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

Memorandum by The Royal Town Planning Institute (IW 70)



  1.  Following the Government's publication, in June 2000, of Waterways for Tomorrow, as a daughter document of the 1998 Integrated Transport White Paper, the Environment Transport and Regional Affairs Committee has resolved to examine the proposals, and the extent to which they can be implemented. The inquiry will look at the potential of inland waterways, and the following particular issues:

    —  the role of inland waterways in respect of:

      —  urban and rural regeneration;

      —  leisure, recreation, tourism and historical heritage;

      —  the environment and the enhancement of wildlife; and

      —  water transport, drainage and telecommunications;

    —  whether the potential for increasing commercial freight transport can be clearly identified; and the role of commercial freight in meeting the objectives of the Government's Integrated Transport White Paper;

    —  the extent to which the above objectives are complementary, and whether principal use should be given priority;

    —  whether the Waterways for Tomorrow policy document contains adequate policies and mechanisms to ensure its goals are achieved, and, in particular, whether funding for the stabilisation and development of inland waterways, including revenue from licensing and regeneration and other monies, is adequate; and

    —  the structure of ownership of waterways, and the roles and responsibilities of those agencies involved in their protection and maintenance, and any other conflicts of interests.

  2.  For the purposes of the inquiry, "inland waterways" is taken to mean both tidal and non-tidal rivers and canals.

  3.  In the time available to put together this submission, specially requested after the closing date for the general submission of evidence to the Committee, the Institute will concentrate on those matters of greatest interest and relevance to town and country planning.


  4.  The Institute welcomed publication of Waterways for Tomorrow as evidence that the Government had given some consideration to the future of inland waterways for the first time in over 30 years, but there is some disappointment with the outcome. The document is a comprehensive review, but is very light on policy. Although billed as a "daughter document" of the Integrated Transport White Paper, the reality is that it has little to say about the contribution of inland waterways to integrated and more sustainable transport. There is a general lack of clarity about where the priorities lie. Conviction and commitment from Government are absent, and are replaced by hopes of co-operation from the players involved—a "wing and a prayer" approach. This is typified in DETR's letter covering circulation of the policy document:

    "To be successful, this policy needs the commitment and enthusiasm not only of waterway bodies, but everyone else connected with, or with an interest in the waterways. Ministers hope that you will be able to play a part in fulfilling Waterways for Tomorrow's aim of creating a new, revitalised inland waterway system which can be fully, imaginatively and adventurously used by all."

  5.  In commenting on the earlier consultation paper, Unlocking the Potential—a New Future for British Waterways, in May 1999, the Institute said:

    "The Institute is disappointed by the lack of vision and ambition for inland waterways shown in the consultation document. Its horizons seemed to be fixed on the means of catching up on the backlog of maintenance. While there are references to the commercial value of some of the property portfolio, there appears to be only grudging recognition of the wider regeneration potential of inland waterways, and almost a death wish for the commercial use of the waterways themselves."

  6.  This feeling of disappointment and missed opportunities applies almost as much to Waterways for Tomorrow. In the current climate of emphasis on regeneration and brownfield development, and on the more sustainable transport of people and goods in both urban and rural areas, inland waterways must be regarded much more as a valuable asset which can be better exploited in furtherance of a range of Government policies.

  7.  The Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council (IWAAC) is described as "the Government's statutory advisory body on waterways", for which the Government intends to "encourage" a wider advisory role. The Institute believes there is a case for giving the IWAAC more teeth, a brief extending beyond its present advisory role, and a clear remit to promote and develop the potential of inland waterways, for all purposes. The extent to which an umbrella body is necessary is demonstrated by paragraph 2.10 of Waterways for Tomorrow, which describes the fragmentation of ownership and responsibilities. British Waterways is responsible for roughly half the network, but ownership of the remainder is shared between the Environment Agency, the Broads Authority and "a wide range of other bodies". This situation is clearly not conducive to the implementation of "joined-up" or consistent policies, and points to the need for a single organisation to provide effective co-ordination and a sense of direction.

  8.  This view was echoed in Britain's Inland Waterways—An Undervalued Asset, the report of the IWAAC itself, when it expressed concern that Government planning policy paid little attention to the inland waterways. The Institute sees the planning system as the key to the future development of inland waterways, but would not go as far as to call for a dedicated PPG. Instead, it supports the suggestion that relevant matters should be given better and more co-ordinated coverage as the existing suite of PPGs is revised and updated. That, however, shifts the onus to regional planning bodies and local planning authorities in preparing regional planning guidance and development plans. It raises the profile, but does not provide a proactive body, "fighting the corner" of the waterways, with whom LPAs can liaise in developing policies and proposals. As a step along the way, however, the Institute supports the proposal to invite the IWAAC to prepare a good practice guide, to be published jointly with DETR, promoting the contribution of inland waterways to regeneration and other projects.


Urban and rural regeneration

  9.  Water adds new dimensions to regeneration projects. The environmental bonus is an obvious one, but alongside comes the opportunity to diversify schemes into recreation and tourism. This does not have to mean a coastal or major riverfront location, as recent projects in, for example, Birmingham, Salford/Manchester, and Leeds have demonstrated. In each instance, inland waterways have formed the focus of area-based schemes. These have been further enhanced by the presence of redundant waterside buildings of some character—previously in uses connected with the former commercial role of the waterway—which have been available for conversion into new homes, or offices, or other uses.

  10.  There is no single, stereotyped solution to regeneration, but there is a need for a much more proactive approach on the part of the riparian owner (often British Waterways in urban canal-side situations such as those exemplified above). Waterways for Tomorrow states that British Waterways has a property portfolio valued at £280 million, of which £230 million is non-operational. This indicates the extent of the contribution it can make to regeneration, and its facility to enter into schemes on a partnership basis. Pre-existing land ownership patterns rarely fit the regeneration scheme, so there will be a requirement for the same land assembly process as in other areas. This can be expedited by a more commercial outlook on the part of owners, moving away from the old nationalised industry culture, and a greater willingness to enter into partnerships to take schemes forward for a wider area.

  11.  In rural areas, although the scale and nature of projects may be different, the new mindset is equally important. Projects will be smaller, and are more likely to be heritage, tourism or conservation-based, but imagination and partnership will be required, accompanied by a bit of lateral thinking by land owners, to bring forward and implement schemes.

  12.  Many of our inland waterways flow through the conurbations, where they follow pollution-free routes separated from those used by motorised traffic. An added bonus is that towpaths are generally safe and level, and are, or can be made, environmentally attractive, so lending themselves to use by pedestrians and cyclists. Although the recreational use of towpaths is often highlighted, and individual regeneration schemes have capitalised on them, there is scope for much greater, more general, use. Local transport plans should be used to bring forward upgrading and lighting programmes, and improve links to footpath and cycleway networks, so that towpaths and other riverside walkways can be used for commuting and the other short urban trips which are so environmentally damaging when undertaken by car.

  13.  In this context, British Waterways' recent steps to introduce charges for the use of some towpaths by cyclists, while possibly understandable from a narrow commercial viewpoint, are hardly indicative of joined up thinking as we attempt to reduce dependence on the car.

Leisure, recreation, tourism and historical heritage

  14.  The recreational use of inland waterways has increased, as commercial use has declined, to the extent that it is now often the principal pre-occupation of those responsible for the waterways. It also figures large in Waterways for Tomorrow. The Institute believes there is scope for a much more planned and co-ordinated approach that will help realise the full potential in urban areas, and make a valuable contribution to the diversification of rural economies.

  15.  The waterways, and their immediate surroundings, provide a facility for active and informal recreation, and a focus for tourism development. They also represent an important part of our historic architectural and engineering heritage, and an educational resource.

  16.  It is here that the Institute believes the planning system can make an important contribution, and supports the suggestion in Waterways for Tomorrow that appropriate advice and guidance might be included in PPGs, as they are revised. Inland waterways represent, often lengthy, corridors, that are significant on a regional scale. It would be appropriate, therefore, for regional planning guidance to set out a strategic approach to the development of leisure, recreation, interpretation, etc facilities in each corridor, to be detailed in the development plans that follow. The use of the waterway corridors as long distance footpaths or cycleways, as well as the means of providing sustainable transport to the facilities to be provided, can also be addressed at this level.

The environment and the enhancement of wildlife

  17.  Along with rail and motorway/trunk road corridors, inland waterways are havens for wildlife, both in terms of habitat and facilitating relatively undisturbed movement. The significance for wildlife needs to be taken into account in the planning strategy for waterway corridors. Many development plans already identify "wildlife corridors".

  18.  There are particular considerations in urban areas, where canalside land may have been derelict or vacant for a lengthy period, and become increasingly bio-diverse. Care is necessary to ensure that ecological conservation is allowed alongside redevelopment.

Water transport, drainage and telecommunications

  19.  The land drainage and water distribution roles of inland waterways are long established in many instances. In more recent times, waterways have been used as a convenient means of facilitating highway drainage—as specifically referred to in Waterways for Tomorrow. The Institute would make two points here, both relating to sustainability issues, which have only recently come to the fore:

    —  whilst inland waterways are often a convenient way of assisting in the transfer of water from low to high demand areas, there is a need for an environmental assessment caveat where water is transferred from one river catchment to another because of the possible adverse effects on ecology; and

    —  run-off from land drainage, and especially from highways, is often highly polluted. Any new schemes for drainage to inland waterways should employ the latest sustainable drainage techniques to minimise pollution risks.

  20.  The Institute is aware of recent claims that there is unexplored potential in the use of locks and weirs for electricity generation—ie electricity from renewable sources. It has no idea of the realism of these suggestions, bearing in mind the intermittent nature of the use of locks, in particular, but the Committee may wish to explore the technical possibilities further.

The potential for increasing commercial freight transport

  21.  There appears to have been a welcome change of heart in the year between publication of Unlocking the Potential—a New Future for British Waterways, the earlier consultation paper, and Waterways for Tomorrow. Not only was commercial freight almost totally ignored in the earlier document, but here was a reference to "uneconomic activities that British Waterways is no longer engaged in, such as freight carrying". By contrast Waterways for Tomorrow is considerably more positive, saying that "commercial traffic is still an important source of income for British Waterways, which aims to increase the amount of traffic carried on its waterways", and citing a number of recent developments in this area.

  22.  This is welcomed in the content of the Integrated Transport White Paper. A much more positive and proactive approach was needed, and expected. The contribution to freight transport by inland waterways may be limited in percentage terms, but the potential should not be lightly dismissed. There is a direct analogy with rail freight here, and the point is well made by the example of grain movement from Seaforth to Old Trafford via the Manchester Ship Canal saving 5,000 extra lorry trips between Merseyside and Greater Manchester.

  23.  Like rail, inland waterways were best suited to transporting the bulk loads of the past, but this market has largely disappeared with the demise of heavy industry in the UK. However, rail freight has been able to take advantage of containerisation and other means of transporting smaller quantities of goods. These benefits are equally available to the waterways if the right marketing strategies are adopted.

  24.  Policy implementation might be strengthened by better promotion of the availability of freight facilities grants for water-related development, now proposed by the Government. In due course, there should also be a direct read across to the Government's new ports policy, on which DETR consulted last year. There are likely to be competitive advantages to inland waterways freight in direct transhipment to/from seagoing vessels at both existing and new ports facilities.


The extent to which objectives are complementary

  25.  This heading, taken from the inquiry's terms of reference, provides a useful introduction to the Institute's conclusions.

  26.  Unlikely though it might appear, inland waterways can find themselves in a "win-win" situation. With proper planning and promotion, they represent a multi-faceted asset, capable of supporting a range of functions and facilities, where conflicts are unlikely except in extreme circumstances. The freight-carrying, regeneration, environmental, water supply/drainage, recreation, tourism, heritage, and conservation functions are broadly compatible. Only in the case, say, of a heavily used commercial waterway is the balance likely to be disturbed. The downside is the fragmentation of ownerships and responsibilities, and the very breadth of the interests involved, making consultation and planning complex processes.

  27.  To achieve their full potential, across this wide range of uses, inland waterways, and the corridors in which they lie, need to be given strategic consideration in regional planning guidance, which would then provide a framework for site-specific proposals in development plans. This process might be greatly assisted by the creation of a single body representing the range of waterways interests, which could liaise with and advise regional planning bodies and local planning authorities as they prepare their policies and proposals.

24 October 2000

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