Britain's Canals: Water works

A £15m extension to the Leeds-Liverpool Canal is the latest stage in the renaissance of the British network. Ian Herbert goes on a cruise around the nation's 1,988 miles of inland waterways
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The Independent Online

It was a far cry from the halcyon days of the 1950s when cruise liners swept magisterially up to Princes Dock, but thoughts of a new fleet of boats are causing excitement in the proudly maritime city of Liverpool.

The city's planning officers have indicated that they approve of a proposed new half-mile canal, planned to run parallel to the river Mersey. This creates the likelihood that by the time Liverpool becomes Europe's Capital of Culture in 2008, 40ft barges will be chugging past the Edwardian Liver and Cunard buildings.

The £15m canal will link the Stanley Dock terminus of the 157-mile Leeds-Liverpool Canal - the longest in Britain's 1,988-mile network of canals - with the shops, museums and galleries, including the Tate's northern outpost, at the Albert Dock. The project will make the transpennine Leeds-Liverpool the only waterway in the world to pass through two heritage sites: the Liverpool waterfront, which won recognition in 2003, and Saltaire, an industrial village on the outskirts of Bradford.

Allowing the British canal network's 20,000 boats access to Liverpool is expected to have profound regenerative effects on a city which, despite its imminent Capital of Culture status, is distinctly lacking in the kind of end-of-millennium landmarks to be found in Newcastle and Manchester.

Fewer than 1,000 boats a year currently reach the Liverpool terminus, leading British Waterways (BW), the developer of the new canal, to consider the city a source of "huge untapped potential". The North-west's regional development agency evidently agrees and has provisionally earmarked the project for millions of pounds of European objective 1 funding. The stretch represents one of the biggest developments on the UK canal network for more than a century, including two canalside amphitheatres to provide a more sheltered environment, increase the all-year round use of the area and create space for public events.

BW's belief that its new canal can deliver "social change, environmental improvement and economic prosperity" might sound slightly far-fetched. But it has considerable evidence to draw on for such pronouncements.

The appeal of living or messing about by the water has been responsible for a rebirth of the canals that were the arteries for the industrial revolution, built to ferry coal, steel and other materials between quarry, mine factory and port. Much of the reconstruction has been centred on northern England, in places such as Standedge, near Huddersfield, where Britain's longest canal tunnel was originally blasted through three and a quarter miles of Pennine rock with the use of gunpowder alone.

Sealed for half a century, it was reopened in 1999 in a £20m project that resurrected the 20-mile transpennine Huddersfield Narrow Canal.

Three years later Britain's first new canal for more than a century, the 3.3-mile Millennium Ribble Link at Preston, Lancashire, was opened. Designed by the engineer John Rennie in 1792 to connect the 58-mile Lancaster Canal and its coalfields to the rest of Britain, it was abandoned for lack of funds.

British Waterways also has its sights set on the northern reaches of the Lancaster Canal, which is the most northerly in the English network. It was cut off in 1968 when parts of the M6 were built over it but grant funding was announced last month towards phase one of a restoration project that includes nine locks, four bridges and two miles of footpaths and cycleways. The link is expected to generate increased tourism revenues, and plans have even been put forward to extend the canal to Kendal, linking the Lake District by water to London for the first time.

At the peak of the restoration efforts, in 2001, canals were being reopened faster than the 200 miles-a-year rate at which they were built in 1800.

There have also been some considerable feats of civil engineering. The Anderton Boat Lift in Cheshire, a masterpiece of Victorian engineering that once hoisted narrow boats 50 feet from the river Weaver to the Trent & Mersey Canal and was known as the "Cathedral of the Canals", reopened after a £3.3m lottery grant topped off years of fund-raising. Anderton costs £90,000 a year to maintain and staff. But the local economy is estimated to have benefited by more than £1m a year from the visitors it attracts. Boaters pay £20 one-way and £30 return to have their craft transported and the trip cuts up to four days off a diversion via the Manchester Ship Canal.

In all, six major canals have been restored in the past few years (the Huddersfield Narrow, Rochdale, Kennet and Avon, Chesterfield, Forth & Clyde, and Union canals) and 220 miles of navigable waterway have been added to the nation's infrastructure.

The only available data on the regenerative effects comes from BW - but it is difficult to reject the conclusion that the public has taken to its new canals like ducks to water. About 80 per cent of leisure and tourism businesses around the Kennet and Avon Canal report an increase in turnover over the past three years, 400 jobs are said to have been created by it and tourism spend is up 20 per cent from 1995 to £26m per annum.

The target figure of 3.5 million visitors a year to the Forth & Clyde and Union canals, in Scotland, has been comfortably achieved and spending from additional visitors is estimated at £1.4m. BW's economic impact studies also estimate that visitors to the re-opened Huddersfield Narrow and Rochdale canals spend £2.5m and £4m respectively each year.

There is also evidence of environmental benefits. The wildlife trusts have reported that otters are among the creatures beginning to use waterways in at least 100 urban centres. And when the Government's policy document on the future of the canals, Waterways for Tomorrow, was launched by John Prescott a few years ago, it was envisaged they could provide a national water grid, in which canals are used like giant open pipes to shift water hundreds of miles from places where rainfall is plentiful (the North-west) to where it is more scarce (the South-east).

"Canals are one of our most important national assets and it's a scandal that for so long they were seen as a liability," Mr Prescott said. "Not so long ago they seemed doomed - they were dying of neglect - and in fact in the Sixties a lot of the canal system had become disused, overgrown and derelict, and there was a real danger that large parts of it would close."

The prospect of canals reacquiring their original transport function - and so saving the planet from gas-guzzling engines - seems improbable. The traditional narrow inland canals with small locks and low arch bridges are much less suited to modern bulk cargoes than those on the Rhine or Danube, for example. But the high street retailer Marks & Spencer is among those to have experimented with canal transport, employing barges to take waste cardboard boxes and packaging from its stores in London along the 157- mile Grand Union Canal to a recycling plant in Birmingham.

British canal freight is concentrated in northern England on officially designated commercial waterways such as the Aire & Calder, Calder & Hebble and Sheffield & South Yorkshire navigations. But the Grand Union received a 450,000-ton contract, equivalent to 43,000 lorry loads, last year, which was transferred from the roads

It is the leisure industry that provides the greatest focus though and, according to BW's critics, the balance between commercially minded development and preservation of the network's charms has tilted too far towards the former. The canal campaign group, Regent's Network, is among those which have criticised BW for focusing on potentially lucrative canalside property developments at the expense of the waterway itself. The organisation, which is committed to the preservation of the Regent's Canal, has voiced concerns about projects such as a luxury flat development in Islington, north London, which it claims was built so close to the waterfront it prevented a lock being used for freight.

The same theme emerged just before Easter in a report published by the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the government department responsible for BW. The department indicated that it felt BW was not focusing on its core task, and highlighted a conflict between its public role and its growing commercial interests in property and marina businesses.

"In the ... consultation, there was a lack of clear understanding about how the public policy objectives sat alongside requirements to act commercially and how priorities were determined," the BW policy review stated. It urged BW to engage more with its stakeholders. Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, indicated he felt BW saw itself "more as a property company".

BW counters that it must use the assets at its disposal to invest in new construction projects, create the kind of urban canalside regeneration which Mr Prescott has praised in cities such as Leeds and Birmingham and secure the long-term future of the inland waterways.

Liverpool is inclined to agree. Though its new half mile of canal has yet be voted on by councillors, Mike Storey, the leader of the city council, says he considers it a key part of the regenerative effort "The city needs projects of this calibre if it is to make the progress it deserves," he said.

'You couldn't drag me back to a house'

Jean Hicks, 56, a canal boat dweller, has a mooring at Watford, Hertfordshire

"Boats used to have a habit of worrying me - all that keeling over at 45 degrees. My dad and brother were keen on boats and there were seagoing cruises in my childhood, but it wasn't the thing for me. I had spent years of my working life landlocked - living in a house and working as a customer services rep for Abbey National - when I met my husband, Laurie.

"He'd spent 45 years on the waterways, earning a living from painting, restoring and running repairs on canal boats. I was hooked. I spent £13,000 on Colonel Bay - a 40ft boat - and figured that if I didn't take to the life I could always keep it as a holiday boat or sell it. The only serious problem was the size of the boat. I wanted to have my friends aboard, so I extended it.

"The lifestyle wasn't cheap, if you take into account the annual charge for a permanent mooring, typically, between [£2,000 and £4,000]. But that compares well with the cost of buying a house in the South-east. After refurbishing my boat, I thought I would be in it for life. Then we bought Elstree , the beautiful, 72ft barge we have now. Its owners were selling up for a barn in France and wanted us to have the boat because they knew of Laurie's work and that we would look after it. So we picked it up for £50,000 - a giveaway. She was made in 1937 and still has her black cloth sheets and traditional colours of bright red and blue with white stripes.

"The renaissance of the waterway system has changed a few perceptions. People still look at you as if you're slightly mad. But it's not such a 'minority sport' now. Yes, you need bottomless pockets. But you couldn't drag me back to a house now."