PLANS FOR FUTURE OF THE THAMES
GO ON BACK-BURNER

The Government has postponed plans for the future of the River Thames which would have involved its management by a charity.

Environment Minister Richard Benyon told Parliament any transfer will now be put off until the economy improves.

The Association of Thames Yacht Clubs said members have greeted the news with delight. Many boat clubs, individuals and the union representing staff have been strongly opposed to the idea. But both the Canal and River Trust and the Inland Waterways Association have expressed disappointment..

The Environment Agency (EA) which currently manages the river has not commented publicly but in a briefing note to staff says the announcement means it retains responsibility for the river for at least the next three years.

Canals were transferred to the CRT last year. Preparatory work had already begun on moving responsibility for the non-tidal river’s navigation as well and a full review of plans had been expected shortly.

But in his Commons statement Mr Benyon said: “The fiscal situation remains challenging and as a result [Government department] Defra must identify additional savings in 2015/16 to help deal with the deficit. The transfer of EA navigations is unlikely to be affordable in the current climate.

“The Government has therefore decided that the Review planned for 2013/14 to consider options for the transfer will be postponed until Defra’s finances improve and there is a realistic prospect of the transfer being affordable and that it can take place on terms which would enable CRT’s Trustees to manage the additional liabilities involved.”

The EA told staff:” This means we will carry on delivering our navigation role to the very best of our ability. We will work on the assumption, for planning purposes, that we will remain the custodian of our navigations for at least a further three years.

“During this time we will continue to engage staff and stakeholders in work to increase the financial sustainability of our waterways. This grows increasingly important with the continuing pressure on government funding, which we currently rely on to deliver much of our navigation work.”

Michael Shefras, Association of Thames Yacht Clubs Chair, said: " Mr Benyon's statement was greeted with delight by members of the ATYC.  

"ATYC joins with Thames User Group Navigation who overwhelmingly oppose any movement of the Thames navigation to CRT.

 "Next year we would be advising the Minister when the review was expected to take place that it would be costly and inefficient to move the Thames navigation away from the holistic river basin management of the Thames.  Our mantra must be “Evidence not Emotion” - plagiarising a quote from Mr Patterson the Defra Minister - has to be the way forward”

CRT chair Tony Hales said: “This is disappointing news and a missed opportunity.  In less than a year, the transfer of British Waterways to the voluntary sector has begun to revolutionise the way that our canals and rivers are cared for, opening up improved engagement and new opportunities for volunteering and fundraising.  There is no reason that we could not have seen the same benefits on the EA’s navigations.
           
“We have very much enjoyed working with the team at the EA and look forward to this continuing as we share best practice and knowledge in the future.  We remain ready to look at these plans when the Government is next able to proceed.”

Les Etheridge, national chairman of The IWA said: “We are very disappointed.An opportunity was missed a year ago when CRT was formed, and perhaps predictably the finances of Defra do not seem to have improved since then.  Indeed, the latest round of cuts from 2015 is a cause of concern.

“We understand that 65% of the income for the Agency’s navigations comes from government grant in aid, and this has already been substantially cut.  Worse still, there are clearly prospects for further cuts which could impose additional financial burdens on users of the EA navigations, and in particular boaters. Inclusion of EA’s navigations within CRT offers many benefits, but especially surety of income once a deal with government is achieved.”

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