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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 391 - 399)




  391. Good morning, gentlemen. I wonder if you would be kind enough to identify yourselves for the record?
  (Dr Greener) Dr George Greener, Chairman of the British Waterways. On my right is Dr David Fletcher, Chief Executive Officer of British Waterways, and on my left Mr Stewart Sim, Operations Director of British Waterways.

  392. Did you have any remarks you wanted to make or can we go straight into questions?
  (Dr Greener) We are very content to go straight into your questions, Chair.

  393. Would you like to respond to the sorts of criticisms that have been made to us by Regeneration through Heritage?
  (Dr Greener) Yes, I would be delighted to respond. The first thing that needs to be said is that the project in Wakefield in particular is quite complex. About a year ago—I cannot quite remember the date—I visited the site. Indeed, I was supposed to be visiting the site with Mr Taggart and at the last moment unfortunately he could not make it, but it gave me the opportunity to get into quite some detail. What you are talking about here are some very important historic structures, warehouses, which are situated—and I hope Mr O'Brien does not mind my saying this—in quite a difficult area with a lot of utilitarian buildings around them and a complex road system, all of which is about half a mile from Wakefield.

  394. "Grotty" is the word you are searching for.
  (Dr Greener) Yes. When you think about this, how do we get to the point of getting to a sustainable long term plan for the benefit of the whole community? Then you have to add to that the fact that there is no absolute certainty yet as to whether these particular warehouses, so refurbished, would in fact be an acceptable site for the Hepworth collection. Experience of these kinds of things says that putting land assembly together and getting to a comprehensive plan is actually quite difficult. Progress has indeed been made and in fact we are meeting as a Board tomorrow and one of the things on our agenda—and I thought that Dr Fletcher could talk in a little more detail about this—is this specific project which has very much the support of the local authorities and also some private partners. However, before I ask Dr Fletcher to amplify that, and maybe he can also talk about Sowerby Bridge which I believe was mentioned, it is incorrect to say that we are simply looking to maximise our return on capital. At our last board meeting we discussed this in great detail and we had a resolution that it would be a matter of policy of our Board that we would look for differential returns and hope that we could deal with the Treasury rules and so on so that we could accept much lower returns when it came to heritage. Indeed, on that particular occasion we approved a project for Gloucester where we were accepting a much lower return because we can see the long term benefits for the community. It is not correct to say that we are simply looking for commercial returns. We like to think that we can manage and take the challenge of understanding the corporate moral imperative on the one hand, where we do do commercial things (and we are quite aggressive), but we are very concerned about being the guardian of the moral imperative and our responsibilities to environment, heritage, public amenity, social inclusion, jobs and all of these things, and we do balance our affairs and we try to achieve the very best balance we can in dealing with those kinds of problems.

  395. Just a moment. Do you accept that some of your local officials may not have been quite as enthusiastic as you are in following out the plan?
  (Dr Greener) No, I do not, Chairman. On this particular occasion on the project we are talking about I know that all of the people at this table have taken a strong personal interest, looking at the logic of what our local people are doing. Indeed, when the issue was raised with our Minister, the Lord Whitty, those people were called to account and the outcome of the meeting with our Minister was something very close to the solution which Dr Fletcher is capable of describing to you.

  396. Have you got some mechanisms in place for checking on what your local officials are doing?
  (Dr Greener) Yes, we do.

  397. And that works perfectly well?
  (Dr Greener) In my 15 months of experience as Chairman of this Board I think that one of the most constructive things that has been achieved is the devolution to local management with the internal auditing processes and risk management processes that we have to check all that out. The simple answer is yes.

  398. The slight hazard about that is that if the result of that sort of devolution is that the only way to get a solution is to kick it upstairs to the Minister it does not seem to be the sort of ultimate flexibility that one would hope for in management structures, does it?
  (Dr Greener) I would say that that is not the issue, with respect, Chairman, in the sense that we are here talking about an isolated example. In this particular case yes, lots of attempts were made to take the thing up to higher levels and so on. If the solution as far as we were concerned was fairly clear at the local level, then the next step was in fact that this was taken to our Minister, but the outcome of that, as you will hear if you wish, Chair, is exactly a solution to development of that site.

  399. Do you want to give us your solution, Dr Fletcher, briefly?
  (Dr Fletcher) Can I just make a comment? It is not the Minister's involvement, although we welcome that and he is much involved in what we are doing, that has made progress in this programme. He has just endorsed what we are doing.

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