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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340 - 359)



  340. And if the concerns you express in your document came into being, in particular the concern about expanded use of contractors, or the concern about assets being transferred from British Waterways to the Waterways Trust, what effect do you think that would have on employment and on conditions of employment?
  (Mr Sealey) Experience from other sectors would tend to indicate that if you bring in contractors employment overall would tend to decrease, in our industry. In terms and conditions, again, there tends to be an indication that if you do bring in contractors—the real concern, I think, partly, about contractors is the factor that the lack of investment in the past, the problem of contractors is because of past problems, and the concern is that the use of contractors will almost become identified as being the norm. Well, we would not want to see that, we would prefer to see a situation where the people that are doing the work within British Waterways are people employed by British Waterways.

  341. And what would your concern be about asset transfer then?
  (Mr Sealey) Again, why do you have to transfer assets over, on things. I think you have to ask those people who are suggesting the movement of assets over from British Waterways to the British Waterways Trust, for example, what potential they would see that they would gain from that. As an organisation, we do not see any advantage from that.

Mr Stevenson

  342. Could I ask about the relationship between the present structure of inland waterways, where three-quarters of the mileage is in the hands of British Waterways, Environment Agency and another organisation, the name escapes me at the moment, and about 1,600 kilometres is in the hands of 30 other, small organisations. Do you see the necessary investment and development of particularly freight potential being realised with that sort of structure?
  (Mr Milson) I think it well could be, because you have got more—if you have one body dealing with the whole issue, they would have a better view of the possibilities of freight, and the rest of it. If you have got loads of different organisations, they have all got their own little way of doing things, for want of a better word. Personally, I would think, and the Union point of view, it would be better under one body; that way you could have best practices brought in then, and things might work better.


  343. Do you want to add to that, Mr Sealey?
  (Mr Sealey) Yes. I would agree that bringing it under the control of one body would make much more economic and rational sense. If we are talking about integration and integrated transport then the actual structure needs to be integrated as well.

Mr Stevenson

  344. That leads me to my second question, which I suspect you have partly responded to, and that is, do you think there is a case, therefore, for a review of the legislation covering British Waterways, which is now 30 years old? And, if I might, if the answer to that is yes, what in your opinion should be the objectives of that review?
  (Mr Sealey) The answer would be yes, it is the time to do that. One of the things is, maybe, and I think it was touched on earlier by one of the earlier witnesses, about the possibly contradictory roles between British Waterways and the Environment Agency, where there can be seen possible areas of conflict, where the Environment Agency may act as both gamekeeper and poacher in situations. And it may be better that it acts as a referee to the body to oversee all the environmental issues, and leave British Waterways to be in control of the infrastructure and running it, and there is a clear distinction between the two roles and the two bodies.

Mr Olner

  345. Could I briefly bring you back to contractors and maintenance work; is it a trend that is increasing, British Waterways Board using more contractors now than they did in the past?
  (Mr Milson) Yes.

  346. Can you give a figure on that?
  (Mr Milson) They have just brought in this Omnibus Agreement, which is bringing in three big contractors to do work. The main fear of our members is the fact of core jobs going, that is the fear. British Waterways always have used contractors, they have always had to and they always will have to; there are jobs that the workforce cannot do. There are jobs the workforce used to do, which went out to contractors in the eighties and have not come back, even though BW have done an extensive programme on training. And we have very good, skilled people out there, through a multi-skilled training programme, they are very skilled; quite a lot of them, I have to say, are not being put to the right use in using those skills.

  347. I am trying to get a feel as to what the core strength of the workforce was, say, five years ago, and what is the core strength of the workforce now?
  (Mr Sealey) From the Report and Accounts, there has been a slight increase in employment within British Waterways. But, I think, in our submission, on page 4, the last paragraph, and the beginning of page 5, we actually give some details of the money that would be spent, being spent recently, on contractors, compared with that of staff, which would give you some idea of the increase in the use of contractors over the past few years.

  348. What mechanism do you think should be there so that your members can be more effectively involved in the decision about the inland waterways?
  (Mr Milson) I think, actually, it needs for our membership to be involved in some of these organisations, these committees, that are making decisions for the future. I am not up to date, actually, on all these committees.


  349. Are you saying that, in fact, you do not have an input, as a workforce, at various levels; is that what you are saying?
  (Mr Milson) No. We have a very good input within BWB itself. We do not have the input outside of BWB.

  350. So are you saying that, if you had membership on some of these other committees, you would have a way of taking part in what they were deciding?
  (Mr Milson) Yes.

Miss McIntosh

  351. In your memorandum to the Committee, you conclude that there is only limited expansion for freight transport within the existing infrastructure. The original document `Waterways for Tomorrow' did not really put much emphasis on coastal shipping and short sea shipping; do you see that as a natural resource that could be tapped into for moving freight around?
  (Mr Milson) I am not an expert, actually, on coastal shipping, but I do know that it is increasing. And if you go back years they used to have a (back-up ?) system, where the ship came in, the mother ship, it broke up into barges, and that never really actually caught on, for whatever reason. But that is the type of thing that could come back, which could encourage coastal movement of cargo, it could come up rivers then; it depends on sizes, obviously, but we believe there is a lot of potential there, especially if you start looking in Europe at some of the things they do.

  352. If that was the case, do you think there would be potential for increased jobs, if that was tapped into?
  (Mr Milson) Yes.

Mrs Gorman

  353. On that very question, Mr Milson, how realistic is that? London Docks were a hive of activity until containerisation arose, and now everything gets offloaded at Tilbury, but it does not get sent up the river from there, it gets put onto lorries for distribution. Where do you see what you have just said working, meaning more opportunities to offload from ocean freight onto barges and carry that cargo inland on waterways; is that realistic?
  (Mr Milson) It could be realistic; but we believe the potential is there for it. At the moment, one of the main cargo things is really waste, aggregates, coal, it is not perishable goods, or anything like that. But when I started on the river there were 200 barges a tide came in, then along came containerisation and there were no barges; it just seems amazing that all that cargo has disappeared. Timber could be brought; there used to be wharves. You have got a shortage now of actual riverside land for these industries. But we believe there are places, there are committees in London, on the river, and so on, which will give you more information, actually, on that than I can.

  354. But can you be economically competitive? For example, London boroughs, who have produced masses of waste, almost all of them now send that by road, having eschewed the opportunity of using the river for that purpose. Literally, wharves along the river in London have closed because they have not been financially viable. So how do you see the viability of that enterprise? I can understand its usefulness and worthiness, and all that jazz, but how are you going to kid people to do it?
  (Mr Milson) I do not know.


  355. Mr Sealey, do you have any ideas?
  (Mr Sealey) I think you have to draw a distinction between two types of transport. We have here what could be argued, to use the phrase, non-time-critical transport structures, which are different from most of transport, which these days through supply chains is considered very time-critical. You could actually, with waste, if you had the centres where it could come into, say, in London, a centre where all the containers could come into and then go onto barges down the river; within the document itself, on page 42, the `Waterways for Tomorrow', they quote the Lee example, and say that could get 45,000 lorry trips off the road a year. So it is a question of bringing the various bodies together, and there has to be a will there for them to want to do it, but it could be integrated so that a lot of movements could be taken off the road and put onto the waterways.

Mr Bennett

  356. Just on this question of maintenance, you have said in your evidence that you are worried that the maintenance is going to outside contractors, but really is enough money being spent on the maintenance of the canal system?
  (Mr Milson) No. I would say no.

  357. Now what is the problem; is there a risk that we are going to get landslips and bits of canals that are out of use for lengthy periods, or is it much smaller jobs that just deteriorate over a period of time?
  (Mr Milson) I believe there is an awful lot of big work to be done, which is the backlog of engineering, there is a lot of health and safety work that needs to be done; but there is also a lot of small jobs, which our people have always done, and I would not say they are overly expensive to do, but we can see a lot of those disappearing to contractors, and that is one of the things that worry us.

  358. In the exceptionally wet weather that we have had, is there a risk of more landslips along some parts of the canals?
  (Mr Milson) I cannot really answer that, but I would presume yes; it has been total devastation in some places, has it not, it has been very bad.

  359. Are there enough employees regularly walking the canals to check that the way in which the canal holds the water is still satisfactory?
  (Mr Milson) We could always do with more employees. I think British Waterways are a little bit low on the ground on canal banks staff, actually, because it is first sight is prevention; if people get to these things quick enough and see these things quick enough, it is very preventable, it is good value for money.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed, gentlemen; you have been very helpful. And I am very grateful to everybody who has given evidence, and who has stayed the course. Thank you.

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