The editor of a popular website for narrowboat enthusiasts believes Britain’s canals face a bleak future. British Waterways, established in 1963, is responsible for 2,000 miles of canals and rivers, their towpaths, buildings and landscapes. Currently publicly owned it’s set, in England and Wales, to become a charity next spring.
Tom Crossley, a former newspaper editor, established narrowboatworld.com over a decade ago. He believes the new body will struggle to find funds to replace Government grants that totalled in the two countries over £46 million last year. This will drop to £39 million in this financial year and will remain at that level for another nine years by which time it’s intended for British Waterways replacement to stand on its own feet.
Built at the start of Britain’s industrial revolution to transport raw materials and finished goods the canals were shunted aside by the railways. They were in a poor state of repair, with many unusable by the early 1960s, but following the passing of the 1968 Transport Act a move away from freight traffic towards leisure and tourism began a sustained period of recovery such that, at 30,000, there are now more canal boat users than ever.
Public money has clearly played a major part in the revival, and including Scotland it accounted for close to a third of British Waterways £178 million income in 2010/11. This is though a significant % fall, as back in the 80s and 90s the organisation relied on the government for 70% of its income. Today British Waterways has a large canalside property portfolio and this, combined, with increased marina income for residential boats, has boosted revenue.
“We have moved from a 30:70 split to 70:30, which is why we put forward our case for Charitable Status in 2009” says Julie Sharman, Head of Enterprise for British Waterways in Northern England.
The move towards which was granted by the coalition government in October last year with Richard Benyon, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Natural Environment and Fisheries saying; “I am convinced by the compelling vision of a national trust for waterways.”
And whilst the name of the new charity has yet to be announced its proposed model is the National Trust, Britain’s biggest conservation charity established in 1895.
“The National Trust may be quite old but it did revise its structure a few years ago. It’s a good organisation and with our own national remit we believe there are similarities. Where we will differ is that we won’t be able to charge for access in the same way they can to sites of historic interest” says Sharman.
Instead of which it’s proposed to be more like the Woodland Trust with people asked to become supporters of the canal network and make a donation. It’s planned that the funds raised, allied to legacy donations, will make up some of the shortfall in government grants.
There are also plans to try and access grants from a variety of sources and establish partnership arrangements with voluntary, statutory and public bodies. And although Sharman stresses British Waterways has “no intention’ of giving away parts of the canal network it will be looking for local groups to take over the running and maintenance of strips of land close to canal banks.
The organisation already has a large number of volunteers. According to the latest annual report the number of volunteer days rose from 8,000 in 2007 to 24,000 in 2010. There are plans for further increases, with five volunteer managers being hired earlier this year.
Sharman says she is aware that this has caused unease amongst staff, but says: “We have made a guarantee that no staff will be displaced by volunteers.”
Their union, Unite, Britain’s biggest, is not reassured and has also voiced concern that earlier this year directors voted to award themselves bonuses with British Waterways chief executive Robin Evans getting £15,000 on top of his £222,000 annual salary. In comparison staff were awarded a pay rise of between £100 and £200 each. “Unite does not believe transferring ownership of Britain’s waterways to a new charity is in the best interests of the nation as we fear there won’t be sufficient money to maintain the network” says national officer Julia Long.
Crossley agrees. After hiring narrowboats for many years he built his own in 1996. It took him a year. Today he enjoys two main cruises a year and weekly days out. The website was started as a hobby but with a team of columnists it now provides up to date information and comment on all aspects of canal life.
“The canals are very important. But I can’t see people paying to support boaters who are mainly middle class.
Also funds for maintenance was cut by 9% last year and 10% the previous year and I fear this is storing up problems for the future.
I do believe they are hoping to cut back on staff by using volunteers. The majority of voluntary organisations are hoping to do the same, so will there be enough? They also can’t hope to have the skills acquired by long serving trained staff and I have to ask: If a volunteers has the choice of staying at home or turning out in the driving rain to work at locks, what will he do?
All of these things together make me conclude that the future for Britain’s canals is bleak.”
“That’s not the case” says Sharman “as by being free of the government we can make long term plans that will build on the improvements made over the last four decades.”