Memorandum by the Chairman of the Conservators
of the River Cam (IW 21)
Under statutes going back to 1702, the Conservators
are responsible for navigation on a short stretch of the river
in and downstream of Cambridge. The Environment Agency (EA) deals
with all other aspects of river management, such as flood control
and water quality. The working relationship between the Conservators
and the EA is excellent.
The focus of Waterways for Tomorrow (DETR
2000) is the navigable, or potentially navigable, inland waterways
of England and Wales. Within that remit, it is clear that the
thinking is very largely derived from the history and needs of
canals. Consequently, the first point to make is the need for
a much clearer awareness of the different circumstances of tidal
waters, rivers and canals. This evidence will concentrate exclusively
on the rivers.
The DETR document is an off-shoot of a government
review of transport policy. In general terms, the desire to increase
freight traffic and greater recreational use of waterways is to
be welcomed. However, so far as rivers are concerned, the document
does not fully recognise their multiple significance:
|Land drainage||Water quality/environmental quality/wildlife;
The importance of these aspects of river management varies
from one river to another. Furthermore, these functions of rivers
are inter-related and it is impossible to say that one can have
absolute priority over all the others. The art of management is
the reconciliation of conflicting needs, the balancing of priorities.
However, it must be remembered that river water quality is one
of the government's 15 headline indicators for the quality of
life of citizens.
Given the inter-related uses of rivers, one may assert that
in an ideal world there would be a single authority responsible
for their management. Most of the management issues for rivers
revolve around environmental concerns, with navigation somewhat
separate. Consequently, if there is to be any transfer of functions
between agencies, it would be more logical for the EA to take
over the existing navigation functions of British Waterways (BW)
than for BW to assume the EA's navigation responsibilities. A
transfer of navigation responsibilities from the EA to BW would
serve to fragment the management of rivers, a move that would
be counter to the logic of unified control of catchments.
However, one needs to consider the magnitude of the gains
which might flow from structural re-organisation, the associated
transition costs, and the other ways in which policy objectives
might be achieved. There is a widespread tendency to under-estimate
the costs of change and to over-estimate the benefits (a recent
example is provided by the re-organisation of local government
in the 1990ssee Chisholm 2000a and b). Seen from the perspective
of the Cam Conservators, there are no obvious benefits from the
transfer of navigation responsibilities from the EA to BW, either
locally or more generally. There has been no serious suggestion
that the present arrangements inhibit the proper use of rivers
for navigation and recreation. On the other hand, there are anxieties
that the single-minded expansion of these two activities could
be seriously detrimental to the other uses for which rivers are
important and that it would be harder to maintain a proper balance
between competing needs.
As the Committee will be aware, BW recently made a bid to
take over the EA's navigation responsibilities in the Anglian
Region. Opposition to this proposal was widespread, for two related
reasons. First, the deliberate divorce of navigation from other
responsibilities for river management was regarded as perverse,
an opinion which should occasion no surprise in an area where
land drainage and flood control are ever-present and widespread
concerns. Second, many of those consulted, myself included, had
serious reservations about the claims made by BW.
It is appropriate to indicate the nature of those reservations.
The consultation document prepared by BW made some strong claims
regarding the navigation and recreation developments which would
occur if they took over navigation responsibilities. In doing
so, they omitted to draw attention to the projects which were
already under way or in the pipeline under the aegis of the EA,
thereby conveying a thoroughly misleading impression of the potential
impact of the transfer. Similar reservations also apply to the
more recent "Partnership with the People" consultation
conducted by BW (see BW 2000a and b). The consultation document
which they issued was ambiguous as to whether the consultation
concerned just their own waterways or covered all waterways, an
ambiguity which it was necessary to point out. In their response
document, BW calmly assert that the consultation was about their
waterways only (BW 2000a). However, one of the proposals on which
they consulted was the establishment of an independent trust,
The Waterways Trust, with a remit for all waterways. The document
did not disclose that this Trust had in fact been set up in March
1999 by BW and the trustees of the Ellesmere Port Boat Museum,
with a remit extending to all the country's waterways (DETR 2000,
para 5.11). Now it is of some interest that the Cam Conservators
have received no communication from this Trust, not even a copy
of the annual report for 1999-2000, which should by now have been
completed. It is therefore difficult to accept the following claim
made by the DETR:
The Government welcomes the creation of the Waterways Trust
and the steps it is taking to establish itself as a separate
and accountable body with trustees reflecting its interest in
all of Britain's waterways. (DETR 2000, para 5.13, emphasis
Assuming that the terms of reference for the Trust are appropriate,
and assuming that these will be pursued, then the establishment
of this body is to be welcomed. It is understood that the Trust
has undertaken some initiatives in co-operation with BW, but the
failure to communicate with agencies such as the Conservators
of the Cam is troubling. The Committee will understand why it
is that the claims which BW make must be treated with caution.
In conclusion, the management of the country's rivers involves
complex issues and the balancing of priorities. My own judgement
is that such deficiencies as there may be in the present administration
of the rivers are not fundamentally structural in origin but arise
more from problems over the level of resourcing and the lack of
incentives for co-operative working between the agencies involved,
which include local authorities, navigation authorities such as
the Conservators of the Cam and the Broads Authority, as well
as the EA and BW. The priority should be to improve the working
of the present arrangements, rather than engaging in a structural
re-organisation. If structural changes are contemplated, then
it would make more sense to transfer BW's responsibilities for
river navigation to the EA than to make a transfer in the opposite
Michael Chisolm, Emeritus Professor
Chairman, Cam Conservators
26 September 2000
British Waterways (2000a) Partnership with the People.
A consultation. British Waterway's response and recommendations.
British Waterways (2000b) Partnership with the People.
A consultation. Results. British Waterways.
Chisholm M (2000a) Structural Reform of British Local
Government. Rhetoric and reality. Manchester University press.
Chilshom M (2000b) Financial implications of major legislation.
Public Money and Management, vol 20, July-September, 21-6.
Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(2000) Waterways for Tomorrow. DETR.