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Thoughts on Funding BW

Once again, the waterways need defending against the Whitehall bureaucrats. This is the text of a document I've just sent to the Inland Waterways Association, and to Will Chapman of the Save Our Waterways campaign, about the sustainable funding of British Waterways.


There are a number of issues intertwined in any discussion about achieving the sustainable funding of BW, which makes sober discussion of a contentious matter even more difficult than usual. In a long history of often fractious negotiations, starting from the negative world view of the British Transport Waterways Board, compromise has been piled on compromise until only a complete rethink from first principles is likely to achieve any reasonable settlement.

In this document I try to address these issues systematically.

Who benefits?

There are a number of identifiable groups of beneficiaries, or stakeholders in the current jargon, and each should share in the costs of maintaining the system:

  • People who use the waterways and can be identified as individuals for charging purposes
  • People who use the waterways but are not readily identifiable as individuals
  • People who benefit from the land drainage functions of the waterway
  • People who benefit from the water transport functions of the waterway
  • People whose property gains in value from the amenity of the waterway.
  • The population at large, and succeeding generations, who benefit from the preserved heritage of the waterways

Identifiable users

I have started with these, since the present debate has been stimulated by BW’s proposals for increases to the boaters’ licence fee. In addition to boaters the other obviously identifiable group are anglers, who contribute money in two ways: by the rental their angling club pays to BW for exclusive use of a stretch of water, and by the rod licence fees which presently go to the EA and remain there.

There are many more anglers than boaters, but they cannot be expected to pay as much as the boater for their sport. However, it is unjust that the EA retains all of the rod licence income when an easily determined proportion of it is related to the privilege of fishing BW waters.

Boaters pay money to the state in a number of ways:

  • Through the licence fee
  • Through mooring fees
  • Through fuel duty

At some time in the past, BW chose to increase income by increasing the fees for on-line mooring, and by charging off line marinas a connection fee, rather than simply increasing the licence fee.

This is one of the causes of the bad feeling directed at continuous cruisers who avoid paying mooring fees, especially those who bridge hop or “continuous moor”. If the mooring fee genuinely represented only the costs of maintaining the mooring, then much of this ground of complaint would disappear. This matter has been exacerbated by the ill conceived sealed bid auction trial presently in progress.

As has been said many times in the last few months, boaters only represent 3% of all waterways users. Although they could be argued to gain far more from the waterway environment than many other more casual users, it is manifestly unfair that they should be asked to contribute more than say 10% of BW’s total income.

A number of people have suggested that the imminent loss of  the UK derogation from the EU Fuel Duty Directive will lead to an increased tax take from boaters’ use of diesel for propulsion. Unhappily, it seems likely that the net gain to HMRC will be so negligible that even were the argument for hypothecation of this money to stand any chance of success (which is unlikely in the extreme) there would be very little benefit to BW.

Proposals for Identifiable Users

  • BW should receive a proportion of the income from rod licences from the EA
  • BW should agree with user groups the equitable proportion of its income to be borne by boaters, taking account of both the benefit which boaters gain from the system and the proportion of waterways users who are boaters.
  • Mooring fees should be reduced to represent only the true on costs of providing the moorings concerned, plus a reasonable margin. The licence fee should be increased to replace the income thus lost. The auction trial should be abandoned.

Other Users

Around 97% of users of the waterways cannot be readily identified for charging purposes. These are the walkers, runners, cyclists, artists and so on, and are drawn from the entire citizenry of the country. There is an inescapable argument that both central and local government should make payment to BW for the benefits that these users gain. At present this takes the form primarily of the grant in aid paid via Defra. There is no reason why the LAs should not share some of this burden, either by payment to BW or by undertaking maintenance of towpaths and canalside street furniture such as lights and seats.

The recent payment crises have been down to the payment route through Defra. In common with all other Defra agencies, BW now finds itself in competition with the powerful agricultural lobby. Overspends are never, it seems, charged to the farmers’ budgets, so all other parts of Defra must be the losers.

There are at least three other Departments of State who could legitimately be expected to contribute to the maintenance of the waterways: Culture Media and Sport, Communities and Local Government, and Transport. With the possible exception of the DoT, any of these would make a better home for BW than Defra, which seems to be determined to prove the maxim that bad practice drives out good; the previously adequate financial competence of the old DoE has been completely destroyed by the infection from MAFF.

Proposals for other users

  • BW should argue for an increased grant in aid to cover the benefits of the waterways to the populace in general – portions of this grant should come from the DCLG, the DCMS and the DoT, in recognition of the role that waterways play in fulfilling the purposes of those Departments.
  • BW should develop and expand its relations with local authorities, with the aim of getting them to share the maintenance burden of waterways in their areas.
  • BW should seek to be located within another Department of State, so as to escape the toxic effects of Defra’s financial incompetence and the power of the agribusiness lobby.

Land Drainage and Water Movement

Events of the summer just past demonstrate the importance of the waterways under BW’s care in ameliorating the effects of drought and flood. As the climate changes, these effects may be expected to become more extreme.

BW is entitled to claim a portion of any funds made available as a result of initiatives to ameliorate the effects of global warming. Embankments and other structures must be maintained in peak condition if there are not to be a series of disasters like the recent Mon and Brec breach.

The concept of a national Water Grid has apparently been put to one side, but there are a number of locations in which canals can play their part in moving quantities of water from one part of the country to another, and BW should be funded to explore these and develop them where feasible.

Proposals for Land Drainage and Water Movement

Regardless of which Department hosts it, BW should continue to receive funding from Defra, either directly or through the EA, to develop its role in mitigating the consequences of drought, storm and flood.

Property values

It is frequently claimed that waterside properties are worth up to 25% more than similar properties nearby. This should be reflected in the rateable value of those properties, and BW should be the beneficiary of the increased Council Tax thus raised.

As in the case of the benefit to the general population above, BW should negotiate with the LAs to receive this benefit either as cash or as value received by way of maintenance of the canalside environment.

Proposals with regard to property values

BW should include in its negotiations with LAs the prospect of an increased tax take from waterside properties in recognition of the amenity value of their position.


BW gives much lip service to the heritage value of the waterway system in its care. Its funding should reflect this via funding from the DCMS, regardless of which Department is currently hosting it. Maintenance costs are higher as a result of the requirement to comply with listed building status and the like. Part of the reason for the popularity of the system with casual visitors is the industrial heritage which it represents, and those visitors should contribute to its maintenance via their general taxes.

Proposals with regard to heritage issues

BW should claim as part of its grant in aid a sum explicitly for the maintenance of the industrial archaeology of the system.