Back in 1990, when Margaret Thatcher was still Prime Minister, the Centre for Policy Studies published a report outlining a radical new approach to maintaining and developing our canal inheritance. Entitled Pleasure & Profit from Canals: A New Plan for British Waterways this study recommended establishing Britain’s network of canals as a linear National Park over 2,000 miles long.
Twenty two years later, the Coalition Government have implemented our recommended strategy with the establishment of the Canal & River Trust, which is launched today. The Trust will be responsible for maintaining and improving our canals along with their associated towpaths, canal basins, reservoirs and the unrivalled portfolio of historic properties abutting locks and towpaths. This is welcome news, albeit the gestation period was a considerably longer than we had originally envisaged.
Britain’s canals are one of our national treasures. As our study observed, there was little point in continuing to run British Waterways, a fledgling of the former British Transport Commission, as an anachronistic backwater within the nationalised sector of the economy. Instead, we emphasised there was tremendous scope to establish a Trust “to maintain and canal system and improve leisure and recreational amenities”.
Our study recommended that the Trust develop its own trading activities, such as pleasure boating, angling, museums and shops to generate revenue which could then be reinvested in maintaining and enhancing the fabric of our nationwide canal network. We welcome the fact that this is precisely the strategy adopted by the new Trust. Its priority goal is to generate income from boating, property, sponsorship and a raft of services aimed at the utility sector. The Trust has also negotiated a 15 year contract with government to provide a range of leisure and environmental services.
It used to be said that British Waterways could be viewed as a secret garden, much of it inaccessible, but waiting to be explored. With the creation of this new Trust, modelled on a CPS model, we can now seize the opportunity to open up this vast, underutilised resource for the benefit of all those who visit canal towpaths (around 13 million each year) together with the thousands who navigate more than 35,000 barges along our network of canals.
It’s good to see that HRH The Prince of Wales has agreed to be the Trust’s first Patron. This move ranks as the largest single transfer of a public body into the charitable sector. Unshackled from the stifling embrace of the state, the Trust should grow from strength to strength.