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

Memorandum by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (IW 56)



  Inland waterways act as green corridors bringing wildlife into towns and intensively managed agricultural areas and linking fragmented habitats. The RSPB makes the following key recommendations:

    —  the RSPB supports, in principle, the Government's wish to encourage the development of inland waterways, if it is consistent with Government commitments to protect and enhance biodiversity. The environmental consequences of any development of inland waterways must be fully assessed at an early stage, with all the environmental consequences investigated. Nature conservation should take precedence on those parts of the inland waterway network designated for nature conservation interest;

    —  in the interests of integrated river basin management, and in the light of the EU Water Framework Directive, the Environment Agency should be given responsibility for navigation on all navigable rivers;

    —  with Government's international and national commitments to biodiversity all bodies with a responsibility for navigation on inland waterways should be given a duty to protect and further nature conservation; and

    —  a statutory code of practice should be developed to act as a standard for all navigation authorities, with specific reference to protecting and furthering nature conservation and assisting in the delivery of UK Biodiversity action plan targets.


  The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds welcomes this opportunity to present evidence on the potential of inland waterways. The RSPB is the largest wildlife conservation organisation in Europe with 1 million members. We manage one of the largest conservation estates in the UK—147 nature reserves, covering more than 100,000 hectares, including habitats relevant to this inquiry such as wet grassland, reedbeds and estuaries. The RSPB takes an active interest in a wide range of environmental and land-use issues and employs specialist staff to advise on such matters.


The value of inland waterways for wildlife

  Navigable rivers, canals and the land that adjoins them are especially rich habitats for wildlife. They can be green corridors bringing wildlife into towns and intensively managed agricultural areas and linking fragmented habitats.

  The mosaic of features found in rivers support a diverse range of plants and animals. For example, riffles and pools support aquatic plants and animals and exposed sediments are important for a range of invertebrates. Marginal and bankside vegetation support an array of wildflowers and animals.

  Canals support a diverse range of wildlife, both in the water and in the adjacent margins. These include water plants, dragonflies, fish, amphibians, water voles, otters and birds, like kingfishers. In England, there are 23 canal Sites of Special Scientific Interest designated for their plants, with a total length of 167 km, approximately 40 more SSSIs are associated with the canal system. If left unmanaged canals will gradually silt up and dry out. Some level of management is, therefore, essential to maintain their wildlife interest as well as their navigability.

  In general, the most diverse nature conservation interests can be found in inland waterways where low levels of boat traffic and periodic management occurs. With the continuing threat to wetland habitats from agriculture and urbanisation, inland waterways are becoming an increasingly important wildlife resource.

Impact of the use of inland waterways on wildlife

  Inland waterways are used for a variety of purposes especially for leisure and tourism, such as boating, angling, cycling and walking. They are still used in a more limited way to transport coal and aggregates, and to distribute water. All these activities can have a detrimental impact on the environment if they are not sensitive to the needs of wildlife. Navigation and boating can damage wildlife of inland waterways in the following ways:

    —  the passage of boats, powered and unpowered, can cause an increase in boat wash damaging bankside vegetation and disturbing riverside nesting and wintering birds. For example, breeding populations of mute swan on the Warwickshire Avon fell in those sections of the river subject to navigation. RSPB studies of the River Great Ouse suggests that densities of breeding birds were lower on the navigated lower Ouse, compared to the unnavigated Ouse upstream of Bedford;

    —  turbidity from propellers reduces light for plant photosynthesis;

    —  marinas and other development can result in direct loss of habitats and in an increase disturbance to wildlife;

    —  pollution can be caused by increased influxes of polluted waters and direct discharges from boats;

    —  dredging and weed control operations and management of bankside vegetation can cause increased turbidity, disturbance and a change in water levels; and

    —  engineering works and operations to facilitate navigation, eg weirs, locks, dredging, can alter river hydrology and result in direct destruction of habitat.


  The RSPB supports, in principle, the Government's wish to encourage the transfer of freight from roads to water-borne transport1 where this is practical, economic and environmentally desirable. In terms of atmospheric emissions, shipping is one of the cleanest forms of transport. However, there are other environmental impacts which should also be considered, such as pollution, disturbance and introduction of alien species.

  A comparison of freight transport by water in a selection of "developed" countries indicates that whilst Great Britain transports up to 28 per cent of freight by water, other countries such as USA, Japan and the Netherlands transport more (35 per cent, 45 per cent and 58 per cent respectively). We believe that there might be more potential in this area, particularly for coastal shipping, but it will require greater Government support.

  Short sea shipping (particularly coastal shipping) could have a significant part to play in an integrated transport strategy, providing a viable alternative to road freight transport. However, this is unlikely to happen unless a more "level playing field" is created. This will involve a number of facets including carbon taxes on fuel, reform of the freight grant facility and for the true costs of road transport to be reflected in freight haulage costs.

  Increased short sea shipping and a reduction in environmental impacts might be facilitated with the more formal development of a "hub port" system within Europe. In particular the concentration of deep water facilities at just a few locations could reduce the number of sites where there is pressure to expand and thus reduce the environmental impact. In addition, it might ensure that ports unable to cater for the larger ships, retain an active role through servicing feeder ships. This might help retain port related employment in areas which would otherwise have lost it.

  Any greater use of coastal and inland waterways for transport must take full account of the potential environmental impacts, and in particular the likely significant impacts of reopening old waterways, both to freight and recreational traffic. It is important that a full environmental appraisal is undertaken before any schemes to increase freight transport on inland waterways occur (see recommendation 2).


  The inland waterway network has been built up over several centuries. It is important to recognise that the economic, social and hydrological pressures have changed enormously over this time. Any proposed development scheme on an inland waterway should take account of national and international policy imperatives, such as international and national nature conservation obligations. For example, parts of the inland waterway network have developed as areas of high biodiversity value. This is because of good water quality and physical stability. It is essential that this biodiversity value is maintained, and where possible enhanced. The study below illustrates where international conservation imperatives can conflict with navigation.

Case study: Hickling Broad

  Hickling Broad lies within a nationally and internationally important area of nature conservation. It lies within a National Nature Reserve and forms part of the Upper Thurne Broads and Marshes Site of Special Scientific Interest, which is also a component of Broadland Special Protection Areas designated under the EU Birds Directive, and the Broads candidate Special Area of Conservation, under the Habitats Directive. Broadland is also listed as a wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. Hickling is the largest broad within the executive area of the Broads Authority, and is a prime area for sailing and recreational boating.

  The Broads Authority, in close co-operation with other partners, has been actively involved in the restoration of the Broads, largely through the reduction of nutrients. On Hickling Broad nutrient levels have fallen which led to the return of aquatic plants in the early 1990's, including the rare intermediate stonewort (a red listed species found only in this area in the UK). This has, however, posed problems for sailing.

  In 1994 and 1995 the Broads Authority, in consultation with English Nature, undertook a small-scale, controlled, cutting programme of plants to assist navigation. In 1998, there was a switch on Hickling Broad to clear water conditions with a large increase in intermediate stonewort. As a result, in 1999 the Broads Authority, under pressure from the sailing interests reviewed its management regime and proposed a larger scale cutting programme to assist sailing beyond the navigation channel. English Nature were concerned that this cutting would compromise the nature conservation interest of the Broads and objected to the proposal until an appropriate assessment was undertaken, as required under the Habitats Directive. After consultation, it was agreed that the Broads Authority should undertake a smaller scale cutting and monitoring programme to assess the impact of cutting on the rare plants. In 2000 there was a decline in intermediate stonework, and the water returned to a turbid state, with no impediment to sailing. However, it is likely that the system will return to a clear water state dominated by stonewort once again and the unresolved conflict with sailing will be rekindled.

  This case highlights the difficulty the Broads Authority faced in meeting its nature conservation duty, and its responsibility to navigation and recreation. However, in this case the requirements under the Habitats Directive should take precedence. For other NNR's, the national park authority has a nature conservation duty that takes precedence over it's other duties. This is not the case for the Broads Authority.

Recommendation 1:

  On the parts of the inland waterway network designated for its nature conservation interest, either national or international, nature conservation should take precedence. This will not necessarily preclude other uses, but each case must be looked at on its merits.

  The environmental consequences of developments on inland waterways, including freight transport, water transfer and regeneration, must be fully assessed at an early stage, with all the consequences investigated.

Recommendation 2

  A full environmental appraisal should be undertaken before any development schemes occurs on inland waterways, this should ensure that:

    —  a scheme does not go ahead unless it is clear that the net benefits in terms of other objectives (including environmental objectives) clearly override the environmental disbenefits, that there is no better option and that all reasonable steps are taken to mitigate the impact;

    —  alternatives to new construction must be considered, including better use of existing infrastructure; and

    —  consideration should be given, at an early stage, to delivering opportunities for environmental enhancement as part of any propsal.

  Water transfer has been identified by the Government as a key area of future development for our canals (1). This is not a new idea—the use of canals to transfer water from the River Trent to the Thames was considered by the National Rivers Authority in 1994. However, there is real concern about the impacts of such transfers on the donor river, the receiving river and on the canal itself. The box below illustrates some of the impacts that need to be considered. In addition to environmental considerations, there is question as to whether water transfer on the scale envisaged is economically viable, as in some cases it may be necessary to reverse the flow of water.

Donor River—Increased abstraction reducing water levels or flow.
Receiving River—Possible spread of alien species such as invasive plants.
  —Changes in flow regime (to accommodate increased flow).
  —Changes in water quality (eg acid to alkaline, temp diffeences).
Canal—Change in water quality and flow affecting canal wildlife.

Recommendation 3

  The environment and economic implications used to be fully assessed before any proposal for the transfer of water around the inland waterway network is considered. The RSPB does not support the proposal for the development of a national water grid based around the inland waterway network.


  Responsibility for navigation is mainly split between British Waterways, which has responsibility for the majority of navigations on canals, and the Environment Agency, which has responsibility for navigation on the majority of navigable rivers. The Broads Authority is responsible for navigation in the Broads and a wide range of other bodies has responsibility for the remaining quarter of inland waterways.

  There is a significant difference between the canal network, essentially built for dedicated waterways use (although now supporting other uses), and navigable rivers, where structures are being constructed and managed for multiple benefits. Navigable rivers are complex systems which require an integrated approach to their management and operation. As well as being used for navigation, such rivers are also used for domestic, agricultural and industrial water supply, they receive effluent, support fisheries and nature conservation interest and often have extensive systems of weirs, locks and sluices to control flooding. These issues are inextricably linked. The management of rivers for navigation can, therefore, have an impact on management for flood defence, water resources, water quality, fisheries, conservation and land use adjacent to the rivers. Any change to the management of these rivers must be assessed against its impacts, detrimental or otherwise, on all these aspects. Navigation cannot be considered in isolation. There are clear examples where the potential for conflict betwen different interest exists, for example on the navigable sections of the Rivers Nene and Ouse. It is, therefore, important that any agency managing a semi-natural river system does so impartially, in the overall public interest and in a transparent way. British Waterways does not meet these criteria because of its single-function operational responsibility for navigation. In instances where interests could conflict, there would be a real danger that British Waterways' internal bias would result in undue weight being given to navigation.

  The establishment of integrated river basin planning has been a significant post war policy development. The Environment Agency currently operates a system of integrated river management through its Local Environment Agency Plans (LEAPs). These are strategic plans based on river catchments. The Environment Agency is able to ensure the proper integration of navigation into its LEAPs for those navigable rivers it is responsible for. The Agency is in the best position to make an appropriate judgement as to where the balance lies between various interests. There are additional benefits from the Agency maintaining responsibility for navigation on rivers regarding efficiency and effectiveness of sharing operational and technical resources, for example staff carrying out work which fulfils both flood defence and navigation duties. With the implications of climate change managing rivers is likely to become more, rather than less, challenging.

Recommendation 4:

  The RSPB recommends that the Environment Agency maintains its responsibility for navigation on rivers. This would ensure that navigation operates within the system of integrated management, with care for the environment as a central tenet.

  The requirements of integrated management is a central component of the EU Water Framework Directive. This Directive requires Member States to prepare and implement integrated River Basin Management Plans. Delivering integrated management on rivers where British Waterways has navigation responsibility will be a difficult challenge. Any change in operation of weirs, locks and sluices by British Waterways to manage navigation could have significant knock-on effects of other users of the rivers, such as farmers or industry abstracting water, on flood control mechanism and on nature conservation and fishery interests.

Recommendation 5:

  In the light of the Water Framework Directive the RSPB recommends that navigation responsibility for all navigable rivers should lie fully with the Environment Agency.

  The RSPB has no strong preferences over who should manage navigations on canals. Since British Waterways currently has the responsibility for the majority of navigations on canals, it would seem to be appropriate for BW to continue this role and perhaps extend its responsibilities to all canals.

Recommendation 6:

  The Environment Agency, with its responsibility for delivering integrated catchment management, must be able to ensure that the management and operation of canals by any organisation is consistent with the requirements of integrated catchment planning, with care for the environment as a central tenet.


  The wildlife of inland waterways is a major component of their attraction to people. If we loose this wildlife value, we lose the potential of inland waterways for recreation, tourism and development. This has been recognised by British Waterways, who state in their Environmental Code of Practice that "a high quality water environment is an essential component of their business". There is a clear responsibility on all who manage our inland waterways to ensure they use their powers to maintain this vital part of our heritage. The RSPB supports the proposal in Waterways for Tomorrow that there should be protection, conservation and enhancement of waterway wildlife.

  The three main navigation authorities for inland waterways—Environment Agency, British Waterway and the Broads Authority—all have clear conservation duties. Most of the remaining organisations, of which there are many, have no statutory duty to further nature conservation.

Recommendation 7:

  With Government's international and national commitments to biodiversity the RSPB recommends that all bodies with a responsibility for navigation on inland waterways be given a duty to protect and further nature conservation.

  The RSPB is encouraged by the policies in the British Waterways report "British Waterways and Biodiversity". We would like to see the environmental practices of all navigation authorities bought into line with minimum standards.

Recommendation 8:

  A statutory code of practice should be developed to act as a standard for all navigation authorities, with specific reference to protecting and furthering nature conservation and assisting in the delivery of UK Biodiversity action Plan targets.


  (1)  DETR 2000 Waterways for Tomorrow.

September 2000

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