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Canal restoration: a new age for British Waterways

ONGOING REVIVAL of the UK's canals and inland waterways is set to be driven by a new fourpronged business strategy, British Waterways chief executive David Fletcher said last week. The network is to be developed into a national water transfer and distribution grid;

larger volumes of waterborne freight will be encouraged, with shipping concessions let to private sector operators; British Waterways is set to increase revenue from fibre-optic cables embedded in canal-side towpaths; and continuing restoration and reopening of canals across the country is expected to further stimulate the already booming leisure market.

Canal restoration has also been the catalyst for £2bn worth of urban and rural regeneration in the last five years, Fletcher claimed, delivering a lecture 'A new age for British Waterways' at the ICE. The canal system is reckoned to indirectly contribute £1bn a year to the UK economy.

In the last six years, British Waterways has increased investment to £200M a year. It currently owns 3,200km of navigable waterways and is 'restoring canals at the same rate they were built two centuries ago', Fletcher said.

But while much of British Waterway's success to date has been founded on the leisure industry, 'financially, the renaissance is only sustainable if leisure and business uses are combined', he added, promising that 'work in the pipeline will trump all we've done in the last decade'. British Waterways is to unveil its upcoming plans later this month.

The company is in talks with two private sector bidders for a concession to suppy water via the canal network. Contracts are to be signed later this month or early next month. While water distribution will initially be over short distances, in future it is envisaged the canal system will be used to transport water from regions of water excess to those suffering from shortages. Half of the water supply to Bristol is abstracted from the Sharpness Canal, Fletcher said. And there are plans to pump rising ground water from Birmingham to Oxford via the Grand Union Canal. First sections of the grid will be in operation early next year, Fletcher predicted.

The feasibility of using canals as a series of conduits along which to flow water has only emerged with the advent of telemetry, allowing engineers to gauge levels over large distances. Controlling water flows will depend on level sensors, fine adjustment of weir gates and sophisticated pumping.

British Waterways has refurbished some of its reservoirs to improve seasonal storage, allowing supply to the canal network during dry periods. Construction of new reservoirs has not been ruled out. Canal widening or construction of parallel culverts will be required at 'pinch points' to accommodate the increased water flow.

Fletcher said British Waterways would never be a large water supplier, but claimed it would be able to undercut water utility firms on price.

British Waterways is to appoint a national co-ordinator for freight activities, who will negotiate licences with shipping operators. Low value, high bulk cargoes, including some construction materials, demolition and municipal waste, lend themselves well to waterborne transport, said Fletcher.

According to the Department for Transport, Local Government & the Regions, 49Mt of cargo were carried on inland waters in 2000.

Last year, British Waterways earned as much revenue from communications firms that have placed cables under canal towpaths as it did from boat licences. Ongoing major rehabilitation work will create opportunities for greatly extending the fibre optic network, boosting British Waterways' rental income further.

And the number of people using canals for leisure is expected to jump from 10M last year as British Waterways rolls out new landmark engineering and environmental enhancement projects, Fletcher said.

British Waterways is set on matching the splendour and innovation of 18th and 19th century engineering feats with projects it is undertaking now.

Structures such as Thomas Telford's 305m long, 35m tall Pontcysyllte aquaduct near Llangollen in Wales, built between 1795 and 1805, and the Anderton Boat lift, designed by Edwin Clark in 1875 to connect the River Weaver and the Trent & Mersey Canal, are major visitor attractions, said Fletcher. Their 21st century counterpart, the Falkirk Wheel, being built to link the Forth & Clyde and Union Canals and due to open next month, will attract a further 55,000.

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