As Richard Parry takes over from Robin Evans at the head of the Canal & River Trust, we talk exclusively to the new Chief Executive and how he sees his job and the charity developing in the future

If you believe in omens, then they are very good for the Canal & River Trust’s new Chief Executive, Richard Parry. His first outing was to the Crick show where the sun shone and, when we met him exclusively a few weeks later to discuss his new appointment, the sun was out then, too.

But the positive portents are not simply meteorological ones. The new CRT chief takes up his role at a most opportune time for any new boss of a major organisation. The hard work of altering the course of the bureaucratic supertanker that was British Waterways towards becoming a more touchy-feely charity has already been done by former BW boss Robin Evans and his team, and the fledgling charity has had a year to adapt to its new role.

Not only that, but the charity’s financial future is also secured for at least the next ten to 15 years so there should be no immediate major financial concerns. He has a skilled senior management team in place who well know how the waterways work while he learns the ropes and, just possibly, the worst of the recession which has hit charities hard might be behind us. So, not a bad time for a new Chief Exec to start at all.

We met up with Mr Parry at Battlebridge Basin by King’s Cross in London, a place we felt appropriate to try to get the measure of the new man at the head of CRT and to discuss what his plans going forward for the charity and the waterways would be.

Whatever some might say, first impressions do make their mark and, sitting down with Mr Parry, the first thing that becomes apparent is that he is no Robin Evans replacement clone. While Mr Evans was easy to like at a personal level, he was always a consummate politician, easy to talk to but with the right answer at the right time for everything. He could, though, show great passion for the waterways for which he had worked for 12 years and of which he had great knowledge, and it was a passion that could grow into annoyance if he felt people were treating BW and particularly its staff unfairly. But he was tainted by BW and all the criticisms that had dogged it for years and the charity up to now has often been perceived as BW in new clothes.

Mr Parry, who at 46 is a decade younger than Mr Evans, is also very personable and easy to talk to, if a little nervous at first sitting down to this interview, his first major one with a waterways publication. He comes from First Group, where he was a senior director, so has no baggage from the BW era, and he’s refreshingly honest about his lack of knowledge of the waterways – and, for that matter, charities. Which leads us to ask him why, in his words, he thinks he won the appointment to the role from some 100 candidates.

In response, he looks back not to his relatively short time at First, but to his much longer stint at London Underground Ltd (LUL), where over two decades he moved through a series of roles, taking on more responsibility each time and culminating in a year as MD, while LUL itself went through some traumatic times – reorganisations, the 7/7 attacks, and preparation for coping with the 2012 Olympics.

He sees in CRT many similarities with LUL – its scale, complexity and history; “the challenge of managing some very old assets”; the changes it has been through; the need to engage with communities; its strong identity. Speaking of history, he says he has a great deal of respect for heritage, while seeing a need to “move forward but respect the past” – and he comments that there were some “old ways of working” on the Underground that weren’t so good.

One thing he agrees with Robin Evans on is that it was the right time for a change at the top. He starts on 8 July, almost exactly a year since CRT was launched. He feels that a lot of the “firm building blocks” of the changeover to a new type of organisation are already there, and “applauds” those who set it up. But now he sees the opportunity to take it forward – to “energise” the changes, to present the “outward story” to those outside, enabling CRT to “lengthen its stride” and to become more self-confident about what it’s capable of.

These might sound like airy concepts, so we ask how the Trust might achieve this. “By being out there engaging with people”, finding out how the Trust can make new relationships. One thing that’s struck him is how many people share the enthusiasm for the canals – they all say “yes, I walk by the canals”, or “I went on a boat trip once”. The waterways are at the centre of national life and of local communities, and the Trust can and should take advantage of this.

We’ve already mentioned that Mr Parry doesn’t have a charity background. Does he think that matters? His response is that CRT was never going to find the candidate who ticked absolutely every single box – and he freely accepts that he will need to learn from the Trustees, the fundraising team and others. He’ll be the “conductor of the orchestra”, as he puts it. We put it to him that CRT is no ordinary charity, being a large business too. He accepts this, but points out that many large charities (for example Oxfam) have big commercial arms. But he stresses that “we will have absolute responsibility to the waterways” – and that being a charitable trust helps, because under the terms of the contract with Defra, there is no longer the danger that the Government can claw back any money it raises. Speaking of the contract, he feels “it’s a great settlement but not enough on its own” – and there’s the long-term future to consider after the contract ends in 2026. Being a charity gives CRT “another string to our bow”, he says, but “we mustn’t imagine it means we should be less businesslike”. Along with charities, he also respects his need to learn about waterways. He aims to do it by “being out there” and exploiting the knowledge around him “as much first-hand as possible”.

He’s already been out with a volunteer team in Smethwick, to the Crick Boat Show, walked Birmingham’s towpaths, boated on the Oxford, 
read up on some waterways history, met up with IWA and other groups. “A sponge for that knowledge” is how he describes himself.

Having said that, it hasn’t all be quite as new to him as he might have expected. Mr Parry’s tour of the lock gate workshops at Bradley stands out: it was “a microcosm of what a railway depot is like”, leaving him instinctively wondering “…but where are the trains?”. In a very similar way to LUL, there were skilled staff carrying out important but less visible roles. And he was impressed with the understanding of “how you do asset management for real” – he gives the simple example of replacing four percent of lock gates per year, compared to (say) two percent of rails on a railway system.

Some more canal experience is on the way: as we went to press he had been invited for a day’s boating, including the Wolverhampton 21, and was looking forward to a four-day trip around Birmingham. We ask, does he have any past boating experience? Yes: a trip on the Leeds & Liverpool as a boy, and a “huge tour” with a bunch of student mates on a hireboat. But then he moved from his native East Midlands to Sussex for work. Having moved back to Solihull six years ago, he says it was “great to get back to the canals” – he likes the industrial heritage and enjoys strolling his local towpaths. A recent walk from Brindley Place to Smethwick opened his eyes to the differences in the canals: while he sees “the opportunity for further regeneration”, and the way a canal can be “the focal point for development”, BCN fans may be relieved to hear that he feels that “Brindley Place isn’t the answer for everywhere” – he also regards the waterways’ role in protecting the natural environment as vital.

Mention of both nature and navigation leads us to ask how he sees boating fitting into the picture. “The canals were built to connect towns by boat,” he replies, and describes boating as “absolutely central to our mission”. Unprompted, he says that “if it hadn’t been for boaters in the 1960s the waterways wouldn’t be there” – he applauds the role of IWA and everyone else who kept them open, and who have “earned themselves a central role”. But not, he adds, an exclusive role. He sees it as part of a range, “an aggregation of all the interests and functions”, a “broad church” within which boating should sit. However, he still sees boating as “top of the list”. “What,” he asks, “are all the people who walk the canals watching? – boats.”

So how, we ask, should the waterways ‘cake’ be sliced up between boaters and others? He smiles as he responds that he doesn’t see it that way: it’s not about slices, it’s about co-ownership of a larger cake. “Yes, there will be points of tension when groups rub up against each other, but they need to make common ground and reach amicable resolutions.”

But what about the other groups: how do you go about getting more people involved? Mr Parry cites three areas where CRT has made progress in its first 12 months: corporate support, the Friends of the Canal & River Trust supporters’ organisation, and volunteering. He sees the Friends as “key for the future” in creating a further body of support for the waterways, and volunteering as a “very direct way of people coming into contact”. He points out that most volunteers aren’t boaters.

Mention of volunteers leads to the subject of canal restoration, an area where BW couldn’t spare much in the way of resources in its latter years – but where some have been looking to CRT more recently. Describing it as “important” and something that CRT “needs to include” in its role, he says CRT will “do anything it can to positively support it” even if it’s only “words of encouragement”. Giving the example of the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust, he says “it’s a fantastic thing that they are taking it on”; and while he would like CRT to be the kind of body that those restoring waterways (he mentions the Cotswold Canals) would like their waterways to be part of, he stresses that CRT “shouldn’t be precious about it” if they don’t.

Finally from the long-term future, we return to discussing the next few weeks. Mr Parry will arrive just in time for the Trust’s Annual Meeting, a regular Trustees’ meeting, and a Defra meeting to give him plenty to soak up. There then follows a month of working alongside Acting Chief Executive Vince Moran, including a day with each regional Waterway Manager. A little time off in August will be followed by more learning, then in early September he will really start work properly.

And when he does, what’s his most important aim? “Engagement and advocacy,” he replies – both inside CRT (and he adds that he sees the boundaries as “fuzzy” with the regional partnerships and volunteers being part of CRT too), and outside of it, creating relationships with other groups such as IWA. “We’re all in it together. We aren’t meeting across the table any more,” he says.

We’ll be meeting Richard Parry again in the future to see how he’s getting on. I wonder which side of the table we’ll be on…

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