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


Memorandum by the Parliamentary Waterways Group (IW 69)

THE POTENTIAL OF INLAND WATERWAYS

INTRODUCTION

  The Parliamentary Waterways Group is an official All-Party Group of the House of Commons. It is made up of 10 Peers and 38 MPs of all parties and 86 Associate Members from organisations and individuals with a variety of interests in the waterways. Regular meetings are held with specialist speakers. The Group's Terms of Reference are attached (Appendix A).

1.  THE ROLE OF INLAND WATERWAYS IN RESPECT OF:

(a)  Urban and rural regeneration

  Waterways are ideal as catalysts for urban and rural regeneration and there is a welcome statement in Waterways for Tomorrow (WFT) that the Government will promote this (6.54/2). To evaluate the statement properly, Members would need to see details of what this promotion will entail.

  It is good to see that the Government "expect(s) new waterside development and waterside improvement and restoration to respect, conserve and, if possible, enhance the waterway scene, creating a worthwhile legacy." (WFT 6.42/2). This expectation needs to be translated into action via planning policies which ensure the conservation of the waterway landscape and heritage, not forgetting the view from the waterway.

  Where housing is built beside waterways, a good standard of properties is needed to encourage the lasting nature of the regeneration. Numbers of waterside wharves have been used for speculative housing, resulting in the loss of the wharf. Wharves are facilities vital for freight transport and essential for the development of the waterways for freight in the future.

  Planning policies need to ensure wharves are retained and that building materials and rubbish are carried by water during any new building or industrial activity on watersides.

(b)  Leisure, recreation and the industrial heritage

  The Environment Agency (EA) and British Waterways (BW) are the largest managers of inland waterways. They have statutory responsibilities for leisure and recreation. Their Government funding needs to be adequate to ensure safety and to provide and maintain basic facilities such as locks and towpaths.

  Members welcome the statement that the Government "will support the greater recreational use of the waterways for all, including the towpaths and waterside paths, where practicable" (WFT 6.16/2) and "supports the provision of passenger boat services . . . wherever practicable and economic" (WFT 6.60). Details of the nature of the support proposed would be helpful. It is also good to note progress being made towards an option for through-ticketing for boats on different waterways by means of reciprocal licences. Members would welcome extension of the through-ticketing arrangements to freight craft.

  Many of BW's towpaths have been adopted as long-distance cycleways without the safeguards advised by Members being adopted. Waterside paths are not generally wide enough for cycles to be ridden past pedestrians with safety; if pushchairs or wheelchairs are involved the problem is compounded. Members are very concerned about the lack of supervision and lack of power for the authorities to restrain excessive speeds.

  There is a considerable problem of cyclists assuming they have priority on the towpaths and speeding with scant regard for pedestrians and anglers. They fail to slow down at locks and bridges, creating a potentially life-threatening hazard to themselves and other towpath users. Government should ensure this is addressed as a matter of urgency.

  Government should give the Countryside Agency the task of ensuring all towpaths are adopted as pedestrian rights of way (not bridleways) within a reasonable timescale.

(c)  The environment and the enhancement of wildlife

  The Government supports the protection, conservation and enhancement of the natural environment (WFT 6.42/1). Some detail of the support envisaged would be helpful. There is a danger of differences of opinion between agencies and user groups, for example over the type of management of vegetation.

  Well-established waterway restoration schemes should not be subject to long-term postponement because of such disagreements. Precedents exist for successfully establishing havens for rare species away from the main line of canal and therefore allowing restoration to progress.

  Some waterway areas are designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), for instance because a rare plant is growing on or by the channel. This may result in restrictions on use of that waterway for leisure or freight. We believe that in cases where the original reason for designation has disappeared (if the plant has died out), there is no mechanism for removing the designation. A mechanism should be introduced as soon as possible, since there is no reason for the SSSI to remain if the reason for designation has gone.

  Members are glad to see that the Government "will encourage navigation authorities to provide and promote facilities for electric boats where practical and economic". (WFT 6.42/5) it would be helpful to know what form the encouragement will take. Members would also point out that internal combustion engines for boats are not environmentally unacceptable and new design developments increase their acceptability.

(d)  Water transfer, drainage and telecommunications

  We support the projects listed above as a good source of revenue for navigation authorities, provided they do not detract from the enjoyment of (a) to (e) above. For example, telecommunications companies failing to reinstate the towpath properly after laying cables.

2.  Freight Transport

  The Group supports the Government's Integrated Transport policy and looks forward to waterways being maintained for freight in a complementary fashion with road and rail. The waterborne freight industry is extremely willing to support Government policy in this regard, however, operators are doubtful whether in the short term they will have sufficient craft available unless they are given grant-aid or financial incentives to refurbish former commercial transport boats. The question of disappearing wharfage is also of concern, see 1(a) above.

  BW are obliged to maintain their Commercial Waterways for freight under the 1968 Transport Act. The White Paper which preceded the Act envisaged that BW would set up a separate Freight Division which would operate the commercial waterways in such a manner that they would pay for themselves. However, BW wound up their Freight Division several years ago.

  Member have considerable doubts as to whether BW are yet encouraging freight transport sufficiently on their waterways to comply with this legislation. Anomalous charges for freight boats on EA waterways should be addressed. Track Access Grants should be extended to cover waterborne freight to give parity with rail.

  While freight will naturally be concentrated on inland waterways associated with the larger estuaries, Government should ensure that operations on smaller waterways are not deterred by local or national policy.

  Freight transport should be a high priority for waterways which are capable of taking suitable boats or where conversion is a practical possibility, for example the Thames. Navigation authorities should be encouraged to develop strategies for freight use.

3.  Priorities and complementary status

  The legal status of the BW waterways is defined in the Transport Act 1968. The waterways are classified into Commercial, Cruising and the remainder. The first two categories define the priorities for their management. BW are charged with finding uses for the Remainder and have done so in many cases, with them being restored and reclassified as Cruising. The upgrading of the rest should be energetically supported by Government.

  All the activities listed in the headlines above have the potential to be complementary. If they are not in any area the necessary steps should be taken to ensure they become so. The Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council (IWAAC) has a role to play in helping to relieve conflicts between leisure users where these arise on the waterways of BW.

  Waterside developments should take into account the needs and views of users, particularly the need to include facilities for waterside leisure and boating, otherwise the waterways will become sterile ponds.

4.  Adequate policies, mechanisms and funding in `Waterways for Tomorrow'?

  WFT is very encouraging in its tone of support for the various activities and future improvements listed. Its policies for freight transport are to some extent explicit and Members welcome this warmly, however they would wish this to be taken even further (see 2 above).

  However, there is a certain lack of concrete detail and it would be helpful if a supplement were to be published indicating exactly what form the Government's support will take. If this is not financial, it would also be helpful to have calculations of the necessary funding and from where it is suggested this should be obtained.

  It would be helpful to have a definition of "development" as used in WFT, since this is not spelt out and it is not always clear whether property development, commercial development or leisure development is meant, and not therefore easy to evaluate the proposals.

  As far as boat licensing is concerned. Members feel there is a danger that licensing authorities will "kill the goose that lays the golden eggs". Steep increases in charges, coupled with a zealous insistence on safety modifications for which there appears to be little justification, have alienated a significant proportion of the public, a number of whom have left the waterways.

5.  Ownership

  Canals: members support BW continuing to own its canals, providing there is no erosion of the safeguards as to maintenance standards and retention of waterways contained in the 1968 Transport Act.

  They welcome the Waterways Trust taking over the Rochdale and Huddersfield Canals, since it has ensured the completion of the restorations, however this provides no guarantee for the long-term future of these waterways and they would be concerned if the Trust were to begin to acquire large numbers of canals. Members are concerned about the transparency and independence from BW of the Waterways Trust.

  Canals and Rivers: They support the power vested in EA to become the navigation authority for waterways which at present have none.

  Ownership is not an apposite term in relation to river waterways, whether freshwater or tidal. Stewardship would make the legal circumstances clearer. No authority owns the rivers outright. Many rivers are subject to public right of navigation, confirmed in the 1968 Transport Act in the case of BW.

  Associate members are extremely concerned to uphold these rights, and are worried that there is to be yet another review of EA's navigation responsibilities (WFT 5.10/3). They would object most strongly to the management of navigation on their rivers and tidal waterways being removed from EA, since EA are committed to catchment management and partnerships which have worked satisfactorily for many years. They feel in the last five years a good deal of progress has been made by EA and to lose this would be a retrograde step.

  This concern is reflected in the chorus of disapproval from those on the EA river waterways to the proposal that management of navigation of the Nene and Ouse should be removed from EA and put under the management of BW. It should be noted that for the DETR to resurrect this proposal every few years it is not helpful for stable management of these waterways, or for co-operation between navigation authorities.

  EA waterways are managed by local plans in each catchment. Members approve the principle of catchment management as an effective method, managing all the various activities and issues on waterways together, rather than isolating one activity such as navigation or fisheries. Users are enthusiastic about this process, appreciating that each activity represented on the local committee has a voice and an opportunity to reach a consensus with other users in producing the rolling five-year plan.

  They feel part of management and feel their needs are being met. This is reflected in the enthusiastic response of users to the idea that EA should continue to manage their navigations and in the smaller number of complaints made to this Group about EA as compared with BW waterways.

  There is a role in the Association of Inland Navigation Authorities (AINA) for navigation authorities to share advice and experience on policies and byelaws, however there is a danger in over-uniformity that the distinctive qualities and approach of independent waterways will be lost, depriving the waterways of some of their attraction to users and hence revenue.

  Members would prefer to see greater transparency in the operation of AINA and believe EA should be bigger players, particularly bringing in their expertise on safety, flood prevention, water resources and pollution control.

6.  Other matters

  It is encouraging to see the role of volunteers on the waterways is now recognised and used. Volunteers have become extremely professional in their approach.

  There is a need for greater transparency in BW, where Members feel the reasoning behind decisions on consumer affairs is often not made available. Their customer charter is not always adhered to, for instance in the time taken to reply to and act upon letters of matters of concern.

  Users are concerned that the remit of the Waterways Ombudsman was diminished by BW, especially the removal of the power to deal with legal matters.

  Members are disappointed to see residential boats are not mentioned in WFT. This form of living is recognised by navigation authorities and has an important role to play, for example in providing the security of a regular presence at vulnerable mooring sites.

7.  Conclusion

  WFT is most encouraging in its general approach. Further detail is required before this Group can assess the effectiveness of its proposals and the scale of implementation. Members look forward to contributing to the debate in future.

October 2000


 
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