Bad tidings for Britain’s canals
October 23 2013 08:36 PM

A narrow boat moored in the Regent’s Canal near Camden Lock. At right is a poster for the Towpath Rangers, a volunteer group organised by the Canal & Rivers Trust.
Photograph: Anne-Sophie Lang

By Anne-Sophie Lang

Travelling Britain’s canals is like stepping into a living museum of the country’s history. A wonderful example is the 220-km-long Grand Union Canal that starts in London and ends in Birmingham after passing 166 locks.
It passes through verdant countryside, but also through some of the most polluted places. The Paddington arm of the canal, which runs just north of central London to the Limehouse Basin and the River Thames, passes Camden Market where London’s creative bohemians mix with throngs of tourists. Not surprisingly, the water is foul along this stretch.
 “We are always making jokes like you’ll grow another arm if you fall into the canal,” laughs Sophia who works in a cafe located directly at Camden Lock.
Mostly built at the height of the Industrial Revolution to ferry goods and raw materials, Great Britain has around 2,500km of historic waterways that criss-cross the country.
As well as being home to thousands of boat-dwelling people, they also boast 2,700 structures under legal preservation orders.
With the advent of motorways, Britain’s waterways lost their economic importance but, according to figures for 2010/2011, the canals and associated river routes still cost an estimated £120mn ($194mn) annually to maintain.
Until July 2012 British Waterways was the public corporation that cared for the network of canals and rivers in England, Scotland and Wales.
In Scotland the management of canals remains within British Waterways, but the government transferred inland waterways in England and Wales to a new charitable body, the Canal & River Trust, with critics saying the move was simply a cost-saving measure.
 “The government’s financial interests have definitely played a role,” says Professor Jenny Harrow from the Cass Centre for Charity Effectiveness at the City University, London.
However, there is also a commonly held view in Great Britain that non-profit organisations are able to take over and run facilities much more efficiently than the state is able to do. Management of the canals is made all the more difficult because the waterways also serve as a home to so many people.
Estimates vary widely but it is thought that people permanently live on between 6,500 and 15,000 boats.
Kellie and Tony are newcomers to this way of life and currently reside on ‘Zest’, one of the many narrow boats that travel along Britain’s canals.
At the moment, the boat is moored at Cow Roast, located on the Grand Union Canal, 60km north of London, where the couple live with their six-month-old daughter Niamh. “I wanted to give Niamh a better chance by letting her grow up on the canal and showing her a better way of life,” says Kellie.
To ensure Niamh cannot fall into the water, a wooden fence blocks the entrance to the orange-coloured ‘Zest’. Inside the television is turned on, while a mother and child magazine lies open on a coffee table.
The boat is equipped with a kitchen and small, tiled bathroom. Niamh sleeps in a cot beside her parents’ bed. Due to space restrictions, both Kellie and Tony share the same wardrobe, but the couple are very happy in their quayside home. “I would never want to live in a normal house again,” says Kellie.
Shaun has tied his boat up beside the young family’s home. The 45-year-old’s light blue vessel is called ‘Emohrou’, which is “our home” spelled backwards.
When he was young, the canals were in a much worse condition than they are now, remembers Shaun, who credits the improvement to the amount of public investment while British Waterways was in charge.
“The Canal & River Trust is stricter than British Waterways,” says Shaun. The charity carries out strict inspections to ensure that no boat remains moored at the same location for longer than 14 days without permission.
Shaun says that he pays nearly £1,000 a year just for his boat licence, but if he decides to remain at the same spot in order to save fuel costs, then he has to pay increased fees.
Licences and fees are one income source for the Canal & River Trusts, but do not go anywhere near to covering the charity’s outgoings.
British Waterways recently recorded a two-year loss of approximately £10mn, which is one argument in favour of the creation of a non-profit institution, an arrangement that has a tradition in Great Britain.
 “In recent years more and more services for leisure facilities belonging to local authorities have been handed over to foundations,” says professor Harrow. One example is municipal swimming pools.
The Canal & River Trust will still receive public funding for the next 15 years, but Allan Richards, an online columnist who writes about canal politics and has travelled England’s waterways for over 50 years, remains sceptical about whether this support will be sufficient.
 “The problem is that there will be under-funding over the next 15 years, followed by a lack of security about any future financing,” he explains.
Fund-raising has not even sustained its own cost. Donations amounted to £900,000 ($1.45mn) in 2012/2013, but the charity spent £1.8mn to generate that level of donating.
“I am certain that the waterways will survive me, but I have to wonder about what kind of legacy I will be leaving my children,” he says.
Shaun will not contribute any more towards the maintenance of the Grand Union Canal, even if he believes that the canals could be in a better condition in certain areas where, for example they are too shallow for his boat to pass and need to be dredged.
“I feel that I already give enough through the licence fee that I have to pay for.” — DPA

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