“This is a fundamental shift,” he says. “The whole of our organisation in England and Wales is now covered by one contract for the maintenance of mechanical and electrical equipment and that means work is recorded in a rigorous way on one system. It’s a national approach, and the standards are the same across the country.
“Before, it was done on an ad-hoc basis and records might or might not have been kept. British Waterways was prone to doing its own thing in different areas – it was all a bit disparate.”
Ballinger says the new approach doesn’t mean the trust eschews localism as a concept. “National contracts can still involve local contractors,” he says. “But what we want is consistency of performance across the network – so if a spindle on an opening bridge is greased every three months in the South East, there’s no reason why it should not be greased every three months in the North West.
“Previously it was left to discretion and sometimes things were missed. We need to keep proper records to understand what work has been done. We have been weak here before.”
The transition to trust status will have an impact on the organisation in other ways. Ballinger says the fact that it is now a charity means it is more likely to engender goodwill among the public and so increase the amount of volunteering on the inland waterways network.
“It was hard to get people in the street to give money towards the upkeep of what they considered to be Defra’s assets,” he says.
The trust says it is now working hard to get fundraisers on board. “Volunteer numbers have gone up hugely,” he says. “We want people to realise that waterways are part of their neighbourhood and bring a value to their area. We want them to get involved with looking after the infrastructure. The volunteer network is going to be crucial.”
Ballinger says the trust is particularly keen to attract professional engineers as volunteers. “If they want to volunteer and inspect a bridge, or help maintain a bit of mechanical infrastructure, we’d say come on board. It’s a fantastic opportunity to really do something worthwhile. The structures are already in place to assess competence. It is something we want to encourage.”
The trust is also looking to widen its funding base so that it can instigate improvement projects such as creating additional mooring spaces. It is looking at how it might make better use of the fibre-optic network that runs under towpaths.
“We want to improve connectivity on canals and rivers but we don’t want masts everywhere spoiling the landscape. We have a fibre-optic network along the canal system. I think we can provide better services than we do at the moment,” he adds. n
Canal and River Trust, at a glance
- 2,000 miles of canals, rivers, reservoirs and docks
- 200 miles of new waterways opened in the past decade
- 12 million visitors a year
- 35,200 licensed boats on the network
- 24,000 employed on the network
- 1,569 locks
- 53 tunnels
- 3,112 bridges
- 370 aqueducts
- 74 reservoirs