Save Our Boatyard
Why are England's canals losing their character? And
is the body that is supposed to protect them partly
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
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
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
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
I am absolutely convinced that our schemes
deliver far better public benefit than the private sector
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.
' 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.'