Perhaps this is what I missed by not going to the HNBOC meeting last weekend, at which a BW bigwig (might even have been the same one) was providing the entertainment with a talk on future spending and the involvement of the 'third sector', but never mind, I was able to read all about it in the Guardian yesterday.
Now I'm not going to get involved in discussions about whether this is the right - or only - way forward (probably not, but another time, maybe) but a couple of things leapt out of the article (shall I be cynical and say press release) at me.
The first was this:
Hales said: "Why does a taxpayer in Blackpool fund the Regent's canal in London?"
To which the answer surely is, have you not grasped the point of a national system of taxation, Tony? The point is cross-subsidy; in some areas services are expensive to provide (think of public transport in sparsely populated rural areas); in other areas economies of scale make services relatively cheap to provide. Some areas are rich and some areas are poor. If every area had to pay for its own amenities and services, inequalities would become even more entrenched than they already are. His example is in any case disingenuous; it is surely the super-wealthy residents of Maida Vale and the commuters of G.U. Metroland who have funded the Liverpool Link and the Lancashire, not the other way round.
This attitude sounds like the beginning of the end for British Waterways or a national waterways system by any name, and an argument for a break up into self-funding regions, which will, for all sorts of reasons, have vastly differing levels of income and of outgoings, and would in many cases find themselves in competition with each other. It also brings to mind shades of the post-British railway system (shudder). Will we see the return of stop locks and the Worcester Bar?
The second assertion that I would take issue with is this:
"And if I own a brand new flat in Birmingham, I'm not going to sit there and do nothing if the canal I overlook is full of floating dead dogs, or the tow paths are covered in dog shit, or the lock gates don't work, and the value of my property is going down. I'm going to get involved."
Has he ever visited an area where the streets are covered in dog shit and the street lamps don't work, and there may even be the odd dead dog, or cat, or pigeon or rat? And has he noticed the people getting involved? Because mostly, mostly they don't. If they're affluent and confident, they shout and complain until someone else (usually the local authority) does something about it; and if they're poor and depressed, they put up with it and don't see any possible alternative. And frankly, the eventual residents of all those new flats, bought-to-let-off-plan and now being repossessed or offloaded by desperate failed would-be property magnates, are likely to fall into the latter category. And I'm sure that most of them wouldn't even notice whether the lock gates worked or not, let alone care.
'Getting involved' is the New (and now somewhat tarnished) Labour mantra. It involves passing the responsibility for local problems onto the people who are suffering from them, but without giving them the power to do anything meaningful about it. The way to achieve things is by banding together, but you cannot do that effectively if everyone in an area is poor, poorly educated, and depressed. You have to spread that load more widely. At its best, at its (hardly ever reached) ideal, that is what the state does; that is what the state is for. In practice, it hardly ever works. The irony is, that in a small way, as a vestige of the glory days, that's what British Waterways, the forgotten nationalised industry fighting on without noticing that the war was over and the private sector had won, was doing.