Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by English Nature (IW 38)


  Our submission concentrates on canals, and our principal conclusions and recommendations are:

  1.  Parts of the canal network in England have developed as areas of high biodiversity value, because of good water quality and physical stability. We recommend that, on the small part of the canal network designated SSSI, nature conservation should be a "principal use". This does not necessarily preclude other uses, and each case should be treated on its merits.

  2.  We believe that there should not be an automatic presumption for the restoration or development or navigation on inland waterways. Proposals should be subject to environmental impact assessment, and a condition of funding bodies should be that applications contain measures for protecting existing areas of high biodiversity and enhancing other areas for wildlife.

  3.  A number of SSSIs have been damaged in the past by canal restoration and subsequent management for leisure and recreation. However, we are encouraged by the policies in British Waterways and Biodiversity (British Waterways, 2000) and by the sensitive and co-operative approach demonstrated by British Waterways in the current restoration of the Rochdale Canal, part of which is proposed as a European Special Area of Conservation (SAC).

  4.  It is possible to enhance the biodiversity value of inland waterways through imaginative and sensitive management, whilst retaining their primary use for freight, boating or other recreational pursuits. Other impacts on the environmental quality of canals arising from sewage discharges, diffuse pollution, dewatering and hard engineering, must also be addressed to improve the canal environment for people and for wildlife.

  5.  English Nature supports the Government's policy framework set out in Waterways for Tomorrow, including the proposal from IWAAC that each waterway should have a plan, developed by open consultation and with special regard to its historical and ecological character.


  1.1  English Nature is the statutory body that champions the conservation and enhancement of the wildlife and natural features of England. We do this by:

    —  advising—Government, other agencies, local authorities, interest groups, business, communities, individuals;

    —  regulating—activities affecting the special nature conservation sites in England;

    —  enabling—helping others to manage land for nature conservation, through grants, projects and information;

    —  enthusing—advocating nature conservation for all and biodiversity as a key test of sustainable development.

  1.2  In fulfilling our statutory duties, we:

    —  establish and manage National Nature Reserves;

    —  notify and safeguard Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs);

    —  advocate to government departments and others effective policies for nature conservation;

    —  disseminate guidance and advice about nature conservation; and

    —  promote research relevant to nature conservation.

  1.3  Through the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, English Nature works with sister organisations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to advise Government on UK and international nature conservation issues.


  2.1  Inland waterways—canals and navigated rivers—can be important habitats for wildlife. In England, some 40 stretches of, mainly, headwater or remainder canals have been notified since 1949 as Sites of Special Scientific Interest by English Nature (or its predecessor bodies). The River Wye, including the navigable part, is an SSSI and candidate Special Area of Conservation (SAC). It has not been extensively modified or managed for navigation purposes and Atlantic salmon and other migratory fish can still pass to their upstream spawning areas. Further details of the special wildlife interest—principally aquatic plants—which occurs on the canal system is given in Annex 1.

  2.2  Designated SSSIs represent under 1 per cent of the canal network and a small part of navigable rivers. The Government's objective is to secure 95 per cent of all SSSIs in "favourable condition" by 2010. On some sites this will require positive management measures to be put in place, mainly because of neglect or inappropriate management. Outside designated sites, English Nature will support measures for the enhancement and enjoyment of biodiversity on canals and navigable rivers (eg as "green corridors" in urban and intensively farmed areas).

  2.3  Where rivers or canals are intensively managed for boat traffic, the opportunities for wildlife are reduced. On river navigations such as the Nene, the main concentration of wildlife is the unnavigated back channels. Nevertheless, imaginative management of vegetation, in the channel and along towpath areas, can considerably enhance these more heavily used waterways. Further details of management for biodiversity are given in Annex 2.

  2.4  English Nature has a close working relationship with the two main navigation authorities—British Waterways and the Environment Agency. Both of these bodies have statutory duties to further nature conservation and to consult English Nature over developments affecting SSSIs. We also work closely with local authorities on waterways such as the Basingstoke Canal SSSI. We have a long-standing dialogue with the Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council, angling bodies and boating interests represented by the Inland Waterways Association.


  3.1  Urban and rural regeneration: Two elements are identified in Waterways for Tomorrow: restoration to navigation of remainder canals and improvement and development of canals and canal sides. Considerable public and private investment is going into both these areas. English Nature believes that enhancements for wildlife should be integrated in these schemes. These might include remedying pollution problems, such as removal of heavy metal sediments, planting of native species and creation of offline bays and green corridors. We are encouraged by the approach taken by British Waterways on the Rochdale Canal, which could serve as a model for other restorations. Regeneration projects should not proceed at the expense of areas of canal that already have a high wildlife interest. This needs to be taken into account at the selection stage. English Nature has advised IWAAC of where proposed restorations might impinge on important wildlife sites.

  3.2  Leisure, recreation, tourism and the industrial heritage: Inland waterways are now used predominantly for leisure and recreation. Potential problems for wildlife come not only from people pressure, but from development of infrastructure and management to support particular commercial leisure uses. We welcome the commitment from British Waterways to promote biodiversity as a "key part of what British Waterways is all about" (British Waterways and Biodiversity). Delivery of such a commitment will not be a straightforward task, particularly where protection of biodiversity will require restrictions on boat movements. Furthermore, other aspects of canal use and management are not all in British Waterways control.

  3.3  Examples of recent failures to achieve sustainable management, incorporating biodiversity considerations are:

    (a)  Development of a marina on the Ashby canal has resulted in damage to an SSSI section and goes against the principle set out in Waterways for Tomorrow (6.29) "Waterways must be managed in a way that conserves and, if possible enhances their environmental value". The SSSI is about 12 km long and ends just north of Snarestone, Leicestershire, where boats have to turn around. Diverse reeded edges have been concreted as moorings for boats, and the canal bank has been reinforced within the SSSI using steel piles (other more sensitive techniques are available). Aquatic bankside vegetation can be seen floating along the SSSI section, torn out by craft. The water is turbid, and few of the aquatic plants for which it was designated could be found in a recent survey.

    (b)  Removal of the close season for coarse fishing on non-SSSI canals for angling from March 2000 will lead to increased disturbance on the breeding season for waterway birds and the potential intensification of fisheries management (eg stocking) in or near to stretches of canal of high biodiversity interest. This decision was made by MAFF on the advice of the Environment Agency, but was not supported by English Nature and some angling bodies.

    (c)  Towpaths can facilitate the quiet enjoyment of canals and their wildlife. Cycling, although generally a leisure pursuit which does little harm to wildlife, gives cause for concern in the development of asphalted mini-highways within the Sustrans Natural Cycle Network Project.

  3.4  The "quiet enjoyment" of canals by those who walk along the towpath is entirely compatible with wildlife conservation, and the provision of interpretative facilities may enhance their visits.

  3.5  The environment and the enhancement of wildlife: The importance of aquatic plantlife in canals is recognised in British Waterways and Biodiversity, which states most of our canal SSSIs are designated because of water plants—having either an unusual variety of species or special rare ones, such as floating water plantain. Canals are also important for dragonflies, crayfish, bats and water voles (see Annex 1 for further details).

  3.6  English Nature recommends that those 40+ sections of inland waterways which are of high biodiversity value (ie SSSIs or nature reserves) should be protected and sustained by sensitive management. SSSIs are less than 1 per cent of the canal network, normally in end sections or remainder canals, so their conservation should not impinge unduly upon other interests.

  3.7  Our recommendation equates to "principal use" for nature conservation in designated wildlife sites. However, this need not exclude other uses, though their integration will require sensitive management. This is illustrated by the current restoration project on the Rochdale Canal, which has been proposed as a SAC for floating water-plantain. The British Waterways ecologist has an executive role alongside BW engineers, and English Nature has been working closely with BW in the scheme design. The result is that, in appropriate stretches, two thirds of the channel width will eventually be restored to navigation and one third will be set aside as a habitat for aquatic plants. On other canal SSSIs, it may not be feasible to create a shared channel, and boating may have to be restricted—perhaps concentrating on operating craft to show visitors the special wildlife interest. In some cases, access may be more appropriate on foot.

  3.8  Elsewhere in the canal network, nature conservation would not be the "principal use", but opportunities for enhancement should be identified and followed through in management plans and restoration projects. The availability to the general public of the waterways network as a peaceful haven to enjoy wildlife, particularly in urban areas, should be valued and developed where appropriate.

  3.9  There is considerable scope for improving environmental conditions on canals, for instance by restoring water levels, controlling pollution and instituting sensitive management practices. Our detailed proposals and recommendations are contained in Annex 2.

  3.10  Water transfer: English Nature can see benefits and disbenefits to wildlife in developing the canal network as a system for water transfer. A more informed view will be reached when details of transfer routes and their water sources are revealed. The ecological impact of water transfer lies, potentially, in temperature differences and nutrient differences between the water source and the receiving water. Increases in water movement could also increase the dispersal of water-borne diseases such as fungi and viruses affecting fish populations and the spread of alien invasive species such as Japanese knotweed, New Zealand pygmy weed and American crayfish.

  3.11  Releasing water from upland reservoirs down rivers before it reaches the canal system will have an impact on the ecology of such rivers, especially aquatic invertebrates and plants, through scouring effects. However, rivers below existing reservoirs have been impacted over a number of years and, unless new sources are exploited or rates significantly increase, transfers into canals will not make a significant difference.

  3.12  The introduction of colder water into canals could extend the life cycle of those invertebrate species having an aquatic larval form. Such differences may be nullified as the water moves further away from its source. It could also be argued that the canal environment is over-warm, and invertebrate life cycles have been artificially shortened as a result.

  3.13  Beneficial effects could occur due to increase of flows, improving water quantities, oxgenation, and dilution of pollution. The introduction of more nutrient-poor water (eg from uplands in Wales or the north of England) might reduce some of the effects of eutrophication or hypertrophication (see Annex 2).

  3.14  Drainage. Run off from agricultural systems can result in nutrient pollution (see Annex 2). Road run-off and storm-water discharges can result in oils and other pollutants, such as salt in the winter, entering the canal system. We recommend, where appropriate and certainly in new developments, the creation of balancing lakes or ponds and the installation of silt traps as part of planning design to reduce the impact of rainfall run-off.

  3.15  Telecommunications: The recent contract to use towpaths as a means of providing a route for a cable network had sufficient environmental safeguards included in it that the damage to the canal environment was of a temporary nature. There are likely to be more such uses made of towpath land, and English Nature will be consulted over any future proposals affecting SSSIs.

  3.16  Waterways for tomorrow: English Nature believes that the Government's Waterways for Tomorrow is an important and timely document. It contains a substantial section on the natural environment, which emphasises the protection and enhancement of biodiversity and recognises the potential conflict between some restoration proposals and SSSIs. It further supports IWAAC's proposal that each waterway should have a plan, developed by open consultation and with special regard to its historical and ecological character.

  3.17  Structure of ownership of waterways: roles and responsibilities: Waterways for Tomorrow encourages partnerships to take forward the potential of inland waterways. Apart from the Environment Agency, the Broads Authority and British Waterways, there are a number of smaller navigation authorities. There is also a statutory advisory body on BW canals—IWAAC. The Association of Inland Navigation Authorities was formed in 1996, though it has not had a high profile and has not, as far as we are aware, been concerned with the protection and enhancement of the biodiversity of inland waterways. Lastly, a Waterways Trust has recently been established with a role which includes promotion of restoration, provision of facilities for leisure use and protection of the natural and built environment.

  3.18  English Nature has some concerns that the Waterways Trust and other smaller navigation trusts do not have statutory duties to further conservation and protect SSSIs. The ownership of the Rochdale Canal SSSI has been transferred to the Waterways Trust. For this restoration, the Trust is using the engineering and environmental expertise of British Waterways. In future restorations, this may not be the case. Waterways for Tomorrow recommends that all waterways authorities should draw on the conservation and management expertise within British Waterways, but it is not clear how this will be realised.

  3.19  Making British Waterways the navigation authority for all canals could help to achieve best practice in waterway management and conservation standards. English Nature has previously supported the retention of river navigations by the Environment Agency, because of its wider responsibilities towards rivers. However, we believe there may be a case for the Agency to concentrate more in future on its environmental quality functions, as outlined in its recent consultation paper Creating an environmental vision (Environment Agency, 2000).


  4.1  We have included a separate section on restoration of navigation, as it is recognised in Waterways for Tomorrow that "there has been conflict between navigation and environmental objectives, mainly when disused canals are being restored" (6.35). There are 76 proposed canal restorations (Waterways Restoration Priorities, IWAAC, 1998). Canal restoration seems to attract significant lottery funds—eg Kennet and Avon, Rochdale—and there is an impetus, particularly from local waterway groups, to work through the full programme.

  4.2  The current restoration proposals affect 17 of the 40 SSSIs in England in canal channels, and a further nine SSSIs and four Wildlife Trust Reserves are adjacent to a proposed canal restoration. Three of the proposed restorations impinge on candidate SAC sites. Most of the proposed restorations involve BW-owned canals and the new Waterways Trust. Some of the canals are Local Authority owned.

  4.3  English Nature believes that there should not be an automatic presumption that all remainder canals, especially the SSSI stretches, should be restored to navigation. Educational use and access by foot are legitimate uses of the canal network. The decision should be based on criteria which are promulgated, perhaps by IWAAC, and would include a full environmental impact assessment, especially where an SSSI is involved. English Nature would be pleased to advise on such criteria. Waterways for Tomorrow refers (6.31) to guidance produced by the Environment Agency for bodies proposing to restore or create new navigations. We commented on the draft produced by the Agency. It contained a presumption in favour of all restoration proposals, and we felt that some of the hypothetical examples underplayed the importance of biodiversity in the canal environment.

  4.4  As we have pointed out elsewhere in our submission—with the example of the Rochdale Canal—restoration can, in certain cases, enhance the wildlife interest, eg by rewatering dry or low-flow sections, widening the canal to allow passage of boats without destroying the aquatic plants and providing off-line havens for wildlife. In the past, restorations have been carried out piecemeal often by voluntary restoration societies. The recent on-going restoration of the non-SSSI section of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal was started without consideration to its biodiversity, since much of the initial work was restoring a channel in a town centre. Where work started on repair of bridges and viaducts, the BW ecologist worked alongside the engineers to create appropriate channel designs, safeguarding the white-clawed crayfish and bat colonies.

  4.5  We recommend that an environmental impact assessment is undertaken before any restoration proposals are submitted for funding and that protection of areas of high biodiversity value plus enhancement for wildlife of other parts of the waterway are included as a condition by the Waterways Trust, planning authorities, the Heritage Lottery Fund and other funding bodies. This will help to ensure that the principles of sustainable development are applied to the restoration and management of the canal network.

English Nature

28 September 2000

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