Making the cut on Britain's canals

Tuesday 19 October 2010 16.30 BST
From Martin Wainwright in the Guardian:

British Waterways set on course its own abolition before last week’s quango cull, writes Martin Wainwright

If there was one chirrup from the government’s bonfire of the quangos last week, it will have come from British Waterways, which has been pressing for its own abolition for the past two years.

Famously the custodian of rich wildlife – in 2005 its annual survey included a crocodile spotted in the Gloucester and Sharpness cut – the agency plans to rise like a phoenix, a third sector, charitable equivalent of the National Trust for 2,200 miles of canals and navigable rivers. The aim is for the new structure to be in place by April 2012.

“This is a tremendously innovative model for reinvigorating the waterways,” says Tony Hales, British Waterways’ chair, who sees third sector status as “unlocking enormous public support for this national treasure.” His chief executive Robin Evans, who launched a prospectus for the future last year called Setting a new Course is equally upbeat.

“It is a matter for celebration,” says Evans, contemplating a future less bound by civil service budget restrictions and more freedom to borrow, while the canals’ large property estate is locked into charitable ownership. The National Trust is his model – “a quite extraordinary success, especially in the devotion and expertise of its thousands of volunteers.”

The v-word is central to the organisation’s post-quango future; even its new name is likely to come from consulting the waterways’ myriad groups of muck-diggers, litterpickers and restorers of whole flights of locks and builders of new bridges. Evans is lost in admiration for his local Wendover Arm trust, which is reopening 6.7 miles of canal in Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire. The group raised more than £400,000 for the first 1.3 miles.

Enthusiasm for the waterways goes to the very top. The minister for the natural environment and fisheries, Richard Benyon, owns land beside the Kennet and Avon canal and is a vice-president of its legendary trust. Over half a century, the group has led the rescue of 87 miles of canal and river navigation between Bristol and Reading, winning grants including £25m from the National Lottery.

How does this rosy reaction to the quango’s reincarnation play on the cut today? Four homemade grappling irons and a scoop-net reinforced with duct tape tell part of the story in Loughborough, as the Clear Cut group clamber on to their “litter boat”.

The central quartet are typical of canal enthusiasts – and, in his dreams, of David Cameron’s “big society”. Barrie Ball lives on a narrowboat after a career in road haulage; Jo Swift is a circulation promoter for the local Loughborough Echo. Jane Johnson is taking time out from organising national training for the Domino’s pizza chain and takes the lead on youth involvement; and Swift’s husband Morris runs Loughborough’s thriving canal festival with her.

A retired joiner and carpenter, he is responsible for the grappling irons, scoop and other ironmongery. “We had to make them ourselves,” he says. “British Waterways promised us all sorts of equipment when we started in February. But, so far, all we’ve had is four pairs of rubber gloves.”

The group’s experience of British Waterways is not the easiest of reading for the Evans and Hales, but seems to bear out their prospectus of unlocking forces from bureaucratic restraints. Discussions with the quango about Clear Cut’s work and plans drag; hints of help with gear remain hints, and when the group landed its first litter catch – nine bikes, two pushchairs, two supermarket trolleys, a pram, a lawn mower and an empty safe – British Waterways took the £42 scrap value for itself.

“We didn’t know the rusty old stuff was worth that,” says Jo Swift, whose networking helped raise £3,000 sponsorship from local business 3M Healthcare. “Since then, you can be sure that we’ve taken what we find to the scrap yard ourselves.” Ball describes how the group advertised for towpath litterpickers and got an enthusiastic response. What did British Waterways do? He says: “Just a couple of weeks later, they set one of their own people on clearing the path. He’s up there now and he does a thorough job. But it left our new volunteers with nothing to do, and us with somewhat red faces. The man they’re using is a skilled lock repairer, too. It doesn’t make obvious sense.”

The comments don’t come with any edge. The volunteers get on well with the agency’s staff, have a shared sense of mission and acknowledge that the really mighty works needed on their cut, officially the Soar and Loughborough Navigation, could not come from a few volunteers.

The biggest recent fillip to the six-mile stretch is an example: British Waterways’ £14m partnership with property developers which has remodelled the town’s canal wharf and surrounded it with brightly-coloured student flats.

“A volunteer group like ours isn’t going to have the resources to carry out major work, say on the canal banks and locks, let alone all the health and safety and insurance involved,” says Morris Swift. “It will be interesting to see how the new version of BW works out, but I’m not sure how the nature of canals’ long tradition of volunteering can change.”

For now, Clear Cut is concentrating on whether four promised life vests, worth £50 each, will finally appear at their next regular meeting with the quango. But Evans and his colleagues are chipper about the group’s grassroots focus. Small acorns like the Loughborough enthusiasts are vital, they say, and can grow into much bigger organisations like the Kennet and Avon trust.

And the fledgling policy of “adopt-a-canal” is also growing large volunteering oaks. Just a few days’ sailing from Loughborough’s Boat Inn, more than 240 staff from HSBC’s subsidiary HFC bank have taken over clearing, cleaning and lock gate-painting on part of the Birmingham and Fazeley canal. Chugging the other way along the Grand Union takes you to Barclaycard’s adoption of the one-mile Northampton Arm.

British Waterways senses freedom, rather than doom, from its impending charitable status. Another targeted quango, the Inland Waterways Advisory Council, called this summer for “cumbersome inefficiency” to be replaced with “the principles of participation, stewardship and a very high level of engagement with users”. Evans, Hales and the Clear Cut four would all say cheers to that.

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