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

Memorandum by the Commercial Narrowboat Operators Association (CNOA) (IT 151)



The Association, its aims, members and policies

  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.

  1.2 The aims of CNOA, as set out in its constitution adopted in July 1990 are:

    the furtherance and development of freight traffic on the inland waterways of this country with special reference to those waterways regarded (i.e., classified by the Transport Act, 1968) 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.

1.3 Members and their activities

  In October 1998 the Association numbered 165 members, of whom 28 were trade members, operating craft commercially, and the remainder either ordinary or honorary members. Since 1990 CNOA members craft have operated as far north as Manchester and Worksop, west to Gloucester and the Severn, east to Wisbech and Peterborough on the River Nene, and south to Enfield on the River Lea, and Bradford-upon-Avon on the Kennet and Avon Canal. Members regularly trade over the Upper Thames from Oxford to Brentford. Cargoes handled in the last 14 years include solid fuel for domestic and industrial use (several members are also members of the Coal Merchants Federation and are Approved Dealers in solid fuels); timber and timber products; newsprint; waste paper; grain; roadstone and aggregates.

  1.3.1 The retail of fuel along the waterways, is done in a number of ways:

    —  Direct sales to boats, residential and non-residential, either from members' boats or wharves, local deliveries from wharves to customers' houses using light road transport.

    —  Direct deliveries to agents' wharves for retail, analogous to the garage forecourt sales of solid fuel.

    —  Direct deliveries to waterside domestic premises where road access is difficult. This includes premises occupied by the staff of British Waterways Board and the Environment Agency, (many of the latter live on islands in the Thames and have no alternative means of heating).

    —  Intermodal deliveries to points in the south of England where the coal distribution industry has virtually disappeared. This is done by taking the orders from a list of customers by telephone, making up boatloads to suit the orders, loading the boats at a waterside fuel processing plant and then delivering to a succession of wharves at which the boats are met by light road transport, being lorries or vans up to 1,500 kg carrying capacity. An increasing yearly tonnage of fuel is carried from Northamptonshire to the Kennet Valley in Berkshire. The trade commenced with the reopening of the River Kennet to navigation in 1990 and has grown to the order of some 150 tonnes per year. It is expected to continue to grow substantially.

    —  Other deliveries of fuel, which include locomotive coal to the Nene Valley Railway Co. (a "heritage" railway operation) near Peterborough, and direct bunkering deliveries to steamboats, including vintage vessels in the London Docklands, on the Upper Thames, and Salford Quays.

  1.3.2 As a current example, the total quantity handled in all the above ways by just four Association members during the week ending 24 October 1998 was in the order of 62,624 tonne/km made up of four movements by seven craft as follows: (all solid fuels)

    27 tonnes from Heyford, Northants to Uxbridge

    30 tonnes from Buckby, Northants to Camden Town

    16 tonnes from Heyford to Brentford

    30 tonnes from Stoke Bruerne, Northants to Reading via Brentford

    Total: 103 tonnes carried over 608 km

  1.3.3 Additionally Association members operate as contractors for waterway maintenance and similar tasks. During the last 12 months considerable numbers of craft have been employed in connection with the laying of a fibre optic cable route under the towpaths belonging to British Waterways.

1.4 Policies

  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 than is the case at present, and that everything possible should be done to promote this. We realise that the narrow canals of England and Wales 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.

  1.4.1 We firmly contend that greater use of the smaller waterways, as well as the larger ones and coastal shipping, for freight transport could make a significant contribution by relieving pressure on roads and serving parts of the United Kingdom from which rail freight services have 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.

  1.4.2 The developments in recent years in Central Birmingham and Castlefields, Manchester show how much the vitality of city centres may be enhanced by imaginative development of navigable inland waterway facilities. We thoroughly support such moves, with the rider that providing freight facilities as well in no way detracts from the amenity of such areas. It does in fact improve them. It is not necessary to spend vast sums to do this, merely to allow provision for loading and unloading, and to encourage existing commercial premises to use the waterway option.

  1.4.3 The revival of interest in the inland waterway system in the last 50 years has revitalised communities beside rural canals by bringing jobs and tourism. Pockets of prosperity which have been remarkably resilient in the face of the trade recessions of the 80s and 90s have sprung up at such rural locations as Stoke Bruerne and Braunston in Northamptonshire, Stockton near Southam, Warwickshire and Foxton, near Market Harborough, Leicestershire. We have observed similar developments on the re-opened Kennet and Avon Canal in Berkshire and Wiltshire since 1990. It must follow that the encouragement of a year round freight usage of the canal system will further enhance such rural developments, creating proper jobs and bettering the local peoples' lifestyle more than the swamping of the countryside by housing development can ever do.

  1.4.4 Our members are acutely aware that the working craft of the narrow canals attract enormous public interest. This fact is acknowledged by British Waterways Board, who, since 1991 have made a parade of our members' craft one of the central features of the Braunston Boat Show. This is one of the most successful events of the Inland Waterways calendar, attracting ever increasing numbers yearly, many of whom come especially to see the working boats. it is virtually impossible to take a working boat any distance on the system without meeting a barrage of interested questioning from members of the public: "What are you carrying?" "Where is it going?" "Who is it for?" Such interest offers invaluable opportunities to discuss and promote the value of water transport. The loads carried by narrowboat also attract considerable interest in the local and national media, offering further opportunities to spread the message that water transport is a real and viable alternative which enjoys wide public support. If narrowboat transport is encouraged to raise awareness in this way, much can be done to draw attention to the wider value of water transport and attract new traffics onto our broad waterways and rivers.

  1.4.5 Although the Association attempts to keep a high profile on the heritage side of inland waterway matters, by encouraging the operating and maintaining of traditional boats in the style and colours of previous days, it is by no means wedded to the past. At the time of writing (October 1998) one member Company is negotiating with a large PLC and British Waterways over plans to transport regular quantities of recyclable material over the Grand Union Canal. Plans are continually being considered for the extension of members' activities within the constraints and context of the waterway system of today.

  1.4.6 It is the Association's collective 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, for it has always been our view that inland waterway transport is the safest and securest of all modes of freight transport.

  1.4.7 It should not be thought that he Association or its members are unaware of the limitations of water transport. It is impossible to be anything but aware of these limitations when one is trying to operate a freight carrying business on the waterway system.


2.1 Physical

  2.1.1 Britain's waterway system grew piecemeal from the early 17th century onward and there has never been a national development plan beyond a vague overall notion in the late 18th century. For this reason there are dimensional differences between different waterways making it impossible to construct craft of sufficient payload to range over the entire system. The nearest to standardisation may be seen in the network of waterways between the estuaries of the Humber, Thames, Severn and Mersey, known in former time as "the cross" from its similarity to a broad saltire laid on the map of the midlands with Birmingham and the Black Country at its crossing point. Within this area, most (but not all) waterways will accept craft of the dimensions 71 ft 6 ins (22 m) by 7 ft 0 ins (2.2 m), on a draft of approximately 3 ft 6 ins (1.1 m) and carrying up to 35 tonnes. The restricting factor is the locks. The engineer, James Brindley, appears to have chosen the above dimensions for locks in order to conserve water supplies. For 200 years or more the craft operating over this central system have had to fit these dimensions, a fact which has increasingly worked against water transport. Some waterways, notably the Grand Union Canal between London and Birmingham, were built to a larger gauge, but because there has never been sufficient capital investment, breaks of gauge exist which prevent larger craft from transferring from north to south. Two examples of this exist in Northamptonshire; the River Nene, rebuilt after 1930, with locks capable of taking 100 tonne capacity barges from Northampton to the Wash is separated from the similar sized Grand Union main line by the five mile Northampton Arm (branch canal) containing 17 narrow locks; the same main line is separated from the identically dimensioned section from Market Harborough to the Trent by two short flights of narrow locks at Watford (Northants) and Foxton (Leics.). These two bottlenecks were both going to be widened before the 1939-45 war, but subsequent events prevented this overdue modernisation.

  2.1.2 Outside the Midland "cross" system other physical barriers occur. For instance, in the West Riding, where the waterways suffer from short locks rather than narrow ones, such towns as Huddersfield, Halifax and Bradford can only make use of water transport by means of short wide boats, whose cargoes must be transhipped if they are to be forwarded anywhere on the southern waterway system. Again, the short locks of the Middle Level system in Fenland effectively prevent normal sized canal craft reaching the important port of Kings Lynn. Narrowboat access to Goole is only possible via the extremely dangerous (for narrowboats) Humber Estuary and Trent Falls, yet the perpetually delayed lengthening of one lock, at Keadby on the Trent, would not only allow this, but give access to Rotherham, Doncaster, Wakefield and Leeds. One of our member companies has had to turn down traffic offered from South Yorkshire to southern destinations for this very reason, the latest instance being as recently as late September 1997 when the cost of transhipping a load from Trent/South Yorkshire barge to narrowboats was a contributory factor in losing a potentially viable traffic to road haulage.

  2.1.3 There are other physical constraints of more recent making, but they can more realistically be dealt with under the heading of politico-economic constraints. These include the resiting of industry away from waterways and the redevelopment of former freight facilities for other purposes. The obstruction of navigation restoration projects for considerations such as highway construction comes under this heading also, for every restored navigation extends the range, possibility and flexibility of water transport.

2.2 Political constraints

  2.2.1 The first, and potentially most serious constraint is that, in spite of 50 years of nationalised ownership, the waterway system is still fragmented in ownership and control. As well as the differences in gauge and dimension mentioned above, there are numerous authorities controlling different sections, each with a different set of terms and conditions of usage.

  2.2.2 The greater part of the central network is controlled by British Waterways Board. This system is accessible to cargo carrying craft, but is divided into three sections by the Transport Act, 1968. The Commercial Waterways comprise the large dimensioned river and canals of the North East including the Trent up to Nottingham, the River Weaver in the North West, the River Severn and Gloucester and Sharpness Ship Canal in the South West, and the lower Grand Union Canal and the Lea and Stort Navigation in the London area. On all these, including the South Yorkshire waterways, traffic in large craft has steadily declined since 1968. The Amenity Waterways comprise the greater part of the Midlands system and are largely, but not exclusively, used for pleasure craft. In recent years very large sums have been invested by private entrepreneurs in such facilities as marinas, and by public bodies in new waterside developments aimed at the leisure side of the waterways industry.

  2.2.3 Cargo carrying narrowboats use this part of the system on payment of a commercial carrying licence, amongst the terms of which are:

    —  that carrying contracts must be negotiated with the local canal manager concerned;

    —  that carrying over the Commercial Waterways will involve extra payments;

    —  that a further, unspecified, toll may be charged for carrying in certain (also unspecified) circumstances;

    —  that a regular return of all traffic carried be supplied;

    —  that no unloading be permitted across the towpath and without specific permission;

    —  that no priority may be expected over leisure use traffic.

  It may be pointed out here, that an annual licence payment in lieu of tolls for using the network classified as the Amenity Waterways by the Transport Act, 1968, was in fact originally negotiated in the early days of British Waterways Board, in Spring 1963, by the remaining large carrying Company and the Inland Waterways Association. The only one of the above conditions which then applied was that relating to the payment of tolls on certain, but not all, Commercial Waterways in order to protect the interests of other freight carrying customers of the Board. The other, more onerous, conditions have been applied unilaterally by the Board, particularly since the cessation of regular long distance traffic in 1970. It was at one time the unofficial policy of the Board to get rid of commercial carrying craft because they did not fit in with the Board's perceived image of itself as a public amenity. Furthermore, the Transport Act, 1968 removed the Public Right of Navigation, by which Victorian legislators had prevented Railway Companies from buying up canals and stopping competitive traffic. The operators of carrying craft are thus bound by restrictions that are at the same time onerous without being in any way productive. It is recognised that the Board need to receive revenue, and need to be able to reconcile the interests of various users, but the stopping of traffic for the benefit of fishing contests (and fishing brings in only a very low revenue to the Board) is an example of how low a priority the Board give to commercial traffic on the Amenity Waterways.

  2.2.4 Since 1970 the Board have adopted an engineering policy involving a "stoppage season". This means that from the beginning of November until mid-March sections of the system are closed for maintenance. Pressure from users has resulted in this being alleviated in recent years by a "Christmas window", by which means work is suspended over the Christmas and New Year holiday period. This has resulted in considerable use being made of the system by the operators of pleasure craft, but is not of much service to freight carriers because factories and similar businesses are closed at this period. Another concession has been the "alternative route" closure system by which the Board ensurse that a duplicate, if less convenient, route is available for long distance journeys. This is useful, but in cases where the alternative route is provided by the River Thames, as in between London and West Midlands, the stoppages are not co-ordinated with the Environment Agency, which body tends to have six month closures at times on the Thames. It will be readily seen how difficult this can make planning freight movements during winter. Additionally, no rebate is given on licences for this period.

  2.2.5 The third group, Remainder Waterways, mainly comprise arms and little used sections of the main system and recently restored waterways. A number of these, especially in the Birmingham/Black Country area, pass through industrial sites, while part of the restored Kennet and Avon Canal is so classified. The Board are not permitted to spend money on these navigations beyond that needed for the basic maintenance of public safety or as a water channel. This is of course extremely detrimental to the potential usage of these waterways, both by cargo carrying and pleasure craft.

  2.2.6 There are, however, other important waterways outside the control of BW for which additional charges and conditions apply. There are the waterways controlled by the Environment Agency, notably the Upper Thames, the Nene Navigation from Northampton to the Wash, and the Great Ouse network from Bedford and Cambridge downstream to the Wash. Although previously controlled by the National Rivers Authority, harmonisation of charges and standards had not been achieved by the time the Environment Agency took over in 1996. At present the Agency is attempting to do this, and to bring its charges into line with British Waterways. A reciprocal arrangement for pleasure craft licence holders has recently come into force, but it does not as yet apply to commercial carrying craft. In the meantime Thames tolls still apply, they are extremely high, and the charges for empty motor boats (classified by the EA as tugs) make it difficult to quote competitive rates for any traffic which has to use the Thames, including through traffic from the Oxford or Grand Union Canals to the Kennet and Avon Canal at Reading.

  2.2.7 The Thames below Teddington is controlled by the Port of London Authority. No charges are levied on craft travelling from Teddington to the Grand Union Canal entrances at Brentford or Limehouse Basin or vice versa. However in the so-called interests of safety following the Marchioness disaster, craft over 20 m long travelling downstream of Brentford are required to carry VHF radio, which in turn must be operated by a qualified operator. Mobile telephones are not considered sufficient. It was only after a strenuous campaign by some users' groups, notably the Historic Narrowboat Owners' Club, backed by CNOA, that the PLA grudgingly allowed the passage of craft over 20 m between Brentford and Teddington without VHF radio. This is yet another constraint upon the free and simple movement of carrying craft.

  2.2.8 Other London area waterways accessible to narrowboats include the River Wey (controlled by the National Trust), the Basingstoke Canal (the Basingstoke Canal Authority). It will be noted that the journey from Woking to Brentford, some 20 miles by water, involves payment to four different authorities and the conditions of usage of five.

  2.2.9 Other waterways outside the BW network, but still involving through routes are the Warwickshire Avon, controlled by two trusts between Stratford and Tewkesbury both of which raise separate charges; the Bridgewater Canal owned by the Manchester Ship Canal Co, but with reciprocal charging arrangements with BW; and the Manchester Ship Canal itself. Traffic has been offered to and from destinations on this waterway, notably newsprint from Ellesmere Port and recyclable aluminium to Warrington, but because of the obstructive attitude of the Ship Canal officials to narrowboats, the traffic has been forced to tranship to and from road at extra cost.

2.3 Economic

  As if the above constraints were not sufficient, there are a number of economic reasons why the waterways labour under a disadvantage for freight carrying purposes.

  2.3.1 The dimensional limitations mentioned above restrict the payload carried and at the same time make the operation of craft labour intensive. Operating a pair of narrowboats over a narrow canal requires the services of at least three persons if the labour is not to become too onerous. On a board waterway at least two persons are required for reasons of safety, it is obvious that even with a full payload of 50 tonnes on a pair of boats, the productivity of these two persons is severely limited by comparison with a lorry driver in charge of a vehicle with a payload of over 20 tonnes with a top speed of 80 km p h. Before the construction of the motorway network there were routes over which the narrowboat could compete on more or less equal terms with rail and road in both speed and cheapness. Today these are much more restricted in scope.

  2.3.2 Over 200 years, but particularly in the last 50, industry has increasingly moved away from the waterside. Increasingly industrial developments are permitted on greenfield sites where there is no possibility of direct water (or rail for that matter) connection. In the New City of Milton Keynes the Grand Union Canal, a broad waterway connecting the City with London and Birmingham, has been until very recently regarded purely as an amenity and industrial development has not been encouraged to consider the canal as a transport option. Similar conditions apply in the Docklands of London, Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol, where priority is given to residential or prestige office development on the waterside. The wharves which once extended for miles along both sides of the Thames in London have now largely disappeared and with them a valuable source of inland waterway traffic.

  2.3.3 Where new traffic flows have developed, there is frequently no waterway connection to ports. Examples of this are Felixstowe on the East Coast and Southampton, Littlehampton and Poole on the South Coast. Where existing older ports have developed new facilities, such as the Tilbury dock complex or the Seaforth Grain Terminal, these are inaccessible to narrowboats.

  2.3.4 In the past half century, since the Second World War, a vigorous and expanding leisure industry has grown on the inland waterways, particularly those of the British Waterways Board. Considerable sums have been invested in marinas, moorings, waterside facilities, hire and time share fleets and similar operations. There is a danger that a clash of user interest might well occur were large-scale freight traffic to be resumed.

  2.3.5 Such are the main constraints as they appear to us. It may be thought that with such a dismal catalogue there is no place for the narrowboat in the modern transport system, or that even if there were, little alleviation of road congestion would occur. It is our contention that, with a small amount of financial investment, coupled with a political will, a substantial traffic could still be carried to the benefit of both the economy and the environment. How this could be achieved is the next part of this submission.


3.1 Environmental

  Whilst there is, inevitably, going to be some adverse environmental impact if water transport is seriously encouraged this is of a very minor nature compared with the environmental impact of even a low level of road transport. On the other hand the positive environmental benefits are manifest. Some of these are:

  3.1.1 Pollution. A pair of narrowboats carrying 50 tonnes is propelled by a small diesel engine of some 25 bhp or less. This will consume about 1.5 litres per hour while working, thus discharging a low level of pollutant to the atmosphere. It is of course entirely possible to propel craft by other means, but little research has been carried out into this in recent years. Until the 1960s it was common on the French waterways to see barges of 350 tonnes burthen being pulled along by small electric locomotives from the bank, drawing current from an overhead wire, whilst until the 1920s in England the most common motive power was the cereal-fed horse! Alternative power sources for inboard engines would appear to be the way forward.

  3.1.2 Consumption of fossil fuels. The low power required to move craft means a lower fuel consumption. A pair of narrowboats will carry 50 tonnes 4.8 km for the consumption of 1.5 litres of diesel oil, which is about double the output of a large lorry.

  3.1.3 Noise levels. Similarly the low power needed means that water transport is a virtually silent transport medium. Noise levels are only apparent at very close quarters with diesel engines. The use of electric motors would make water transport almost entirely silent.

  3.1.4 Safety. Water transport does not require elaborate safety devices,such as the railways use, nor expensive control or lighting such as the motorway network needs. The low speeds and comparative shallowness mean that serious accidents are almost unknown. Two disasters involving cargo carrying craft and also involving loss of life have been the Severn Bridge incident in 1960 and the Marchioness tragedy of 1989, but both these took place on tidal waters and involved human error. Nothing comparable has occurred on true inland waterways involving cargo carrying vessels since the Regents Park explosion of 1876. Spillage of dangerous substances is controllable and far less likely to cause major disruption using inland waterway transport.

3.2 Social

  By these we mean the more general benefits which could accrue to society.

  3.2.1 The use of waterways for carriage of dangerous substances, given appropriate safety standards, could free the road system, and the police and similar ancillary services, of a considerable burden.

  3.2.2 Because of its essential labour intensity, transferring freight to narrow boat can create meaningful jobs. The low capital and running costs of boats can offset the extra cost of labour. Thus, provided the tonne/kilometrage ratio is not too great it is still possible to use narrowboats in an intensive manner and be competitive with road haulage with no further assistance. An example of this is the recently ended aggregate traffic on the River Soar in Leicestershire, where narrow craft operated intensively as part of a quarrying operation. The traffic only ceased when the pits were worked out. The actual position will vary according to a formula based on the hours worked in carrying a particular cargo and the distance over which it is carried.

  3.2.3 Whilst some might argue that a return to narrow boat carrying would not significantly reduce the numbers of lorries on the road, we believe that it could certainly help in reducing the rate of increase in lorry numbers. The social cost of road haulage is impossible to quantify, but must involve damage to the highway system; damage to the geographical and ecological environment; health and hospital costs in the treatment of accident victims and their dependents; as well as the high cost of depreciation of vehicles, and this last must eventually involve the disposal of superannuated vehicles, not all of which can be recycled. If this social cost were to be fully and scientifically analysed it is our contention that the true cost of road haulage would be revealed as far greater than the cost of operating narrowboats, allowing for a realistic wage and depreciation structure. As matters are at present, road haulage depends very much upon owner drivers working as sub-contractors. In this respect it is very similar to the way in which the narrowboat industry operated until the 1930s and in which barge carrying in the Netherlands, Belgium and France still operates. There is a constant pressure upon the owner drivers to keep rates at a minimum. The effects of this pressure may be seen in the public announcement columns of local newspapers, which weekly announce the bankruptcy of persons trading as road hauliers. It is our impression, that such bankruptcies outnumber those in all other trades and professions put together. Such financial instability is not conducive to a healthy industry. Far too many lorry operators are forced to carry backloads at uneconomic rates in order just to stay in business. The result is that the motorways are frequently choked with unremunerative traffic. If such backloading were to be prohibited, save at an economic forwarding rate, many potential long distance traffics could be diverted to narrowboat. An example of this is bulk salt from Cheshire to the South Midlands and the London area. Local authorities receive this for snow melting at a "Zone Delivered Price" (ZDP) all through the summer months. The ZDP is calculated on a backload basis of somewhere round £4.00 per tonne, thus a lorry driver receives £80-£100 for carrying 20 tonnes, which is a ridiculously small amount when his expenses are taken into consideration. Nevertheless it is better than running home empty. If however a local authority runs short in winter and has to arrange a special delivery, the ZDP increases by £10-£15 per tonne. For a narrowboat carrier this represents a minimum increase of over £400 per trip.

  3.2.4 Conflict with other users of the waterway can be minimised. Firstly it is our experience that the sight of canals and boats doing the job for which they were constructed is popular with holiday makers and pleasure craft users, although this is admittedly on the basis of a low intensity of such operations. Secondly the areas where most new traffic could be put on to the water are urban ones, where pleasure traffic is comparatively light. Thirdly, where real conflict might develop would be in the popular rural areas in the North and Midlands. The problem spots would be lock flights and moorings, and here proper management of traffic at such places, which does not happen at the present, would not only minimise such conflict, but also benefit the leisure craft industry by causing much better conservation of water supplies than at present. A year-round freight traffic would encourage more out-of-season leisure use, and the ancillary services such as repair yards and fitting services would benefit greatly. So far as conflict with angling interests is concerned, our view is that, since their rod licence fees are paid to the Environment Agency, not British Waterways, and since British Waterways' revenue is therefore limited to the paltry sums which angling clubs are prepared to pay for fishing rights over certain stretches of waterway, there is little reason to take this seriously. In our view, it would be to the benefit all other users if competitive angling were to be banned in navigable inland waterways.


4.1 Central governmental

  4.1.1 A directive from Central Government to Local Government (including planning authorities) and Government agencies such as the Environment Agency and British Waterways Board to the effect that schemes for the transfer of certain traffics should be given suitable assistance, would do more than anything else to kick-start this process.

  4.1.2 As a matter of urgent legislative priority, differences and anomalies in charging policies between the various Waterway Authorities should be dealt with. This would enable carriers to quote rates over waterway routes which were not controlled by one authority.

  4.1.3 Funds should be made available to the appropriate authorities to make the track suitable for a resumption of freight carriage should this appear. Such matters as reinstating the lockgate centre paddles on the Grand Union Canal, removed as an "economy measure" in the 1970s, would not cost a great deal in a governmental context, (less than £0.25 million), but would speed up potential traffic considerably, and would also benefit the existing pleasure craft traffic. British Waterways already suffer from a backlog of maintenance, although much dredging has been done in recent years. Any new Government Grant arrangements to whatever body eventually replaces BW should bear this in mind.

  4.1.4 Properly calculated highway access charges for heavy goods vehicles, if necessary under the control of a regulator, such as now apply to the rail network should be made by Central Government. It is acknowledged that road hauliers have invested a huge amount of capital in vehicles and other equipment and that it is simply not an option to abandon this at a moment's notice. Also many traffics, such a long distance perishables, fast parcels, retail restocking, are not suitable for water carriage (but could well be put on rail, as indeed much was before the Beeching Plan). Nevertheless, it seems to us that a suitable method would be, once the true costs of road haulage had been quantified, to make access charges for the road network based upon a proportion of these true costs, and then allow market forces to determine the matter between road, water and rail. It may be argued that such a move will increase the price of British made goods, and thus undermine their competitiveness, but the answer to this is that British goods have for too long had a hidden subsidy in the shape of the social costs of road haulage. If industry uses heavy road haulage it is because it is cheaper, not quicker or more efficient, then that cheapness has to be paid for by the rest of society, which is manifestly wrong, especially when that same society is expected to suffer the ill effects of road congestion while inland waterways are empty and railway lines torn up or disused.

  4.1.5 Alternatively, if it is considered right that road haulage should continue not to pay access charges, then the same doctrine should be applied to water and rail. Wharfage and the construction of loading basins and arms should not have the additional burden of access charges. This principle was often recognised 200 years ago in the original Canal Acts of Parliament, but in recent years British Waterways have eroded this because of their compulsion to extract the maximum possible revenue from their assets. Any future governmental funding for the Waterways system should recognise that access to the system for commercial freight carrying should be on a par with road and rail.

  4.1.6 Governmental funds, again, comparatively tiny in terms of national expenditure, should be set aside to eliminate such bottlenecks and obstruction as identified in 2.2 above and to extend the existing system. It would clearly be impractical and socially undesirable to widen the greater parts of the Midland narrow lock system, not the least reason being that as part of our national heritage it brings in a very substantial tourist revenue because of its very nature. There are nevertheless certain changes which need to be made, such as the lengthening of Keadby Lock on the River Trent, the completion of the lock lengthening scheme currently being carried out by the Middle Level Commissioners in Fenland, the completion of restoration projects such as the Rochdale Canal, the Thames and Severn, which reopen the water transport option to their respective areas. The often proposed links between the Grand Union Canal and the Bedford Ouse, and the Warwickshire Avon would open up new possibilities for traffic through the ports of Sharpness and Kings Lynne, the restoration of either the Anderton lift or the Runcorn flight of locks in Cheshire would reconnect the port of Weston Point to the main system and also open up the possibility of the direct loading of craft at terminals on the River Weaver.

  4.1.7 It should also be pointed out that by the removal of very few obstructions many of the existing so-called narrow canals could carry much wider craft. These craft are able to carry many things which cannot be fitted into narrowboats, such as standardised containers, extra pallets of goods, etc., and are also more stable. They are also less labour intensive than narrowboats, since they can carry nearly as much as a pair of boats, but only need a maximum crew of two, and in some circumstances one. They can also penetrate further down estuarial waters. Examples of obstructions which could be easily removed or bypassed were the will to be there are, the three Hillmorton Locks on the Oxford Canal near Rugby, and Hawkesbury and Marston Stop Locks where the Coventry Canal meets the Oxford and Ashby Canal respectively. The removal of these, along with some judicious bridge widening in a few places, would at a small cost open up the possibility of using vessels of up to 3.3 m beam between London, Birmingham, Coventry and South Leicestershire. The proposed connections to the Bedford Ouse and the Stratford Avon would further extend the range of such craft to the Wash and Severn ports. The bypassing or reconstruction of the flight of seven locks at Watford in Northamptonshire and the restoration of the inclined plane at Foxton in Leicestershire and would open up a wide route from the Trent to the Thames joining South Yorkshire with the London area as well as Nottingham and Leicester. In fact, such a widening would create wide waterways ultimately connecting Liverpool with Bristol. It is our certain belief that in years to come the waterways leisure industry will demand that such widening takes place anyway in order to cope with the increased demand for craft of larger dimensions than are presently regarded as standard. The "Dutch Barge" type of wideboat is becoming increasingly popular as we write. Such craft have better potential as tripping or hotel boats or floating restaurants than narrowboats, for all the latter's ability to penetrate most parts of the system. Waterways such as the Ashby, Worcester and Birmingham, Northern Stratford-on-Avon, Grand Union Berkhamstead/Birmingham and Leicester Sections were built as wide canals originally, but for reasons of economy completed with narrow locks. The tunnels, bridges, embankments and cuttings are mostly of wide section. If the Government is serious in its avowed intention to encourage the use of alternatives to road transport, then, at the very least, it should commission a full economic and engineering study of the whole waterway system in order to test the feasibility of the above suggested measures. Such a study should be undertaken by an independent body who are not financially linked with the road or rail transport industry. Unless such a study is carried out, there will be no truly factual basis for planning any further development of the waterway system.

  4.1.8 The current enthusiasm for the restoration of long-derelict waterways is one which should be actively encouraged by Government with a view for such waterways being available for freight traffic, even if only on a small scale. Such restoration schemes should be given protection from adverse development, such as the construction of roads at a low level, or building across the line of the waterway. It might be argued that the commercial possibilities of such waterways as the Wilts and Berks Canal ended over a century ago, but this is to beg the question. The arguments for restoration of waterways do not normally envisage the resumption of freight carrying, and in the context of the present day this makes sense. However, if the waterway is restored, then, provided the dimensions are suitable, there is no practical reason why is should not perform its ancient function. Since restoration freight traffic has used the Lower Stratford-on-Avon Canal and the whole length of the Kennet and Avon Canal.

  4.1.9 So far as the larger dimensioned Commercial Waterways are concerned, we do not consider that this Association has any special knowledge of larger waterway operations, so would leave the detailed consideration of these to the established operators. We would however recommend that there should be more integration of operations between them and both the estuarial waterways and the inland system, so as to encourage the transfer of freight, and the warehousing of the same, from road to water.

4.2 Local Governmental

  4.2.1 Here the input may be considerable, but need not necessarily involve Local Government in heavy financial commitment. What is necessary more than anything else is a moral commitment to environmentally friendly transport. Something of this nature was observed during the 1980s when the development of Canary Wharf in the London Docklands was made dependent upon heavy materials being moved onto site by water. One looks in vain however for such commitment elsewhere, for instance in the Birmingham Heartlands Scheme, or the current Northampton Riverside Regeneration Project. Building materials of all sorts, as well as rubble from demolitions, could be moved by water. The forthcoming redevelopment of the Kings Cross area in London will take place close to the Regents Canal, a broad waterway accessing the Thames and the Midlands. Local authorities should be encouraged to investigate fully the prospects of water transport in such circumstances.

  4.2.2 Planning. Although we are aware of the Planning Guidance Order No. 13, (PPG 13), it has in our view been flawed because it is permissive. Ways in which it could be strengthened in our view are set out below.

    —  The development of greenfield sites with access only to road transport should be halted forthwith in any areas where alternative transport systems are available.

    —  Further residential development of wharfage sites should be discouraged, and only permitted if all the transport options have been exhausted. In other words, residential use should be the last priority for new sites adjoining navigable waterways, and every encouragement given to revive water transport usage at sites which have not as yet been redeveloped. Examples of these sites are, Brentford Basin in West London, Ponders End in East London, Sampson Road and Tyseley in Birmingham. Some, if not all, of these premises are currently let to road haulage organisations and the wharfage is ignored. This should be remedied.

    —  When industrial planning applications are received consideration should be given to the type of industry involved. Processes involving the movement of heavy and bulky low cost goods, the storage of timber products, building materials and aggregates, recycling of waste materials, and other commodities suited to water transport should be zoned or otherwise encouraged to make use of water transport facilities at the planning stage. Existing operations in built up areas which adjoin navigable waterways, yet ignore them, should be encouraged to make use of such facilities when the question of new planning consents arises.

4.3 Other local governmental involvement

  4.3.1 In urban areas with navigable waterways the Transport Department of the relevant Local Authority should be given the task of encouraging the every day use of those waterways for freight purposes as part of the process of transport integration. If necessary interchange wharves between different forms of transport could be put under local authority control. Cities such as Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, and the London Boroughs still have wharfage facilities which are unused by water transport today. The receipt and despatch of such things as recyclables, rock salt for highway use, roadstone could be carried on at such points.

  4.3.2 Rural and suburban local Authorities with navigable waterways should also be encouraged to make use of such facilities as may exist, especially where such commodities as are mentioned in the last paragraph are concerned.

  4.3.3 It should be emphasised that all the foregoing points can apply equally to rail facilities where they exist.

4.5 Private Industry

  If the philosophy of the Free Market is accepted, it follows that Private Industry must be perceived to obtain benefit other than that of the common public good. Clearly this benefit must be of value to the industry's owners or shareholders. If water transport is not economically viable once obstacles have been removed or ameliorated as suggested above, then there is little point in pursuing the matter. Whether or not Central Government is prepared to subsidise water transport beyond the commitments asked for above is not really within the scope of these observations. However, there are other benefits to be had by Private Industry, apart from economic transport.

  4.5.1 The waterways system is used regularly by millions of people for leisure purposes. Anglers, walkers, photographers, environmentalists, foreign tourists visit the waterways in enormous numbers all the year round, in addition to the pleasure boaters, both private and hire. There is here a captive audience akin to the numbers attending major sporting events, and here the question of sponsorship arises. Firms who are prepared to consign goods by water can obtain widespread advertising for their products or services, and moreover associate themselves with a "green" image. In former times canal boats were operated by Cadburys and by Ovaltine and were intended to display their owner firms' logos to the public. This did not long survive the nationalisation of the canals in 1947, but was revived in more recent times by Captain Cargo Ltd, a road haulage firm, before its take-over in 1994. Bylaws for the River Thames, as recently approved, would appear to preclude such activities as this, but there is no reason why it could not be done elsewhere on the waterways system. It would not presumably be difficult for the Environment Agency to amend their Thames bylaws to come into line.

  4.5.2 Certain commodities may be treated as warehoused goods while still in transit. Where land storage is dear, as in inner cities, there is a cost benefit in the slowness of water transport for bulky items such as aggregates or solid fuels, for as well as a transport medium, the goods are being stored free of charge. This is one of the reasons why narrowboat transport has survived, because a boat which is selling solid fuel is both a transport medium and a storage facility. The same principle on a small scale could well be applied to other commodities, such as garden products and DIY materials. On a larger scale bulky or heavy goods could be stored en route from dock or factory to consignee. The security aspect, for example the virtual impossibility of hi-jacking, is yet another good argument in favour of water transport.


  Although we have covered many of these issues above, it may be helpful to reiterate our response to the Green Paper. The following is a resume of CNOA's response to relevant issues.

  5.1 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 a moral and practical support to water transport ventures. In our view the most urgent requirements is a decision over the future of the British Waterways Board and the financing of whatever organisation may succeed it.

  5.2 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.

  5.3 Inland Waterways are capable of taking much more traffic than they do at present. Some investment will be needed, but we believe:

    (a)  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;

    (b)  that further investment would have a minimum cost compared to that spent on roads;

    (c)  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, so small trusts is both wasteful and outdated. Some sort of National Inland Waterways Authority should ultimately be set up, such as has been done in France with the Voies Navigables Francaises;

    (d)  that within the existing waterway authorities much could still be done by the authorities themselves, such as a policy for the elimination of linear moorings on canals and their replacement by off line moorings for pleasure craft, active encouragement of freight carrying rather than its discouragement by officials, better supervision of water levels, the granting of priorities in passage of locks 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.

  5.4 Provided viable alternatives exist, and we firmly believe that the waterways and coastal shipping have the potential to do this, we see no reasons why restrictions on excessive use of road transport should have any detrimental effect on national or regional competitiveness. In fact, by reducing the hidden subsidy which the tax payer gives to road haulage in the constant investment of scarce resources in major road building and replacing it with an open one to water and rail in the improvement of the track at a lesser cost, the effects should be beneficial.

  5.5 Another means of transferring freight to water which we would greatly favour would be the setting up of a Water Transport Agency with a remit to promote water transport. 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.

  5.6 We would not wish the contribution that waterways can make to public transport to be ignored. London, Birmingham and Manchester all have waterways which could be used for this. The siting of homes in inner city areas close to employment centres must obviously tie in with this, and the potential of waterways for bringing in building materials in an environmentally friendly manner should not be overlooked in this context.

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

  5.8 Insofar as new funding mechanisms are concerned, we would limit ourselves to pointing out that the inland waterways, uniquely, provide both a transport system 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.

  5.9 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 water transport would bring pressure to bear on firms through their choices as customers and through influence at their own places of work.

  5.10 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.

  5.11 Even with the use of quite elderly technologies, water transport is still highly fuel-efficient. The introduction of newer technologies 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.

  5.12 The Government should exert all the pressure at its disposal to put pressure on local authorities and Government agencies to prevent further disappearance of wharves and inland waterway servicing points. The sale by British Waterways of the main fleet servicing depot at Bulls Bridge, Hayes on the Grand Union Canal (situated on a Commercial Waterway as defined by the 1968 Act) for use as a Tesco store is a prime example of the way in which the canal's potential utility as a freight service has been undermined by the very organisation which should be encouraging it. Though current usage of these facilities may suggest that some of them are obsolete, if the Government is serious about extending the use of water transport, then it is incumbent upon it to bring pressure to bear so that no more such facilities are lost.

  5.13 Insofar as unnecessary journeys are concerned, the buying policies of local authorities and Government agencies for such commodities as are prime candidates for water transport, such as rock salt, aggregates, road mending and construction material, steel, should be examined. For various reasons, unconnected with transport economics, these are often ordered on a "next day" basis, resulting in the commodities being carried by road.

  5.14 Private industry also is guilty of this same practice as well of a policy of over dependence on central warehousing of stock. Because road haulage is convenient and apparently cheap, manufacturing or retailing firms set up central distribution warehouses, nowadays often linked by computer to outlets. Goods come into a warehouse and are then distributed, which is a perfectly acceptable way of doing things. What is not acceptable, especially in an overcrowded community such as the United Kingdom, is the practice of say, sending goods originating in Manchester and destined for an intermediate point such as Birmingham to a warehouse in London for redistribution back to Birmingham. It is our contention, based on anecdotal evidence, that a good deal of traffic on our motorway system is composed of this type of movement. A proper costing of road haulage would do a great deal to eliminate this, as well as make alternative transport attractive in a cost sense.

  5.15 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, wharves 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 a lesser spend on highway projects.

  5.16 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.

  5.17 Whilst we give the strongest support to other environmentally friendly forms of transport such as rail, main line, local, light or tramway or cycleways, we do however have the strongest reservations about the use of canal towpaths for cycleways.

  5.18 Inland waterways are probably the safest form of heavy transport yet devised, and present a minimal danger to the public. The transport of chemicals or substances whose spillage could prove detrimental to the environment or public safety can be effected in perfect safety by water.

  5.19 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.

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


  6.1 The shortcomings of our present waterway system in the United Kingdom need scarcely be further elaborated and are largely the result of over a century and a half of underfunding. Comparisons are often drawn with overseas waterways, notable those in our near neighbours France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Such comparisons are largely meaningless because of the completely different circumstances obtaining in those countries. In our island community no point is more than 100 miles from the coast and the sea provides, as it has always done, a natural highway connecting both inland and overseas communities. In the continental countries the waterways are built much larger dimensions and form part of a series of international routes. The economics of operating narrowboats over distances of 100 miles or so are barely comparable with those of operating a 350 tonne Freycinet standard peniche over 1,000 miles, say between Rotterdam and Marseilles, which is a regular run for such craft. However, far greater use could be made of coastal and estuarial waters in this country for the transfer of freight traffic, and this, inevitably, would assist traffic on navigations which connect with such waters. In the foregoing document we have attempted to show some ways in which such traffic could be nurtured.

  6.2 There are no circumstances where properly organised and run narrowboats can provide a service that is competitive, when all the associated environmental considerations are taken into consideration. These circumstances should be exploited with Governmental encouragement, local and national. Ways in which this may be accomplished are set out above. Consideration should be given as a matter of priority to enlarge certain sections of waterway and remove existing bottlenecks, thus permitting the use of larger craft. This will be of benefit to other users, such as the operators of hotel or restaurant boats, and hire and time share craft.

  6.3 In the past there have been a number of appeals to improve the Waterways system based on emotional rather than practical considerations. it is not this Association's intention to do this, and we hope this is evident from the foregoing observations. It does however seem to us that the time is ripe for a new look at underused, underfunded and underdeveloped asset. The steps we have outlined above are not particularly radical, nor do they involve spending large sums of Government money. They do however call for a rethink in the ways in which Government, national and local perceives waterways. An accident of history has meant that this country has an ancient transport system preserved in its main essentials, and one which could never be recreated, save at enormous expense. The system has its drawbacks, some of which we have outlined above, but the important thing is that it is still there, and still capable of serving society in many different ways, one of which is its ancient transport function. As an Association we very much hope to continue to trade on the waterways into the next century and further expand our environmentally friendly transport mode.

David R Blagrove

Vice Chairman CNOA

24 October 1998

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 28 April 1999