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Thursday 14 October 2010

Bonfire Of The Waterways?

Today, the list of Quangos to be axed has been published. There are likely to be job losses, although many of the bodies will have their functions transferred elsewhere: as I noted recently, most of the jobs these organisations do will still need doing.

And one quango whose work will certainly still need doing is British Waterways, which looks after the hundreds of miles of canals that nowadays host a growing leisure industry. Typical of those waterways is the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, which winds its way across the Pennines to Ashton-under-Lyne, recently restored to use after decades of neglect.

When I was living in Huddersfield in the mid 80s, the Narrow Canal was a mess. Most of its locks – 42 on the eastern part, and 32 on the western – had been covered by concrete caps, or partly filled in to let water cascade over them. The route had been lost completely in Huddersfield and Stalybridge. Only a short stretch above Uppermill had been reclaimed and restored by volunteers. The tunnel at Standedge, where the canal passes under the Pennines, had suffered rock falls and had been gated shut at both ends.

Slowly and painstakingly the whole route was reclaimed, the locks rebuilt, the tunnel cleared, and the channel dredged. The area through which the canal passes – former mill towns and villages – now has folks visiting to use the newly restored waterway. This is the kind of transport artery that British Waterways now looks after. It’s not just part of the past, but part of the economy.

The idea has been put forward that British Waterways may become a charity on the same lines as the National Trust. But then, if this were the right way to go, one might wonder why this did not happen decades ago. I hope that the body that comes out of the change really does bring new investment and secure jobs, as British Waterways’ chairman Tony Hales suggests (letter HERE [pdf]).

Because that letter contains the line “agree a long term funding contract with Government” in its to-do list. With the Coalition bent on cuts all round, Hales might just be disappointed. I hope he is not, and that the 2,200 miles of canal continue to contribute to a number of local economies across the UK.

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