Future of the UK waterways debated in Parliament

The House of Commons parliamentary debate opened with Michael Fabricant MP setting out the unique contribution the waterways make from the economic impact through to the huge social and environmental benefits to society. The debate heard how the outcome of the UK Government’s review of the funding contract beyond 2027 is awaited. The current grant is fixed until 2027 and is declining both in real terms and as a proportion of total income. MPs spoke about how, with the increased threat from climate change events not envisaged in 2012, expenditure is increasing on the core national infrastructure. Hence, continued funding from Government beyond 2027 is essential to protect the many benefits from waterways, minimise risk to its numerous neighbouring communities and avert the network’s long-term demise.

Michael Fabricant MP explained how the delays to the Government’s review were causing great concern for waterway users and will soon start to hinder the ability to plan for the future, with so many important long-term projects to deliver.

Rebecca Pow, Minister for Waterways, responded to the debate by commending the array of colleagues present at the debate and acknowledging the role of volunteers and the huge range of public benefits delivered by the inland waterways, from leisure and recreation through to industrial heritage, mental wellbeing and as the green corridors that canals forge through both the countryside and urban areas.

The Minister also spoke about ensuring the critical infrastructure of the canal network is resilient to climate change and how it can help meet net zero targets, not least through active travel and the transfer of water to support the security of public water supply. She said Government must get the decision right, which is why time is being taken, but an announcement on funding beyond 2027 would be made ‘forthwith’.

A huge financial responsibilty
Richard Parry, Canal & River Trust chief executive, commented: “The Trust’s work to protect and preserve our historic canal network delivers wide ranging benefits to society and it was good to see this unique value, that only comes from a resilient and adequately funded canal system, acknowledged on all sides of the House.

“The nation’s 250-year-old canal network is old and fragile. In partnership with Government, we bear a huge financial responsibility for its day-to-day care to keep it safe and available for millions of people to enjoy. As we continue our discussions with Defra around our ongoing grant, we welcome the cross-party recognition of the importance of the canal network and remain focused on achieving an outcome that will enable us to meet the rising cost of sustaining the nation’s historic waterways, managing the potential risk to all the places they run through and delivering our statutory responsibilities for the long-term.”

Subsequent to that debate, the Canal & River Trust has announced a rise of 9% in boat licence fees from 1 April 2023 for both private boat owners and boating businesses. When combined with the interim increase introduced from 1 October 2022, this will mean an overall year-on-year increase of 13% for those renewing an annual boat licence in the period from 1 April until 30 September 2023.

Feeling the effects of inflation
Richard Parry said, “We are all facing the highest levels of inflation in over 40 years and, as the Trust’s costs soar, we must address the budget shortfall to safeguard navigation and the safe upkeep of the waterways. We recognise that our boating customers – both private boaters and waterway businesses – will also be feeling the effect of inflation across their personal finances, but we hope there is an understanding that this is an essential step to ensure the ongoing maintenance and repair of the historic canals and river navigations in our care.

“We continue to secure as much income as we can through our commercial and charitable activities and focus our resources on those priority works which are required to support navigation, and on controlling our costs where possible. Our network is old and vulnerable, especially to the extreme weather events that are becoming more common, and this winter we will deliver one of our largest programmes of repairs and maintenance to date, with large increases in our expenditure on vital reservoir safety works (which are mandatory under the UK Reservoirs Act) in particular.”


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