Britain’s unique and well-loved network of canals and navigable rivers is deteriorating because of inadequate funding. At a time of unprecedented challenges caused by the climate emergency and high inflation, the government is failing to respond. Fund Britain’s Waterways (FBW), a coalition of organisations representing hundreds of thousands of users and supporters of inland waterways, is campaigning for national and local governments to act now and protect our waterways’ public benefit and natural capital.
Management of Britain’s 5,000 miles of navigable inland waterways is fragmented. The Canal & River Trust (CRT) is responsible for covering 2,000 miles. It is already in a difficult financial situation with a fixed government grant of £52.6m annually until 2027. Defra was expected to confirm funding for 2028 onwards in July 2022 but this has not yet been announced. Other waterways face similar problems: the Environment Agency is operating with £22m per year, one-third of its identified requirement, and Scottish Canals has over £70m of maintenance work outstanding.
The evacuation of 1,500 local residents in case the dam at Toddbrook Reservoir collapsed in 2019 clearly showed the consequences of failing to maintain waterway infrastructure. This event has shown the need for increased spend on CRT reservoirs of up to £25m per year, but it is as if the lessons have not yet been learnt.
The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated the value of Britain’s inland waterways as people sought blue and green spaces to help recover. This was acknowledged in Defra’s own Environmental Improvement Plan, providing levelling up, economic, environmental, health and wellbeing benefits for us all.
The combined annual economic and social value of CRT waterways alone has been quantified as £6.1bn, including cost savings of £1.1bn for the NHS from active use of the waterways and towpaths.
Despite this greater understanding of their value, and the deteriorating state of the infrastructure today, the Government appears intent on significantly reducing its funding for the waterways, says Les Etheridge, Chair of the FBW steering group and National Chair of the Inland Waterways Association.
He said: “Government needs to recognise that saying they value the inland waterways is not enough to prevent their decline. Whilst we in FBW understand the financial pressures that everyone faces, the financial cuts are too deep, and adequate public funding needs to be allocated to maintain these national assets. FBW will be taking action starting with a campaign cruise in Birmingham over the weekend of 12-13 August 2023.”