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

Memorandum by The Inland Waterways Association (IW 29)


  The Inland Waterways Association (IWA) is a registered charity, founded in 1946 and campaigns for the conservation, use, maintenance and development of the inland waterways. It has approximately 18,000 members whose interests include boating, towpath walking, industrial archaeology, nature conservation and many other activities associated with the inland waterways. This response is submitted on behalf of the Association's Council and committee members and concentrates on issues that were specified in the inquiry notice dated 20 July.


  When the founding members of IWA first gathered in 1946 to plan the seemingly impossible task of saving Britain's canals and river navigations against the indifference from navigation authorities and government alike, it would have been very hard to imagine the importance and multiple roles of the waterways today. The revival and restoration of many waterways has led to the economic regeneration of many cities and towns. Today, canals and river navigations are widely valued for the benefits they bring for leisure, recreation and tourism. The industrial heritage and wildlife habitat value of the inland waterways are recognised by most people, whilst those with a more detailed knowledge recognise also the value of canals in providing drainage and more recent uses for telecommunications and water transfer. Yet fundamental to nearly all these diverse aspects of the waterways is their primary purpose—that of navigation—conveying goods and people from one place to another.

  Of the many millions of visitors to Britain's canals and river navigations every year, only a small proportion ever set foot on a boat. The vast majority are just casual visitors, who come to enjoy the ambience and peace that waterways provide in an otherwise noisy and busy environment. However, the very presence of movement on the waterways has great appeal—a boat ascending or descending a lock is always the focus of attention for Sunday afternoon walkers. Without navigation, the canals would be merely sterile ponds. Boats bring lift to the waterways and provide a "free" visitor attraction much admired worldwide. Britain's undervalued asset of yesteryear is fast becoming one of its prized attractions. However, the full potential of Britain's waterways is yet far from fully tapped.

  Over 400 million visits are made to the inland waterways every year,[24] of which only a small percentage (mostly boat owners and hirers) make a direct or indirect contribution to a navigation authority as a result of their visit. It would be entirely impractical for the vast majority of casual users of the inland waterways to make such a direct payment. For this reason, the continued investment of Government in the infrastructure of the inland waterways through grant-in-aid is fully justified. Indeed, the amount of grant aid per visitor to the inland waterways is considerably smaller than comparable grant aid provided for many other public amenities such as parks and historic buildings. The economic benefits of the inland waterways are two fold: firstly, through expenditure by those using the waterways, whether they be boaters, walkers, anglers or just casual visitors; and secondly, through encouraging the regeneration of run-down areas along the corridor of a canal or river navigation. Living and working in an attractive waterside environment is seen by most people as highly desirable; the restoration of a waterway, or construction of new canals, will inevitably bring a rise in property values along their banks. Such values are sustained if the waterway is seen to be actively used and vibrant. Once again, navigation and waterside activity are crucial for a waterway to reach its full potential in providing economic benefit to the community.

  The use of canals for water transfer, drainage and telecommunication route functions is welcomed provided that these ancillary purposes generate income that supports the primary functions of the canal, as detailed above. In all cases, the total income gained from using the waterway for such purposes should be fully invested back in the waterways infrastructure. IWA recommends that changes in the structure of publicly owned navigation authorities should be made to ensure that this is the case. Only in a very few cases were canals built with drainage or water transfer as an additional function to the primary aim of carriage of goods and people by navigation. Great care therefore needs to be taken to ensure adequate protection of the fabric of the waterways, if necessary through additional engineering works, in harnessing the canals to serve additional purposes beyond those for which they were designed.


  IWA welcomes the positive approach shown in Waterways for Tomorrow to increasing the proportion of commercial freight traffic carried by water. However, there seems to be insufficient precise action proposed to carry forward the agreed principles. Successive governments encouraged the transfer of freight on to roads for many years and the "freight by waterway" industry is at a very low ebb. However, there is also a new entrepreneurial spirit, with the industry actively looking for new traffics and markets. It requires legislative and financial commitment from government if this environmentally friendly form of transport is to have a real role in the future.

  Freight Facilities Grants provide valuable help in increasing waterborne freight and there has recently been a significant increase in grants allocated to waterway schemes. However, further flexibility could have an even greater effect in encouraging freight on water. Much of industry is not familiar with this form of transport and will not enter into long-term contracts until the delivery of the service has been proven. Some help with trial schemes would therefore be helpful.

  The Government's much hyped "10 year plan" is confusing and minimalist with respect to waterways and waterborne freight. It is inadequate that only £2.2 billion out of £180 billion has been allocated to "other transport", in which category there are considerable demands beside inland waterways and shipping. The allocation needs to be earmarked more specifically.

  If inland shipping is to reach anything like its full potential, a fundamental change in attitude is required by industry, by navigation authorities, and by local, regional and national government. The Government must stick with the laudable objectives outlined in the Integrated Transport White Paper A new Deal for Transport, and other policy documents such as Tackling Congestion and Pollution as well as the daughter documents covering Shipping and Sustainable Distribution.

  IWA recommends:

    —  there needs to be a national register of waterside sites which have existing or potential use for handling freight, or for the location of industries using inland waterways, similar to the 1996 scheme for safeguarding over 30 wharves on the River Thames. A mere safeguarding in planning terms is not sufficient; statutory powers are required to strengthen it;

    —  the Government should create a separate unit within the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, solely with responsibility for waterborne freight. This would co-ordinate waterway freight developments, undertake and sponsor feasibility studies and establish a rolling programme for the maintenance, improvement and possible extension of the network. This unit could provide the necessary focus for activities involving wider consideration of waterways (eg regional waste transport planning). Given the urgent need to safeguard existing and potential waterside cargo sites, the new unit could be charged with drawing up a national register;

    —  a programme should be prepared for the improvement of selected existing waterways and for examining the potential for new developments that maximise modal integration;

    —  Track Access Grants, currently only available for rail, should be extended to inland waterways;

    —  when Government is promoting the transfer of freight from roads, the water transport option should always be made explicit;

    —  Government should make renewed efforts within the European Union to increase the recognition of inland waterways in Britain as part of the European waterways network;

    —  regional development agencies should audit the freight carried on the waterways in their regions, the possibilities for new traffic and the craft available for such traffics; and

    —  the targets set for waterborne freight by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (1994)—from 25 per cent to 30 per cent by 2010—should at least be met.

  The inland waterways will continue to be a useful way of stimulating urban regeneration, but it is necessary to ensure that existing and potential wharves are not lost so that the use of waterways for transport does not become impossible. Too much emphasis on regeneration could reduce longer-term potential of the waterways for transport.

  The Government has already acknowledged that waterborne transport must be an integral element in the integrated transport policy. Water transport even now plays a more important role than is acknowledged in official statements. Because the scope for transfer of freight from road to other modes may be limited, it is all the more important to pursue every possible opportunity in the interests of sustainable transport and reducing the demands on roads. Water transport is ideally suited for low value, non-time critical, mainly bulk cargoes—such as aggregates, recyclables, waste, fuels and grains and these must be taken as close as possible by water transport to reduce road haulage. An area in which local authorities have particular influence is waste movement and disposal—they should combine to produce rational regional waste disposal treatment strategies which wherever possible emphasise the use of water transport.


  IWA has long held a "Waterways for All" policy. Whilst many parts of the inland waterways system may seem busy at peak periods and, despite the 400 million visits per annum, there still remains a remarkable capacity to take many more visitors on most canals and river navigations. Indeed, many large tracts of the waterway system, for example the Middle Level and River Nene in East Anglia and the waterways in Kent, are considerably under utilised. There is also a vast potential for restoring further waterways that have been allowed to fall into dereliction. IWA believes that derelict canals and river navigations should be restored and reopened for public benefit and that it is undesirable for such national assets, whether held in public or private ownership, to be inaccessible.

  Canals were built for boats to navigate and that function underpins all other uses. This is also true because expenditure by those involved in leisure navigation provides the principal element of the benefits brought to the locality through which a waterway runs. The presence of boats brings waterways alive and is a key aspect in the attraction of visitors and maximising the potential for property regeneration and new sustainable developments alongside.

  Inevitably, some "honey-pot" sites that are heavily promoted as tourist attractions become busy, especially during holiday periods. Given the variety of different users on the waterways, it is perhaps surprising how little conflict there is between various interest groups.

  Nearly all activities currently taking place on the inland waterways are complementary—indeed, they add interest one to another. Occasionally there is friction between anglers, who like undisturbed solitude, and other users. An irresponsible or unthinking minority can sometimes cause ill feeling between users, but this is not unique to the inland waterways. Towing paths are often narrow and are shared by users with differing interests, eg angling, walking and bird watching. They are quite unsuited to travelling at a high speed; therefore, permitted cyclists need to be wary of other users and ride at a slow speed. The use of towing paths as cycling commuter routes or for long distance cycling should be strongly discouraged because of the dangers to other users.

  The inland waterways are a living demonstration of the ability to create artificial habitats that nature will colonise. The abundance of wildlife is an added attraction for most users—be they boaters, anglers, walkers or casual visitors. Occasionally there are concerns from wildlife interests that other users should be excluded from a certain waterway, and if applied to a newly restored waterway, this can have a seriously demotivating effect on the voluntary restoration movement. IWA believes that such conflict needs to be managed so that, if necessary, conservation interests should be preserved by appropriate engineering works, such as constructing off-line havens. In the case of a canal, ie artificially constructed, it must by definition always be possible to build another, if adequate funding is available. However, in many cases, a deep centre channel and proper husbandry are all that is required.


  IWA welcomes the Government's recent publication Waterways for Tomorrow as a positive contribution towards providing a realistic and positive framework in which the inland waterways can operate in the 21st century. It is, however, only a start on what is needed. Government recognition of all that has been achieved by the voluntary sector in rescuing the inland waterways from near certain oblivion is long overdue, but nonetheless welcome. That Government is determined to increase the contribution that the inland waterways can make to the life of the country (page 6) is reassuring, but good words need to be turned into positive actions.

  IWA welcomes the new flexibility that has been given to navigation authorities and the Government's encouragement of a national strategy, but it is still the case that navigation authorities currently operate under obsolete or inappropriate legislation. The Transport Act 1968, which governs British Waterways' operations, deals with waterways as they were at that time. Today, many of its provisions seem absurd and entirely inappropriate. The legislation governing the waterways administered by the Environment Agency comprises a most unfortunate amalgam of archaic laws and minor provisions within more recent Acts, which together provide a mix of unsuited regulation and red tape that only serves to impede proper modern day operation and development. For example, there appears to be a direct conflict between the Anglian Water Act 1977 and the Environment Act 1995. The Agency currently finds itself as a manager of river navigation, flood defence and water resources; and as a regulator of conservation, water quality and other waste issues; whilst this provides for integrated river basin management, the means by which internal conflicts between different parts of the Agency are resolved are far from clear. As a regulator of industry, it may also be more difficult for the Agency, compared with other bodies without such a role, proactively to seek outside funding and to encourage investment from third parties in partnerships to benefit development of the waterways. IWA recommends that one organisation, which has navigation and recreation as its primary functions, be created to administer all Britain's inland waterways. Any move that further fragmented navigation responsibility or split British Waterways' responsibilities would be most undesirable. Equally, any form of privatisation or franchising of the inland waterways would be most unwelcome and would be strongly resisted by users.

  IWA strongly recommends that new primary legislation should be introduced as a matter of urgency to set down a practical and sustainable management regime for inland navigation in the 21st century. Whilst the parliamentary timetable may currently be congested, we strongly recommend that parliamentary draftsmen start work immediately in order that a Bill can be prepared for the next parliamentary session. Time simply must be found.

  The under-funding of the inland waterways, dating back to nationalisation and before, is well documented. That, in recent times, government has, at last, recognised this deficiency is a welcome step in the right direction. However, it is a national scandal that there remains outstanding works directly affecting the safety of the public. There is equally no room for complacency when BW is still more than 20 years away from clearing the backlog of maintenance work to meet its statutory obligations and the Environment Agency seemingly not even in sight of ever doing so. The unfortunate aspect of all this is that the under-funding of the country's navigations over many years has prevented proper maintenance from being carried out, so that money that should properly have been spent on a "just in time" management has been wasted in clearing up after disasters and mishaps that could have been prevented. This is no discredit to the staff and management of the navigation authorities—simply that the opportunity of proper maintenance was denied by the necessary funds having been so long withheld.

  A glaring example of the inadequacies of the 1968 Transport Act is the continued existence of Remainder Waterways—a temporary measure of the 1960s, intended only whilst long-term decisions were made on the future of such waterways. 32 years later, such a labelling is obsolete and a restraint to proper management and the development that Government is keen to promote. There are approximately 180 miles of navigable Remainder Waterways, which should be reclassified to Cruiseway status straight away. Whilst this will not of itself produce extra funding to improve the standards of maintenance, it will ensure that there are no longer excuses for local authorities, the private sector and others to treat some of the Remainder sections as second-class waterways. Reclassification to Cruiseway status would provide the assured future that is a prerequisite to investment, development and regeneration.


  For many years, IWA promoted the ideal of a "Waterways Conservancy" with all the country's navigations under a single authority. The essential purpose of this was to break down the barriers between different authorities and to provide for seamless management, not only of navigation, but also of other related functions. Neither the current structure of British Waterways nor that of the Environment Agency—nor indeed the smaller navigation authorities—fully meets these criteria.

  The changes in style of management of British Waterways over recent years have largely been positive, though we are cautious of over-exploitation and commercialism. The waterways are a public legacy for all sectors of the population to enjoy—the nation's heritage: they should not be treated solely as a commercial asset. We welcome sensitive development of waterside sites, but this needs to be constrained by having respect for their environs. Recent innovations promoting waterways as telecommunications carriers are positive signs of resourceful management, so long as the practical results damage neither the facilities enjoyed by the public nor the historic fabric of the waterway corridor. There is a need now for British Waterways' structure to be revitalised by new legislation to bring it into today's world.

  The formation of the Association of Inland Navigation Authorities appears to have assisted interaction and communication between different authorities and with Government but, so far, it seems to have brought few tangible benefits. Greater co-operation and innovation are needed to encourage the public to make fuller exploration of the waterways. Duplication of management and administrative systems, such as craft licensing, has remained largely unimproved. Some of this work is hampered by outdated bureaucratic legislation (eg Thames Conservancy Acts governing licence rules) and this only serves to emphasise the need for legislative reform.

  The formation of The Waterways Trust and its timely actions have been most welcome in providing a secure footing for the waterway museums and in developing rescue packages for waterway restoration schemes, such as that for the Rochdale Canal. There are concerns about the independence and transparency of the Trust, which it will need to demonstrate are unfounded if it is to achieve its full potential in public support.


Over regulation

  Whilst there have been great strides in developing the waterways and encouraging their use, we are concerned that ever increasing bureaucracy and over regulation, and the over application of Health & Safety rules in pursuit of the "Nanny state", are undoing some of the good work. Two examples of this are the Boat Safety Scheme and the disconnection of gate paddles on some locks on BW's waterways. Most boaters support the principle of having a scheme to ensure that boats do not cause an undue health or safety risk, either to their users or to others. However, the present scheme operated by BW and the Environment Agency is seemingly so complicated and bureaucratic that it has lost the confidence of the majority of boat owners as well as forcing less affluent boaters from the waterways. The apparent "knee-jerk" reaction by BW in disconnecting gate paddles from many lock gates, in response to the Gargrave tragedy, has irked many boaters and is perceived as a "back-side covering" move rather than any real contribution to safety. IWA accepts the need for rules that genuinely promote safe and considerate use of the waterways, but part of the attraction of canals and river navigations can be an element of adventure and escape; such rules should therefore be kept to the necessary minimum.

Road crossings of waterways

  We are pleased that Government intends to ensure that the effect of new road schemes on waterways earmarked for restoration is fully considered from the outset, but consider that the means suggested are inadequate. Many examples exist of publicly funded projects, most often highways, obstructing restoration projects and, some years later, public money being expended to reinstate the course of the waterway. The statement in paragraph 6.52 of Waterways for Tomorrow is not entirely helpful because action by local authorities is limited to the planning horizon, a much shorter period than the duration of most restoration projects from initial concept. We also anticipate conflict about the interpretation of the words "realistic likelihood" and "in whole or in part". In addition it is particularly disappointing that no date has been set for the issue of guidance in Design Manual for Roads and Bridges: such guidance has been promised, by Highways Agency, on several occasions in the past 10 years but nothing has emerged.

September 2000

24   British Waterways. Visits to Inland Waterways 1994: an analysis of inland waterway data from UK day visits surveys. Market Research Unit, British Waterways. Research paper No. 79, April 1996. Back

previous page contents next page

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

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 5 April 2001