How long will it be before the Canal & River Trust is simply a shell organisation with only managers and volunteers working directly for the business and every important function and skill outsourced to contractors?
The past week has seen a 10 year contract for all dredging handed over to a single contractor at a predicted cost of £60-70m.
A few days later Trust handed over all mechanical and electrical work on its historic canals and rivers to AMCO Ltd.
Keeping the canal banks tidy by cutting vegetation has already gone to a single national contractor, Fountains, and contractors like Keir are inevitably brought in to deal with major breaches and other large scale works.
How much longer will C&RT have any expertise in canals and boating within it's ranks, with contractors doing all the skilled work and volunteers taking on key roles such as lock-keeping and other maintenance?
Simon Bamford, asset delivery director at the Trust, confirms that engineering expertise is now held outside. He said: “The canals were the engineering masterpieces of their day and, while some of the technology has changed over the years, they still require a dedicated team of engineers to look after them. We’re delighted with the way in which AMCO has understood and reflected our values and we look forward to working with them.
On the dredging front The Floater asked whether the 10-year contract left C&RT staff with any dredging capability and equipment?
The Trust’s answered “internal capability for dredging has been very small and localised for many years, the vast majority (c95%) has been delivered via contracts for over ten years,” although it went on to claim “valuable local knowledge is used to identify and prioritise works.”
That'll be a 'No', then.
Some businesses might be concerned that they were reliant on a single contractor as competition is generally seen as the way to get the best value but C&RT management insists: “By consolidating the works into a single contract over the longer term, it provides opportunity for a better return on investment, therefore providing a more cost effective solution for the Trust.”
So is there any evidence of better value from contractors? The whole issue of inadequate dredging of the Waterways goes back many years with both British Waterways and later C&RT making promises and failing to deliver.
When the Canal & River Trust announced that it has signed a ten-year dredging deal with Land and Waters Services (LAWS) it made no mention of the ‘dredge pledge’, made some three years ago to double a £5m per year expenditure on dredging over a ten year period, even though the new agreement would provide an ideal opportunity to show progress.
In reality,LAWS has been responsible for the majority of dredging on C&RT’s waterways for many years. The Trust have informed The Floater that, for over ten years, the vast majority of its dredging work (95 per cent) has been carried out under contract. However, it has failed to hit it's own target for dredging.
The historical decline in dredging BW’s inland waterways is starkly documented in answers to written questions by Richard Benyon MP, the then ‘waterways minister’, in July 2010. The questions relate to lengths of waterways dredged and the volume of materials removed. His response is summarised in the following table –
Length Dredged (km) Volume cubic metres removed
2000-01 143 162,000
2001-02 113 155,000
2002-03 90 113,000
2003-04 95 136,000
2004-05 40 64,000
2005-06 64 89,000
2006-07 58 125,000
2007-08 53 93,000
2008-09 45 97,000
2009-10 64 64,000
Responding to a further question asked about plans for 2010/11. Richard Benyon replied – ‘British Waterways currently has plans to dredge between 30 kilometres (km) and 40 km of its waterways during 2010-11. This will take place at 18 locations, at an estimated cost of £4.5 million.’ He went on to explain that BW had a further backlog of some 291 Kilometres of waterways that needed dredging.
Just 16 months later (November 2011), the waterways minister, again in answer to a written question, stated that the dredging backlog was approximately £40m.
12 months after this admission (23 November 2012), C&RT unveiled its ‘dredge pledge’ to at a meeting of the Association of Pleasure Craft Operators.
C&RT trustee, John Dodwell, claimed ‘that a ten-year dredging programme was being planned, effectively doubling the current annual £5m spend on programmed dredging.’
He also stated that C&RT were changing dredging criteria which effectively doubled its dredging backlog.
In effect, C&RT were admitting that the criteria used by BW for the need for dredging was incorrect. Put another way, the figure given for the previous year's backlog by the minister should have been £80m rather than £40m with some 14 per cent of the network needing dredging.
So, is C&RT spending the promised £10m per year on dredging? Despite its claim of certainty of funding, C&RT has told The Floater that it is only spending £6m - £7m a year on dredging (rather than the ‘dredge pledge’ £10m initially promised by Trustee John Dodwell).
Figures in annual reports confirm this. Furthermore, the Trust says it has no plans to increase this level of spend over the ten-year lifespan of its new agreement with LAWS.
The ‘Dredge Pledge’ was made in late 2012. The pledge then was to spend £80m over 10 years on dredging (i.e. average £8m per year and £2m less than the initial promise). Following the ‘dredge pledge’ C&RT have spent an average of £6.13m per year on dredging rather than £8m.
Spending figures from C&RT Annual reports spell it out –
2012/13 £3.3m (over 9 months)
2011/12 £5.0 (last full financial year of British Waterways)
Is the ‘dredge pledge’ dead?
It certainly looks like it.