From April 2012, the waterways network will be run as a charity, with membership schemes and flag days on towpaths. Roger Ratcliffe reports on the new heritage trust for canals.
Anyone who loiters near to the Five Rise Locks at Bingley on a fine day, watching narrowboats pass unhurriedly up and down the flights, will know that for all those involved it's a labour of love.
The days of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal being a scene of unremitting drudgery – with loads of coal, limestone, cereals, woollens and textiles carried back and forth across the Pennines – are long gone.
And for many people, the announcement that the 2,200 miles of waterways will be run by a National Trust-like charity in a little under 18 months may have been greeted with puzzlement.
Surely, many thought, the 250-year-old canal system has operated like a heritage trust for years. And for the past decade there has been a charity, called the Waterways Trust, working to enhance people's enjoyment of rivers and canals.
Much larger still is the Inland Waterways Association, also a charity, which campaigns for the maintenance and restoration of waterways in the UK.
However, despite its appearance, the waterways network has been a government-owned business since 1948 when – like the railways – it was nationalised. But through the 1950s and 1960s fewer income-generating commercial cargos were moved on the system, while the number of licensed pleasure craft multiplied year after year.
Now only a few canals are still used for moving bulk goods, the Yorkshire ones being the Aire and Calder Navigation, the Calder and Hebble Navigation and South Yorkshire Navigation.
So, as little more than a throwback to a bygone era, the canals were never going to become part of a modern, turbo-charged transport network. With their strategic communications function thus dwindling there was less and less reason for the system to be owned and controlled by the government, and for the last decade this has left the state-owned British Waterways (BW) unable to plan its future operations and created uncertainty for its 1,700 staff.
The amount of government grant for upkeep of the canals – now running at slightly more than 50m a year – was constantly under threat of reduction.
Also, the large income earned from developing adjacent land like goods yards and other properties owned by the old waterways companies had begun to provide a significant part of British Waterways' income, and yet three times in recent years the previous government had attempted to sell off these assets.
Against that background, 18 months ago BW decided to try and take control of its own destiny by publishing a report suggesting that it move into the so-called "third sector" – not public, not private, but a charitable trust.
Simon Salem, British Waterways' director of marketing and communications, believes the National Trust is a good model for the new charity because, like the NT, it will be preserving much-loved historic structures for the enjoyment of future generations.
Few would argue against the concept. In their own way, the 127-mile Leeds-Liverpool and the 20-mile Huddersfield Narrow canals are just as historic, in need of preservation and important for leisure as the National Trust's properties like Fountains Abbey and Brimham Rocks.
Prior to the announcement of the new charity, a lot of market research had quietly taken place on canal towpaths and among narrowboat owners and hirers, and it gave BW the confidence to press ahead with the plan, which was originally expected to take 10 years to implement but has been brought forward because of government spending cuts making the canal network's future even more uncertain.
Mr Salem sees a whole range of activities helping to keep the canals going.
Like the National Trust, he says, the new charity will be able to ask for help directly at the sites they are hoping to preserve – places like the canal towpaths and narrowboat basins. About 13 million people are said to enjoy the waterways every year, and a recent survey showed that 93 per cent of visitors believe them to be an important part of the nation's heritage.
People will be asked to sign up as members, or to pledge a sum of money by standing order each month, or to make a one-off donation, perhaps for a special appeal.
Those who take canal boat holidays will be offered the chance to make year-round contributions to the charity. There will also be forms to fill in for things like Gift Aid – allowing the charity to claim back the basic rate of tax paid by donors – or to promise legacies.
If British Waterways were already a charity, Mr Salem says, it would be the UK's 13th largest by income, comparable to charities such as the British Red Cross and Barnardo's.
"We will say to people, 'Look, this is a wonderful part of our heritage we look after, so won't you help us?' Our research shows that people are prepared to give us something in the order of four or five pounds a month. Some bigger charities are able to raise seven or eight pounds a month, so we believe it's not a hopeless cause."
Government money will still go into the waterways system, but progressively not as much as before. There are also earnings from the property portfolio and other sources. For example, British Waterways earns 7m a year for allowing telecommunications cables to be laid in the waterways. And, of course, there is income from boat and angler licenses.
"But we've got to move with the grain of the times," says Mr Salem. "Which means we have all got to find new ways
to help ourselves because there won't be as much money coming
out of the state as there once was."
The new waterways trust will also set up teams of volunteers to help run canals. An experimental Towpath Rangers scheme in the past year was considered a great success.
And local management boards with representatives from boaters,
anglers and other interest groups will be set up.
Peter Scott, chairman of the Inland Waterways Association's
North-east region, is optimistic about the new charity's chances of success.
"We think it will be a better arrangement for the waterways. Currently, the government department responsible, DEFRA, has much wider interests and puts waterways low in its spending plans.
"There's plenty of goodwill towards canals. There's already hundreds of people engaged in waterways restoration at places like the Pocklington, Huddersfield Narrow and Rochdale canals.
"But looking into the future we'll need a whole new generation of people who are prepared to commit their time and money to keep the waterways open.
"I don't think British Waterways are being unrealistic. There are many people out there who will rise to the cause of our waterways," said Mr Scott.
YP MAG 1/1/11