Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 07 February 2008

Briefing by Waterways Ireland

7 February 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Mr Francie Brolly
Lord Browne
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon

Witnesses:
Mr Colin Brownsmith ) Waterways Ireland
Mr Martin Denanny )
Mr John Martin )

The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):
This is the first time that the Committee has heard formally from Waterways Ireland. We are pleased to be joined this afternoon by senior representatives of the body. I welcome Mr John Martin, chief executive; Mr Colin Brownsmith, director of finance and personnel; and Mr Martin Denanny, director of marketing and communication. I will hand over to you, John.

Mr John Martin (Waterways Ireland):
The Committee has received our briefing document. My colleagues and I are delighted to be here to discuss the progress made by Waterways Ireland since its establishment. As this is the first time that representatives of our organisation have appeared before the Committee, I have brought with me our director of operations, Brian D’Arcy, and our director of technical services, Nigel Russell.

We are pleased to have the opportunity to explain the functions of Waterways Ireland, which is the largest of the cross-border implementation bodies. Our mandate is simple: to manage, maintain, develop and restore the inland navigations under our control, primarily for recreational purposes. We act under the policy direction of the North/South Ministerial Council, and funding is provided by both Governments. Some 85% of our current funding is provided by the South, 15% by the North. That reflects the distribution of the waterways under our control: 850 kilometres lie in the South and 150 kilometres lie in the North. Our capital programmes are funded separately; at 100% by the Government of the area in which we do the work.

I am pleased to state that we have a good relationship with both sponsoring Departments: the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure in the North and the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs in the South.

When the organisation was established, both Governments decided that the headquarters would be located in Enniskillen and that there should be three regional offices: one in Dublin; one in Scariff in County Clare; and one in Carrick-on-Shannon in County Leitrim.

The first major task was to establish a viable organisation. Initially, the body was staffed by people seconded from both civil services, and the majority came from the predecessor organisations. Initial permanent staffing came about by the designation and transfer of 235 people — nine from the Rivers Agency, and 226 from the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and The Islands. Those who transferred were mainly people who were involved in the direct management and operation of the waterways. Therefore, our first challenge was to recruit staff to take over the core central services that had previously been provided by Departments on both sides; for example, personnel, finance and IT functions. We then had to set about integrating the new staff, and the designated and transferred staff into a single entity.

All the policies necessary to run the organisation had to be developed, taking into account practices and legislation in both jurisdictions, which took considerable time and effort. It was also important to develop robust financial systems, procedures and controls to ensure proper accountability, under our financial memorandum. The effectiveness of those systems has been confirmed by the Comptrollers and Auditors General.

Waterways Ireland is organised in four divisions. There is an operations division, which manages and maintains the waterways. It has more than 250 staff who are spread across the waterways, managing all operation and maintenance functions, such as operating locks; weed cutting; dredging; replacement of markers; and bridge and lock improvements. The operations division also carries out capital works using our own direct labour force. Over the past seven years the organisation has spent around £70 million on the maintenance of the waterways and more than £50 million on capital projects. The division also manages the organisation’s property portfolio, and increased development along the waterways has placed an onus on us to be vigilant and to ensure that we get the best value for money from the developments that impinge upon our property.

Our technical services division provides the design and supervision of major contracts such as the bridge-building programme on the Royal Canal, which links Dublin to the River Shannon. During the past three years we have completed four new bridges. We have two further road bridges to construct, and we expect to reopen the canal in 2009. The division has a range of expertise in structural, civil, and mechanical engineering, environmental services and safety. It provides all the back-up design and advice to the operations division, as well carrying out a range of feasibility studies.

Our finance and personnel division manages the finance, personnel, IT strategy and policy sections and has developed a wide range of policies and procedures for personnel matters, financial systems, corporate and business planning, equality recruitment and procurement, as well as a complete new set of IT systems. All those processes have led to us being in a position to provide sound financial planning and reports and prepare our accounts for the Comptrollers and Auditors General on time.

In June 2004, our marketing division launched a marketing and promotion strategy. As part of that, we established a marketing advisory group with representatives from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, Fáilte Éireann, Tourism Ireland, the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, the Irish Boat Rental Association, the Erne Charter Boat Association and the chambers of commerce, North and South. That group has guided the strategy for a number of years.

I am also delighted with the new lakelands and inland waterways initiative, which we have been central in developing and delivering. It is based on the stretch of waterway from Belleek to Limerick, taking in a 30-kilometre corridor along its route, and it has brought together for the first time all the tourism agencies on both sides of the border. The benefits to the waterways are that it is the first time that all the agencies responsible for tourism and product development have come together as a single entity to market and develop the waterways and their hinterlands.

We have also run a very successful sponsorship programme for groups who wish to organise events along the waterways. Last year, we supported 40 events — 29 in the South and 11 in the North. We were also involved in seven joint activities — five in the North and two in the South. The main event was the Water Ski World Cup, which was held in Enniskillen. It was broadcast to more than 400 million people via the Internet, and was screened approximately 20 times on ‘Sky Sports’. We sponsored the Classic Fishing Festival at Lough Erne, the Riverfest in Coleraine, the Athlone triathalon and the Classic Boat Regatta.

More than 12,000 people attended Riverfest, which was a joint venture between Waterways Ireland, Coleraine Borough Council and the Lower Bann Partnership. Last year, more than 80,000 people attended events sponsored by Waterways Ireland.

Two years ago, we launched a website, which received two awards at the 2006 BT Goldeneye awards in Belfast. It also gained an AA equality rating. The website had more than five million hits in 2006 and almost 6·8 million hits in 2007 — an increase of almost 35%.

All these actions have the common objective of bringing customers to the waterways, while communicating the attractions and opportunities that our waterways present. As a result of the work carried out by our staff, we have increased mooring capacity by over 9,300 metres — 1,800 metres in the North and 7,500 in the South. That equates to more than 5∙5 miles of public moorings that have been installed since Waterways Ireland was established.

In the past seven years, the number of boats using our system has more than doubled to over 11,500. There has been an increase of 3,000 boats in the North, which means that the number of boats on the system there has almost trebled. There has been an increase of almost 3,500 boats in the South, doubling the number of boats there.

At a recent North/South Ministerial Council meeting in the waterways sectoral format, Ministers gave Waterways Ireland responsibility for reopening the Ulster Canal from Upper Lough Erne to Clones. We are very pleased to have been given the project, which, from preliminary design, through planning, land acquisition and completion of construction, will take about six years.

Our headquarters’ staff are based in two buildings, which are at either ends of Enniskillen. Construction of our new headquarters is progressing well, and I am looking forward to all our staff being together in our new head office. Hopefully, that will happen in the autumn.

There are also some challenges ahead. As we increase the number of moorings, install new facilities and bring more waterways into operation, the maintenance demand will increase. Our success in providing moorings and in encouraging increased use of the waterways brings with it demands from customers. Those demands will have to be met to maintain a vibrant waterway system. That will require substantial funding.

A further challenge is the changing nature of technology, the changes in society and the expectations of people in relation to technological change. We hope to meet those challenges in a manner that will continue to grow the usage of the waterways for the benefit of all.

Finally, I must mention the relationship in pay for staff based in the North and that for people in similar positions in the South. That challenge remains to be met. We would like to work with the Committee so that we can meet all those challenges. Thank you for the opportunity to address the Committee.

Mr Shannon:
Thank you for your excellent presentation, Mr Martin. It is exciting to hear how Waterways Ireland is progressing. You said that 355 people are employed by the organisation. My question relates to the spin-off for the community. Have you been able to quantify the number of jobs that have been created in fishing, boating, support services, restaurants, and so on?

Mr Martin:
No. Last year, the first phase of the research programme we are developing included a study of the economic benefits of having private-boat owners. There are around 800 hire boats and approximately 10,000 private boats on the system North and South. Obviously, hire boats are a different market. We looked at the effects of having private-boat owners and what the contributions were.

Mr Martin Dennany (Waterways Ireland):
The spend is about £4,000 per boat, per annum. Therefore, if there are 11,000 boats, that is a substantial spend.

We have approximately 70 staff in Enniskillen, all of whom are on reasonable salaries — better than reasonable in some cases. All those people are spending their money in Enniskillen and in its hinterland. The same applies to staff across the organisation. Scarriff was a very small place before Waterways Ireland came on board. The office there employs 20 to 30 people, and they are living and spending money in the area. The presence of organisations such as ours is making a serious contribution to local communities.

New developments and apartments are being built in different places along the waterways, which are bringing people back to them. Recently, people have begun to see the waterways as places to live, from a health perspective, which is making the areas more attractive and is helping them, in turn, to contribute more to local communities.

Mr Shannon:
I know that Waterways Ireland cannot claim the credit for everything — that would be unfair as many in the boating fraternity were there before the organisation was established. However, Waterways Ireland can claim some credit for regeneration and jobs creation. Do you have any idea of the value of your work and what it is worth to the tourism economy? You said that your assets are worth £669 million.

Mr Martin:
Our assets are the canals, which have been handed over to us by the Departments. We own the canals, some of which run through the most expensive areas in Dublin; for example, south Dublin, which is very expensive. To value those assets, one has to calculate how much it would cost to build them today. For 300 miles of canals, we can calculate how much that would cost per mile; how much 500 bridges, at £1 million a bridge, would cost, and how much 250 locks would cost. That is how we valued the assets. However, most of the value lies in the replacement cost of a public canal, a public lock or weir. We could not advertise those places in the market.

This year’s budget is around €50 million — £40 million — which is what Waterways Ireland spends directly. Some of the money goes on wages, purchases in the shops, etc. The boating industry — the private-boat owners and hire-boat owners — will generate a certain amount of tourism. There are also the facilities for walking and fishing along the waterways, which bring in a tremendous number of people. Waterways Ireland owns the canals and the Shannon-Erne waterway, but it does not own Lough Erne, the Lower Bann or the Shannon and, therefore, does not control fishing in those areas. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure in the North and the fisheries boards in the South control the fishing. It is a mix.

A substantial number of people walk along the canals and use them for fishing, but the figures are difficult to quantify. We plan to look at that but we have not formally quantified the numbers.

The Chairperson:
We will have to move on. Perhaps we could look at that later.

Mr McCausland:
It was said that the organisation has an equality scheme. Do cross-border bodies report to the Equality Commission in Northern Ireland?

Mr Martin:
Yes.

Mr McCausland:
Thank you. Waterways Ireland is a cross-border organisation: therefore, when marketing the organisation, what is done to ensure that people are aware that waterways cross from Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland so that Northern Ireland’s identity can be reflected in the marketing?

Mr Dennany:
We have not separated anything in that sense: we have marketed each waterway separately. When Waterways Ireland was established, it marketed all seven waterways together. At present, alongside Fáilte Ireland and the NITB, we are looking at marketing each waterway individually.

Mr McCausland:
It is obvious that waterways cross the border. Therefore, if you were marketing our waterways in Japan, for example, how would the presentation’s wording reflect, and make people aware of the fact, that a waterway crosses from Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland?

Mr Dennany:
We have never gone to that degree. Generally speaking, we do not market abroad. Tourism Ireland does that on behalf of Waterways Ireland and Fáilte Ireland. We do a small amount of marketing at shows, though only in the UK.

Mr McCausland:
Does Waterways Ireland produce its own marketing material?

Mr Dennany:
Yes.

Mr McCausland:
Does it refer to that fact?

Mr Dennany:
No. Waterways Ireland has never separated North and South in its marketing policy.

Mr McCausland:
I do not mean the policy; I mean the content of documentation.

Some time ago, I noticed that the border had vanished from the map on Waterways Ireland’s website. I asked a question on that point in the Assembly because I was quite keen that the border be restored.

The Chairperson:
I would differ on that matter, Nelson — speaking in a personal capacity.

Mr McCausland:
I am thankful that the border is still present in reality. However, it had vanished off the Waterways Ireland map. The Minister assured me that he would do all that he could to ensure that it was restored.

Mr Dennany:
It was a genuine mistake and should not have happened. The border has been put back on the map.

Mr McCausland:
I am glad to hear that. I am reassured that the border has been restored on the map. Mind you, we could create a waterway along the border: that is another option.

The Chairperson:
What is your question, Nelson?

Mr McCausland:
The matter that I was pursuing was the content of marketing material and whether it should reflect Northern Ireland’s distinctive identity. The issue has been raised with Tourism Ireland. Northern Ireland’s distinctive nature should be reflected so that people looking at the map will not decide to simply go to waterways in the South because they look nice. There is no information in the material to show which part of Ireland is the North and which is the Republic. As Waterways Ireland is a cross-border body, and represents co-operation between two separate countries, should that fact not be reflected in its marketing material?

Mr Dennany:
Waterways Ireland markets Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland separately as regards promoting events that will take place in, and are specific to, one country or the other — for example, the Water Ski World Cup and the classic fishing events.

Mr McCausland:
Could brochures and suchlike not refer to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland?

Mr Dennany:
I suppose that they could. However, we took the decision to market the waterways.

Mr McCausland:
I understand that. However, I ask that you consider the suggestion and send me a response.

Lord Browne:
I thank the representatives of Waterways Ireland for coming to the Committee. You have provided a good report. However, it would be useful to have a map of the waterways that shows how they all link up.

Mr Dennany:
Here is one I made earlier.

Mr Martin:
We have a copy for everyone here.

Mr P Ramsey:
I want to develop the positive stories we have heard. The Committee often discusses negative matters, funding crises and various other problems. Clearly, the output from cross-border institutions represents good value for money.

I wish to develop Jim Shannon’s point about the added value of having 400 million people watching the Water Ski World Cup via websites or on ‘Sky Sports’ in marketing North and South, and establishing the value of increasing the number of boats from 2,000 to 11,500. Surely there must be advantages, and an economic return, for all the wee towns and villages that hold events. It is surprising that there is no science-based approach that can determine the economic value of what is being produced.

The only blip relates to staffing difficulties and equality in pay arrangements. Given all the good stories that we have heard, is there any sign that there will be equality in pay to give comfort to staff who feel that they do not get value from their jobs?

Mr Martin:
When Waterways Ireland was set up, the payment of staff North and South was linked. That arrangement lasted for two years.

The position was that pay in each jurisdiction should follow the public service in that jurisdiction. There have been far greater pay increases in the public service in the South than there have been in the North, and the increases have been substantial.

When we recruited people five years ago, €100 was equivalent to £64 or £65. Today, €100 is equivalent to £76. Therefore, even if pay increases had been the same, North and South, around 12% to 15% would need to be built in due to currency movement. The problem is exacerbated for people working in our finance and personnel department in Enniskillen and paying the wages of colleagues based in the South who are at the same grade but whose salary is up to 25% higher.

The chief executive officers of all cross-border bodies have taken up that point with anyone and everyone. We have raised it at the highest level. We submitted a paper to the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) which has been raised at a meeting of the NSMC in institutional format, at which the First Minister and all the Ministers from both sides met. The paper was referred to the Departments of Finance, which have to report back on the issue. Therefore, the issue has moved to centre stage, and to a serious level. As I said, it is a challenge that affects our ability to recruit people into a cross-border body, particularly in locations such as Enniskillen, which is close to the border.

Mr P Ramsey:
Loss of morale leads to not getting the best out of staff. I wish the organisation well in trying to resolve the matter.

Mr K Robinson:
The greatest problem facing waterways across the island is how to stop zebra mussels from spreading from the Southern waterways into the Northern waterways.

Mr Shannon:
They should not cross the border without a passport.

Mr K Robinson:
You are worried about the border too.

In addition, when will the Lagan navigation system be included by Waterways Ireland? If the system were opened up, the potential for tourism would be magnified many times.

Finally, there could be a double whammy in that people could fly in from a country such as Germany, hire a boat in the Shannon area, see the culture and landscape around them and then sail into Northern Ireland, which would provide them with an opportunity to see something different. That would give the tourism industry two bangs for its buck. Has that potential been explored? In Alsace, for instance, all the buildings reflect its Germanic history, but tourists can also learn about French culture, so they get two bangs for their buck there. We are missing a great opportunity to highlight our differences, not necessarily political, by showing tourists something that they would not have seen over the previous week or ten days.

Mr P Ramsey:
I propose a Committee meeting in Alsace.

The Chairperson:
The zebra mussels must have got through from the South to the North before the border was reinstated.

Mr Martin:
The problem of zebra mussels has been on people’s minds for a long time. They are reputed to have come into Limerick from the Black Sea in ballast water. I have seen the damage that they have done at the Ardnacrusha power station, where they blocked the intake pipes to the hydroelectric scheme. Dyno Rod had to carry out a lot of work there. So many zebra mussels attached themselves to buoys that they were being pulled underwater. The mussels can get into water intakes and water outflows from sewerage schemes and block them.

Zebra mussels have spread quickly and, as I understand it, they can survive out of water for up to two weeks. Therefore, if, after fishing, someone takes their boat out of the water, the larvae can survive in dry conditions in boats, or on boats, for up to two weeks, which enables then to move throughout the system. I understand that zebra mussels have now moved into Lough Neagh. Whatever else might be said, it is not possible for a boat to move on waterways between Lough Erne to Lough Neagh, so do not blame us on that one.

Mr K Robinson:
Obviously, zebra mussels create tremendous damage, but can anything be done?

Mr Martin:
I have attended many seminars about the spread of zebra mussels. They are found across the UK and, for reasons related to water temperature, they seem to go into ballast tanks. I do not know if anything can be done. One person told me that the only way to sort out the problem would be to fill the Shannon with enough chlorine to kill them: however, that would kill everybody on either side of the river for some distance.

Mr Shannon:
That would be a bit drastic. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson:
Is that your question answered Mr Robinson?

Mr K Robinson:
I also asked about the Lagan navigation system.

Mr Martin:
The Lagan navigation system has excellent development potential. However, legislation is specific on what Waterways Ireland is permitted to do, and seven waterways are listed. Responsibility for one stretch of the Ulster Canal has been given to us — and that had to be added by Ministers. For us to be given responsibility for additional navigations, a formal process is required, and the decision lies with Ministers. We would be delighted to take on responsibility for new waterways.

Mr K Robinson:
Can Waterways Ireland not trigger the inclusion of a waterway, or is that for someone else to do?

Mr Martin:
No. That would be a political decision. Our seven waterways are listed in legislation, and any new navigations would have to be added by the North/South Ministerial Council or the Governments.

Mr P Ramsey:
Perhaps, a private Members’ Bill would be the way to proceed.

The Chairperson:
We must approach a conclusion.

Mr Dennany:
I would like to add something about specific navigations. When Waterways Ireland was established, the organisation did not wish to do anything that would give one waterway priority over another. Since then, we have considered the matter, and so the answer to the question is yes.

For example, the Barrow navigation system is different from any other navigation; the Royal Canal is different from the Grand Canal; and the Lower Bann is different from the Lough Erne. Each area needs to have its own identity, and, if we can acknowledge that, we will be moving in the right direction. However, the Lagan navigation system is on the cards.

The Chairperson:
In the absence of the NI Events Company, how will future activities be jointly promoted? Some events were huge and, as Mr Martin said, attracted major television coverage. What lies ahead, and what level of willingness to reopen the Ulster Canal have you found in the North? I understand that the Dublin Government is putting a lot of money into the reopening of the Ulster Canal. What is happening at this end?

Mr Martin:
The decision to give Waterways Ireland control of the project to open the Ulster Canal from Upper Lough Erne to Clones was made by both Governments, and we took that work on willingly. It was agreed in a plenary session of the North/South Ministerial Council that the Southern Government would fund that section, and that is how things stand. I have nothing further to add, other than to say that we will get on and do what we must with that stretch of water.

Mr Dennany:
I agree that the fact that the NI Events Company will not be in a position to fund joint activity is a problem. However, we will continue to try and attract major events to the waterways, and we will shortly be having discussions with a French company about a sail/raid event in 2009.

Some joint activities will continue along the waterways, such as the cross-border pike fishing competition, which is organised as part of the INTERREG programme by a North/South body. We also have some funds with which to organise events.

We have been involved with Fáilte Ireland, NITB and several other groups in attempts to increase funding, and have produced the brochure, ‘Lakelands & Inland Waterways’, which covers waterways from Belleek to Limerick. That area has become a super region in the Tourism Ireland marketing campaign, and the brochure will be given out around the world.

That is a big plus for Waterways Ireland. We have taken waterways promotion to a higher level. We can produce as many publications as we want; and they might be wonderful, brilliant and fabulous, but they are useless if no one sees them.

Mr McCausland:
Could we have copies of the‘Lakelands & Inland Waterways’ brochure?

Mr Dennany:
Yes.

Mr McCausland:
The map showing all of the waterways in Ireland in ‘A Glimpse of Ireland’s Inland Waterways’ illustrates the border by way of a faint, almost unrecognisable, line. Why is there not a note at the foot of the page explaining what that line illustrates? People in Japan or Timbuktu will not have a clue about what it is. I would like that line to be more clearly visible: all other lines are clearly visible. The map should clearly show Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. That would make me happy.

The Chairperson:
That might be your view, Nelson, but it is not the universal view. One view does not carry the weight of the Committee with it.

Mr Dennany:
I do not have an issue with that.

Mr McCausland:
I am sure that the Minister will share my view on that matter.

Mr P Ramsey:
What Minister is that?

The Chairperson:
I will have to talk to Éamon Ó Cuív. [Laughter.]

Mr K Robinson:
We spoke to him yesterday.

The Chairperson:
We will bring the Taoiseach next. [Laugthter.]

Thank you, John, Colin and Martin for your presentation and documents, and for improving our understanding and awareness of Waterways Ireland.

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