Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Commercial Narrowboat Operators Association (CNOA) (FUS 3)


  1. The Commercial Narrowboat Operators Association (CNOA) was set up in 1989 as an association of firms and individuals operating narrowboats on the Midlands canal system. Subsequently, and as a result of popular interest in the Association's work, associate membership was extended to those of the general public who were interested in the Association's aims and objectives.

  The aims of CNOA are, as set out in its constitution adopted in July 1980:

    —  the furtherance and development of freight traffic on the inland waterways of this country with special reference to those waterways regarded as "non-commercial" or "remainder" but which have carried commercial freight traffic in former times.

  Among CNOA's objectives, as set out in its constitution, are:

    —  The creation of a Trade Association which will negotiate with authorities and organisations, local and national on behalf of its members.

    —  The publicising of the Inland Waterway Carrying Trade and its development and expansion.

    —  The raising of the level of the public perception of the Inland Waterways Carrying Trade.

    —  The development of modern cargo handling, wharfage and warehousing equipment within the context of the current perception of inland waterways as a whole.

    —  The education and training of crews for freight purposes.

2. General response

    —  It is our belief that inland waterway transport could make a significant contribution in both promoting the Government's environmental objectives and offering a safe and economic alternative form of transport.

    —  Although our title might indicate that we are only concerned with the narrow canals of the Midlands, we have a wider view, believing that a far greater contribution could be made by the country's broad waterways and rivers, estuarial waterways and coastal shipping than is the case at present, and that everything possible should be done to promote this. We realise that the narrow gauge canals of England and Wales, which are presently much used for leisure traffic, could only make a relatively small contribution to the transport needs of the United Kingdom. We have no special knowledge of the Scottish or Northern Irish waterways, but would consider that many similar considerations would arise in their cases.

    —  However we firmly contend that greater use of the smaller waterways, as well as the larger ones and coastal shipping, for freight transport would make a very significant contribution by relieving pressure on roads and serving parts of the United Kingdom from which rail freight services, and indeed any rail infrastructure has long since disappeared. This applies equally to the overpopulated South East as to the Highlands of Wales and Scotland. Small ports with poor road access, such as Wivenhoe or Sutton Bridge on the East Coast, or Kentish ports such as Whitstable, or Welsh ports such as Porthmadoc could still use the water transport option if the will were there to do so. The broad view of water transport should include every way in which it can be used, not merely the inland waterways,

  3. Dealing with the bullet points of the sub-committee's terms of reference in turn we would comment as follows:

    —  Water transport both inland and coastal urgently needs a number of "carrots" to promote its wider use. Examples of these would be tax or rate concessions for organisations making greater use of water transport, a simpler and speedier process of awarding grants for improving or constructing freight handling facilities, improved standards of maintenance, and above all a firm stated commitment by Government to provide a guaranteed track and to give moral and practical support to water transport ventures. This must include a decision over the future of the British Waterways Board and the financing of its successors. So far as "sticks" are concerned, we would like to see Government take a firm line with future industrial development and examine much more fully the transport options when the siting of new industry is intended. Greenfield sites with no water or rail access should only be considered as a last resort. Regulations should be made which would alter the economic balance in favour of water transport, such as the prohibition of uneconomic road haulage rates on back loads. Such rates do not increase industry's true competitiveness, they merely offer a form of hidden subsidy to road hauliers.

    —  We are not in a position to offer any informed comment on UK ship registration etc.

    —  Coastal shipping and Inland Waterways are capable of taking much more traffic than they do at present. The advantages, which would help achieve the objectives of the Transport White Paper, are:

  A reduction in fuel, especially fossil fuel, consumption by virtue of the lack of friction involved in water transport, this means that a larger load can be moved for less power than any other form of terrestrial transport.

  A reduction in atmospheric pollution because of the lower power required, and similar reduction in noise levels. Water transport can be used to minimise the air pollution per tonne/kilometre of freight moved. Its increased use can play a vital part in delivering the national air quality strategy.

  A reduction in road traffic congestion provided that there is proper integration between sea, inland waterway and other environmentally-friendly transport media such as rail.

    —  Regarding the other bullet points, we are not in a position to comment other than pointing out that our nearest EU neighbours, France, Belgium and the Netherlands make considerably greater usage of inland waterways than the UK. Whilst acknowledging that there are differing economic circumstances at work in these countries, it must also be pointed out that there is also a culture of waterways there, which is largely absent in the UK. The countries mentioned above are not ashamed of their ports and waterways, they actively promote them and encourage public interest. In the UK commercial activities at ports and waterway depots are often hidden away from the public as if they were shameful things.

4. General observations

  4.1 Some investment will be needed, but we believe that the Government should, as a matter of priority, instigate a full investigation into the physical improvements required to give inland waterways a full transport role as well as their current amenity one. We would wish to be involved with this, both collectively as an Association and individually from our members point of view. We believe that further investment would have a minimum cost compared to that spent on roads. We also consider that the present fragmentation of the inland waterways system both within British Waterways (where the Transport Act, 1968 created three classes of waterways), and without, where there are a myriad of authorities ranging from the Environment Agency, through PLCs (the Manchester Ship Canal Co) and quasi-public organisations, such as the Rochdale Canal Trust, to small trusts is both wasteful and outdated. Such fragmentation of control acts to the detriment of the integration of water transport of all types. Some sort of National Inland Waterways Authority should ultimately be set up, such as has been done in France with the Voies Navigables Francaises. Within the existing waterway authorities much could still be done by the authorities themselves, such as a policy for the active encouragement of freight carrying rather than its discouragement by officials, better supervision of water levels, the passage of locks, the regulation and provision of on-line mooring and so forth. Provided that Government showed its approval, there is no reason why these could not be put in effect forthwith by all the authorities at minimal cost.

  4.2 We have already mentioned some means by which the transfer of freight to water might be achieved in paragraph 2 above. Another means which we would greatly favour would be the setting up of a Water Transport Agency with a remit to promote all forms of water transport, including shipping, coastal and overseas. This should replace the present Freight Services Division of British Waterways which has done nothing to arrest the decline of freight carriage on the broad Commercial Waterways, as defined by the Transport Act, 1968. We consider that unless something of this nature is done as a matter of immediate urgency, there will be NO freight transport left on the British Waterways Board's Commercial Waterways, let alone the smaller ones, by the end of the century.

  4.3 We support the concept of setting targets for the increase in the proportion of freight carried by water, both inland and coastal, and these targets should be the responsibility of a Water Transport Agency. Such targets would make the Government's commitment absolutely clear.

  4.4 Insofar as new funding mechanisms are concerned, we would limit ourselves to pointing out that the inland waterways, uniquely, provide both a transport system linking inland with the ports and a wider public amenity. Any funding of the system should take this into account, perhaps by means of an annual service payment to whatever body is entrusted with the stewardship of the waterways.

  4.5 Wider public awareness of the use of less environmentally damaging forms of transport (one of CNOA's objectives), could do much to promote their use. As we have already suggested, the use of narrowboat transport can make an important contribution. A public more widely educated in the benefits of all types of water transport, including shipping, would bring pressure to bear on firms through their choices as customers and through influence at their own places of work. For instance, if some sort of points system were to be instituted for produce sold at retail outlets based on the amount of energy consumed to bring them to the consumer, and this were to be made a legal requirement of sale, then the customer could judge whether or not it were worth buying fruit flown in from California against local produce. A large proportion of consumer goods of a non-perishable nature brought into the UK by pollutive transport such as air and road could well be transferred to shipping by a public awareness campaign.

  4.6.1 Links with ports are already directly made by inland waterway in many cases. Unfortunately these have been grossly neglected in recent years, mainly as a result of the now defunct Dock Labour Scheme. Containerisation is not always suitable for narrowboat transport, but should certainly be encouraged on the broad waterways. In other instances, especially those involving discharge direct to and from ship, most types of inland waterway craft are suitable. Port Authorities should be made more aware of the existence of waterways connecting them to their hinterland, and actively encouraged to use them. The widening or lengthening of many of these waterways is needed as an urgent priority. Ports which have inland waterway links include the following: The Mersey, Severn, Humber and Thames ports, the Wash ports and the Chester Dee. Other ports with inland waterway connections, but which are not connected with the main network of Central England are Yarmouth, Lowestoft, Chatham and the Medway ports, Littlehampton, Exmouth and Bridgewater. In Scotland the Forth and Clyde ports will shortly be reconnected by the restored Forth and Clyde Canal. Far more use could be made of LASH or BACAT systems of containerisation, whilst smaller containers could be devised which could be utilised on the smaller waterways which connect with ports.

  4.6.2 Details of potential interface traffic, some of which has been carried on an experimental basis in recent years are:

    —  Newsprint from Ellesmere Port to Brentford for onforwarding to Newspaper premises in the London Docklands.

    —  Imported solid fuels via Trent wharves to the Midlands.

    —  Ditto via Sharpness (River Severn).

    —  Ditto via the Port of London.

    —  Timber products from Wash ports to the London area.

    —  Imported steels from Wash ports to the Birmingham area.

  NB. All the above movements are suitable for narrowboat transport. Other possibilities which have been investigated in recent months, but which can use larger craft, are:

    —  Container traffic inwards and outwards from Wash ports to motorway or A1(M) interchange points. (and see our remarks in 4.6.1 above regarding LASH or BACAT systems).

    —  Stone import traffic from the Irish Republic via Bristol to the lower Thames.

    —  Import/export traffic via the River Lea, or the River Thames or the River Wey, or the lower Grand Union Canal to an M25 interchange. The viability of this last suffers from the multiplicity of waterway authorities in the London Area. The Port of London Authority, British Waterways Board, the Environment Agency and the National Trust are all responsible for sections of waterways needed to make such a movement viable.

  4.7 Even with the use of quite elderly technologies, water transport is still highly fuel-efficient. The introduction of newer technologies such as fuel cell power units could raise this efficiency even further. If there is to be a renaissance in water transport, it will make economic sense for carrying organisations themselves to explore and invest in such new technology to reduce their transport costs still further. CNOA is currently carrying out an appraisal of this technology in association with staff of British Waterways.

  The Government should exert all the pressure at its disposal to put pressure on local authorities and Government agencies to prevent further disappearance of all types of wharves and waterway servicing points particularly including those in port areas.

  4.9 The removal of excessive costs, such as the British Waterways practice of charging licence fees based on pleasure boat cruising usage, or the high tolls charged by the Environment Agency for use of the Upper Thames, or access charges for the connection of off line moorings, wharfs and loading basins, would do much to make inland waterway transport more viable. If the relevant authorities complain that they are thus losing revenue, then the various grants that they receive from Central Government should be upgraded to reflect this. The tax system might be used to encourage waterside industry to make use of the waterway on their doorstep, and would also encourage others to return to the waterside. It is arguable that any loss to the Revenue would be compensated by the lesser spend on highway projects.

  4.10 Whilst we see a positive role for local authorities in planning and regulating development of freight facilities, as well as encouraging a greater use of water transport both directly and indirectly, We are not convinced that large scale capital developments should be their responsibility unless in partnership with Central Government or its agencies, and private industry. This would regulate "wild cat" schemes entered into for short term political reasons and encourage long term investment based on sound environmental and economic principles.


  5.1 CNOA supports the development of a national integrated transport policy and feels that all forms of water transport can play an important part in this.

  5.2 It also feels that, given its acknowledged limitations, narrowboat transport can make a very significant contribution to this as well as raising the public profile of that policy, in particular the revitalising of all waterborne modes of transport, including coastal shipping.

Nicholas Hill


30 November 1998

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