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This week on the waterways

Budget Day is a big deal for Government agencies every year, but never more so than this year for British Waterways.

On Wednesday, Alistair Darling will be announcing - or, perhaps, tucking away in the corner of an obscure document on the Treasury website - whether British Waterways will be allowed to keep its commercial property portfolio, or whether it's to be sold off. The Treasury is desperately in need of "quick bucks", and BW's property is a very tempting target.

BW has been frantically fighting a rearguard action to stop the sell-off. There have been briefings hither and thither, even advertorials in the Times, and the organisation has subtly shifted its public face from "aren't we clever to earn all this money?" to "look what public benefit this brings you". The Inland Waterways Advisory Council, a Government quango that advises on waterway policy, joined in last week with a press release urging the Treasury to leave BW alone - no small achievement given that other navigation authorities have been privately sceptical of BW's property activities for several years now.

For although the phrase "British Waterways' property" might conjure up images of lock-keepers' cottages and picturesque old wharves, in reality, BW has long since sold most of those off. With the proceeds from this, and other activities, it built up an impressive estate of "mixed use" commercial/residential developments, business parks and the like. A good investment in the boom years, no doubt, but perhaps not looking so clever now.

The IWAC release puts up a strong defence, signing off with a remark that "a number of important reports are due to be published in the next few months which quantify the public benefits provided by the waterways and review alternative methods of funding... the Government should wait until it has a full appreciation of the public benefits that might be put at risk". 

If we were to bet on Wednesday's announcement, though, we'd expect that the Government will announce a sell-off of BW's property. That probably won't be the whole announcement: there'll be a little balm to soothe BW's pain. DEFRA (the Government department in charge of BW) is already undertaking a review of BW's work, which could well now focus on "can volunteers cut BW's costs?" and "should local councils pay for the waterways?".

But that's just speculation based on our reading of the jungle drums. We'll find out on Wednesday.

Monday 20 April  | Richard Fairhurst  | 10.38am, Monday 20 April 2009


It will be all about efficency, so what about a BW/EA merger! Of course volunteers (where wanted!) will be thrown a bone to keep the billd down.

Patrick Morriss  | 5.24PM, Monday 20 April

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