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

Memorandum by Birmingham City Council (IW 76)



  1.1  Birmingham has been at the forefront of canal-based renewal and regeneration for many years now. This short paper, without going into detail, attempts to draw out the lessons of that experience that may be helpful to the Committee.

  1.2  Birmingham has 32 miles of canals. It has no major rivers. The three rivers within the city are all minor and none are navigable. The canal network is extensive. It covers most of the City, 33 per cent of the city's population lives within 1km of a canal, and links with inland waterways throughout the rest of the country. It is of strategic importance locally, regionally and nationally. A number of key themes of the Inquiry are now addressed as follows.


  2.1  Historically the canal network has had a significant impact on the physical and economic development of the City but by the late 1970s Birmingham's canals were in a derelict state. Birmingham City Council (BCC) however took the view that they were liabilities waiting to be turned into assets. In 1983, with funding from the former Urban Programme (Birmingham Inner City Partnerships), BCC together with British Waterways (BW) embarked on a comprehensive programme of canal improvements. This concentrated on improving the towpath network and access to it. There were also other associated improvements such as boundary works, signage and landscaping. These "surface level" improvements were always preceded by structural works to the canal walls were necessary.

  2.2  The success of this approach led to renewed interest in canals as an element in urban regeneration and the Partnership, in the mid 80s, developed a corridor approach to Birmingham's inner city canals. This involved taking a more holistic approach to physical improvements but also integrated canal works into other, area based, initiatives. There was in effect recognition that canals had a role to play in the economic, social and physical renewal of areas suffering multiple deprivation.

  2.3  The physical improvements works carried on, and are still continuing today, but from the mid 80's this area based approach became an increasingly important element in Birmingham's regeneration activity. This area based approach is being guided by the City's Unitary Development Plan, Local Planning Frameworks, and other Guidance including design guidelines for canalside development—examples attached. The use of a Masterplan approach, for example at Brindleyplace, has been found of particular value in helping to guide the initial vision into reality. The Council welcomes the Government's intention, expressed in Waterways for Tomorrow, to continue to support the development of inland waterways through the planning process.

  2.4  Such Frameworks have been successful in providing robust guidance to ensure progress. However the revival of the canals cannot be achieved without a commitment to quality of design, appropriate resources being available and positive management of both canals and canalside property.

  2.5  The development industry is now better disposed towards the positive use of canal frontages and it is becoming less difficult to achieve integration of the canals into designs.

  2.6  The City Council is keen to play a positive role in helping advocate best practice and has offered to contribute to the good practice guide which IWAAC are to prepare.


  3.1  Over and above the physical improvements to the fabric of the canals themselves much has been achieved in the way of canal-side regeneration projects; including:

  International Convention Centre Quarter: Planning policy for this area on the western side of the City Centre successfully integrates the canals with major regeneration initiates which includes:

    —  The International Convention Centre.

    —  Brindleyplace—a 17ha, £250 million private mixed use development.

    —  The Mailbox—one of the largest mixed use developments in Europe.

  Birmingham Heartlands: This large area of East Birmingham was the subject of concerted regeneration activity between 1988 and 1998, firstly through Birmingham Heartlands Ltd and subsequently as an UDC. The canals through the area formed an important part of the regeneration strategy and formed a focus for both commercial and residential priority development areas.

  Aston Science Park: The Digbeth Branch Canal forms an important spine in the design of this prestigious campus style development. This has resulted in successfully integrating the renewal of an eighteenth Century canal with a modern late 20th century development.

  Project Aquarius: As has been indicated during the 1980's considerable progress was achieved regarding improvements around the canals however little had been done to tackle poor water quality and the legacy of industrial activity in the canals. In 1992 an opportunity arose to secure Urban Programme funding. This funding, matched by BW, enabled the start of a phased programme—total value £2 million approx—to remove and treat silt extensively contaminated with heavy metals eg cadmium, chromium, copper, nickel, lead and arsenic, along with hydrocarbons. Canals successfully treated included those within and to the east of the City Centre. This approach could be extended, if funding was secured, both within the City and elsewhere in the West Midlands.

  Eastside: This major regeneration initiative encompasses a large part of the East Side of the City Centre and environs, including the canal-based Warwick Bar Conservation Area. The eastside initiative is still at the early stages of development but the Planning Framework for the area sees the canal playing an important role especially in integrating heritage issues within radical regeneration proposals. BW and BCC expect in the near future to receive a Townscape Heritage Grant from the HLF for the area.


  4.1  Establishing and maintaining partnerships is of particular importance. All that has been achieved has been done in partnership with others, primarily BW, but also a wide range of other parties. In 1997 The Birmingham Canals Partnership was formed between BCC, BW (Midlands and South West Region) and Groundwork Birmingham.

  4.2  The award winning partnership with BW has achieved many successes and has been a major contribution to regeneration of the City. However, BW's dependence on funding from income and property developments has led on occasion to priority being given to commercial considerations—as required by the financial guidelines BW operate under—rather than wider social and economic benefit. The City Council and BW is currently finalising a Collaboration Agreement. This represents a logical and innovative next step which can potentially be replicated elsewhere helping to ensure that social, environmental as well as economic objectives can be achieved and managed in a comprehensive and sustainable way. It is intended that this Agreement will be supported by a Canals Action Plan with The Birmingham Canals Partnership continuing to be the forum for the development and application of policy regarding joint action.


  5.1  Pedestrian Access and Cycling: The Canal network is seen as integral to the linear open space network of the City. As part of the renaissance of canals, towing paths are becoming increasingly important for a range of uses including leisure, sport and cycling. The provision of improved pedestrian, and where practical disabled, access has been a key priority within the canal improvement programme. Not only does this improve permeability in new developments but often, for the first time enables, access from communities through which the canals pass. The City council is keen, where appropriate, to see the canal network becoming an integral part of the City's cycle network—already part of the network forms part of the National Cycle Network. Such use will lead to greater maintenance being required for towing paths as well as potential conflict with other users which must be suitably managed.

  5.2  Tourism: The importance of canals is recognised in the City's Tourism Strategy and Action Plan and is a significant contribution to regeneration. The renaissance of Birmingham's waterways and their use as part of tourist development and marketing have contributed to a greatly improved image of both the City and the canals themselves. This has resulted in an inflow of visitors and a greatly improved "pride of place" amongst the local community.

  5.3  A visitor survey carried out in 1997 showed that 69 per cent of all visitors were aware of the canals in Birmingham (second only to the International Convention Centre) and were given an assessment of 8.2 (out of 10). 22 per cent of all visitors had or intended to visit the canals during their visit (which was the highest score for all attractions). A subsequent survey confirms that canals are helping to create a positive image for Birmingham.

  5.4  Wildlife: The canal network has intrinsic value for wildlife and its conservation and enhancement is reflected in policy and for example the recently published Biodiversity Action Plan for Birmingham and The Black Country. Canals form an integral part of the City's linked network of open spaces making connections between other sites which otherwise would be isolated. In addition, and importantly, it provides the opportunity for people to come into contact and enjoy urban wildlife close to where they live. Proposals are not expected to detract from this value. Securing adequate resources for monitoring, enhancement and management is a concern.

  5.5  Heritage: The canal network in Birmingham has, as previously stated, intrinsic value, and includes one canal based Conservation Area. Ensuring appropriate management and enhancement of these areas depends on adequate recording of the historical asset—both canal and canal related—and securing funding. There has been progress however more is required. For example experience has shown some difficulty in encouraging land owners and occupiers to enhance their property without being able to offer 100 per cent grant aid which leads to unimproved property detracting from nearby improvement schemes. In addition the long lead in time to secure funding eg via HLF has frustrated greater progress.


  6.1  Freight: The desire to see a significant increase in the use of canals for freight is strongly supported. However, the scope within the City for this to happen is constrained due to its physical nature, the need to preserve the intrinsic character of the canal network, its wildlife value, and the desire to avoid conflict with other users. In addition the "just in time" nature of commerce also limits options particularly when topography and number of locks within the City are taken into account. A number of municipal refuse sites are located adjacent to canals reflecting one past use of the canals in the City. There is now an acknowledged potential for the use of the network to both transfer waste and potentially the output of material from recycling facilities. One welcome consequence would be the increased number of boat movements, and therefore interest and activity, throughout the year particularly outside the holiday season.

  6.2  Telecommunications: There is scope for further trunking of infrastructure under towing paths eg Fibreway. However, again based on our experience, there is a need both to ensure that its installation and maintenance is adequately regulated with income being recycled to address deficiencies in the network. It is of paramount importance that the canals' intrinsic value and existing investment in high quality improvements are not compromised.

  6.3  Water Transfer: The potential of canals for water transfer is also acknowledged. Proposals would be considered on their merits based on similar criteria for freight and telecommunications.


  7.1  No proposals are contained within Waterways For Tomorrow regarding the classification of canals or the responsibilities of BW regarding towing paths. Within Birmingham classification of canals as cruiseways and remainder waterways has little apparent impact. There is a need to ensure that resources are available to enable adequate maintenance of remainder waterways and more widely the maintenance of towing paths to their improved standard; the key issue is how enhanced maintenance of towing paths can be secured. Local Transport Plans provide one route. However there appears the opportunity to secure a more comprehensive and long lasting solution by for example recycling resources, particularly gained from investment in and adjacent to the canal network—whether received as receipts to BW or for example through S106 Agreements—and extending BW's remit regarding towing paths.

  7.2  Opportunities for canal restoration projects within the City is limited to one potential restoration scheme, others exist regionally. IWAAC's recommendations regarding restoration priorities as well as the role of the newly established Waterways Trust is welcomed. However, the ability of BW to support restoration projects continues often to be constrained. It is suggested that this aspect be reviewed.


  1.  Canals have much to offer for urban regeneration but it does not just happen. A shared vision is required between the key players (for Birmingham, BW and BCC).

  2.  The key players have to have the determination and commitment to stick to the vision and see it through over a number of years.

  3.  Pump priming is essential to demonstrate that commitment, ensure quality of design and build confidence in the value of waterways as a focus for regeneration.

  4.  The shared vision needs to be strengthened not just by a jointly owned strategy document but also by planning policy which explicitly and positively utilizes the strengths of the waterway to achieve regeneration goals.

  5.  To achieve results, especially early on in the process partners may have to accept opportunity costs, perhaps in land values, or access/bridging rights, so as to avoid deterring inward investment on key water-side sites. For BW and local authorities this may require adjustment to their financial guidelines and enabling legislation.

  6.  The certainty and confidence engendered by 1 to 5 above does produce results. The Brindleyplace development in Birmingham has produced in excess of 9,000 jobs.

  7.  Partners are constrained by having to work within their legislative and/or constitutional framework. This can cause problems in areas for which neither have responsibility and/or funding. A good example of this is maintenance of improved public realm elements of the canal such as the towpath. Revenue responsibility for towpath maintenance is on the fringes of local authority responsibility and BW is not under any obligation to maintain the towpath. This needs rectifying. BW promotes the towpaths for what they are, a publicly enjoyable asset. But they are constrained from protecting the investment that they and, more often than not others, have made in the improvement of this asset. Changes to their legislative base and/or financial guidelines are needed. Clarification by government of the use of Planning Obligations to enable "endowing" improvements to the canal public realm would also help.

  8.  A comprehensive approach to areas is necessary to deliver a scheme. The best are those where all elements are included in the scheme planning and all the relevant partners are involved and committed. An example would be activity on the water, which is vital to a complete and successful canal-side regeneration scheme.

  9.  A recent example of this is Birmingham's City Centre Canal Corridor Planning Framework, currently draft supplementary Planning Guidance. This provides a comprehensive policy framework for approximately 5kms of canal in central Birmingham. This is understood to be the first planning policy document to be jointly authored by a local planning authority and BW.

13 November 2000

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