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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 476 - 499)

WEDNESDAY 29 NOVEMBER 2000

DR GEOFF MANCE, MISS EILEEN MCKEEVER AND MR ROBERT RUNCIE

Mr Bennett

  476. Can we welcome you to the third session of evidence this morning? Could you introduce yourselves for the record please?
  (Dr Mance) Certainly, Chairman. I am Dr Geoffrey Mance. I am the Director of Water Management at the Environment Agency.
  (Miss Mckeever) I am Eileen Mckeever and I am Head of Recreation and Navigation at the Environment Agency.
  (Mr Runcie) I am Robert Runcie, Regional Director for the Anglian Region.

  477. Thank you very much. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction?
  (Dr Mance) No, Chairman. We will go straight to questions.

Mr Stevenson

  478. Dr Mance, is there a conflict between your regulatory role and the navigational elements that you are responsible for on the waterways?
  (Dr Mance) We do not believe so. One ought to point out that over half our turnover is spent on operational activities as opposed to regulatory activities. We have two major blocks of activity in the Agency. One is operational and one is regulatory. We do not see a conflict between them and indeed we believe things like our navigation activities on rivers benefit substantially from an integrated approach with flood defence and the other activities which involve structural work on the waterways.

  479. As I understand it your responsibility for waterways is as a promoter of inland waterways in general terms. That is true, is it not?
  (Dr Mance) We have a general duty to promote recreation related to water. That is both on and alongside. We have specific navigation responsibilities on specific waterways.

  480. What proportion of the waterways under the control of the agency have you navigation responsibilities to?
  (Miss Mckeever) We have about 870 kilometres of navigable river for which we are the navigation authority.

  481. That is all of it really, because that is the total amount.
  (Miss Mckeever) Yes.

  482. You have got about 800 kilometres in total, have you not, of inland waterways?
  (Miss Mckeever) For which we are the navigation authority.

  483. So you have a navigation responsibility, do you? That is what I am trying to get at.
  (Dr Mance) Where we are clearly the statutory navigation authority, that is on I think 875 kilometres.

  484. That is the whole of your mileage.
  (Dr Mance) On other waterways we actually interact with things like canoeing and minor boating if you like, as opposed to power boating, where we have a number of provisions for byelaws, for instance, so we can actually get into conflict resolution between different forms of recreation.

  485. So for 800 kilometres you have a navigation responsibility. What are you doing to promote freight on those waterways for which you have that responsibility? Are you promoting anything at all?

  (Miss Mckeever) With regard to our work on freight, we have been involved in the Association of Inland Navigation Authorities' initiative to produce a freight strategy which involved us looking at our own navigations with regard to freight as well, particularly Robert will speak about the Nene in a moment, and the Thames. I should make clear that our responsibilities are for the non-tidal Thames which is the Thames above Teddington. We feel there is limited opportunity for freight traffic which would make any real impact in terms of transferring freight from road to waterways. There are opportunities for niche markets or for specific projects where we tried to get the taking of gravel away from the Eton rowing course extraction by river, but unfortunately the cost/benefit was not there for the contractor. We have already had some talks with the potential contractors who may work with Heathrow Terminal 5 if it happens, about them taking up materials to and from that project by river. We have looked where there are specific opportunities but those opportunities are fairly limited for a number of reasons which I can go into if you so wish.

  486. Understanding that, if I might I would like to ask two more questions because, as I understand it, your responsibility accounts for about 16 per cent of the total waterways, so it is not an insignificant amount. Are you discussing these freight possibilities, albeit limited, with British Waterways, for example?
  (Miss Mckeever) As part of our collaboration agreement, which has already been referred to, we have regular and ongoing dialogue with regional and local colleagues in British Waterways and only recently we had a joint meeting with British Waterways North-East Region. They have a lot of experience up there of freight and in fact someone from their team is coming down to talk to us about whether they feel they can offer any of their experience to help us.
  (Mr Runcie) If I may add to that, we have done joint studies with British Waterways, Cambridge County Council, Fenland District Council, looking at the opportunities to increase the freight on the River Nene all the way from The Wash right up to Northampton. The study did show that in the tidal part of the Nene up to Sutton Bridge and Wisbech there was the prospect of increased freight use.

Mr Bennett

  487. What sort of freight?
  (Mr Runcie) A mixture of freight but largely break bulk from small container and coaster vessels that could then go on to the good railhead that already exists at Wisbech. Unfortunately the study showed that because of the small tidal window the prospect of actually taking freight further up the non-tidal stretch of the Nene was limited.

Mr Stevenson

  488. My last question: are these problems exacerbated by the apparent disparity between how much the Environment Agency spends per kilometre on navigation, which is about 3,500, and how much British Waterways spend on navigation, which is in excess of 22,000 kilometres? How do you explain those disparities?
  (Dr Mance) I think your comparison is, I would say, simplistic. One has to bear in mind that the waterways we are responsible for in navigation terms are largely free flowing rivers and, therefore, one does not have the need for the maintenance of banks and channels, as is done on canals. The exception to that is in East Anglia, Robert's part of the world, where many of the major navigation waterways are actually on raised dykes as part of the drainage of the Fens historically, where all of the maintenance of the embankments and of the channels is actually done under flood defence expenditure rather than navigation.

Miss McIntosh

  489. I gather the collaboration agreement between yourselves and the British Waterways company is up for review. In your view, how is it working at the moment? How do you feel about the navigational responsibilities being taken away from the Environment Agency and passed to British Waterways?
  (Dr Mance) Clearly we do not believe it is appropriate to break up integrated river basin management on those rivers where we have free flowing systems with very intensive use of the rivers. I could go back to that and elaborate, if you wish. We have outlined it in the paper. If you take the Thames, it is probably the most intensively used river possibly in the world, it is very extremely managed in tight situations. One normally sees it in normal summer conditions, nice photographs of it with everything normal, but in 1976 during the severe drought then the lower part of the river actually flowed backwards from Teddington Weir, navigation never stopped. It was restricted but we managed to keep navigation functioning even though there was so little water available, for public water supply. During the major flood as well the situation has obviously managed to protect the system but also to contain the floodwaters. Trying to separate out one activity from the major physical structures of the river when it is so intensively managed is quite a potential risk and introduces potentially an extra step in the chain of command under severe circumstances and that always increases the risks of operational difficulties. Turning to the collaborative programme, we have been pleased with how it has worked so far. One has to say the continued debate about responsibilities does make it difficult to maintain impetus on positive collaboration because it does require everybody involved, and that includes front line staff, in being fully committed to making it work and repeated uncertainty inevitably distracts from that. The issue about responsibilities was raised for the first time in 1992 and seems to have been ever present since. We had a clear ministerial decision two years ago and we clearly regret the fact that it is back in the frame, we would rather be getting on in strong collaboration with British Waterways and the other waterways bodies, of which there are some 28, in seeking to make sure that the level of service to the boater is actually raised and improved and extended, drawing on all our experience and responsibilities. We are seeking to minimise overlap and maximise the benefit of joint working.

(The Chairman resumed the Chair)

  490. In your evidence you say that fulfilling the potential identified in Waterways for Tomorrow will need increased public funding. In particular, if we are to achieve the aims of the document of transferring more freight on to waterways, in your view how can this be done and what will the order of public funding be? There are many calls on Freight Facilities Grants, to what extent do you think you can tap into those funds?
  (Miss McKeever) I think funding for navigations infrastructure throughout the inland network is actually the crux of both the leisure and freight boating. A lot of the wharves have been lost over the years, speaking about the Thames, a lot have gone to housing developments, etc. That is one area where there would require quite substantial funding and then there are lots of other issues to consider as well, environmental issues, and the impact they might have on use that has taken over from freight. So infrastructure is one area that would require funding. One of the areas where we see most potential for freight is short sea shipping and we are also the navigation authority for Rye Harbour and we have seen a fairly substantial increase, although the figures are still quite low, from 14 ships coming in in 1997-98 to over 100 already this year. Without investing very much extra there already we have seen an increase and with Freight Facilities Grants available and more encouragement being given to industry to locate business close to the waterways, I think that is where there is quite a lot of potential.

  491. Were you surprised that the short sea shipping was excluded from the initial document?
  (Miss McKeever) We were because we had identified it as part of the freight strategy, that it was an area where there was most potential.

  492. Could you put a figure on the order? No, you would not like to.
  (Miss McKeever) I can for the Agency's navigation. We believe that we need to spend about £20 million on our own infrastructure, £12 million of which is very urgent, the backlog where there has been under-investment for a number of years. That is not just to do with freight, that is to do with getting the infrastructure on our navigation to the state that we and our users would like it to be.

  493. Could you just assist the Committee. How would you describe the integrated river basin management? How would you describe your role in that now and how would you see that changing when the European Water Framework Directive comes into effect?
  (Dr Mance) If I can respond on that. The EU Water Framework Directive will require an approach of catchment based planning—

Chairman

  494. What based planning?
  (Dr Mance) Catchment based, river catchment based planning. So on a six year cycle Member States will be required to develop for all river catchments a plan showing how activity in the catchment will influence the river system in terms of quantity and quality of water and in terms of biological health. We believe that is totally consistent with the approach developed in the UK over the last 30/40 years. We have developed an ever more integrated way of looking at our river systems, so that we look at the trade-offs, we seek to maximise the benefits of any one intervention in the system in terms of reducing flood risk, maximising the benefit for water resources, maximising the benefit for all users of the river, whether it is boaters, anglers or conservation value, or just aesthetic value and access for walking. It is a sensible way of trying to make sure that we are intervening either in a regulatory role or by expenditure of public funds, whether ours, those of local authorities, BW or other bodies, they are done in a way which actually maximise the overall benefits and minimise the disbenefits. Put simply, that is it in a nutshell but it gets increasingly complicated. Obviously looking at flood risk there are all sorts of issues about the land use in the catchment study feeding down through. Arguably some of that also has implications for water resources.

  Chairman: I do want fairly sharp questions and sharp answers, if I may.

Mr O'Brien

  495. Dr Mance, how should the planning system be used to protect the waterways and their environment?
  (Mr Runcie) If I may pick that one up. We actually feel that the planning system itself could be strengthened through the existing PPG 11 at the regional planning guidance level to properly reflect the value of the waterways. We have actually worked with the existing planning regime very effectively, for example in Northampton where, in collaboration with Northampton Borough Council, we have looked very closely at the regeneration of the river valley and in particular following the repercussions of Easter 1998 floods where the whole of the social, the environmental and the natural qualities of the river were put into a challenging position. Part of that master plan, which is planning led, was to agree the character and landscape of the river, its open space, for pleasure, for recreational purposes, for nature conservation, for wildlife, for biodiversity and river habitats, as well as to be able to regenerate physically, economically and socially the areas surrounding the river valley and create proper opportunities for inward investment. That had to be done by providing proper planning and design guidance for the developers within the area and also to provide the planning and the development of the flood defence works for which we were responsible, to make sure that we had an integrated approach. That has been a very successful partnership and that has worked well.

  496. In your evidence at paragraph 2.6 you refer to the Thames publication, Thames Ahead. What are you doing there to ensure that boaters and people using the river can have the facilities for mooring and other needs because I was told last night that in summer time it is hopeless trying to use the river for pleasure purposes? What is happening on the planning aspect there?
  (Miss McKeever) The Thames Ahead project is really the Agency taking the lead as the navigation authority in getting all of those people with a stake in the Thames together, including the 13 riparian local authorities on the non-tidal Thames. We own very little land, most of it is around our locks and is already available for mooring. We recognise, and have done for the last three or four years, that many landowners who used to fairly freely allow boats to moor up have been putting up "No Mooring" signs, etc. Mooring and the general infrastructure of facilities for boaters is one of the key strands of that Thames Ahead project. We are working with local authorities to try to get them to provide more moorings and less expensive moorings, because there are moorings but they are also quite expensive in, say, the Windsor area.

  497. What progress are you making with the riparian landowners?
  (Miss McKeever) The project was, in fact, launched about three weeks ago, so it is at a very early stage.

  498. One final question on the issue of freight. In paragraph 3.5.1 you say "A recent review by the Association of Inland Navigation Authorities (AINA), of which the Agency is a founding member, confirms that the potential for major new freight movements on inland waterways is limited." Is that strictly correct?
  (Miss McKeever) I think in terms of original targets, from memory we are to move three per cent of freight off the roads on to the inland network. Through the AINA strategy, which looked at various inland waterways, that was felt to be limited, except for some of the already larger freight carrying canals. Yes, that was the conclusion in looking at the tonnage that would be required to be delivered. I think on rivers that has been demonstrated in the floods of the last month or so where navigation was completely impossible on many of our rivers, which would obviously limit freight transport. There are lots of issues which lead us to believe that the potential is limited. There is potential for niche markets and for specific projects.
  (Dr Mance) A brief addition, if I may, Chairman. In some of our major flood defence projects we have tried to move large quantity aggregates by boat. The problem we have is that the infrastructure does not exist now on the river systems particularly where you might be moving large quantities.

Chairman

  499. Are you saying there is no wharfage, there is no way of getting in and getting out and it does not join up at the other end?
  (Dr Mance) Unless there is an investment to create infrastructure the first contracts, therefore, become very expensive because they bear an undue portion of providing that.


 
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