Monday, 10 August 2015

Narrow vision over narrow waterways

Britain's inland waterways remain one of our hidden gems. Most people know, or have visited, a canal - but few appreciate their size and scale. It is a network which runs from Godalming in Surrey to the North of Yorkshire and connects nearly every major city and town in between. In total, our navigable waterways cover over 2000 miles, the same distance as all our motorways combined. They are home to approximately 30,000 residential boaters and a further 35,000 pleasure boats - including me! 

Our waterways are maintained by the charitable "River and Canal Trust", with an annual budget of £135 million  - it employs over 300 people directly, with thousands more employed in anciliary businesses such as boat-hire, boat-building and maintenance, canalside pubs and restaurants. Britain's inland waterways not only provide homes, holidays and enjoyment for hundreds of thousands of people, but bring major economic benefits for our country. However, too often the canals are ignored by the towns through which they pass.

Our journey through Banbury today is a case in point. 

Banbury is one of the spiritual homes of the waterways; Tooleys Boatyard, in Banbury, was where the late Tom Rolt refurbished "Cressy" in 1939, the boat on which he toured Britain's then neglected waterways demanding his "right of navigation" set out in law - thus, not only raising awareness of the dereliction, but forcing the government and various local councils to restore our waterways to a navigable state. Without Tom Rolt there is every chance that our canals would have been left to go to ruin as so many did before his action.

Like most major towns, Banbury is a magnet for boaters. Today we counted over 40 narrowboats moored on the towpaths either side of the canal through the town centre. Most of these would be holiday makers with money to spend and in search of somewhere to spend it. Yet in Banbury, as in too many other "recently redeveloped" towns, this is the view from the water ...

This is the face Banbury shows its visiting boaters; the backside of Banbury's main shopping mall, sitting immediately by Town Lock. Not a shop, cafe, bar or bistro in sight. In any other country the balcony overlooking the water (above) would be bustling with people enjoying the water and watching the boats, rather than a storage area for the bins. This in turn would provide jobs and prosperity. Immediately after the above mall there is a concrete car park and this, in turn, is followed by the storage area for local warehousing. On the opposite towpath there is a cafe (attached to the Banbury Museum) but this shuts its doors at 5pm, just as tourists are looking to eat. I apologise that Banbury is the butt of my frustration; this blog could have been written about 100 towns all over Britain, I just happen to be here.

Given the chance, I evangelise about our inland waterways, and would love the opportunity to serve on the River and Canal Trust - preferably as one of the elected lay-members. I understand perhaps as well as anybody the economic benefits the waterways can bring, and what needs to be done both politically and emotionally to make that happen.

If developers and town planners want to see how our waterways can be integrated and made to work for both visitors and residents, they should take a look at Birmingham and use that as their model. This is why the River and Canal Trust need someone who understands the opportunities, has the political contacts, and the vision to help maximise opportunity and add value to one of our greatest assets. 

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