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

Memorandum by The Towpath Action Group (WTC 57)


  The Towpath Action Group welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the Committee's Inquiry into Walking in Towns and Cities. TAG was formed in 1987 as a result of difficulties on utilising the towpath of the Rochdale Canal in central Manchester. We are now a national organisation, campaigning for improved pedestrian access along, and on and off, canal towpaths and river paths. The reason for building canals was principally to link industrial centres, most of which have now grown up into large towns, cities and conurbations. It is no surprise therefore that much of our activities are centred around urban waterways.

  Canal towpaths have long been recognised by the public as an efficient means of getting from A to B, usually on foot (though also by bicycle) whether it is for walking to work or school, going to the shops, or just walking the dog. Until relatively recently however they have not been recognised to quite the same extent by local authorities and central government. This is probably in part due to the fact that many urban towpaths are not designated rights of way. This is partly due to the exemptions granted to large towns in the original rights of way legislation, and partly due to the reluctance of the navigation authorities (often with sound enough reasons) to support rights of way creation orders. Because the public often have no legal rights to use the towpaths, it is rather difficult for them to be incorporated into Local Plans etc.

  The situation has changed in the last decade or so. The country's principal navigation authority, British Waterways, has promoted a number of long distance footpaths along their canals (the Grand Union Canal Walk, the Oxford Canal Walk etc). The Thames Path has been firmly established. More recently, central government has heavily promoted cycleways along off-road routes, of which canal towpaths are but one example.

  There is therefore a growing recognition of such routes as a means of green and healthy travel. Particularly in urban areas where road travel is becoming increasingly slow and stress-inducing, flat and direct walking routes through cities are invaluable. This is particularly so where the towpath has been resurfaced to provide a safe walking surface, where lighting has been installed and where new access points have been created at road crossings etc. Birmingham and Leeds City centres are prime examples of where canal and river-side paths now take considerably more pedestrian traffic than they ever did before—Manchester, London, Sheffield and Newcastle-upon-Tyne are not far behind.

  The advantages of walking such paths, as opposed to taking the car are numerous. It is safer, quieter, healthier, entirely non-polluting, and considerably more pleasurable (particularly where there are boats or wildlife to accompany your journey). This is true for all ages, but maybe particularly for school children (for whom the "school run" brings many town centres to a stand-still), the disabled (the flat surface is ideal for the physically-disabled), and the elderly who in many cases do not have access to a car, and for whom convenient bus routes are an increasing rarity.

  There is little doubt that if local authorities are to take an increasing role in the use of such paths as part of a formal walking strategy, there needs to be considerable dialogue with the navigation authority. On river paths this is not generally an issue; there is often not a formal navigation authority, and where there is it is often the Environment Agency who have a limited mandate for creating "recreational" facilities and would generally be quite happy for a local authority to grasp the nettle. On canals, the primary authority, British Waterways, has proved in recent years that it welcomes the increased pedestrian use of its towpaths, and subject to the limited constraints it needs to impose to maintain its operational obligations, has welcomed many such initiatives already.

  The recent Waterways for Tomorrow document highlights the need to develop our inland waterway system to the needs of the 21st century, and itself noted the phenomenal growth in the pedestrian use of the towpath system. British Waterways have welcomed the document, and through the Association of Inland Navigation Authorities one hopes that other, lesser, authorities will come to the same conclusion.

  It is probably too much to hope that this will all "just happen", even though it clearly makes sense that it should. The Rights of Way 2000 initiative (an attempt to persuade all highway authorities to fully update their definitive maps by 2000) made very little progress—a handful of authorities excepted—because they did not have to do it. Therefore it seems likely that there will have to be a stick, and where there is a stick there needs to be a carrot.

  Although we would like to see all towpaths as rights of way, we respect many of the reasons why bodies like British Waterways do not want that to happen. Neither do we not think it is a prerequisite for a national or local initiative to create formal walking routes that encourage further pedestrian use. After all, virtually all British Waterways' towpaths are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

  However, British Waterways (and other navigation authorities) cannot be expected to bear the burden of the increased maintenance that would be required if their towpaths were adopted as formal and well-publicised pedestrian routes. If increasing the use of these routes is going to take pressure off the roads, then local authorities (and the Highways Agency to a lesser extent) should need lower budgets for road maintenance. The money thus released should be used to provide the necessary maintenance of all footpaths, including towpaths. Clearly there need to be agreements in place between the navigation authority and the authority responsible for towpath maintenance, which may involve financial considerations in either direction, but British Waterways for one have plenty of such agreements in place already. There seems no reason why the good practice they have developed cannot spread to the rest of their network and to the waterways owned and managed by other navigation authorities.

  It seems unlikely to us that the current "guidance" from DETR is enough to make this happen. One could argue that the cycling initiative developed from not much more, but it was fortunate to receive, via Sustrans, some £30-£40m of Millennium Lottery funding to allow it to develop an identity and a network that almost forced participation from local authorities. The London Walking Forum made inroads into footpath promotion at a much lower level, also with Lottery support, but it is unlikely that a national campaign for footpaths will ever succeed in the same way.

  Since, central government has seen the cycling initiative take off largely at the expense of the general public (through the Lottery award to Sustrans) and matched funding from local authorities, rather than at the expense of the Treasury, we would suggest that maybe central government could find the funds to "kick-start" a similar initiative for pedestrians in urban areas. We would suggest the promotion of something akin to the London Walking Forum in a number of large towns and cities (at least one in each county would be ideal). Led by the local authorities, but with private and voluntary sector partners, these fora could develop appropriate "ideal networks" throughout their towns. They would seek funding, not just from the local authorities themselves, but also from central government (who we suggest might like to "pump-prime" with, for example a specified percentage of the cost, maybe with an upper limit based on local population statistics), third party funders (Lottery (particularly New Opportunities Fund and Sports), private trusts etc). By adopting a local partnership approach, it is more likely that the right routes will be chosen—the ones that the public will actually want to use.

  The adoption of such routes along canal towpaths might also serve to promote the regeneration of areas whose hey-day has long passed. In our major cities, this has already happened to a large extent; Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Newcastle are certainly good examples of this. This has often happened on the back of funding from City Challenge, Development Corporations and the like. Smaller towns have often not had the same access to such funds, and still have run-down areas running alongside their inland waterways. For such routes to be attractive, waterside development, be it residential or commercial, also needs to take place. We would contend that this is more likely to happen if a strategy can be developed at a local partnership level, albeit with moderate financial incentives being made available from central government.

  In conclusion, we welcome the Committee's initiative in consulting widely on this issue. We believe that formal strategies need to be developed, but that these should be at a local level, kick-started and pump-primed from central government funds. If the Sustrans'success on the cycling initiative is anything to go by, we believe that there is plenty of opportunity for other monies to be levered in once cohesive strategies are in place.

Andy Screen

January 2001

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