Should CRT take over EA rivers?

Canal Boat - - News -

With the En­vi­ron­ment Agency suf­fer­ing re­peated cuts its nav­i­ga­tion bud­get and more on the way, we take a look at whether now is the time to trans­fer its nav­i­ga­tions to the Canal & River Trust

IN THE THREE years since the Canal & River Trust took over from the for­mer Bri­tish Wa­ter­ways, its pub­lic fund­ing has in­creased from a low point of £39.5m per year, and will con­tinue to in­crease in line with in­fla­tion un­der the agreed 15 year deal. At the same time, boaters based on the En­vi­ron­ment Agency’s wa­ter­ways such as the River Thames have seen gov­ern­ment sup­port fall­ing steeply – with more cuts in store fol­low­ing the re­cent spend­ing re­view. Small won­der that some on the wa­ter­ways are call­ing for the EA’s 500 miles of nav­i­ga­ble rivers to be trans­ferred to CRT.

It isn’t a new idea: shift­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for nav­i­ga­tion from the EA to BW was on the agenda around 15 years ago when boat­ing was boom­ing on the canals but in de­cline on the Thames. Ul­ti­mately the Gov­ern­ment left the EA in charge, but with the rider that the Agency should place more em­pha­sis on nav­i­ga­tion. The re­sult was Wa­ter­way Plans set­ting out planned im­prove­ments for each of its rivers; ini­tia­tives such as Thames Ahead aim­ing to en­cour­age the marine trade and ‘re­ju­ve­nate the river’; and sup­port for the Fens Link pro­posed new in­land route from the Witham to the Nene. De­spite this, come 2012 the plan for CRT was that it would in­clude the EA rivers too – but at the last minute they were omit­ted, on two main grounds: It was prov­ing prob­lem­atic to sep­a­rate out nav­i­ga­tion from other re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, par­tic­u­larly on the Thames where the weirs along­side each lock per­form a vi­tal drainage and flood con­trol role along­side their nav­i­ga­tion func­tion. Un­like BW’s wa­ter­ways, the EA rivers didn’t come with a prof­itable wa­ter­side com­mer­cial property port­fo­lio to pro­vide an ad­di­tional in­come along­side boat li­cens­ing – and with­out this it was dif­fi­cult to put to­gether a work­able fi­nan­cial model.

The idea wasn’t aban­doned; just shelved, ini­tially for three years. But each time the sub­ject has sur­faced, the im­pres­sion is that it has been put in the ‘too dif­fi­cult’ drawer: to be looked at af­ter the next elec­tion, or the next spend­ing re­view.

In the mean­time, while the 15-year fund­ing con­tract ham­mered out as part of the deal be­tween the CRT Trus­tees and gov­ern­ment has seen an ex­tra £10m a year of gov­ern­ment cash for the canals, and in­dexlink­ing of part of the money, EA nav­i­ga­tion bud­gets have been re­peat­edly slashed. Cap­i­tal in­vest­ment (which in­cludes ma­jor main­te­nance such as lock re­pairs) has fallen from £10.7m in 2012-13 to £3.5m in 2015-16. Next year’s forecast is just £2.2m, barely one fifth of what it was four years ear­lier.

Even the Agency’s own fig­ures sug­gest that dou­ble that amount would be need just to keep the rivers in a state of ‘slow de­te­ri­o­ra­tion’ – so with gov­ern­ment depart­ment De­fra in­structed to make economies of 15 per­cent over four years, it’s not look­ing good for the fu­ture.

Far from the op­ti­mistic hopes of the Fens Link open­ing up new nav­i­ga­ble wa­ter, the In­land Wa­ter­ways As­so­ci­a­tion has cited in­creas­ing silt­ing, over­hang­ing trees, lock fail­ures and post­poned re­fur­bish­ments as signs of ne­glect, and warned that the ‘widen­ing gap’ in fund­ing is lead­ing to a risk of a ‘sig­nif­i­cant break­down’ in ma­jor struc­tures and per­haps a ‘se­ri­ous fail­ure’ lead­ing to wa­ter­way clo­sure.

We put this to the EA. The re­ply was that while the fig­ures for re­duc­tions in bud­get are cor­rect, al­lo­ca­tion of the lim­ited funds avail­able takes into ac­count ‘main­te­nance costs, risks to struc­tures and im­pacts on the wa­ter­ways’, with pri­or­ity given to en­sur­ing ‘wa­ter­ways re­main open and as­sets are safe to op­er­ate’.

So is talk of wa­ter­ways clo­sures alarmist? Some would say not, and point to clo­sures that have al­ready af­fected less-fre­quented EA wa­ter­ways: Welches Dam lock on southern route through the Fens has been closed for a decade, even though it’s a statu­tory nav­i­ga­tion A cam­paign cruise to the River Wel­land in 2015 was can­celled as Ful­ney Lock had silted up and be­come in­op­er­a­ble Sut­ton (or Elv­ing­ton) Lock on the Der­went has been out of use for two years

On the other hand the EA told Canal Boat that Ful­ney lock would open ‘this fi­nan­cial year’, and that at Welches Dam lock the Agency is “work­ing with vol­un­teers ‘Project Here­ward’ to re­store the nav­i­ga­tion” – but gave a rather more non-com­mit­tal re­ply that it “con­tin­ues to look at op­tions” to re­store the re­main­ing as­sets that are closed.

If the al­ter­na­tive to a trans­fer to CRT could be the threat of sim­i­lar long-term clo­sures hap­pen­ing on the main EA rivers, you might ex­pect the trans­fer to be uni­ver­sally pop­u­lar. But that isn’t the case: while

At risk of silt­ing: Ful­ney Lock and (above) Den­ver Sluice, Great Ouse

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