Yesterday I wended my way (via Lewes, East Croydon and Norwood Junction) to Haggerston (yes, me neither. It's Shoreditch way, next stop up from Hoxton on the spanking new Overground line), to a canalside community enterprise cafe and conference centre, for the launch of the consultation on what is variously called 'the new waterways charity' or the 'transfer of BW to civil society'.
Now, as my research interests in the day job revolve around public policy, politicians' use of concepts (like civil society, community, local...), and the role of community and voluntary groups in delivering policy, it struck me a while ago that the future of BW would make an excellent case study, and by making it the subject of my next research project, I could be producing something original and worthwhile, and hopefully interesting enough to me to sustain a long project. So for a few months I've been sketching the outline of what such a project - articles and a book, being the ultimate 'outputs' - would look like, and have been drafting a proposal and thinking about who to talk to.
When I heard about the official launch of the consultation process, I knew it was an opportunity I couldn't miss (despite the need to be in Haggerston at ten in the morning!) and requested an invitation. The event was organised by DEFRA and the consultation document can be found on their website here.
It certainly was worth going. I was one of the few women there (there was one from the British Canoe Union and I think all the others were from DEFRA) and most of course were there as interested parties, representing an organisation. People seemed interested in the proposed research, and willing to contribute - hopefully it should be valuable to all concerned. I got to meet Robin Evans, Tony Hales and Simon Salem of BW, as well as Roger Hanbury of the Waterways Trust and a very interesting and helpful civil servant. The relevant junior minister (natural environment), Richard Benyon, was there too, but I didn't get to meet him. He made the right noises and there seems to be a consensus than he is genuinely enthusiastic for the waterways - he represents Newbury, so he has one in his constituency.
Naturally I went along in full cynic mode, but the general feeling was of a cautious welcome from all parties for the proposals, obviously with some caveats and ongoing concerns about funding, but an overall impression that this was the best option available in the circumstances. Unlike many other 'Big Society' policies, this one wasn't scribbled on the back of an envelope by the new government, but the bulk of it is the outcome of a few years of planning and preparation within BW and DEFRA - although if it is successful of course, it will forever be seen as the flagship of the Big Society.
So it's a case of watch this space - and I for one will now be watching it very carefully.
The picture is the front cover illustration from the consultation document; I wanted to copy the whole cover, but I couldn't. You will of course notice that there are no boats in it. I shall try not to read too much into that.