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

Memorandum by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (IW 57)


  1.  The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) welcomes the Committee's decision to hold an inquiry into the potential of the inland waterways following the publication of the Government's policy paper Waterways for Tomorrow.


  2.  The inland waterways are a devolved matter. DETR is generally responsible for those in England and Wales, acting together with National Assembly for Wales in the case of Welsh waterways. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is responsible for heritage, tourism and sports aspects of these waterways, and the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) for flood defence (including land drainage) and fisheries.

  3.  DETR sponsors British Waterways (in England and Wales), and the Environment Agency (with MAFF), providing grant-in-aid towards their activities. DETR satisfies itself that the organisations perform efficiently and meet their waterway responsibilities in the most cost-effective way.

  4.  DETR appoints members of the Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council (IWAAC), a statutory body set up to advise the Government and British Waterways about the use and development of the latter's waterways for recreation and amenity purposes. IWAAC is now increasingly providing advice on waterways generally.


  5.  The inland waterways are extremely diverse, comprising a wide variety of natural and artificial watercourses, and other waters. Most of the system is non-tidal and consists mainly of canals, and rivers which have been made navigable. But, there are also some tidal waterways, largely comprising naturally navigable rivers and their estuaries. At present, there are approximately 5,100 kms of fully navigable inland waterways in England and Wales, about 450 kms of which are tidal. There are also about 3,000 kms of unnavigable or abandoned waterways, many of which are being restored.

  6.  About half (2,615 km) of the navigable inland waterways system is managed by British Waterways, and a further quarter by the Environment Agency (875 km) or the Broads Authority (160 km). The remainder is the responsibility of about 30 other navigation authorities drawn from the public, private and voluntary sectors. Some navigation authorities are also harbour authorities.

  7.  The inland waterways were once used mainly for freight transport. This remains an important function for some tidal waterways although the amount carried in national terms is relatively small (about 4 per cent of that moved in the UK[39]). However, the role of most non-tidal waterways has changed radically over the last 30 years. These waterways are now used chiefly for leisure and amenity. They also serve a number of other important purposes ranging from land drainage to regeneration. They are an important part of the country's heritage and make a valuable contribution to the environment.


  8.  The Government's aim is to promote the inland waterways, encouraging a modern, integrated and sustainable approach to their use. It wants to protect and conserve the waterways, while at the same time maximising the opportunities they offer for leisure and recreation; as a catalyst for urban and rural regeneration; for freight transport, and for innovative uses.

  9.  The Government plans to pursue this aim by encouraging all navigation authorities to unlock the full potential of their waterways and to work together in the interests of consistent management. It will also integrate the waterways more effectively with other areas of Government policy. The Government's specific objectives are to:

    —  encourage people to make use of the inland waterways for leisure and recreation, tourism and sport;

    —  support the protection, conservation and enhancement of the waterways' heritage and their built and natural environment, and the use of the waterways as an educational resource;

    —  increase the economic and social benefits offered by the waterways by encouraging their improvement, development and restoration, wherever possible in partnership with the public, private and voluntary sectors;

    —  promote the waterways as a catalyst for urban and rural regeneration;

    —  support the provision of passenger boat services on the inland waterways, wherever practicable and economic;

    —  encourage the transfer of freight from roads to water-borne transport where this is practical, economic and environmentally desirable;

    —  support the development of the inland waterways through the planning system; and

    —  foster partnership among navigation authorities to help harmonise management of the waterways.

  10.  The Committee has said that it wishes to inquire particularly into the following issues.


Urban and rural regeneration

  11.  The inland waterways provide a catalyst for regeneration and are increasingly forming an integral part of urban regeneration initiatives creating jobs and generating income from tourists and other visitors. New housing development finds waterfront locations attractive and exploits the opportunities they provide. The waterways also contribute to rural regeneration by offering opportunities for sensitive development involving small enterprises, tourism and recreation, particularly in market towns and at focal points along waterway corridors.

  12.  Restoring disused waterways to full navigation also contributes to regeneration. Major projects are currently being carried out by partnerships of navigation authorities, local authorities and voluntary bodies including the Waterways Trust, helped by funding from Lottery bodies, Regional Development Agencies (RDAs), and other funding agencies. IWAAC's report Waterway Restoration Priorities provides a comprehensive account of current activity to help funding agencies assess the merits of individual restoration schemes.

  13.  The Deputy Prime Minister has asked Chairmen of the RDAs to take account of waterways in their strategies and actions plans, and to support worthwhile proposals for the improvement, development and restoration of the waterways exploiting the opportunities they offer for wider regeneration initiatives.

Leisure, recreation, tourism and the industrial heritage

  14.  Most inland waterways are now predominantly used for leisure and recreation. This includes boating of all kinds, angling, sport and informal activities such as walking, cycling and exploring the waterways' built and natural environment. Navigation authorities and other waterway bodies are encouraging more people to enjoy the waterways and to improve access for the young and people with disabilities. The waterways are important for tourism. They attract people to both urban and rural areas, and the holiday boat business contributes to local economies.

  15.  The waterways form an important part of the country's heritage. The system has many historic buildings and structures and lengths have been given conservation area status in recognition of their historic quality and local distinctiveness. The Waterways Trust is helping to conserve and promote the waterways. The Trust operates the waterway museums at Ellesmere Port, Gloucester Docks and Stoke Bruerne.

  16.  Two years ago it was proposed that a significant part of the inland waterways system should be given World Heritage status in view of its contribution to the Industrial Revolution. The Government did not accept this suggestion because it considered the proposal would not meet UNESCO's criteria. However, a number of specific waterway sites have been included in the list of Tentative Sites. IWAAC is considering whether there is a case for making a further bid.

The environment and the enhancement of wildlife

  17.  The inland waterways make a valuable contribution to the quality of the landscape and provide a rich and diverse environmental resource. They provide a sanctuary for a wide variety of plants and animals, some of which have become rare elsewhere. Waterway corridors form an important linear wildlife habitat in urban areas and intensively-farmed countryside. Some stretches of waterways have been designated as SSSIs or SPA/SACs in recognition of their nature conservation interest.

  18.  Navigation authorities are seeking to manage their waterways so as to conserve and, if possible, enhance their environmental value. Their aim is to protect the natural environment while at the same time maintaining navigation. British Waterways has produced a framework for waterway wildlife strategies aimed at integrating biodiversity management into its business activities and helping local management teams prepare biodiversity plans for each waterway. The Environment Agency's recently published document Navigation Restoration and Environmental Appraisal: a Guidance Note contains much useful advice for promoters of restoration projects.

  19.  It is important to ensure that nature conservation and navigation interests are reconciled, especially when disused waterways are being restored. The Government considers that the different parties should work together constructively and welcomes the co-operation shown in the case of the Rochdale Canal.

Water transfer, drainage and telecommunication

  20.  It is a natural role of rivers to supply water but some canals are also used for this purpose. British Waterways' canal network offers the potential for a means of transferring water to meet shortages. Studies and pilot schemes have shown that water transfer is technically feasible although alterations to the infrastructure would be necessary, as would careful evaluation of the environmental impact. British Waterways is currently developing proposals for a public/private partnership to exploit its waterways for water transfer.

  21.  Land drainage is also a natural function of rivers, but canals also play an important land drainage role. They have now become an integral part of the land drainage system, some taking storm water discharges from roads.

  22.  Telecommunications is one innovative way in which the waterways are increasingly being used. Fibreway, a joint venture between British Waterways and GEC (now Marconi) has laid fibre optic cables in canal towpaths to provide a network service for data, pictures and voice communications.


  23.  Most of the freight carried on the inland waterways is now found on the tidal waterways falling within the jurisdiction of harbour authorities such as the Thames and Humber, and consists of foreign, coastal and "one-port" traffic. Internal traffic (that which is not sea-going) accounts for less than 1 per cent of freight moved[40] and is confined to only a few waterways, mainly river navigations managed by British Waterways; and the Manchester Ship Canal (which is classed as a harbour).

  24.  The Transport White Paper referred to research which suggested there might be potential to divert about 3.5 per cent of the UK's road freight traffic to water, split between ships re-routing to ports nearer the origin and destination of their loads, and the potential for loads to shift to coastal traffic. This figure took no account of the non-tidal inland waterways, but they are able to contribute to the aim of getting traffic off the roads.

  25.  The Government is keen to encourage greater use of inland waterways for carrying freight, where practical and economic. The greatest scope exists with the tidal waterways administered by harbour authorities but the larger inland river navigations and canals could take more freight traffic, particularly bulk cargoes whose origins and destinations are directly accessible by water: the historic canals are suitable only for niche markets. British Waterways aims to increase the amount of freight carried on its waterways.

  26.  The Government proposes to encourage greater use of the waterways for freight by promoting their use through the revised PPG13; setting up a freight study group; and by enhancing the Freight Facilities Grants (FFG) scheme to encourage more applications for inland waterways projects.

  27.  FFG is currently available for inland waterways schemes where freight would otherwise have gone by road. The Government has accepted an amendment to the Transport Bill which, as well as extending the scheme to coastal and short sea shipping, will enhance the inland waterways FFG scheme. This will allow the payment of grant for non-capital as well as capital costs, and will enable grant to be paid to shipping companies, ports, consignors, consignees and navigation authorities.


  28.  At one time, the principal role of the inland waterways was to transport freight. However, with the virtual disappearance on most waterways of freight traffic, it has been increasingly recognised that the waterways provide a wide range of other uses and opportunities. The Government does not think that it would be appropriate to single out a principal use of the waterways since they are now, in effect, a multi-functional resource.

  29.  The challenge faced by navigation authorities is to sustain their navigation activities which are fundamental to the waterways while, at the same time, maximising all the opportunities offered by other waterway uses, some of whom may present different and potentially conflicting requirements. The challenge will not always be the same because the emphasis will vary from one waterway to another. But it is vital that all navigation authorities manage their waterways effectively to achieve a balance between uses to ensure that the waterways have a sustainable future and deliver all the benefits of which they are capable.


  30.  Waterways for Tomorrow represents the first comprehensive Government statement on the future of inland waterways for more than 30 years. Its demonstration of the Government's commitment to the waterways has been widely welcomed. The Government believes that the policies set out in the document form a sound basis for the future. But, to succeed they will need the wholehearted co-operation not only of waterway bodies but everyone else connected with, or with an interest in the waterways, particularly local authorities, RDAs and funding agencies.

  31.  The Government is taking forward a number of specific initiatives to promote the inland waterways. It will hold a national inland waterways conference; issue guidance on new road proposals which affect restoration projects; and, in due course, issue guidance to RDAs following up the DPM's request to Chairmen. IWAAC has started to prepare, at the Government's invitation, a good practice document which will highlight examples of good planning in explaining how the waterways can contribute to regeneration and other projects.

  32.  Waterways for Tomorrow aims to achieve its objectives principally by promoting better integration of policies and partnerships so as to make more effective use of existing resources. Income for the inland waterways comes from a variety of sources. These might include craft licences, tolls, harbour dues, mooring charges, drainage rates, angling charges or rents, and water sales. The development of waterside land and property brings in additional proceeds. Grants from Europe, Government, regeneration agencies and lottery bodies are sometimes available for specific projects. Local authorities and other bodies also contribute to individual projects.

  33.  British Waterways augments its income by exploiting its non-operational estate, feeding the proceeds back into waterway upkeep, improved facilities and development projects. It is currently working up public private partnerships designed to maximise the development potential of its land holdings. British Waterways' telecommunications initiative will also provide additional income.

  34.  British Waterways and the Environment Agency both receive Government grant towards the cost of meeting their navigation obligations, currently about £59 million and £3 million per annum respectively. Grant has been increased by £9 million and £1 million per annum respectively in the 2000 Spending Review. The Broads Authority receives grant aid from central and local government for its conservation work and recreational management but finances its navigation responsibilities entirely from tolls totalling about £1 million a year.


  35.  The inland waterways system has its origins in local initiatives and has never formed an integrated national network. The present pattern of ownership (ie responsibility for navigation) is largely the result of historical accident.

  36.  About half of the waterways system comprising a mixture of independent and railway company-owned waterways was nationalised in 1948 but the remainder was left in the hands of a wide variety of navigation authorities. Since then there have been many changes. Some have resulted from action taken by navigation authorities: for example, British Waterways has taken over a number of waterways. In other cases changes have occurred as a consequence of Government-sponsored reorganisation. In the latter case the waterways currently managed by the Environment Agency have passed successively from the control of river boards or conservancies, to water authorities, to the National Rivers Authority, to the Agency.

  37.  Navigation authorities have historically managed their waterways in different ways, depending on the nature of the parent body and its wider interests or responsibilities. Navigation is not always the prime function of some bodies. This is illustrated by the three largest navigation authorities:

    —  British Waterways is concerned solely with its waterways. It runs its affairs on a commercial basis consistent with its statutory responsibilities for navigation. It is expected to promote the use of its waterways for leisure and recreation, tourism, regeneration and transport while also conserving their built and natural heritage.

    —  The Environment Agency is primarily an environmental regulatory body which manages its waterways as an integral part of its other water management functions. It has a duty generally to promote the recreational use of waterways and an obligation to operate those for which it is responsible in an efficient and business-like manner.

    —  The Broads Authority manages its waterspace together with surrounding land on national park lines, combining its responsibility for navigation with conservation and recreation. It has a duty to protect navigation interests but this must be balanced with the need to conserve and enhance the Broads' natural beauty and to promote their enjoyment by the public.

  38.  Navigation authorities are increasingly working together to harmonise and rationalise their working practices. The Association of Inland Navigation Authorities (AINA) was formed in 1996 to bring together navigation authorities to share common experiences, to adopt best practice, and to provide a single voice on waterway management issues. The Government supports AINA's efforts to achieve greater consistency in administration.

  39.  British Waterways and the Environment Agency have drawn up a Collaboration Agreement covering a wide range of functions and responsibilities. The Government will review the Agency's navigation responsibilities as part of the quinquennial review of the Agency to be carried out later this year.


  40.  We would be pleased to assist the Committee's inquiry further and to comment on any particular issues that it may wish to pursue.


5 October 2000

39   Waterborne Freight in the United Kingdom 1998: DETR 1999. Back

40   Waterborne Freight in the United Kingdom 1998: DETR 1999. Back

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