Examination of Witnesses (Questions 391
WEDNESDAY 29 NOVEMBER 2000
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
(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 agoI cannot
quite remember the dateI 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 situatedand I hope Mr O'Brien does not mind my
saying thisin 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
(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 agendaand I
thought that Dr Fletcher could talk in a little more detail about
thisis 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
399. Do you want to give us your solution, Dr
(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.