Fears grow for waterways as canal jobs are cut

Boating enthusiasts, walkers and others who enjoy relaxing by canals were on the warpath last night after British Waterways announced plans to cut 180 staff, putting some routes at risk of closure.

The budget for Britain's 2,200 miles of waterways will also be cut, by £7m over five years, and that could mean maintenance is frozen, new developments are put on hold and higher fees for using canals.

Around a third of the job cuts are to come from plans to merge two of British Waterways' regional operations - its West Midlands and "Central Shires" arms.

About another 60 jobs are set to go from its central office, with a similar number being cut from across its other waterway units, it said. Overall, British Waterways hopes to save around £5m year from the overhaul.

The organisation's board is expecting a stormy annual meeting tomorrow with shareholders, who represent some of Britain's 29,000 recreational users of canals. The Waterways minister, Barry Gardiner, was invited to the meeting but last night officials said he would not be attending.

David Miliband, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was blamed for slashing grants to British Waterways to compensate for alleged Government incompetence over its chaotic rural payments scheme.

Mr Miliband was forced to find savings of £200m after the EU imposed pen-alties for late payments to farmers and the Treasury refused to bail him out.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, who championed the waterways when he was in charge of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), spoke with pride about his record on canals in his speech at the annual Labour party conference in Manchester. One waterways official said last night his speech had been turned into a sick joke.

The Boating Alliance, an umbrella group for canal users, lobbied Mr Prescott and Mr Miliband at the Labour conference to reverse the cuts without success. An Alliance official said: "This has been inflicted on the waterways because of a Government cock-up.We are being penalised because of the Government's own incompetence. It's totally unfair."

The heaviest used canals will be protected, leaving at risk "landlocked" waterways such as the Monmouth to Brecon canal and cul de sac canals such as the Chesterfield canal or the Caldon canal which links the Trent and the Mersey.

In March, Defra notified British Waterways its grant would be cut by five per cent or £3.1m. British Waterways adjusted its budget but, in August, Defra announced a further cut of 7.5 per cent (£4.5m), with the possibility of a further 2.5 per cent cut in November.

The Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Chris Huhne said: "It's not just our canal networks that will suffer but a whole range of environmental services."