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

Memorandum by the Royal Yachting Association (IW 33)



  The Royal Yachting Association (RYA) has many thousands of members who use the inland waterways for recreational boating, whether it be by narrow boat, motor cruiser, dinghy or launch.

  The RYA Inland Waters Panel represents and protects the interest of cruising boat owners on all inland waters. The pricing and provision of facilities on inland waters are monitored and the Panel also provides a channel of communication between the RYA Council, the inland navigation authorities and the major cruising interests on inland waters.


  The launch of the DETR policy report Waterways for Tomorrow is a welcome addition to the underpinning support given to inland waterways by successive Governments in recent decades.

  The document covers a broad range of issues. However, our submission to the Committee will concentrate on those matters detailed in Press Notice 49, issued on 20 July.


3.1  Urban and rural regeneration

  The value of a waterfront in the regeneration of urban areas is now widely recognised—from Docklands to Dudley. The value of waterway development in rural areas is on occasion more difficult to promote, despite the economic contribution that waterway restoration and the servicing of the associated activity can bring to the rural economy.

3.2  Leisure, recreation, tourism and the industrial heritage

  The concern of the RYA is with the waterway user afloat. Boaters of all ages and incomes should be able to find ways of using the inland waterways. Unfortunately, recent trends have tended towards the encouragement of boaters from the middle: middle class, middle age and middle income.

  The waterway industry needs to respond to the huge growth in alternative leisure and recreational activities and the move away from a life-time commitment to a particular sport or interest: The age profile of boaters is increasingly skewed and new ways should be found of encouraging the participation of a broader age range:

Hire boating

  With few exceptions, the hire boat industry is suffering from reduced financial returns, which has a knock-on effect on the funds available for investment in new and improved boats. Such craft are necessary to attract the discerning "casual" user who decides to take a short holiday afloat as a second or third holiday (after the summer beach visit and the skiing trip). Shared Ownership is also a way of overcoming the new, less committed approach to the use of leisure time.

Starter boats

  Boat builders and navigation authorities should co-operate in establishing a range of small, sound but less sophisticated (and hence cheaper) craft of the right price and specification to encourage new first-time boaters. The Environment Agency have already carried out some work here with the River Boat 2000 design competition.

"Go Boating"

  A policy of running a series of "Go Boating" events throughout the country has been introduced by the British Marine Industries Federation—but with limited support from the inland waterways sector. This lack of interest must change.

The cost of boating

  Licence fees for smaller boats using inland waterways need to be brought into balance. The current fees for smaller craft are generally out of proportion. Short term licences should be adapted to include a "rover" facility which will enable the casual visitor to trail their boat to the river or canal of their choice, at the time of choice. Such a policy will require the improvement and publicity of existing slipway facilities, and the building of new slipways in partnership with local authorities where necessary.

  Another major consideration is the cost of maintaining your boat, subject to the costly vagaries of the Boat Safety Scheme. The scheme is growing in both cost and complexity and is understood to be responsible for driving people off the water and deterring new boaters from taking up the sport. The RYA, working closely with other national user groups, has now persuaded the owners of the scheme—British Waterways and the Environment Agency—to carry out a root and branch review.

3.3  The environment and the enhancement of wildlife

  A visit to a random selection of rural waterside locations will give a clear picture of the major contribution made by impounded water to the general environment. The artificial introduction of a wetland habitat via the man-made canal system provides a broad range of flora and fauna in many areas where these would not normally be found. Unfortunately, there are a small number of locations in England and Wales where there is conflict between those who have restored/are involved in restoring formerly derelict navigations and nature conservation interests. Examples include sections of the Basingstoke, Montgomery and Pocklington canals.

  The irony is that, without the efforts of the navigators/restorers, these waterways—which had decayed over many decades—would have continued their inexorable decline and their nature conservation interest eventually nullified.

3.4  Water transfer, drainage and telecommunications

3.4.1  Water transfer

  The inland waterways of this country play a small but important part in the chain of water transfer facilities. Indeed, in the late 1950s the one factor that saved the now extremely popular Llangollen Canal from the lowering and piping of highway bridges was the fact that it was a conduit for the transfer of water from Horseshoe Falls on the Dee to the Hurlestone water supply reservoirs in Cheshire.

  Whatever schemes that may be proposed can only be seen as tinkering at the edges in the distribution of drinking water in the UK. In the 1940s an engineer, Mr Pownall, proposed the construction of a major barge waterway at the 300 ft contour, linking all the major cities and industrial centres. This massive new project (in comparative terms, on a scale with the Yangtze dams) would have provided sound commercial transport routes and, with an artificially induced flow, provided a useful water distribution system. Given our current distrust of major projects (Dome permitting?) this is not seen as a likely contender in the near future—but who knows . . .?

  Regardless of Mr Pownall's visionary scheme, any new transfers that further underpin the continued existence of the waterway system are to be welcomed. However, the waterways should not be remodelled in such a way that they become mere water transfer channels with concrete banks and a fast flow. The principal function of navigation must be pre-eminent.

  Indeed, every care is needed to ensure that the growing demand for water does not affect the navigation and environmental value of rivers and canals. For example, increased abstraction from the Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation by the local water company and the consequent reduction in the discharge from the River Chelmer is having a knock-on effect on the deposition of silt in the upper tidal reaches of the River Blackwater. Rather than seeking to accommodate the constant growth in demand for drinking water, more effort should be applied to water-conservation measures—from the macro ground water level to the micro domestic situation.

3.4.2  Water abstraction licensing and land drainage

  Every square metre of newly paved area and new housing in "upland" areas adds to the level of run-off. Increases in agricultural efficiency over the past 50 years with the clearance of woodland, the change to arable production and improvements to field drainage also contribute to the "flashiness" of rivers. This, combined with the demands for improvements to agriculture on the lower reaches have a major impact on river regimes, with impacts on water quality, silt deposition, and bank erosion. This has a knock on effect for many uses, including nature conservation, species diversity and recreational boating. The Environment Agency promotes the creation of bunded washland areas and absorption ponds to absorb flood pressure and reduce the need for a more engineered approach to the river banks in centres of riparian population. Any new building proposals should show how the run-off generated will be handled and the water conserved.

  Paragraph 6.34 of the Waterways for Tomorrow document refers to Government plans for the publication of a draft bill to alter the existing water abstraction licensing system. The RYA is of the view that adequate arrangements already exist between the Environment Agency and the navigation authorities (in particular British Waterways who manage the greater part of the canal system). The necessity of introducing additional controls for what appears to be mere administrative tidiness is unnecessary—unless the Agency is minded to apply both controls and charges at some future date once these powers are in place. The majority of our canals and navigable inland waters have been in existence/operation for over 200 years and in that time they have become an integral part of the local water regime. They do not form a sealed system but are a fundamental part of local water dynamics—receiving and discharging water in equal measure. Indeed, the water put into the system is not "lost" to the water cycle but returns via leakage, seepage, evapo-transpiration and the operation of locks, weirs and sluices. If anything, the water impounded by the reservoirs, canal banks, locks, weirs and sluices helps arrest the flow of water to the sea.

  In contrast, much of the land drainage and flood defence works of recent decades have sought to speed water on its journey. The problems of environmental impact and the disbursement of available water resources would be better addressed by tackling the rationale behind much of the flood defence works of recent years and the issues of urban development where the water table is already under pressure—such as the chalk downlands of the Hampshire Basin. The RYA welcomes the possibility of restrictions being placed on profligate uses of water, this most precious resource.

  However, we see no clear and justifiable reason for the introduction of a licensing system (other than that of administrative tidiness) for navigations which are generally well managed and which put the resource to good and practical use. Current arrangements between the managers of navigations and the operational staff of the Environment Agency are more than adequate for the purpose and, if anything, the management of water on the canal system contributes to the objectives of the Agency.

  In our view, the energy being applied to this small and well managed sector should be better applied to addressing the much larger and complex issues of increasing demands for water in areas of deficit, the impact of urban development and run-off and ground water absorption and the associated necessity for improvements in the supply efficiency of the water companies.

  It is ironic that the proposals outlined by the Government exclude land drainage—which has a major impact on the water regime. The arguments used for leaving land drainage out of the picture are equally valid for inland navigation. A mechanism that encourages land drainage authorities to reassess the impact of their activities on the wider water environment would be useful.


  The arguments for the promotion of freight transport on water have been well rehearsed over many years—from the £4 million Sheffield & South Yorkshire Navigation improvement scheme in the 1970's to the current proposals for the transport of waste on the River Lee.

  The primary issue is one of planning and land use. For example, the tidal Thames is capable of accommodating 1,000 tonne tankers right through London (past the Houses of Parliament) to depots to the West. In the 1980's, the casual observer on Westminster Bridge at tide time would witness a regular flow of oil tankers, sand dredgers, bulk cement vessels and trains of refuse and general cargo lighters. Today, that flow has reduced to the occasional sand barge and the remaining hugely efficient lighterage contracts—with a single powerful tug pulling up to 60 container loads of refuse aboard three lighters. The latter, despite its obvious efficiency is bound to disappear with Government policy moving towards the introduction of local refuse incinerators.

  The river is still as deep and the power of the flood tide is as strong (and free), so what has changed? The essence is that industrial regeneration has tended to move to Greenfield sites, with easy access to the developing motorway system. Waterfront property has also proved a magnetic attraction for the development of trendy new apartments at a premium price—and the choice isn't difficult to make if you have an aging waterfront factory and a developer appears with a fat cheque.

  We are not suggesting that an Eastern block style of planning direction should be introduced. We merely point out the consequences of the free-market process which, unfortunately, does not take account of the environmental consequences of the growth in transport by road.

  With regard to our tidal rivers, the concentration of our port facilities in such major centres as Southampton, Felixstowe and Tilbury/Lower Thames/Medway has a knock on effect on the continued existence of our smaller ports.

  For example, plans were recently put forward for the development of offices and housing on one of the last major waterfront sites in Maldon which had previously handled short-sea shipping.

  The loss of this important waterfront site in Maldon and the associated closure of the Port of Colchester would have a consequent impact on recreational boating in the associated tidal river estuaries.

  Regardless of the aesthetic fascination and romance engendered by commercial shipping, the maintenance of the small ports also has a practical and mutually beneficial impact on recreational users, with the maintenance of buoys, lights and other navigational aids, as well as dredging. The sterilisation of waterfront locations by the introduction of inappropriate "non freight" developments goes against Government policy which seeks to encourage coastal shipping—a policy which can only be achieved if there is sufficient space for wharfage and transhipment.


  The waterways are a fascinating mix of all that is best about this country

    —  from town and country, from stone and thatch villages to the thrusting developments in the centre of Birmingham

    —  from marvellous routes for walking and nature study, to fishing and cycling, the transfer of water, and the provision of cable routes for telecommunications.

  Despite all, the litmus test of the waterways system is the ability to navigate without undue let or hindrance. Navigation must be viewed as first among equals—the primary reason for the continued existence of the system.


  Despite the continuing pressure on the public finances, £59 million grant in aid is currently given to British Waterways towards the cost of meeting its navigation responsibilities. This is a welcome recognition by the Government of the major contribution made by the waterways to the economic and social fabric of the country. However, this funding is in stark contrast to the paucity of the £3 million given to the Environment Agency. Of this sum, £1 million goes towards the cost of maintaining navigation on the River Thames—which has a boating population in the 20,000s. Indeed, it is understood that navigation receives less than 1 per cent of the annual Agency budget. Without the continuance of navigation on the Thames who would be able to visit the waterfront of Henley and watch the annual Regatta? This location is the cradle of rowing in the UK and the home club of world record holder Steve Redgrave is at Henley. Without the maintenance of a navigation level, punting in the backwaters of Oxford would also disappear. The social, economic and environmental impact of the disappearance of navigation on this and the many other navigable rivers administered by the Environment Agency is unfathomable.

  The Agency is, perhaps, more modest in its appeals to the Government for funding compared with other navigation bodies. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of Government to take the broader view. We encourage the Government to revise their assessment of the funding needs of the Environment Agency navigations—and to ensure that more money is directed to the Agency specifically for navigation purposes.


  The establishment of the Association of Inland Navigation Authorities (AINA) as a "trade body" for inland navigation authorities is a tremendous encouragement for navigations large and small. The exchange of advice, information and mutual support is to be welcomed.

  The underlying theme of recent years (and the major sub-plot within the Waterways for Tomorrow document) is the decision to revisit yet again the question as to whether Environment Agency navigation responsibilities should be transferred to British Waterways. The RYA Inland Waters Panel, whose members include representatives from many Environment Agency navigations has previously been of the general view that the healthy co-operation between British Waterways and the Agency on navigation issues was adequate. However, it cannot be helpful to those responsible for navigation in the Agency at both policy and operational levels for this issue to be raised yet again—so soon after the Government decided to maintain the status quo.

  The primary issue is that of funding. Whoever manages the navigation function is possibly immaterial, providing that those who are responsible have a clear commitment, and are given the resources to do the job.

  It is important in considering the future management of these waterways that the views of those using these river navigations—and those based on comparable navigations managed by British Waterways—should be sought.


8.1  International waterways

  The Committee is to be congratulated in considering the important issue of inland waterways and their future. However, they are also reminded of the part that the UK can play in the encouragement of waterways developments worldwide. We were the first to witness the industrial revolution and the post-industrial process has impacted on our waterways earlier than most. As a result, we have particular experience in the regeneration of waterways that are no longer valid for commercial purposes. For example, Euro Waterways (a British Waterways based consultancy) is active in advising local authorities and others in mainland Europe on the repair and regeneration of derelict waterways. British Waterways is also active in running waterway restoration projects in the Indian sub-continent and plays a major part in the running of Vois Navigables d'Europe, which represents the European navigation bodies. The RYA is active in the administration of the European Boating Association.

  In October the Alliance Internationale de Tourisme (AIT), European Boating Association (EBA) and Vois Navigables d'Europe (VNE) will be submitting a proposal to the UN Economic Commission for Europe for the establishment of a European Agreement on a Network of Inland Pleasure Navigations.

  The Government should offer every support to these international developments which will not only lead to the export of ideals and standards, but will also have a commercial impact in the form of consultancy and practical projects. The RYA also sees the establishment of a Europe-wide network as a major benefit to its members who will wish to navigate the furthermost reaches of the continent, using the canals and rivers, many of which are currently in need of repair and regeneration.

Tony Ellis

Secretary RYA Inland Waters Panel

September 2000

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