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British Waterways Board

Volume 115: debated on Friday 1 May 1987

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asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry when the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report on the maintenance activities of the British Waterways Board will be published; and if he will make a statement.

The report is published today.The commission was asked to investigate the efficiency and costs of BWB's maintenance of its waterways. Particular aspects mentioned in the terms of reference included the scope for additional use of contractors or consultants, BWB's procedures for appraising maintenance requirements and assessing priorities, setting and implementing maintenance standards and estimating costs for in-house and contracted-out work. The commission was also asked to comment on how far BWB's maintenance operations were programmed to fit the current and future priorities of the leisure and freight departments.The commission has made serious criticisms of much of BWB's management and procedures but noted that improvements in management and planning were taking place. The commission found that BWB was only just beginning to define national standards for maintenance. It needed to define maintenance tasks in detail as a step towards being able to compare in-house and contractors' costs systematically. These comparisons would help BWB to decide what work to do with its own labour force and what to contract out. The commission recommended that BWB should decide on the size and deployment of its labour force on the basis of a detailed assessment of work load, using the new definitions of maintenance standards and tasks, and of the cheapest ways of doing the work using reliable cost comparisons.The commission considered that BWB's maintenance programme should reflect more closely the relative contributions of leisure and freight uses to revenue. It recommended that in appraising project proposals BWB should have regard to the relationship between income (or usage) and maintenance expenditure on individual waterways. While BWB's published objectives acknowledged that leisure use offered better prospects for increasing its income, the commission felt that this needed to have more practical recognition in the remit given to the area engineers about deciding what maintenance should be done.The commission noted that BWB cannot in practice charge the users or beneficiaries for much of the maintenance work it does for public safety and health reasons, for drainage purposes and for some public leisure use. The commission suggested that the Department of the Environment should consider relating part of its grant to BWB to its costs arising from the public service aspects of maintenance. BWB's revenue from users, and its ability to increase such revenue, could then be more readily seen in the context of those costs relating to work done for users who could be charged.Finally, as is usual in such references, the commission was asked to consider whether BWB is pursuing a course of conduct which operates against the public interest. It concluded that, in view of the difficult circumstances in which BWB had to operate, and its acknowledgement of the need for change, the shortcomings identified could not be judged to operate against the public interest. But the commission stressed the need for BWB to deal expeditiously with the report's recommendations and suggested that a further external review should take place in five years' time.BWB will be producing its preliminary response to the commission's findings within three to four months, in the light of which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will make a statement.