The pilot project, to make cyclists pay pounds 12.50 a year, will be introduced on the 87-mile Kennet and Avon Canal. British Waterways, who own the picturesque route which takes in Bath, Devizes and Newbury, says it needs the money to fund two rangers who will patrol the towpaths and to pay for necessary improvements.
But the scheme, which could be extended to the rest of the 2,000 miles of the nation's canals, has whipped up a storm of protest over the normally placid waters of the Kennet and Avon waterway.
The problem for the West Country canal is its success. The waterway is considered a jewel of 18th- and 19th-century engineering. Sightseers flock to the 29 locks at Devizes - the longest flight in Britain - and travel the route to see its splendid stone bridges and neo-classical aqueducts - a trademark of John Rennie, its Victorian engineer.
The well-stocked canal is also a magnet for anglers. "It has some of the best fishing in the country. Its carp and tench alone make it a very, very popular venue," Kevin Green, of the Angling Times, said.
The ramblers and anglers are joined by cyclists, whose numbers British Waterways estimate topped three-quarters of a million last year. Non- bikers say the permit scheme will help curb a "troublesome" minority who race at excessive speed along the canal.
"Cyclists are able to use the bank for free, whereas anglers pay and so do boat owners," said Peter Lea, the chairman of the National Association of Boat Owners. "And what they do not seem to realise is that they can inconvenience other users." He says that "charging pedestrians should be considered", and points out that some boat owners pay pounds 450 a year to keep a vessel on the canal.
The crowded canal banks can see bikers and fisher-folk come to blows when speeding cyclists knock over the carefully arranged poles and nets of anglers. "I think things become a problem in competitions ... you should ask cyclists to walk, say, for half a mile of the canal," said John Major, a member of the Eastern Angling Association.
The cyclists, however, see themselves singled out as a way of raising revenue for British Waterways, whose bill for repairing the canal network exceeds pounds 94m. "The charge has been mooted to raise cash. It is not going to encourage cycling - which the Government is committed to," said Peter Appleby, co-ordinator of the Stop the Cycle Charge campaign.
Mr Appleby says that ministers have pledged to double the number of cycle journeys by 2003 - which is unlikely to happen, he claims, if the scheme goes nationwide. He says the root of the troubles can be traced to a Mergers and Monopolies Commission report on British Waterways in 1994.
This stated that: "There is considerable scope for BWB [British Waterways Board] to expand its share of water-related leisure markets. The MMC recommends that BWB should ... review charging policies."
Government grant to British Waterways has been reduced in real terms by one-third over 12 years. This year's pounds 51m is a shortfall of pounds 7m on the minimum believed necessary to operate and maintain the late 18th- and early 19th-century network. Despite the cash shortfall, the local press is firmly set against the new "canal tax". In a leader entitled "Two legs good, two wheels bad", The Bath Chronicle concludes: "Aggressive cycling beside the canal can be a nuisance but there has to be a better way of stamping it out than penalising the peaceful majority who wish to appreciate the pleasures of the waterway from their saddles."
The fight to reverse British Waterways' decision has started before the first permit has been bought. Local cycling groups are organising a mass trespass for next month and many local bike groups say that the charging regime will badly dent trade.
John Miller, the proprietor of the Bath-based Cycle Surgeon, said: "It's disgusting, the towpath is a civil amenity. It will definitely put people off such as the occasional cyclist who only uses the towpath four or five times a year. This means that less and less people will use the towpath, so the revenue will go down rather than up." Other cyclists say many bike hire shops will have to jack up prices in order to licence their fleets.
Tony Kemp, the British Waterways project manager who suggested the cycle tariff, said that new sources of money were needed to repair the canal's towpaths. He also pointed out that a pounds 3 charge had existed in the early Nineties but had been removed to see if there were ways of getting towpath users to co-exist. The result was not a success. "The new charge will also mean that cyclists are insured; and we are not charging under-16s. I do not think it will affect the numbers of cyclists using the towpaths," he said.
The nation's waterways are seen by the Government as a possible way of shifting traffic from the roads . Ministers are already considering restarting a river bus service on the Thames in London. The thousands of miles of waterways could also provide a cheap and effective way of regenerating depressed areas. Already a number of innovative schemes have been proposed and lottery money could enable the realisation of many projects. Private investors appear keen to develop marinas, waterside restaurants and pubs.
This is little consolation to the cyclists. They point out that the Kennet and Avon Canal received a huge slice of the lottery cake - worth nearly pounds 25m - and cyclists are still being penalised.Reuse content