According to the Inland Waterways Association, which has 17,000 members across the country, it would be in the national interest if management of the Rivers Thames, Medway, Nene, and Great Ouse, along with the rest of the Environment Agency’s navigation responsibilities, were passed to British Waterways. The resolution was passed at the meeting of the Association’s Council in January, and will form their principal recommendation to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR).

In total, the Environment Agency is responsible for 800km (500 miles) of river navigations, maintaining and operating 126 locks and associated weirs and sluices, and providing public access to the sites. The Agency also licences and regulates around 31,000 boats per year.

“We appreciate that this resolution may be the source of some disappointment to the Environment Agency and to some waterway users, we would wish to reassure them that the resolution was passed only after great deal of careful thought and consideration,” said Richard Drake, National Chairman of the IWA. “Council’s decision was based on its opinion of the Agency’s and British Waterways’ likely future ability to encourage investment in the inland waterways and the existing legal duties, powers and structures of both organisations. The decision was therefore made with a long-term view.”

Drake is keen to point out, however, that the resolution in no way reflects upon the Environment Agency’s staff, neither those working directly on navigations, nor in regional or head offices. “We believe that the Agency has a very important role to play in the inland waterways, both as an environmental regulator and as overall co-ordinator of river basin management,” said Drake. “Regardless of any change in functions of the Agency, the Inland Waterways Association will continue to seek a close and constructive relationship with the Agency and to work as a willing partner wherever appropriate.”

The resolution is part of the IWA’s long-term aim of a single national inland waterways navigation conservancy and a national boat licensing system, Drake told edie. The IWA believes that it is a good idea, but is not saying how or when it should be done, said Drake, pointing out that such a move would require parliamentary time.

The Environment Agency has confirmed that it is disappointed in the IWA’s decision to take this position. “I can assure Mr Drake and the Inland Waterways Association, the Environment Agency is committed to continue managing its river navigation of England and Wales to ensure the right balance is struck between the needs of our environment, the needs of public safety and the needs of the people who use our waterways for commercial and recreational purposes,” said Baroness Young of Old Scone, the Environment Agency’s Chief Executive.

“The rivers of England and Wales are not the sole preserve of navigating authorities,” she added. “Our rivers are at the heart of our land drainage and flood defence system; vital to our maintenance and enhancement of our water supplies; vital habitats for our diverse and unique wildlife; and the economic and cultural focus of many local communities across this land.” Separating these uses could produce a range of negative impacts, said Baroness Young, including a potential increase in flood risk and a decline in river wildlife. The Environment Agency will continue to work in close partnership with waterway users to make the resource cleaner and safer for the public, she said.

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