Should CRT take over EA rivers?
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