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British Waterways property - not quite a decision

News from the Government has been trickling out all morning, and finally, we have a decision on British Waterways - well, almost.

"The Government recognises that there may be benefits in considering alternative structures for BW’s business as a whole, including its property portfolio. We will therefore consider alternative models for the business as a whole, such as mutual or third sector structures. As part of any such future structure for BW, therefore, there may be opportunities for the private sector to invest in the portfolio."

So: no property sell-off yet - but the prospect of a partial one in the future, or more emphasis on "joint ventures", perhaps. "Opportunities for the private sector to invest" is awfully vague, but sounds very much like the sort of thing BW has been doing for several years with ventures such as Isis, H2O Urban, and so on.

The statement goes on to say:

"Under any scenario, ensuring the continued maintenance and protection of the waterways will continue to be an important objective for the Government."

...which is a bit 'motherhood and apple pie', but is at least a promise that can be held up in the future.

Equally interesting is that this is the first official endorsement of BW's '2020' strategy, which envisages becoing a trust or other 'third sector' organisation. More details are expected in a forthcoming Government paper called Waterways for Everyone.

You can read the Government document here. The BW bit starts on page 5.

Separately, Gordon Brown criticised public sector bodies who pay their staff more than £200,000 - which, of course, famously includes British Waterways, whose accounts show chief executive Robin Evans receiving significantly more. "It cannot be right," he said, and promised new curbs. (Original speech here - it's about three-quarters of the way down.)

Update: British Waterways itself is saying the Government 'decision' backs its approach. "The new approach... confirms and builds on the conclusions of a previous Treasury report in April 2009 which concluded there was no financial or economic case to sell off the property assets and a sale of the property endowment would not achieve best public value." Tony Hales, BW's chairman, says: "We are pleased that the Government wishes to explore with us the benefits of a third sector approach to the waterways." (BW press release.)

Monday 7 December  | Richard Fairhurst  | 11.01am, Monday 7 December 2009

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