Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 13

Memorandum submitted by British Waterways

  1.  British Waterways is a public corporation sponsored by the Department of the Environment, Transport and Regions. We manage and care for over 2,000 miles of canals and rivers in England, Scotland and Wales (please see enclosed leaflet with map on reverse[3]). We make sure they are safe places for people to enjoy as well as managing water supply and control. Our staff care for listed structures, scheduled ancient monuments, bridges, tunnels, aqueducts, locks, lock cottages and dwellings. Our waterways are part of, or pass through, SSSIs and local wildlife sites. We provide services and facilities for users and generate income from a wide range of sources (private and public) to reinvest in the future of the waterways.

  2.  British Waterways welcomes the Culture Media and Sport Committee's inquiry into the promotion of the United Kingdom as a destination for overseas tourists and the provision of tourism information to domestic and overseas visitors in response to the current outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

  3.  We believe that Britain's waterways offer an extremely important destination for tourists from Britain and overseas (see below). Although we closed 70 per cent of our network on 2 March, the position is now greatly changed. After undertaking a rigorous risk assessment procedure (see below) we have reopened all of our network to boating and two thirds of our towpaths (over 1,000 miles) for general use (see below) despite the foot and mouth crisis. We believe that now the waterways have an important role to play in attracting visitors back to Britain's countryside, with the right promotion and provision of information to tourists, the waterways could be instrumental in the recovery of much of Britain's rural tourism industry.

Tourism and the inland waterways

  4.  There are some 160 million visits to our waterways each year. These visitors to our waterways help to support some 50,000 jobs. As well as the boating industry detailed below, the waterways support numerous businesses such as pubs and shops, restaurants, etc which depend significantly on tourism to survive.

  5.  There are over 1,400 licensed hire craft on our waterways. These craft include weekly hire boat, daily hire boat, day trip and restaurant boats. There are nearly 400 different companies operating hire boats, trip boats and restaurant boats on our waterways, providing facilities for tourists from overseas and within the UK.

  6.  We estimate that 15 per cent of those choosing to holiday in a hire boat on the waterways are from overseas and 19 per cent of hire boat trips have at least one passenger from an overseas destination.

  7.  Our waterways link the north of the country to the south, the west to the east and the urban to the rural. Now that the waterway network is largely open, they provide not only an important tourist destination in their own right, but also (uniquely) a vital link between the urban tourist attractions which have not been so badly affected by the foot and mouth crisis and the rural attractions.

  8.  It follows that British Waterways is very interested in ensuring that visitors, both overseas and domestic, are attracted back to the waterways. We believe that attracting visitors back to the waterways will benefit not only businesses along the waterways, but also rural attractions in general due to the link between the urban and the rural that the waterways provide (see below).

Impact of Foot and Mouth on the Waterways

  9.  Although much of the media coverage related to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease (FMD) has focused on the very severe outbreaks concentrated in Cumbria and Devon, there have been many local occurrences close to our waterway network, as the attached map shows*.

  10.  British Waterways realised early on that it would have to take account of the impact a severe outbreak of FMD would have on a wide range of our stakeholders, some of whom had competing interests. Stakeholders likely to be most affected were:

    —  hire, hotel and trip boat operators;

    —  waterside businesses;

    —  farmers;

    —  individual boaters;

    —  local authorities and their communities; and

    —  other towpath users.

British Waterways' Approach to the Crisis

  11.  Our approach has been based on:

    —  listening to the concerns of our stakeholders;

    —  taking the best and most up-to-date independent scientific advice;

    —  communicating frequently and clearly with all those affected; and

    —  backing up our decisions effectively on the ground through our local staff.

  12.  We established a crisis team headed by our Operations Director, Stewart Sim. This meets regularly and ensures rapid and consistent response to the developing situation. The Executive Director of the British Marine Industries Federation is also a full member of the team.

  13.  Our aim throughout has been to minimise damage or inconvenience to all concerned. In particular we sought to look after the interests of the tourism industry whilst retaining the confidence of the farming community.

  14.  The FMD outbreak began on 20 February. We kept the position under constant review, whilst preferring to keep all the waterways open until closures became inevitable.

  15.  On 2 March, we took the difficult decision to close most of our rural sections of waterway (about 70 per cent of the network) to both boating and all other uses. A major factor in this decision was the attitude of local authorities. Approximately 30 per cent of our towpaths are designated rights of way, and most local authorities were using their special powers to close them. Eventually, some 600 miles of towpaths were closed by local authorities. In addition, most local authorities asked us to shut our own permissive access paths and stop navigation.

  16.  About 30 per cent of the network, much of it in urban areas, remained open for boating and other activities and has remained so throughout the FMD outbreak.

  17.  We immediately extended our office opening hours to make staff available to answer users' questions. We set up special facilities on our website to keep people updated. Traffic on our website has increased by 50 per cent.

  18.  We delayed payment of hire boat licences (due April) to June to assist the industry with its cash flow.

  19.  We then commissioned ADAS, the well known agricultural and environmental consultancy, to devise a risk assessment procedure that would be acceptable to MAFF and NFU. As soon as this was complete we began to assess all our waterways. Four teams of ADAS and local staff worked continuously for eight days to complete their survey of the whole waterway network, including 4,000 miles of boundary and adjoining land use.

  20.  As soon as a stretch of waterway was cleared to open, we reopened it, putting in special precautionary procedures, such as disinfection facilities or signing as required. The waterways began to reopen for boating on 28 March. By 4 April, the whole waterway network was reopened to boating. The only exceptions were waterways still closed by planned engineering works.

  21.  In parallel, we began the risk assessment of major visitor sites, angling facilities at reservoirs and rural towpaths. Four major angling facilities reopened and rural towpaths began to reopen from 2 April.

  22.  The Deputy Prime Minister announced on 12 April that 1,000 miles of canal towpath are now open. John Prescott said

  "This is excellent news. I am delighted British Waterways is opening up its canal towpaths wherever they can safely without undermining efforts to stop the spread of foot and mouth.

  Canalside attractions and hundreds of miles of waterways and towpaths are now open to visitors this Easter. I urge people to take advantage of this and visit.

  I'd like to thank British Waterways for all their hard work making this possible."

  23.  Throughout this process, we kept up continuous communication with our stakeholders. As well as telephone calls and face to face meetings, we sent out four letters and briefing packs to:

    —  hire and hotel boat operators;

    —  riparian MPs;

    —  the 9,000 individuals and companies registered on our special e-mail update service (including prospective domestic and overseas visitors);

    —  local landowners; and

    —  staff.

  24.  The Environment Agency and Manchester Ship Canal, amongst others, followed our process and used exactly the same method of risk assessment procedure that we had developed with ADAS.

The current situation

  25.  We remain in constant touch with MAFF as it develops and refines its guidelines on access to the countryside.

  26.  Our whole 2,000 mile river and canal network is open for boating, with precautionary measures in place where necessary.

  27.  Two thirds of towpaths (some 1,000 miles) on our river and canal network are now open to general use.

  28.  We have reopened 11 of our fisheries on reservoirs.

  29.  We have robust assessment and precautionary procedures in place under the process devised for us by ADAS. This will ensure that the waterways will remain open in all but very exceptional circumstances.

  30.  We are represented on Michael Meacher's task force which is looking at measures to alleviate the effects of the crisis on the tourism industry.

  31.  In partnership with the British Tourist Authority, English Tourism Council, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the hire boat industry, we are putting in place a public relations and marketing campaign, "Unlock the Countryside", to kick start the waterway tourism industry and to encourage the public to return sensibly to the rural parts of our network. Support from the Committee in achieving our aims will be very welcome.

  32.  We are keeping in touch with our stakeholders and ensuring they are as well informed as possible.

  33.  Although some individuals and organisations facing difficult problems have naturally been unhappy, we have been heartened by the significant degree of support from users. This has manifested itself in a large number of letter, e-mails and other expressions of support and thanks. We will use this positive environment to build for the future.

Attracting visitors back to the waterways and the UK

  34.  Now that our waterway network is largely open again for visitors it is vital that steps are taken to attract them back to the waterways.

  35.  We believe that if the waterways are integrated into efforts to promote the United Kingdom as a tourist attraction there will be benefits both to waterway tourist businesses and rural tourist businesses as a whole.

  36.  Because our waterways link the north of the country to the south, the west to the east and the urban to the rural they provide a unique resource to be used in the promotion of rural tourism in the UK. The waterways provide a vital link between the urban tourist attractions which have not been so badly affected by the foot and mouth crisis and the rural attractions.

  37.  When, for example, hire boat holidays on the waterways are promoted to overseas visitors, not only does this have a positive effect on the hire boat industry itself, but also on the rural tourism industry as a whole, as those visitors who take the trip on the hire boat also stop at rural tourist destinations along their route.

  38.  The link between the urban and the rural that the waterways provide could be useful in marketing the rural tourist industry as a whole. The perception that the countryside is closed is prevalent in the UK and abroad at the moment. However, if people realise that the waterways are open, through their promotion as a destination, it swiftly leads to the realisation that in fact there are destinations in the rural areas which are safe and attractive to visit throughout the UK. If a group of specific rural attractions (for example a series of stately homes) were to be promoted it might cause the perception that there are isolated parts of the rural areas which are open for business, but the countryside as a whole is not. The great strength of the waterways is that because they run throughout the UK, linking diverse areas together, the waterways can help change the perception of the situation regarding rural tourism as a whole.

  39.  Therefore, we believe that attracting visitors back to the waterways will benefit not only businesses along the waterways, but also rural attractions in general, due to the link between the urban and the rural that the waterways provide.

Conclusion

  40.  We believe that Britain's waterways offer an extremely important destination for tourists from Britain and overseas. After undertaking a rigorous risk assessment procedure we have been able to open all of our network to boating and two thirds of our towpaths for general use despite the foot and mouth crisis. We believe that now the waterways have a very important role to play in attracting visitors back to Britain's countryside, and with the right promotion and provision of information to tourists, could be instrumental in the recovery of Britain's rural tourism industry.

  41.  British Waterways calls on the Committee to recognise the importance of Britain's waterways in their inquiry. British Waterways suggests that the UK's waterways should be integrated into efforts to promote the UK as a tourist destination and the provision of tourism information to domestic and overseas visitors in response to the current outbreak of foot and mouth disease. This integration should include specific additional funding.

  42.  We are happy to provide more details or give oral evidence if requested.

April 2001


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