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

Memorandum from the Inland Waterways Association (WTC 44)


  The Inland Waterways Association (IWA) is a registered charity, founded in 1946, which advocates the conservation, use, maintenance, restoration and development of the inland waterways for public benefit. IWA has over 17,000 members whose interests include boating, towing path walking, industrial archaeology, nature conservation and many other activities associated with the inland waterways. This memorandum is made on behalf of the Council of the Association and is submitted from the Association's Head Office.

  Inland waterway towing paths are highly relevant to walking in towns and cities. They provide over 2,000 miles of "near continuous" path throughout the UK, much of which passes through towns and cities, and to which access is permitted to millions of people. The use of towing paths for informal recreation, such as walking, has increased dramatically in the last 20 years. It is now estimated that 165 million leisure visits are made each year to British Waterways' canals and rivers alone[1]. The maintenance and improvement of existing towing paths and the reinstatement of derelict towing paths would further encourage walking. Towing paths should be actively promoted as a resource for pedestrian usage, as detailed in IWA's Towing Path Policy[2], which is issued as guidance to British Waterways, other navigation authorities and local authorities.

  Many towns and cities in Britain owe their development to waterways. Water has been used to transport goods since trade began. In Roman Britain, artificial waterways were cut to provide arteries for trade, such as the Fossdyke which joins the River Witham to the River Trent. From the Middle Ages, natural rivers have been made navigable using artificial cuts and structures such as weirs and flash locks. As a result, several towns grew up along these rivers, such as Stourport, Burton-on-Trent and Guildford. Then, from the mid 18th to the early 19th centuries, many canals were constructed. These canals played a leading role in serving the country's transport needs during the Industrial Revolution and encouraged the growth of several industrial towns and cities, such as Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Manchester.

  Between and after the World Wars a number of accesses from canals to roads and streets in some of the major cities were closed off to discourage public usage and to prevent access for vandalism. These were mainly in London, Birmingham and Manchester. Although many of these closures have now been removed, there are still a few roads from which canal access is not possible. This may be because a brick wall was built rather than a door, or the road is much higher than the canal on steep embankments. Some of these access points could be recreated although it may be necessary to consider access between bridges, ie from adjacent roads, where less steep access could be achieved for wheelchairs and perambulators.

  The towing paths which were laid alongside canals for horses pulling boats have historically provided very direct routes between places and are therefore very useful as traffic free routes for pedestrians. Towing paths often have good access points, mainly located at road bridge crossings, so are easy for pedestrians to reach and can be easily integrated with other transport modes. Since they are usually flat and fairly wide, allowing wheelchair access, they are often suitable for use by elderly and disabled people. IWA promotes and supports measures to improve general access to and from towing paths, with suitable access points and additional facilities at key locations so that they can be used by persons having restricted mobility. Pedestrian underpasses and bridges on the waterway network mean that pedestrians using towing paths can often avoid road crossings, making towing paths safer than roads for pedestrians. Moreover, the environment around towing paths is generally more pleasant than along roads: it is quieter and less polluted, and walkers can observe boats, wildlife, such as birds, and various historical architectural and engineering features found alongside waterways.

  Towing paths can provide a valuable transport and access route for both business and residential developments. Businesses are again recognising the benefits of a waterfront location: as well as providing opportunities for transporting goods by water, waterways are often a pleasant environment in which to work and employees and customers can use towing paths for access. This is particularly relevant at the present time, when the use of brownfield sites for new development is being encouraged. Waterfront locations are also suitable for residential and mixed-use developments, which incorporate the conversion of redundant existing buildings, with towing paths providing access to residents. Such development is sustainable and can encourage the regeneration of run-down urban areas through business and tourism, bringing money into the local economy.

  Towing paths provide easy access from towns and cities to the countryside, with some forming part of larger footpath networks, such as the Countryside Agency's Greenways Initiative. Towing paths act as corridors that enable wildlife to move around towns and cities, and several species and habitats found along towing paths are listed in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. Towing paths have considerable scope as an axis for rehabilitation for habitat improvement and wildlife gain, especially in run-down industrial areas. They are also a useful educational resource for teaching subjects such as heritage and ecology to schoolchildren and other groups.

  There are several examples of good practice in towing path improvement, many of which have been carried out by partnerships as part of waterfront regeneration projects. One such flagship project was the Leeds Waterfront Initiative, carried out by British Waterways, Leeds City Council, private developers and others, which involved the construction of new offices, housing, hotels and waterside walks. It stimulated development alongside the waterways for business, leisure and residential purposes, encouraged walking in the centre along towing paths and strengthened the city's role as West Yorkshire's administrative centre. Another example of good practice is the Thames Path National Trail, which was created by a partnership led by the Countryside Agency and has included extensive improvements to the path and the installation of tourist information points at some locks. Further examples of urban waterfront regeneration projects which have encouraged walking along towing paths include those in Birmingham, Manchester, Salford, Sheffield and Gloucester.

  Towing paths are also created and improved as part of schemes to restore derelict waterways to navigation: they are one of the "hidden" benefits of waterway restoration. IWA has encouraged and supported many restoration projects, leading to 400 miles of waterway successfully being restored to navigation and a similar mileage where restoration schemes are actively underway. The Association encourages the creation of partnerships between the voluntary sector, navigation authorities and local and national government and its agencies, to carry out these projects. Current restoration projects which will provide towing paths in urban areas include the Rochdale Canal in Greater Manchester, the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, the Derby Canal through Derby and Sandiacre and the Monmouthshire Canal through Newport.

  The importance of towing paths for informal recreation has been recognised in a recent Government paper, "Waterways for Tomorrow". This document advocates a partnership approach to towing path maintenance and improvement, involving navigation authorities, local authorities, Regional Development Agencies and others. However, such maintenance and improvement is often constrained by funding. As a consequence of the 1968 Transport Act, towing paths do not receive Government funding. British Waterways' grant-in-aid is restricted to the water channel only and does not cover towing path maintenance. Funding is often not available from local authorities for the upkeep of towing paths. As a result, the maintenance of towing paths currently relies on overstretched navigation authorities, voluntary bodies and a few enlightened local authorities. IWA believes that changes in legislation and more public funding are vital in order to sufficiently maintain and improve towing paths, which are, after all, a highly valued public amenity.

  It is important that towing paths are accounted for in the planning system at all levels. There are several Planning Policy Guidance Notes (PPGs) that concern towing paths. When these are reviewed, they should be revised to account for the need to improve towing paths and integrate them with other modes of transport. In particular, planning proposals for new roads must take proper account of waterway restoration and towing paths. There is a strong need for integration between towing paths and other transport modes, such as passenger boat services, and the Waterways for Tomorrow document highlights the role of Local Transport Plans in such integration. Integration can also be improved by including towing paths on recreational maps prepared by local authorities and other agencies. Towing paths should also be mapped as part of a national network.

  There is a need to address potential conflicts between cycling and other uses, such as walking and angling, on towing paths. The use of "all terrain" leisure cycles, the work of Sustrans and the need for cycle routes away from road traffic to meet the requirements of the Road Traffic Reduction Act 1997 have all placed increasing pressure on the use of towing paths as cycle routes. IWA supports the current British Waterways approach of positive management of cycling, whereby cyclists require a permit in order to cycle on towing paths. The Association recommends that a towing path should not be designated as part of a formal cycle route unless it is at least four metres in width, and that the two metres nearest the waterside should be reserved for pedestrians and anglers only.[3] Where towing paths are unsuitable for cycling, it may be necessary to construct separate routes for cyclists.

  This memorandum has sought to highlight the important role of waterway towing paths in encouraging walking in towns and cities, using examples of good practice to illustrate what can be done. IWA will continue to campaign for the maintenance of existing towing paths at high standards, the reinstatement of towing paths which are currently impassable to their original condition and the provision of towing paths along rivers and other navigations where there are none at present. However, there is an urgent need for improved planning measures, legislative changes and additional public funding to enable necessary improvements to be made to the nationwide network of waterway towing paths which will further encourage their use for walking in towns and cities.

January 2001

1   Waterways for Tomorrow: Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions: June 2000. Back

2   Towing Path Policy: Inland Waterways Association: May 1998. Back

3   Ibid. Back

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