New body takes over the canals

David Gibson describes the progress being made by the recently formed Canal and River Trust. David is the Ramblers’ representative on the Trust Council of the new body, and is a lifelong canals enthusiast. West Riding Area is blessed with several canals within its boundaries, their towpaths providing many miles of attractive walking.

The Canal & River Trust (CRT) is the successor of the old nationalised industry which operated the canals and became the monolithic organisation known as British Waterways (BW). Following discussions with the government it was agreed that BW should cease to be owned by the government and would become an independent charity. Previously BW had been funded on a yearly basis by the government, but now the canals would be given a ‘dowry’ over 15 years but also expected to fundraise for themselves. This would have been impossible under the government regime. Importantly, the newly created trust has been allowed to keep the valuable property portfolio, the income from which can provide a cushion against financial problems.

The new body came into being last July and, like many large trusts, consists of trustees who set the agenda and appoint senior staff to run the organisation. The trustees are advised by a Council. The Trust Council is a strategic body which meets twice a year and its members are the only members of the Trust who have legal powers to appoint trustees etc. It has 35 members, some of whom are elected, others appointed by organisations involved with the waterways, and the chairs of the Waterways Partnerships. I was appointed by the Ramblers to represent them on the Trust Council, having been involved with canals and canal restoration for many years. The CRT is becoming far more user friendly than BW although to be fair BW had improved in recent years. One sign of this is that each Waterway area has a Waterway Partnership with a chair and about 12 members from local communities, businesses and other organisations with the aim of attracting people on to the canals and using them as the great treasure they are. Each Waterway Area has a Users Forum meeting twice a year where towpaths and other items can be raised.

The CRT owns and operates some 2000 miles of canal and river from Ripon in the north to London and Bristol in the south. In addition to the actual waterways CRT owns more listed buildings than almost any other organisation. They include not only man-made waterways, earth cuttings and embankments, but docks, wharves, locks, bridges, tunnels and aqueducts. There is, in addition to these amazing civil engineering structures, a wide variety of buildings that were formerly required to support that transport system including warehouses, offices, workshops, lock keepers’ houses etc. The waterways’ heritage also consists of boats and artifacts, as well as archives and museum-held relics of the historic working days of the canals.
The banks of canals and rivers are a haven for wildlife, and extremely important for the environment and conservation. Many parts of the network have been designated as protected nature sites. CRT owns or part owns 18 Natura 2000 sites (wildlife sites of European significance), 65 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and more than 1,000 non-statutory wildlife sites. The trust is actively developing its heritage, environmental and natural resources.

Alongside each waterway is a towpath, originally for the use of horses towing the barges. No longer used for commercial purposes, the towpaths form a network of paths across the country. Millions of people a year pay multiple visits to the canals to use the towpaths – far more than ever go on a boat. The government recognised this, and one of the standards the CRT has to meet is free and easy access to the towpaths. They have not been made rights of way as that would place the burden of maintenance on local authorities, but they are now open to the public at all times unless they have to be closed for operational reasons.

I can remember when voluntary work on a BW canal was totally banned. Things have improved since then, but CRT has immediately initiated a volunteer programme – supervised by its own staff and recruiting volunteers to do anything from rebuilding a bridge, to becoming a voluntary lock keeper, to litter picking a towpath. This is an opportunity for any Ramblers Group or member to work on the canal towpaths. You can work with a CRT group, or once approved, a Ramblers’ Group could adopt a stretch of canal and keep the towpath in good walking condition.

One of the things Ramblers Central Office and I are raising with CRT is access to the towpath. How do you know where you can join and leave the towpath legally? Well, at the moment you don’t. What we want is volunteers to map every access point on the waterways electronically, so it can be added directly to the CRT website available for download. We are not yet at the point of asking for volunteers for this, but hope to do so soon.

What are the advantages of a towpath walk? Towpaths give you green routes through parts of towns that you don’t often see, frequently passing interesting heritage buildings, and quickly take you into the country. They are a haven for wildlife. They link into rights of way and thus help to provide circular routes, and you can link two canals with a cross country walk. Being flat with the occasional 8 foot ascent at locks, canals are easily walked by the less able and thus are particularly useful in providing walking for health initiatives.

If you are interested in finding out more about the work of the Canal & River Trust go to Kate Conto is the Ramblers contact at Central Office, and I can also give information, but neither of us can deal with local matters. Lee Davidson represents our Area on the North East Waterway Forum. I am not aware of any Ramblers’ representative on the North West Waterway Forum (includes Leeds and Liverpool Canal), or the Manchester & Pennine Waterway Forum (includes Rochdale Canal, Huddersfield Narrow Canal).