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Acting on trust British Waterways has transformed many kilometres of dirty ditches into a revitalised canal network, appreciated by millions. Now the organisation wants to be allowed to carry on its work preserving this magical heritage as a charitable tr

British Waterways has an urgent maintenance backlog of 90M. A two year investigation into the state of the 3,200km network of 200 year old canals to create an asset management plan for the organisation revealed the extent of the extra investment needed to keep the nation's canal heritage safe. And what is more, says operations director Stewart Sim,'there is a further 230M of infrastructure improvements needed to bring the network properly up to scratch'.

But where is the money to come from? British Waterways income of 102.5M for 1997-98 came virtually 50:50 from direct government grant and other funding sources which include Lottery cash, EC grant and commercial revenues raised by BW itself. Generous though the Government is, and despite the fact that funding for infrastructure is expected to rise virtually threefold from the current 28M a year as Lottery projects get into their stride, the backlog will still take 14 years to clear at current rates. And that is too long for some of the locks, embankments and bridges that give Britain's canals its charm. Many are in such a precarious state that British Waterways will be forced to close them off, or drain the waterways unless increased funding can be found.

The organisation estimates it needs another 7M a year over the next eight years to preserve the country's canals for future generations. And so it is promoting the idea of turning itself into a charitable trust, with perhaps the nearest equivalent being that icon of heritage management the National Trust.

What British Waterways wants is freedom from the strict borrowing requirements that are part of everyday life for publicly funded bodies; and access to steady revenues from voluntary funding in the form of membership charges, tax free covenants and special appeals. The ability to borrow would allow it to get on with the urgent maintenance work, but also secure the organisation's future by investing more in and thus reaping more benefit from the lucrative developments that are taking place in inner city canal basins and alongside the waterways.

Government is currently considering the future of the canal network with the idea of a charitable trust being debated alongside an option of franchising sections of the network to the private sector, and keeping the status quo.

British Waterways' argument in favour of a trust does seem to have a great deal of merit. The organisation's personnel see themselves a guardians of a unique heritage. In their care are a living reminder of the engineering ingenuity of the Georgian and Victorian ages.

In the last two centuries the waterways have gone from a heyday when they carried millions of tonnes of freight to feed the industrial revolution, through miserable decline as first rail and then roads took their business. Now thanks to the efforts of British Waterways and local volunteer enthusiasts, particularly in the last 30 years, canals are hugely popular as a leisure resource for boaters, walkers, and fishermen, are a spur for inner city regeneration and provide a unique environmental conservation network.

Over 10M people a year regularly use the canals and over 50% of the population live within 8km of an inland waterway. Almost all of them feel the canals are as much part of the whole country's heritage as the beaches, moors and mountains.

British Waterways recently published five year plans puts preservation of heritage and environment as one of its key aims for the future. 'We want to put the special characteristics back into each waterway - the right local stone for the lock sides, not concrete blocks for example,' says head of environmental planning and design Judith Grice, 'and we are making sure the old craft skills survive in order to do the work in keeping with the original.'

Grice's role also means she heads up joint development initiatives with private companies with the latest being a major plan for a mixed use development at a former freight depot in Brentford, London. She and her team are producing development plans for the whole network, but crucially these include conservation plans too.

'The focus on heritage and environment underpins the business. If we get the basic resource right it is good for leisure and tourism and attracts others to do business with us.'

Though it needs more money, British Waterways has proved itself adept at raising capital through joint ventures with the private sector. Apart from the 30M of income it generates annually from development rental, there is a lucrative partnership with GPT to lay fibre optic cables under the canal towpaths that link the major cities in the heart of England, and the organisation is working with water companies on the thorny issue of water transfer.

Climate change is affecting the canal network in two ways. Increasing rainfall brings higher risk of overtopping and flooding; and summer drought means water needs to be stored or re-used to allow the canals to remain open. 'Last year we transferred water from Wolverhampton mine workings to the Oxford canal to keep it open so we have proved it can be done,' says Sim.

The engineering is relatively simple, he says. Bypass arrangements to lock flights via spillways or back pumping need to installed but otherwise water transfer takes advantage of the existing system.

The potential for increasing the amount of freight on the network - another revenue stream - is limited by the narrowness of many of the canals. But the Aire & Calder is big enough and already carries 4Mt a year as are the river sections in BW's remit, particularly on the Trent. Now that the organisation's authority extends to the waterways of the London Docklands, BW is also encouraging water transport of waste from new developments at Canary Wharf, taking 12,500 lorry loads off the roads each year.

But the other side of the coin is that because freight use dramatically declined since the 1970s, and was equally rapidly replaced by pleasure cruising, BW reckons it is time to update navigation standards for today's waterway traffic. Extensive, sometimes heated, debate with a wide range of canal interest groups, has now led to new proposed specifications for minimum canal widths and depths.

Technical director Bill Schlegel does not deny that this exercise has led to 'perceived reductions' in the size of some navigable channels. But he emphasises all will remain adequate for 'craft currently using them' and the structure gauge - in terms of locks and bridges - will not be altered, so allowing for the possible return of larger craft in the future.

At the root of all the developments is the desire to make the existing canal network sustainable, and then expand. 'I would like to bring back the derelict canals that have been lost to us,' Sim says. 'For instance the Lancaster canal from Carnforth to Kendal - a canal into the Lakes; now that would be phenomenal.'

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