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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 440 - 459)



(In the absence of the Chairman, Mr Bennett was called to the Chair)

Mr Olner

  440. I wonder, Dr Greener, if you could tell the Committee whether you think there is need for an over-arching body to ensure that the interests of all waterways users are taken into account?
  (Dr Greener) In one sense there is an over-arching body and that of course is Government. We are very clear about Government strategy, Government policy and elements of strategy which are coming out of policy. To follow on from my answer to Mr O'Brien's question, on what we think about the right kind of structure, clearly we are taking about a very important and capable regulator that exists already. That is the Environment Agency. We are talking about a navigation authority, British Waterways (which is actually a public body) that has an independent Board. Alongside that we have an advisory committee taking the views of all kinds of constituencies, called IWAAC. In addition to that we have an Association of Navigation Authorities, and again, in line with Government policy, British Waterways takes a lead where the smaller navigation authorities get great benefit in terms of the transfer of best practice from British Waterways.

  441. You seem to be extremely skilful, Dr Greener, in saying, "Not me, boss. It is somebody else". Could you actually answer whether in fact you think the remit of the Amenity Advisory Council would be strong enough to have this over-arching look at the industry?
  (Dr Greener) The answer to that is yes and I think it does. Indeed, one of the positive things in Waterways for Tomorrow is an extension of their role. I know you have had a recommendation from their Chairman. You should cross out the word "Amenity" and simply put "The Inland Waterways Advisory Council". We very strongly support IWAAC and IWAAC as it develops.

  442. Do you think there is any tension or conflict of interest between the restoration of navigations and nature conservation?
  (Dr Greener) There is obviously potential conflict because clearly if you look at the starting points of these various organisations it is obvious that conflicts could arise. We see it as part of our role to make sure that we facilitate the process to make sure that conflicts are managed and that we do get sustainable solutions which are to everyone's benefit and the benefit of environment and heritage. All of the work that we do with bodies like English Nature and English Heritage points in that direction because we have a number of very successful solutions.

  443. Would you say those tensions are lessening or are they much the same as they have always been?
  (Dr Greener) I would call them healthy tensions. If you have got these kinds of issues of that sort of complexity with the various bodies that are involved in these kinds of things, there is bound to be good, healthy tension. I am not concerned about good, healthy tension. We certainly have not yet to my knowledge come up with unmanageable solutions.
  (Dr Fletcher) I think the relationships are improving as the understanding between the various elements of tension improve. I think the relationship is getting better and we are making more and more progress in achieving this proper balance.

  444. Could I finally ask about your employees and their involvement? There was some evidence given to us by the trade unions that they are bit a concerned that they are not really part of the ownership of the BWB. You seem to be sub-contracting an awful lot of work these days. How do you respond to those criticisms?
  (Dr Fletcher) I was pleased to note as I sat listening to their evidence that they felt that consultation and involvement in British Waterways was excellent.

  445. But there were tensions about sub-contracting.
  (Dr Fletcher) What they were concerned about was the large volume of work that is sub-contracted. British Waterways have always operated a process of seeking best value for money. Everything we do inside and outside is benchmarked, tested, and we seek to achieve best value for money. There is an ebb and flow of activity done by British Waterways' workers and outside workers. Some work is lost to British Waterways' workers and then a few years later when they bid again, because they have learned better and they have put a better bid in, they get this work back. What we seek to do is to retain essential skills for the operation and management, the heritage dimension and the quality of the waterways. We have always retained that central skill. I can reassure you that those central skills will not be lost. Indeed, you will notice in recent years our staff members and those central skills have increased and improved in quality and in number.

  446. Do you intend to reduce the amount of work you put out to sub-contract?
  (Dr Fletcher) No.

  447. Why?
  (Dr Fletcher) Because we seek to achieve best value, best performance, best quality. That is what we are required to do.

  Mr Olner: RailTrack might be saying that as well.

  Mr Bennett: Let us just keep to the topic.

Mr Donohoe

  448. You mentioned earlier about devolution and the work partnership. What lessons if any have you got from your experience north of the border?
  (Dr Greener) A tremendous amount. I think that what we are doing there in terms of the way we are now organised there and the structure we have there is going to be very significant in helping us to do things better south of the border. The experience we have got from the Millennium Link Project, the refurbishment of Forth Clyde, the engineering work, the social work, the environmental work, it has been of tremendous benefit to us. All of the work that we have done on the refurbishment of the Caledonian Canal again has been of enormous benefit, I would say.

  449. What do you put that down to?
  (Dr Greener) I would put it down to excellent core skills in British Waterways, an excellent management team in Scotland, and also a tremendous sense of purpose, understanding the importance of what they are doing because they want the benefits that it is generating. When you think about the Caledonian, for example, no less than about 14 or 15 per cent of the tourist economy depends on that. People know that this is their livelihoods and therefore they have been very anxious to create benefits in terms of increased jobs, for example. I think it is mutuality of benefit that is the motivator.

  450. Where would you say that lies in terms of the relationships that you have? Is it with the Scottish Executive, with the local authorities, or is it with the Local Enterprise Companies?
  (Dr Greener) Yes, yes, yes; all of those.

  451. So if you were to look at that as a model, what then can be done south of the border to reflect that which would improve this situation as far as you are concerned with the types of relationships you have now encountered north of the border?
  (Dr Greener) I would say to you that there are areas south of the border where we have almost parallel kinds of organisations and relationships. The London Waterways' partnership is a very good example. Because of the specific focus of Scotland I think we are learning even more and we should be able to improve many of the things that we translated from England to Scotland. I think we will get a positive feedback where everything will begin to improve and move in the right direction.

  452. I used to be the Joint Secretary of the British Waterways Board negotiating machinery north of the border. At that time there were immense problems with the staff relationships. Has that improved?
  (Dr Greener) Enormously, yes. If I may indulge ourselves here, it is very gratifying that one of the most loyal areas in British Waterways to British Waterways these days is in Scotland.

  453. What do you put that down to?
  (Dr Greener) I put it down to first of all a deep sense of purpose. Everybody knows what they are doing and why they are doing it and what the benefits are together with an excellent local management team, together with an ability to tap into very significant core skills in areas like engineering and so on which exist in British Waterways.

  Mr Donohoe: So you are going to increase the wages of your staff, are you? (Dr Greener laughed)

  Mr Bennett: We need to get that on the record. It is quite hard for the shorthand writers to put the chuckling down on the record.

Mr Benn

  454. Can we turn to the financial framework under which you operate? As I understand it there are two documents that govern how you handle finance. There is the Framework Document which talks about managing your non-operational land, both for long term income and wider public benefit, and on the other hand the Financial Memorandum which requires property to be disposed of at the best possible overall return. How do you reconcile those two requirements when it comes to regeneration projects of the type we have been discussing earlier?
  (Dr Greener) We reconcile a great deal certainly in terms of how we look at what is coming into our organisation from the standpoint of our own earned income. Indeed, we make a very substantial contribution to statutory requirements from our own earned income. If we look at interpretation, for example, of Treasury rules, we are very clear about the kind of average rate of return that we should be earning. Within that we are able to get sufficient flexibility to do what it is that we think we need to do.

  455. So if we take the example of the Wakefield project that we were discussing at the start of your evidence session, how would you determine the rate of return for that particular project that you were looking for within the overall flexibility you have just talked about?
  (Dr Greener) There will be elements of all complex projects which are very commercial and where we will get very good returns. There will be elements where in fact we shall have to subsidise. Indeed, we do.

  456. Do you think that the overall financial framework under which you operate inhibits your ability to participate in regeneration projects such as the one in Wakefield and elsewhere?
  (Dr Greener) In the sense that we are working under a statute which was derived at a time when we were running a nationalised industry in decline and probably people were projecting that that decline would continue, and therefore there are aspects of our statute which limit the degrees of freedom that we have.

  457. Do I take it from that answer that your involvement in regeneration would be assisted if the financial framework under which you operate were to be changed?
  (Dr Greener) Yes. If we had more freedom to invest and increase our earnings, we could support heritage far more effectively.

  458. Right at the beginning of your evidence you talked, in relation to the Wakefield project, about your view about what is in the public interest and the public benefit. Who do you think in regeneration projects of that sort ultimately should decide what is in the public interest or is in the public benefit? Is it yourselves as the land owner or is it the local authority or is it the wider partnership that we have talked about?
  (Dr Greener) I think it is more complex than that if I may say, because we regard ourselves as a public interest Board appointed by the Minister. In a certain sense we would like to think we are operating in terms of our interpretation of the public interest, but at the same time we also have extensive consultations with various kinds of community and user groups, so we take their views into account. We are also advised by IWAAC. We also take into account very much local authorities. We have very strong relationships with Regional Development Agencies, so in a sense I suppose we are a little bit like the spider in the centre of the web making sure that we are consulting at a very wide level and trying to come up with solutions which in the end will get the appropriate kind of public approval.

  459. If the public's view is that the stance you are taking in relation to a particular project is not their view of the public interest, who do you think should be the final arbiter?
  (Dr Greener) In the end, in accordance with what I have said, we are responsible to our Minister.

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