This is entry No.35, first published on 30 March 2011, of a blog on public bodies reform. Click here to view the whole blog.

Richard Benyon launched today (see here) a 3 month consultation in relation to the proposed new waterways charity (NWC) which the Government plans should replace British Waterways, the transformation to be effected by order made under the Public Bodies Bill once enacted.

Overall, the proposals for the NWC (which has yet to be named) look to be very much as previously trailed. In particular, it remains the case that it is proposed that the NWC should take over from British Waterways in April 2012, that it should inherit BW's property portfolio, that the Government has committed to maintain funding at the 2014/15 level for the new charity going forward until 2022/23 inclusive (as announced in the Spending Review settlement) and that, in the first phase, the NWC will not include Environment Agency navigations but these may be transferred across later. The consultation also confirms that the proposed interim trustees are intended to be appointed in April and to begin work in May.

The consultation puts more flesh in particular on the bones of the proposed governance structure, ideas for which had previously been canvassed with stakeholders. What is envisaged is a 9-12 board of trustees, a 35-50 member Council (drawn from specified stakeholder interests), 8-12 member local partnerships (embracing management and stakeholders) for each waterways management area and, for trading purposes, a community interest company. General public membership of the NWC is not proposed though it is suggested that the NWC "will be able to decide if it wishes to move towards a greater element of direct membership, once it has established a broad, solid base of engagement with a representative range of waterways communities" (see page 33, Box 31).

At a detailed level there is lots to consider for those interested in the waterways, particularly as respects the governance arrangements and the proposal included in the consultation to remove existing statutory obligations placed on British Waterways, most notably the statutory commitments under the Transport Act 1968 to maintain waterways for freight traffic (see para. 4.3.16). The funding arrangements will also merit particular scrutiny for, even with the proposed funding commitment, the NWC is likely to find itself seriously challenged unless it develops new funding streams. Ramblers and cyclists, incidentally, will be pleased to note a commitment to maintain free access to towpaths.

Overall, the proposals represent a very interesting template for the involvement of charities in public sector reform, the engagement of the voluntary sector generally and the implementation of Big Society objectives. As such, whilst waterways users will all be pouring over the consultation, the proposals are of great significance beyond "the cut" and are likely to influence the progress and development of public sector reform more generally.