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

Memorandum by the European River Sea Transport Union (IW 11)


  1.  There can be no doubt that inland waterways have already been (eg in Birmingham), and will continue to be, a useful way of stimulating urban regeneration in particular. In both urban and rural areas such regeneration usually involves leisure, recreation, tourism and residential developments and aspects of heritage and the inland waterways have great potential in combining these in single developments. Care must be taken that existing and potential wharves are not planned and "redeveloped" out of existence so that the present use of water transport is restricted and possible future use of the waterways for transport does not become impossible. In regeneration of industry and associated problems of industrial location it would seem that the potential for the use of water transport is invariably ignored where it should be an essential element in land use planning.

  Waterways also provide valuable "green corridors" but the over-development of watersides may be detrimental to the environment and wildlife. In contrast with other transport tracks, waterways do have the considerable advantage of being multi-functional and as well as being green corridors may combine water transfer (Gloucester and Sharpness Canal—Bristol water), drainage (Manchester Ship Canal was not closed to navigation in large measure because it had to be retained for drainage) and telecommunications (canal tow paths already provide cable tracks). This obviously provides a way of sharing development costs—the 1980s plans for a Severn Corridor would have improved navigation, flood control, drainage and enhanced water supplies.

  2.  The government is arguing the merits of an integrated transport policy and waterborne transport must be an essential component of this. Water transport even now plays a more important role than is made apparent in official statements. All too frequently figures of three million and four million tons are quoted which ignore the coastal and foreign trade which makes up a considerable part of our waterway traffic and does not reflect the reality presented by the government's own statistics. While there may be only limited scope for transfer of transport from roads to water every possible opportunity to do so must be explored and exploited in the interests of sustainable transport and reducing the demands on roads. Water transport comes into its own for the low value, non-time critical, mainly bulk cargoes—aggregates, recyclables, waste, fuels and grains being the most obvious. It should be incumbent upon all local authorities to combine to produce regional waste disposal strategies which maximise the use of water transport—there is very considerable scope for rationalisation and transfer of freight to water in this area and there is a very real danger that adjacent authorities produce go-it-alone waste policies which reduce the potential for economies of scale in both transfer and processing. Local Transport Plans may well ignore the larger scale, cross-border potential. Another area with potential for expansion is in the aggregates, cement and building materials markets where there should be far greater emphasis on getting these materials as close to their final destination as possible by water transport. Continued closure of wharves can only reduce this potential. In specific places these and other possibilities could be clearly identified.

  3.  There is both complementarity and potential for conflict in satisfying these objectives. It may well be that particular waterways can be best developed in a certain way but overall the guiding principle will be the same—each and every development should be an enhancement of the environment in the broadest sense of that term—this means reducing road transport, improving run-down urban environments, enhancing rural access and amenities etc—developments of one kind which would be detrimental to another (eg waterside housing which eliminated working or potential wharves) should not be permitted. There is a possible danger that, taken to extremes, the regeneration idea could be counter productive in the long term.

  4.  The FFGs have provided valuable incentives to waterborne freight and could be even more effective with further relaxation and extension of the conditions. In particular, the availability of financial assistance for "trial"/"demonstration" schemes could be helpful.

  There are strong arguments for treating all modes equitably. That British Waterways should have been forced to borrow money for its South Yorkshire Navigation improvements (and thereby reduced the operating dimensions to a point which greatly reduced the potential to attract traffic) placed the waterways in an impossible competitive position viz-a-viz other forms of transport. Given that Track Access Grants are available to rail operators it would seem reasonable to suggest that such should also be available for the waterways. This might possibly be paid to track operators to cover the marginal costs attributable to freight movement on the waterways or to vessel operators as a way of off-setting tolls that are now charged.

  Until such time as all road haulage vehicles are required to pay tolls for the use of roads it would seem logical and certainly more equitable that tolls should not be charged on the waterways and that, like road vehicles, there should simply be a single annual vessel licence fee.

  There is the need to ensure adequate funding for routine maintenance and also improvement (locks, bridges, channel alignments, channel depths) and possibly extension of the network.

  5.  There has in the past, and could be potential in the future, for conflict given the somewhat fragmented organisation of the waterways at the ownership/responsibility level and also at the government level. As a first step the government could create a single unit with more obvious responsibility for waterways, and in particular freight transport, to co-ordinate planning, policies and implementation. Such a body could undertake and sponsor feasibility projects, establish rolling programmes for waterway improvement and development and could provide the necessary focus for activities related to wider consideration of water transport (eg regional waste transport/disposal strategies). It could also be charged nationally with all aspects of safeguarding of waterside freight transfer sites. It is by no means clear that British Waterways is the best body to provide the co-ordinating role in encouraging the use of waterways for freight because on the evidence to hand their principal interests are in the recreational and redevelopment areas and these may well be in conflict with greater use of the waterways for freight. There is also the danger that what would appear to be their attempt to become themselves involved in freight movement could put them in an unfair position competitively and possibly create conflict of interest with respect to independent operators (eg on setting of tolls and charges).

  In the wider European context, I feel that the role of water transport in Britain could be enhanced by British insistence that selected waterways be given "international" status (most obviously the Thames and Humber/Trent/Ouse) and this could open the door to EU funding available under its Trans European Network (TEN) arrangements.

  Overall, there is undoubtedly great potential for waterways to play a major role in all the areas you identify but my own worry would be that in the diversity of possible use their role in transport gets insufficient attention and that the government's wholly commendable policy to reduce dependence on road haulage and emphasise sustainability in transport is thereby seriously impaired.

25 September 2000

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