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Save Our Boatyard

Why are England's canals losing their character? And is the body that is supposed to protect them partly responsible?

Daily Telegraph, 25th February 2006

It is a freezing morning in early 2005. The canal is edged with ice and the towpath grass is rimed silvery-white in the early sun. In the Victorian suburb of Jericho, in north Oxford, a boatyard is filling up with people; around fifty of them, rubbing their hands and stamping their feet against the cold.

Around them stand boats in various states of semi-repair. Slate-grey barges, peeling black hulls, piles of scrap and all the detritus of a working boat repair operation. A traditionally-painted narrowboat called 'Gemini' sits up on skids. The air smells of frost and coal smoke, and small groups of boat-dwellers sit on the prows of their vessels, sipping from mugs of tea.

Castlemill boatyard is the site of one of the earliest wharves on the Oxford canal, constructed in its freight heyday in the early 19th century. It is now the last working canal boatyard in the city. For the local population of residential boaters it provides essential services. For the landlubbers of Jericho it provides a link with their history; the last surviving connection between land and water.

It may not do so for long. Castlemill is under threat of development, its colourful boats and colourful people to be replaced with apartments, a piazza and a waterside restaurant. The development plans are almost universally unpopular: the city council, local MPs, the Jericho Community Association and the city's boating community have all come out against them. Planning permission has already been rejected twice, but a planning inquiry is about to begin which could seal the yard's fate. The people who have gathered in the yard today are here to show their opposition to the development plans.

Ceri Fielding, who lives on a narrowboat on the canal, is one of them. 'The developers are steaming along and carpeting the canal banks,' he says, wistfully. 'This is the last corner.' Firmly in agreement is the best-selling childrens' author Philip Pullman, whose acclaimed trilogy of novels, His Dark Materials, drew on this place for inspiration. Surrounded by a gaggle of journalists, Pullman is explaining why he thinks the boatyard should be retained. 'It is part of the important, rich and complicated tapestry of life in the city,' he says. 'Across the water there are bland and faceless new developments … this side there is life going on and interesting things happening.'

He has a point. Ten years ago, the Oxford canal was a place of old Victorian factories, open spaces and curious nooks and crannies. Today it is a cash-generating development corridor. Great walls of homogenous brickwork are rising where industry or greenery once stood. Placeless, characterless and highly-priced, these new 'luxury townhouses' and 'exclusive apartments' bring in money for estate agents and developers, but are fast changing the atmosphere of the canal. Castlemill boatyard has become, by default, the last redoubt of living colour on this stretch of water.

This is why so many people are here this morning: they are passionate about what could be lost. They feel that something they value is about to be taken from them. Their passion, and in many cases their anger, is deepened by the fact that the organisation which proposes to take it is not a rapacious private developer but the publicly-funded, government-run body charged with the guardianship of the country's ancient canal network: British Waterways. In this, it seems, they are not alone.

One year on, and sixty miles away, Del Brenner stands on a footbridge and looks aghast.

'Look at it!' he says, shaking his head. Behind him is Paddington Basin, the junction of the Grand Union and the Regents canals. Previously a worn-out industrial area, the Basin is now a sparkling development of glass tower blocks, treeless walkways and floating offices known as 'business barges'. The redevelopment of this 80-acre British Waterways site is costing £300 million, but Brenner, a canals enthusiast for two decades, thinks the money has been wasted.

'Sterile', he pronounces, 'and characterless. See that building over there?' He points to an old warehouse, whitewashed and fragile, dwarfed by the new offices. 'It's a nice old thing, very ordinary. It's not glamorous, it's not glitzy, but so what? It's part of the heritage of the basin, and they want to knock it down.'

Brenner runs the Regents Network, a coalition of people campaigning to protect London's canals. 'I have no problem with redeveloping this basin,' he explains, 'but it's about the type of development that goes here. This is utterly inappropriate. British Waterways seems to define "regeneration" of a canal as "building all around the outside of it". It should mean regenerating the use of the waterways. It is a completely different thing.' He looks around him, and sighs.
'British Waterways has lost the plot completely', he says.

The Regents Network and the campaigners of Jericho are not isolated voices. All over the country, boat-owners, boat-dwellers and canalside communities are increasingly vocal in their opposition to what is happening to our canals. From Brentford to Berkhamsted, Macclesfield to Loughborough, Leeds to the Lee Valley, anger is mounting about the 'over-commercialisation' of the network and the consequent loss of character. What makes the canals special - their unique and often hard to define mixture of place, history, character and utility - is in many places being lost to bland, commercial development. Yet the organisation often blamed for this by boaters and canal-users is the organisation that ought to be their greatest ally.

British Waterways (BW) is in some ways a curious institution. Created in the 1960s to manage the country's 2000-mile long canal network in the public interest, it is accountable to the government and largely funded by the taxpayer. But it is now also expected to operate like a commercial organisation, covering as many of its costs as it can, and steadily increasing its stream of private income.

In principle, it is hard to find many people who object to this aim; the problem is the practice. Almost everywhere you turn, you can hear BW accused of putting its fundraising targets before its management of the canals, and its focus on property development before its duty to preserve the integrity of the waterways.

'The essential problem', says Simon Robbins of the National Association of Boat Owners, 'is that BW is both landlord and tenant. They own a lot of canalside land and are developing it fast. But if the developer is also the body which is supposed to police development, the conflict of interest is clear. There's nothing inherently unreasonable in selling off redundant assets, but the concern is that BW is going rabidly commercial in its desire for income, and that not enough of the money they make is going back into the canals.'

Accusations of a conflict of interest within BW are commonplace. It is responsible for some unique parts of Britain's heritage: 3000 listed buildings, 42 scheduled ancient monuments, 5 world heritage sites, 8 historic battlefields, 600 miles of hedgerow and 1000 wildlife conservation sites. It is charged by the government with promoting and conserving this living history whilst at the same time increasing visitor numbers to the canals - which it has done very successfully - and increasing the amount of freight on the water.

It is expected to maintain the waterways in a navigable state and work with everyone from farmers to boat owners to local councils. At the same time, it is asked to 'seek opportunities for private sector partnerships' and 'maximise, as far as practicable, revenue from its activities by charging a market rate for its services.'

As well as its waterside developments, which it undertakes with private sector developers, BW is setting up commercial ventures of its own. In 2002 it set up its own development company, Isis, to help develop its £450m property portfolio. BW Marinas Ltd, created in 2004, has caused controversy among private marina operators, some of who say it has been using BW's monopoly power against them. Its Waterside Pubs Partnership aims at a chain of fifty waterside pubs by 2009 and its 'Business Barges' are expected to roll out across the network in coming years. Meanwhile it has increased its boat licence and mooring fees substantially, leading some to claim that it is pricing the long-term and occasionally awkward residential boaters off the canals in favour of wealthy part-timers who are less likely to complain.

So is BW's core purpose - running the canal network for our benefit - being overlooked? Andy Jackson, a longtime boater and founder of the magazine Towpath Talk, is frank in his assessment. 'Years ago, BW would have about 30 people working on the canal bank and two in the office. These days it's two on the bank and 30 in the office. BW is run by property developers rather than lock-keepers, and it shows.'

But British Waterways' chief executive Robin Evans thinks such criticisms are unfounded. His critics, he says, should take a look at the figures. BW's annual report lays them out starkly enough: the organisation costs £180 million to run, just over £70 million of which comes from the government. In addition, the company has a vast maintenance backlog, a hangover from the 1970s and 1980s when it was woefully underfunded by government. Last year it made a pre-tax loss of almost £8 million. The gap to be made up, says Evans, is a big one, and he has to make it up somehow.

'We're not turning ourselves into a property company', he insists, 'but that is a part of earning income to be what we are, which is a navigation authority managing a 200-year-old heritage site.' Accusations of over-commercialising the canals, he says, are made by people who 'don't have the liability, the responsibility or the accountability of managing them. The canals cost £150m a year to run. You can't get away from that. And people want to use them - 300 million people visit a year … we have places where you have a waterside pub, where you can go and get a cup of coffee in a café, where there are marinas. If you pickled them in aspic … it wouldn't be 300 million visits, they'd cost £200 million to run … it's a balance.'

As for property development: 'better us', he says, 'than someone else. Look at 100 ghastly schemes where people have built houses and put fences up against the canal. Look at where they build factories and they put up huge 16 foot barbed wire constructions. Then look at our mixed-use development - you may romantically prefer to have kept the rather charming open space or the boatyard or whatever was there … but if we as a public organisation had all these sites languishing, they'd be taken off us … I am absolutely convinced that our schemes deliver far better public benefit than the private sector would.'

Evans accepts that the character of the canals is changing as a result of BW's plans, and that some of the 'old, romantic associations' are being lost. 'But that's not a waterways issue', he says. 'That is everywhere - you can level that accusation at so much of the country today, and I think society has to accept it moves on … a lot has changed and been lost as a result, but generally I think it's been for the better … It's very difficult to stand still … this is changing the character, yes. Should we be really worried about that? I don't think so.'

Back at Castlemill boatyard, though, there seem to be plenty of romantics still worrying about it. The promised planning inquiry threw several eggs into BW's face last year by rejecting its proposed development for a third time, sending it back to the drawing board with an instruction to pay more attention to the needs of the boaters and the Jericho community. Today Castlemill is still there, occupied by boaters who await news of its fate. One of the leaders of the campaign to save it, Matt Morton, remains hopeful. Sitting in the boatyard office he tries to explain why it matters to him.

'There's something …' he says, thoughtfully, 'something hard to pin down about it. Aside from the practical reasons - the boatyard services and all that - there's something else. The canal is different to the land. Everything moves more slowly, it's more considered, there's more time for things that really matter. That's what's being wiped out.'

'It's as if' he says 'we're trying to defend the right to live slowly.'