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

Memorandum by the Commercial Boat Operators Association (IW 63)


  The Commercial Boat Operators Association (CBOA) are the trade association covering the carriage of goods on our inland waterways. Our national membership covers barge operators, wharf owners, narrowboat carriers and associates. We are members of the Parliamentary Waterways Group.

  This submission points out a number of areas that we know to be viable possibilities for water transport. We strongly believe that once one regular contract is started others will follow.

  As the trade association we would expect representation on any Freight Consultation Group.


1.  Amenity/smaller waterways

  1.1  Aggregates. The removal of aggregates from extraction sites to a central processing plant is well suited to water transport. Frequently the extraction process is hindered by local objections to large lorries traversing country roads. In such cases water transport can provide the key to opening up new extraction sites. Since the life of such sites is finite, the usefulness may be prolonged by using water transport to bring back landfill. A number of sites can be identified for potential short-haul operations. Two which have been examined in detail are:

  1.1.1  Kennet and Avon Canal, Thatcham-Bulls lock area, possibly 1,000 tonnes per week. This would involve purpose-build wide hopper barges and pusher tugs and an additional movement using conventional narrow boats fitted with skips. The only alternatives to using the waterway to remove these deposits from pit to processing plant are road, and here the social costs are probably unacceptable, or a conveyor system.

  1.1.2  Grand Union Canal, Wolverton-Leighton Buzzard section, possible 1,200 tonnes per week. This would use conventional narrow boats fitted with hoppers, or narrow hoppers and push tugs. We have reason to believe that the working of deposits near Wolverton would only be permitted by the Planning Authority if the main extraction movement from pit to processing plant were made by non-road haulage.

  1.1.3  Other possibilities are from the Nene Valley to Milton Keynes using the Northampton Arm and River Nene; and from a potential excavation site near Yardley Gobion to Milton Keynes. Similar Planning constraint as above may apply here.

  1.2  Recyclables. There is a huge potential in built-up areas for this traffic. Large retail stores use distribution depots to break down packaging of food and clothing, both prior to and after despatch to retail outlets. This waste is baled and is dealt with in enormous quantities, some going for incineration and some for recycling. Marks and Spencer PLC has already shown great interest in this, and very likely M&S's lead will be followed by other large retail stores anxious to enhance their "green" image. The fact that a pair of narrow boats can carry as many bales of waste cardboard etc as five lorries could mean that an economic water-borne operation was possible over a long distance as well as for short-haul operations.

  1.2.1  In particular possibilities exist in the London area utilising the Paddington Arm and Regents Canal; the BCN capitalising on the long level pounds through the Black Country corridor, but also using Birmingham's situation at the hub of the system. The Merseyside area could utilise the Leeds and Liverpool Canal between Wigan and central Liverpool; the Manchester Ship Canal and River Mersey estuarial navigations; and the Bridgewater/Rochdale/Ashton canal systems into central Manchester. Potentially there may be similar possibilities with a re-opened Manchester, Bolton and Bury canal. Finally, the Severn Estuary could have great possibilities using coastal shipping between such points as Bristol/Portishead, South Wales and West Country ports and Sharpness; barge traffic on the River Severn from as far upstream as Stourport; smaller barges and narrowboats from the west end of the Kennet and Avon Canal and the restored Stroudwater Canal. Transfer points need to be identified, which should be as close to the main distribution depots as possible. The transfer points do not need to occupy much ground, but should have some form of undercover storage, a baling press and some sort of handling plant, such as a fork lift or vehicle-mounted HIAB crane.

  1.2.2  Several river navigations often have sites which would be suitable for the reception of recyclables for reprocessing. Taplow and Wolvercote Mills on the Upper Thames, Colthorp Mill on the River Kennet are examples. Urban areas often possess waterside incinerators, examples being at Wolverhampton, Birmingham (Tyseley) and Edmonton, though the plans for this last do not currently include facilities for dealing with conventional craft.

  1.2.3  On a smaller scale, there is a current British Waterways initiative for the regular collection of recyclables from canalside points along the Grand Union Canal and the removal of them thence to a recycling depot in Milton Keynes. A refinement of this scheme would involve collecting good quality office waste paper from BW and other waterside offices for delivery to paper mills near Apsley, Hemel Hempstead. There is a further possibility of delivery to a waste paper merchant in Limehouse, plus the transfer of baled waste thence to processing mills.

  1.2.4  Other recyclable traffics are scrap metals. At present scrap steel and iron prices are so depressed as to make any recycling operation barely viable, but copper, aluminium and non-ferrous metals still are worth recovering. Although waterside scrap yards may not appear to be visually attractive, it should be borne in mind that they represent a potential terminal for canal traffic.

  1.2.5  As a final example of how little needs to be done in certain instances, a potential destination point for card and paper waste has been identified at the premises of Kappa Recycling in Central Birmingham. This firm occupies canalside land in the Heartlands area of the city and has expressed interest in receiving supplies by water. All that would be required would be the removal of a wall and its replacement by lockable gates, the provision of a simple hoist and some local dredging of the wharf by BW, and the supply of mooring rings. Potentially some 350 lorry movements per annum could be avoided by the use of the canal option for just one of the traffic movements at this site.

  1.3  Other traffics. An example of a potential short-term traffic is the removal of architectural salvage from a re-development site in Central London, its storage and subsequent return for incorporation in a new building.

  1.4  Domestic fuel. This traffic has grown considerably in recent years, especially in the London area owing to a number of factors:

    (a)  the closure of many solid fuel retail outlets in the South East following the decline of the traditional coal merchant. For many domestic solid fuel users the only purchase point is the garage forecourt where prices are extremely high. The existing merchants are frequently uninterested in delivering small quantities; and

    (b)  the continual rise in property values has both accelerated the closure of retail outlets and stimulated demand for alternative living places, amongst which the live-aboard canal boat is a sensible option. Such boats are ideal customers for water-born delivery.

  The market for solid fuels may possibly have a finite life, although our trade members report a currently rising demand for smokeless fuels (canal boats were specifically exempt from the provisions of the Clean Air Act 1962 following representations by BW's predecessors). However, those members who have fitted tanks for the storage and delivery of oils report a steadily increasing demand from boats fitted with oil heating plant and for propulsion purposes. If this market is to increase it is important that waterway managers understand the importance of road access points, for both loading and unloading.

  1.5  Industrial fuel. Much bulk solid fuel is imported nowadays, arriving from overseas at ports such as Hull and Avonmouth, both of which are suited to distribute via the larger waterways. Some imported fuel has been brought into Sharpness in recent years, which is suited to distribute both by barge and by narrow boat. However, there is a substantial quantity imported via smaller coasters from stockpiles in such places as Ghent. This could be transferred to narrow boats in the Thames or at River Nene ports for on forwarding to the Midlands. Similarly stockpiled fuel could be moved inland from Trentside wharves, such as Stockwith or Gainsborough. A large amount of fuel passes from the Thames Estuary to the Slough Trading Estate, this could be handled by barges and pusher tugs on the Upper Thames to a suitable point on the new Maidenhead Flood Relief Channel or by self-propelled motor barges carrying up to 80 tonnes via Brentford and the Grand Union Canal. In order to facilitate handling, large bags could be adapted to receive bulk fuel via a suitable filling apparatus either ashore or carried aboard a coaster. These could be quickly discharged on arrival by a small HIAB crane or similar equipment. The capital cost would be minimal.

  1.6  Timber. Much softwood arrives in the UK from Scandinavian and Baltic ports via ports on the East Cost. Whilst some of these may be considered under the heading of the larger waterways, there are some which are connected to the smaller navigations, notably Boston, Sutton Bridge and Wisbech. Today timber is packaged at the sawmill and it has been shown (by Messrs Travis and Perkins Ltd) that it is quite possible for the packages to be made up so as to fit into inland waterway craft. This means that such craft can go alongside a ship and be loaded directly, thus reducing transport costs. A number of inland ex-timber wharves are now occupied by D-I-Y outlets, thus providing a ready-made destination point. The problem here lies with the ordering policies of some of the larger D-I-Y firms, and active Governmental encouragement could make a good deal of difference.

  1.7  Building materials. Again, there are many retail outlets situated on old wharves in town centres which could make use of water transport for receiving bricks, sanitary ware, cement and other bulky or heavy materials. Examples of both these and appropriately-sited builders merchants may be seen at Banbury, Rickmansworth and Uxbridge, to take random examples. The use of "big bags" containing quantities of bulk materials up to one tonne weight, and loaded as described above, can alleviate handling problems, especially if such bags were tailored to fit the internal dimensions of canal craft.

  1.8  Steel. Some examples where the waterway system could be used both for long and short distance steel traffic are: Scunthorpe (River Trent wharves) or Shotton (River Dee) to processing plants in the Black Country, and from Railtrack's Black Country depot at Monmore Green, Wolverhampton to local foundries and processing plants. There are waterside sites, such as steel stockholders' premises, to which traffic could be directed if it were available. Similarly scaffolding materials could be delivered to inner city sites by waterway from out-of-town holdings points.

  1.9  General traffic relief schemes. We understand that the Coventry City Council has considered removing a good deal of traffic from the city centre by the construction of an out-of-town General Distribution Depot adjacent to the M6 north of the City and using the Coventry Canal to forward bulk traffic. Quite how this would be financed so as to ensure the competitiveness of local industry, bearing in mind the transhipment costs, we are not sure, but if it were to prove viable, the idea could presumably be used elsewhere. The Coventry Canal is, incidentally, ideally situated to transfer landfill materials from Coventry City Centre to disused quarries in the Nuneaton area.

  In the Fenland area considerable relief might be effected to the A49 between Kings Lynn, Wisbech and the A1 near Peterborough by making more use of the rivers and waterways, many of which are used for drainage, in the area. CBOA members South Midland Water Transport Ltd have carried out trial movements inland of timber from Wisbech for several destinations including Northampton, Kings Langley and Bletchley, and have also prepared a report on river conditions and minor improvements which has been submitted to both the Environment Agency and Fenland District Council as the authority for the Port of Wisbech. Although the go-ahead has now (July 2000) been given for a bypass round the village of Thornley, the road will still have bottle necks at other places, and the reduction of heavy freight traffic passing along it will be beneficial generally, In this case a combination of improvements to the waterway infrastructure and an imaginative use of the existing waterways could see industry at places such as Wisbech being serviced by LASH barges from overseas, and imports proceeding inland to Peterborough for transhipment by the same means; or proceeding by means of smaller craft as far upstream as Northampton for interchange to the motorway network. The storage and warehousing of goods for interchange to motorway or rail could be a profitable business in this part of the country, especially in relation to trade with Scandinavia, the Baltic, N Germany and the Netherlands. LASH barge services currently connect the Port of Ipswich with Scandinavian, Canadian and US ports. Materials destined for the Wisbech/Peterborough area are currently offloaded at Ipswich and taken by road to the above places. Improvements to the Fenland waterways of the Middle Level could draw Kings Lynn into the same waterway network, whilst a similar scheme involving the Fenlands to the west of the Nene could connect with the ports of Foss Bridge on the Welland, Boston and Lincoln on the Witham, and the Trent via the Fossdyke Canal. It goes without saying that such a scheme would have extra benefits for tourism and the leisure industry in an area sorely in need of such investment.

  1.10  Agricultural products and Requirements. Whilst currently British agriculture is in a depressed state, there is no reason to suppose that this is terminal. History shows that in the past agriculture has recovered from such conditions by reorganising itself or adaptation. Canal craft can be used to move bulk grain to silos, mills or ports. Inward agricultural traffic to individual farms or to rural wharves could include bagged fertilisers or cattle feed. Were regular traffic to be passing, this could represent useful backload traffic. Baled straw from canalside fields to recycling plants is a potential outward traffic.

2.  Problems and priorities

  2.1  The main problem in the short term would be the availability of craft and crews. It is not envisaged that this would remain a problem for long provided sufficient finance was available. Presumably Freight Facilities Grants would be available to acquire either existing craft or to construct new. In areas such as the Black Country, Merseyside, the Potteries, Coventry/Nuneaton, there are vestigial remains of the former community of waterway workers who could be tempted to return to their traditional life if wage rates were sufficient. Training courses could be readily arranged for new recruits.

  2.2  Another potential problem is that of conflict of user. The greater part of the smaller waterway system is in demand for use by leisure and tourist craft, and for angling. Other leisure uses such a walking, photography, and general enjoyment are only going to be marginally affected by increased freight use, and it is arguable that such effect will be positive in any case for such users.

  2.2.1  Leisure craft. Large sums have been invested in marinas and associated enterprises, and it would not be surprising were objections to be raised by the owners and operators of these, as well as the owners of private and time-share craft. Whilst it would be foolish to discount such objections, most of them could be overcome with patience and goodwill on both sides. It is the Association's contention that there is room for both uses, and that in any case, the areas where freight traffic would be most intensive would be those where pleasure usage is lightest, viz in urban and industrial areas. At bottlenecks, such as busy lock flights or tunnels traffic control may be needed at peak times, but this should in fact enhance the efficiency of operation, to the benefit of all. Education rather than coercion would seem to be the way forward in general. Quite possibly the Navigation Authority concerned would need to provide dedicated overnight moorings for freight traffic.

  2.2.2  Angling. Here the main problem lies not in the effect of increased traffic on individual anglers, but on major competitions. These last may be seen as a current point of contention with other uses, not least because of the recent abolition of the Close Season, which has removed the previous three month respite from angling activities in Spring. The competition element introduces the factor of betting and prize money, none of which finds its way into the maintenance costs of providing a venue for such competitions, and it is to be questioned whether the navigable waterway system is an appropriate place for such activities. In the worst case, the purchase of fishing rights or termination of leases might be considered. It may also be worth querying, in view of the current feeling against blood sports, whether competition angling is an activity that should be permitted on publicly owned waterways, In the ultimate recourse, canals were built for boats, not fishing.

3.  Commercial/larger waterways

  Our members operate over several of the larger waterways, and we are in regular communication with them about the potential of these and estuarial waterways. In particular we believe there to be potential for the large scale transport of the following commodities on these "barge" waterways.

  3.1  Aggregates. The Rivers Severn, Trent and Thames have large deposits of aggregate minerals near to their courses. The extraction of these often can cause an unacceptable in crease in local road traffic. We consider that all Planning consents for mineral extraction in these river basins should be conditional on the use of water transport.

  3.2  Oils and bulk liquids. Far more use should be made of the large waterways for the local distribution of these commodities. For instance the huge petro-chemical complex at Ellesmere Port, which is adjacent to the Manchester Ship Canal hardly uses inland water transport, but there are literally hundreds of potential destinations along the Merseyside waterways which could be serviced from here. The same applies to the Humberside waterways.

  3.3  Recyclables. The potential for the smaller waterways has been discussed above, but the larger size of craft on the Commercial waterways must make this an even better proposition.

  Of major concern to this organisation is the development of wharves and the high prices developers can charge for waterside housing. Planners and Government must recognise the advantage of waterborne traffic. An example of this is demonstrated in the recent construction of the Saint Gobain glass factory at Eggborough. It was built about one and a half miles from the Aire and Calder Navigation—a major freight waterway. If it had been built alongside the canal the factory could have received its raw materials (about 500,000 tonnes/annum) by barge direct into the production line, instead of by road or (congested) rail.

  Paragraph 6.26, page 33, of the Waterways for Tomorrow document causes us some concern. Should the system, or part thereof, be granted World Heritage Status what are the implications for future developments associated with freight activities—building new wharves, warehouses, transhipment areas etc?

  In relation to paragraph 6.43, page 37 we would comment that any commitment to urban and rural regeneration should not be at the expense of losing existing structures suitable for future freight carrying activities.

  In a document such as this you can only touch the surface of what is possible. Within the CBOA we have the knowledge and contacts to call on the resources to undertake all inland waterway carrying jobs and firmly believe that there is a busy future ahead for us as more and more large companies take an interest in the benefits of water transport. Once traffic is up and running we believe it will grow and grow but the government needs to take a leap of faith and actively encourage industry back to the waterside, or put water into the heart of industry. Millions of pounds are spent developing new industrial areas by the motorways, would it be that difficult to build where the site lies between the road and water so the occupants can choose which to use?

  Waterside to waterside is viable, possible and more often than not profitable for everyone.

  We are very encouraged by the governments current stance and look forward to working with you to turn dreams of lorryless roads into reality!

15 August 2000

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