British Waterways (BW) has become another fatality in the government’s Public Bodies Reform programme, as it becomes the private charitable body, the Canal and River Trust (CRT). The move is the single largest transfer of a public body into the charitable sector by the Coalition Government as part of their spending review and cuts agenda. The CRT and the government have hailed it as a success that gives local communities the opportunity to get involved in running their local rivers and canals as hands on volunteers or financial donors.
Established under the Transport Act 1962, was funded by the Department of Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and by the Scottish Government. (The waterways in Scotland remain a public body and are still funding from the Scottish public purse.) BW was responsible for looking after the running, maintenance and restoration of the 2000-mile canal and river system in England, Wales and Scotland. It was also responsible for over 2500 listed buildings, including 70 Scheduled Ancient Monuments, over 800 areas of ‘special designation’, 100 Sites of Special Scientific Interest and a portfolio of canalside properties. All this cost money, and the plan is that the CRT will replace the £58.9m BW received in public funding with donations from individuals and private companies and by using free labour from volunteers.
The effects of this on those who work for BW are already clear. BW worked through a dedicated network of employed individuals who traditionally accepted low wages in return for mooring licenses and other related benefits. Since the plans to transform BW into a mutual organisation were announced in 2010, over 20% of head office and regional jobs have been cut, mooring privileges abolished and ground and canal workers’ hours renegotiated without additional financial enhancements.
The canal and river system has already seen the introduction and use of local Community Payback Teams (previously named Community Service Teams – a group of managed offenders working court ordered hours as punishment) and there have been concerns raised by the residents and workers of the inland waterways that Workfare programmes will soon get involved in replacing the jobs of people who are currently employed.
A fellow boater, and worker for BW for over a decade, said:
‘BW was never perfect. There were lots of things that were wrong with the way things were run and there were lots of ways we could have saved money. But Head Office and the government never listened to us and now I am looking at losing my job. There are no other jobs for me. This is all that I know. I have lived on the canal for most of my life and I am proud of the way it works, its history and I love the community on the canal. I will always look after the canal…it is in my blood…I just won’t get paid for it anymore. I suppose I will just be put on the scrap heap with the rest of the exploited!’
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