Britain’s Waterways: Staying Afloat During The Recession.

In June, a huge gap appeared in the Islington section of the Regent’s Canal towpath. Cyclists peddling too fast had to brake sharply to avoid disappearing into the crevice. It was only on closer inspection that they realised it wasn’t a hole at all – just a piece of painted canvas placed there by British Waterways (BW) to slow them down. According to a ‘Guardian’ report, the banks alongside London’s canals have become ‘the new front line’ in the battle between pedestrians and cyclists,  resulting in fierce disputes as to exactly who has the ‘right of way’. Many houseboat residents ,  joggers and families out for an afternoon stroll complain vociferously that the narrow tracks have been transformed into dangerous ‘cycle superhighways’ by the increasing number of  two-wheel commuters who view them as an alternative, faster and  safer  means of getting to work. The routes are now also publicised on Transport For London’s cycling maps.

A British Waterways summer-time survey on a section of the capital’s 100-mile canal complex counted one cyclist going by every 25 seconds. In 2007, as a pilot scheme for the rest of the country, BW (London) dropped the requirement for them to apply for a permit and instead introduced a ‘Two Tings’ Code Of Conduct. This specifies that they should warn those ahead of their approach by ringing their bell, but that this should not be regarded as an order for people on foot (who have priority) to “get out of the way”. Also, that they should take care with children, animals and the disabled, wait until there is a space then pass by on the canal side of the path. They should dismount when going under narrow or low bridges, never race each other or perform speed trials , avoid anglers’ fishing lines and be careful with ‘thorny hedges’ which might puncture their tyres. British Waterways acknowledge that these stipulations aren’t always observed.  In 2008,following a series of accidents, they appointed a ‘Towpath Ranger’, Joe Young, to promote dialogue and understanding between the estimated  34 million annual visitors to London’s canals and rivers. As Roger Squires, Chairman of the London branch of the Inland Waterways Association, has pointed out: “The leisure facilities are there for all to enjoy. Competing groups have to learn to co- exist. We would take issue with anything or anyone causing conflict”.  A memorandum issued by The Parliamentary Waterways Group, which consists of 10 Peers, 38 MPs of all parties and 86 Associate Members belonging to outside organizations has manifested their concern that “Many of BW’s towpaths have been adopted as long-distance cycleways without the safeguards advised by Members being heeded”

The UK has more than 3106 miles of navigable inland waterways, including marinas, docks, mooring basins and reservoirs. British Waterways is responsible for about two-thirds (2,200 miles),  the Environment Agency and the Broads Authority for most of the remainder. BW data suggests that there are 33.000 licensed boats using the national network at any one time, 15% of these for residential purposes. The Residential Boat Owners Association (RBOA) , however, estimates that there are around 15,000 boat-dwellers on Britain’s rivers, canals and tidal waters – some cruising continuously, some permanently moored, others combining the two. They emphasize that it’s impossible to compile accurate statistics due to so many people failing  to register. The RBOA’s Honorary President is the Liberal Democrat Party’s Treasury spokesman, Dr Vince Cable , MP for Twickenham and frequently depicted  by the UK media as “Britain’s  most popular politician”. Though it appears he does not live on a boat himself, he represents many constituents who do.

The numerical uncertainty applies similarly to the official figures of 3500 boats on London’s waterway system. Russell Day of (Tower Bridge) warns prospective ‘live-aboard’ clients that the initial purchase price of a boat  (ranging from £50,000 to well over £1 million) is only the beginning of the ongoing expenditure. The owners of all craft afloat have to obtain a ‘BSS’ (Boat Safety Scheme) Certficate,  insurance cover and a licence costing at least £400 pa , depending on the length of the vessel. In 2008, British Waterways London patrols impounded 26 boats which did not comply with the rules and recovered more than £300,000 owed for licence and mooring fees. Charges for a permanent canal or riverside-side berth vary on the basis of market demand, mthe boat’s dimensions and whether facilities such as electricity, a post box,  phone connections and car parking are provided. Little Venice, the Ice Wharf at Kings Cross ,  Brentford Island  and Chelsea’s Cheyne Walk are examples of the most expensive locations. Tying-up temporarily next to a towpath (if a place is available) is however free for the first 14 days, after which there is an ‘overstay tariff’ of  £25 for each subsequent 24-hour period. It is thus possible, by frequently changing ‘parking bays’, to cheat the system . These ‘reluctant cruisers’ – people who want to remain in the same area but would rather not  pay for permanent moorings – are disdainfully classified as ” bridge hoppers” by the wider boating community

The renaissance of Britain’s canals and rivers has also benefited the environment. Barges can carry five times more material than lorries. Conveying freight by water cuts carbon emissions by 75%.  There are  fewer road accidents and traffic jams.  Hackney Council has already experimented successfully with transporting its waste via the River Lea to the Edmonton recyling plant instead of by refuse trucks as previously. Companies such as Tescos and Sainsburys are reducing their overheads by ‘switching to water’.  DHL have considered delivering urgent mail from Central London to Heathrow by speedboat to avoid congestion in the capital. A major UK haulage firm, Eddie Stobart, has invested in a port on the Manchester Ship Canal and  initiated plans to expand its waterways routes. John Dodwell,  Chairman of the Commercial Boat Operators Association, believes that companies should be offered incentives to utilize the benefits of the waterways. That this hasn’t happened so far he attributes to the Government’s “business intertia”. British Waterways , in turn, refutes criticism that it concentrates on “preserving heritage” and gives insufficient priority to freight. Its proclaimed ‘”View Of The Future” is to revitalize existing loose-bulk markets, develop the movement of municipal waste, seek more freight traffic and extend the ‘natural motorways of the sea’ joining us with our European neighbours.

Anyone with a serviceable narrowboat – 7ft wide and no longer than about 56 ft – can navigate across almost all of England and Wales. The network of canals and rivers links Bristol to London, Lancaster to Ripon, Liverpool to Goole and connects the Irish Sea, North Sea and the estuaries of the Rivers Severn, Mersey, Thames, Humber and Ribble. It is not , however, just “a pretty place” says BW Chairman Tony Hales. “It is important in alleviating flooding, supplies refuges for threatened wildlife, provides alternative transport routes and (thanks to the latest technology) even helps to generate clean electricity.”  BW receives an annual Government subsidy of over £60 million. License and mooring fees generate a further £20 million p.a.  It employs 1,800 workers, including lock-keepers, and would like to become a public interest company or trust within ten years, envisaging the yearly funding being replaced by government contracts. Some of BW’s more outspoken detractors , though, characterise it as “spendthrift and profligate” and fume that  “our quiet, peaceful canal network has been turned into an expensive, over-regulated, over-managed linear water theme park… Petty rules & regulations have been introduced and boating costs have gone through the roof”. BW of course denies all of this and points instead to the approximately 270 million visits per year (93% of them by ‘everyday explorers’) to its waterways for recreational purposes, “open-air learning”, or outdoor physical activities. The canals and rivers in their care, they insist, form a vital part of Britain’s “natural health service” and are much appreciated as a tranquil refuge from the hectic pace of modern life.

The Inland Waterways Association , though often at loggerheads with BW, agree with them on this last point. Britain’s waterways, they point out on their website, were once perceived as ” derelict, dirty ditches”. Not any more.  IWA produces “WOW’ (Wild Over Waterways) activity sheets and through its ‘Waterways Recovery Group’ has enabled hundred of miles of disused canals to be restored for use by boaters, walkers and anglers”. They cite as examples the construction of soft bank protection to part of the Montgomery Canal (Shropshire), full lock clearance and culvert rebuilding being undertaken on the Wilts & Berks Canal (Wiltshire) , the strengthening of the Baylham Lock on the Ipswich & Stowmarket Canal (Suffolk) plus the scheme to lay steel mesh and concrete foundations in the Chesterfield Canal (Derbyshire). Last year ,”1,200 WRG volunteers contributed over 5,000 working days” to these and other projects throughout  Britain.

The UK media is beginning to sit up and take notice. BBC1 TV has just launched a series entitled ‘Rivers’ (Sundays at 9pm) about the influence of Britain’s waterways. The July 26th edition of  ‘The Observer’ devoted an entire page to advice for anyone tempted to buy or hire a boat , headlined: “It’s Not All Plain Sailing”. They quoted Rex Walden, RBOA Chairman, as being worried that ” A lot of people have shown an interest for all the wrong reasons. They talk glibly about getting on the property ladder by buying a boat.  Narrowboats are not cheap and maintenance is high. Barge novices should be given elementary training about locks, steering and safety checks”.  ‘’ , meanwhile, “lets you rent for a minimum of six months to see if it is really for you, with the option of buying at the end of the contract”.   Despite such cautionary remarks and all the evident pitfalls, it seems that,.as ‘The Independent’ newspaper has concluded, ” The UK’s waterways  are on the brink of an astonishing revival”.









Filed under: Society | Posted on July 29th, 2009 by Colin D Gordon

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