Editorial: New canal trust boosts the sector

Creating the Canal and River Trust, though not easy, was a good move, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

It used to be a quango; now it's a charity. The Canal and River Trust took over the waterways in England and Wales last week with plenty of razzmatazz, including the announcement of Prince Charles as patron and a spectacular multi-coloured illumination of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which carries the Llangollen Canal over the River Dee.

The progress of this hefty new addition to the sector will be watched carefully, not least by a government interested in the possibility of sending other public sector bodies down the same route, among them English Heritage and the Forestry Commission.

Nobody should pretend the process was easy. The trust said that one of the hardest tasks was getting buy-in from the staff, made easier when the government, which will continue to provide the bulk of its funding, guaranteed their pensions. How do you get people to switch from a public to a voluntary sector mindset?

Then there was getting support from the waterways community - a rather euphemistic term for a huge range of local and sectional interests with passionate views about the stewardship of the canals. The result was a system of governance in which the board is advised by a large council, which appoints and dismisses board members and includes the chairs of local 'waterways partnerships'. Then there is a range of specialist advisory groups. How well is all that going to work?

Finally, there's fundraising. It's uncertain how much people will want to give and, in spite of public protestations to the contrary, other environmental charities will want to defend their shares of the pie. Perhaps the best revenue opportunities lie in the underexploited buildings of the network.

All in all, the creation of the trust is a great fillip for, and a vote of confidence in, the voluntary sector. Over the years, many great organisations and institutions were taken over by the state, often to save them from ruin. But times are different now, and in some cases state control is no longer the best option. This is one of them.

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