little further away, because it is the total of those which is the source of enjoyment of the waterway user. And, in fact, to spend a lot of money on restoring a canal and then leave it running past scrap-yards and derelict sites is really not to spend money very wisely.

Chairman

  290. Dr Eaton, I do not think anybody would disagree with that. Mrs Ellman was actually asking you something else: where do you have an input into the people who take the decision?
  (Dr Eaton) Our suggestion is that the area of particular need is for greater co-operation between the navigation authorities, the channel-owners and the local authorities, so that there is greater awareness at all levels of the central importance of the waterway in taking planning decisions and in arranging funding in the corridor.

Mrs Ellman

  291. But, you see, it is at a regional level that all these different aspects are now being put together, recreational, transport, employment issues are being looked at in terms of environmental plans, and that is why I raised that. You do, in your evidence, also criticise the current position of the navigation authorities; what changes would you like to see there?
  (Viscountess Knollys) This is the issue, I have listened to previous evidence, which is giving us all the most difficulty, I think, and we feel quite strongly, and gave evidence previously to Government, when we were asked to look at it, that we feel the fragmentation that exists at the moment is not helpful, for all the reasons that you have heard this morning. There are so many smaller navigations that are struggling financially, the issue of how they are managed is patchy, and we feel quite strongly that if there was one, I have heard the word "overarching", body, I have written down, "an integrated management of navigation" as being a phrase that I think would work, I think it would be helpful. Because at the moment there is this, no one way that you can access the waterways, except on perhaps possibly British Waterways, without changes in the legislation, there are different licence fees, different ways of managing the dredging, the locks are unsuccessfully managed. And the major purpose of waterways now, I would suggest, is for leisure use; sadly, they are no longer freight-carrying to any great degree. And the sort of integrated management of leisure is so much better dealt with, and the development for leisure, by an overarching, large body, rather than fragmented bodies. I am sure colleagues can add to this; because we have raised it.

Chairman

  292. I am afraid I have five Members of Parliament wanting to ask you questions, so unless you have anything different to say, Dr Eaton?
  (Dr Eaton) No.

Dr Ladyman

  293. In some ways, perhaps, it follows on from that. You have also expressed reservations about the Environment Agency being responsible for promoting recreation, and suggested that that might conflict with their role as a monitor of the environmental issues. Would you like to expand on that, and perhaps give us some evidence as to why you think that might represent a problem?
  (Viscountess Knollys) Yes. The navigation side is a very small side of the Environment Agency's work and budget, and the recreation remit is a small side. The regulatory side is enormous; and a good example, I would say, is in the Broads area, which is not in IWAAC's remit at all, but I know it well. There is a very minor but difficult mercury problem on the River Yare, and, as it happens, the Broads Authority is the navigation manager for that river. The Environment Agency has to manage how we deal with the mercury problem, whether we should dredge, if we dredge where those dredgings should go and how they should be contained, and the degree of danger and amount of difficulty with the level of mercury. It has worked exceptionally well, I would say, and we are dealing with the first dredging later on this month to a contained site. But it has cost and will cost a great deal more because of the requirements that the Environment Agency, quite rightly, have put on the Broads Authority to manage the mercury dredging. If they were managing both functions, I would say that that was less easy, it is a matter of opinion; but I feel that it has worked exceptionally well the way it does, with a navigation body having to negotiate and decide how it manages its budgets, because it is being told by the Environment Agency what it must do.

  294. But does not that argument conflict slightly with your previous argument that we need overarching bodies to look at issues; would not the Environment Agency, for example, argue that the present arrangement creates economies of scale? Would economies of scale be something that you would recognise in the current arrangements?
  (Viscountess Knollys) Absolutely, but my point was, you cannot be poacher and gamekeeper; that was not to do with scale, or cost, or anything, it was to do with what is appropriate. And, yes, I agree with economies of scale.

  295. And, given what was said earlier about the need to manage not just the channel and the immediate paths on either side but the land around, do you see that there are additional complexities that might call for a more complex structure; for example, do you see the needs of rivers and the areas around rivers as being more complex to manage than perhaps canals and the areas around canals?
  (Dr Eaton) Yes.

Chairman

  296. Can I welcome Professor Mercer.
  (Professor Mercer) I am sorry I am late, Madam Chairman.

  297. That is quite alright. I understand that it was the joys of the railway system, and you have great sympathy from this Committee in that.
  (Professor Mercer) A canal would be quicker.

  298. Yes, perhaps you should come by boat next time. Dr Eaton.
  (Dr Eaton) Rivers are, in most respects, more complicated to deal with, both ecologically and in terms of management, and indeed in terms of their use as recreational resources. I would totally agree with that.

Dr Ladyman

  299. And in the structure that you proposed, or suggest that should be looked at, where the Environment Agency should lose part of its promotion and management function, who would look at issues like the speed at which boats may travel and the damage that might be caused by boats, would that remain an environmental concern, with the Environment Agency, or would that go to whoever is supposed to be looking at the management and promotion of the users?
  (Viscountess Knollys) I would suggest that that remains with the navigation authority, or the overarching management; it will be the managing of the boating interests, and that would be something which would have to be decided in conjunction with the Environment Agency and nature conservation interests. But that is to do with the management of the boating, I would suggest.


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