The State of the Old Canals


I live near the Paddington Arm of the Regent’s Canal. Over forty years I have used it ( and many other canals) for cycling, running and canoeing. What happens to them matters to me, and presumably others who enjoy ‘the quiet waters by’. (I had to get in my first ever quote from a hymn! Brownie point?).   

The waterways used to be under the wing the state, but were ‘privatised’ into the charitable arms of the CRT in 2012, with a dowry of land and old ancillary buildings. Because these didn’t produce much income, they were also given an annual grant to tide them over during what it was hoped would be a transition into a fully self-funded organisation. Now, the CRT is also able to negotiate contributions to improvements from firms developing adjacent land, through the Town Planning process. Some of the estate they inherited clearly has value, but a lot of it hasn't and I don't get the impression that the CRT are good at wringing cash out of it.  

Little Venice

 Over that period I have seen some useful improvements in the towpaths, particularly in access and surfacing. Part of this has been funded by private grants It is easier to get grants and contributions for new stuff. External bodies don’t like contributing to day-to-day expenses and as a result (to my eye) much of the original infrastructure looks like it could do with some maintenance.  

New towpath surface and boat 'conversion

Another 'conversion' 

Pirates of the Paddington Arm 

In addition, long stretches of the moorings in the metropolitan areas in particular, are now being used to provide permanent and presumably relatively affordable housing. 

Affordable housing? 

A number of people seem to be buying boats and converting them in-situ for re-sale. Judging from the piles of beer cans they leave, they are mostly Eastern Europeans. Fair enough, that isn't an issue and everyone needs a roof. But they make a lot of mess which, when they leave, they seldom seem inclined to clean up, something that isn’t made any easier by a lack of waste disposal facilities.

Floating junkyard (1) 

Floating Junkyard (2)

These are not all old narrow boats and river cruisers. Quite a few are old lifeboats, typically from oil rigs, which do not at first glance seem suitable for living in. If nothing else, along much of the canal, there is no direct water or power supply or public toilets and showers; none of which can be common on the smaller boats. The Local Authorities now seem to see them as floating slums. I think they have a point.


 ? ! ?

It has been suggested that the CRT should fund better facilities and in some places they do. But they must also pay for the upkeep of the feeder reservoirs, banks, bridges, locks, and dredging etc. and their accounts show that the cost of maintaining the system, let alone improving it, are a real financial drain.

Link : CRT Annual Report & Accounts

There is a lot to maintain. You can see the extent of the canal and waterways in London alone from this 'Harry Beck' tube style map. Note that not all of these are CRT's responsibility. But I just like the map! Try expanding it.   

The income from mooring fees and boat licences is not a lot in that context and you need a lot of staff to collect relatively small sums from people spread over wide distances and often without much money or a reliable mailing address.

Their grant will come to an end in 2027 and in any event, not being linked to inflation, doesn’t go far now. To make ends meet the they have been selling off the family silver in the form of its property portfolio.  

New Development at Bulbourne Nr Tring

 In short, when set against their responsibilities and aspirations, the CRT’s operational model does not look to me to be sustainable in the medium or long term. I can understand why this isn’t high on the Government’s list of priorities, but it is high on mine. If we are to keep our waterways as a valuable leisure facility, the Government (and we, collectively, through the tax system if necessary) need to pony up.  


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