All change at CRT’s annual get-together
A DECADE AGO it was a brave thing to say – “I’m damned if I’m going to lose a canal...” Those words heralded Tony Hales as the new chairman of British Waterways at its Annual Meeting in 2005, and this year he said he had succeeded – but it had been “a bit close”.
Back then, speaking at the annual meeting he had also had to report three deaths of BW staff in the previous year, and vowed to do his best to ensure that there were none on his watch – which again had been achieved. But there had been a few other “mistakes” (such as the infamous lock bollards) which at least illustrated that being over-zealous was preferable to the opposite.
Mr Hales’ comments came as he handed over to Allan Leighton, his successor as Chair of the Canal & River Trust. He looked back on a decade when Government funding for canals fell by 70 percent in real terms, but commercial income rose from less than half of the waterways’ income to more than three-quarters.
During that time the proportion of the ‘assets’ (major structures) in poor condition fell by half, but a shortage of cash meant this was at the expense of dredging and vegetation clearance. But, he said, he looked forward to the extra £10m from the Government this year helping to reverse that trend.
Highlights over the decade included the openings of the restored Droitwich Canals, new Liverpool Link, new Three Mills Lock in East London and the Kelpies in Scotland (conceived under BW, but completed by the devolved Scottish Canals). However, he said the most important feature of his period was the change from government body as BW to the charitable CRT.
Describing the Trust as having been “born out of adversity”, Mr Hales felt that the waterways “couldn’t have continued” with funding changing every few months, and with the threat of the commercial property portfolio (whose rental income provided a major contribution to BW’s funding) being sold off by the Government in a kind of “giant car boot sale” of assets. If that had happened, it could have left BW “running down, cutting back and even closing”.
He then went on to describe the progress under CRT of increasing adoptions, volunteering, education and Friends supporting the Trust, before quoting his first speech again, where he had described the canals as “a vital part of the national heritage and environment” – something he felt was still as true now.
Following Mr Hales’ speech, Chief Executive Richard Parry said the last 12 months of CRT had been a successful year with income £15m higher than expected at £180m, turning a budgeted deficit into a surplus at the same time as allowing an extra £3m to be spent on canal maintenance.
Income from property, utilities and boating was up, he said, while the number of ‘Friends’ had hit 14,500; charitable fundraising, while still modest, was increasing at £1.6m and coming closer to covering its costs. The safety of staff and visitors had improved, and £10m from external sources was paying to improve towpaths. Adoptions of canal lengths had passed 100 and boat numbers had increased slightly to 32,773.
Mr Parry also highlighted the changes to the HS2 railway plans to reduce the impact on canals, the development of a towpath code aimed at reducing conflict between users and a survey of 600 miles of towpath hedges.
New chairman Allan Leighton (above left) paid tribute to Mr Hales’ “legacy to build on”, and introduced himself as a “patriotic” man who had now chaired three organisations (the other two being the Co-op and the Post Office), each “a very big part of the fabric of Britain”, which “reach out to every community” and “should be allowed to flourish”.
He had, he said, canoed and fished the canals as a boy, taken boat holidays when first married, and now enjoys towpath running – and would be back next year with more to say.
Unusually this year three regional partnership chairs were introduced and given time to explain their organisations’ work. Brenda Harvey ( North Wales & Borders) described helping to set up community canal adoptions, local health projects and improving the Pontcysyllte World Heritage Site, while Walter Menzies ( Manchester & Pennine) went into detail about the Macclesfield Canal becoming the first to get a Green Flag from Keep Britain Tidy and Mark Penny ( North East) covered youth and education work and a project to get freight back on to the Aire & Calder as a tie-in with the Northern Powerhouse plan – and ultimately as the first step towards a startling proposal for a “trans-Pennine super canal”!