Canal Boat - - This Month -

Could new hous­ing de­vel­op­ments and re­gen­er­a­tion bring a canal to Daven­try two cen­turies af­ter it missed out first time around?

Strictly speak­ing it isn’t a restora­tion, it’s a re­vival of an old idea. Could new hous­ing de­vel­op­ments and re­gen­er­a­tion plans fi­nally bring a canal to Daven­try af­ter two cen­turies?

When it comes to canals, Daven­try was the town that missed out. Even though it was one of the first towns pro­posed to be served by a branch link­ing it to the Grand Junc­tion Canal (as the south­ern part of the Grand Union was then known), it looks like be­ing one of last to be with­out a con­nec­tion – or per­haps not…

As the great main line from the Thames at Brent­ford to the Ox­ford Canal at Braun­ston was be­ing laid out in the early 1790s, its sup­port­ers were anx­ious to en­sure that as well as its Lon­donMid­lands trunk route func­tion, it would serve as many towns along the route as pos­si­ble. So in ad­di­tion to the Daven­try, Northamp­ton, Wat­ford and Old Strat­ford branches al­ready planned, they sur­veyed pos­si­ble arms to Wen­dover, Buck­ing­ham (an ex­ten­sion of the Old Strat­ford arm), Ayles­bury, New­port Pag­nell, Che­sham, Dun­sta­ble, St Al­bans and Hemel Hemp­stead.

Of these dozen arms, the last four were soon dropped; the New­port Pag­nell was even­tu­ally built by an in­de­pen­dent com­pany; the re­main­der were built by the Grand Junc­tion Com­pany – ex­cept for those to Wat­ford and Daven­try.

Why not? Well, a large part of the arm’s pur­pose would have been to sup­ply the canal’s Braun­ston to Buckby sum­mit with wa­ter – but in 1803 a reser­voir was built in­stead, and Daven­try wasn’t im­por­tant enough to jus­tify the cost of build­ing an arm with­out this ex­tra func­tion.

Daven­try never got its canal. Other arms came and went – the Padding­ton and Slough arms were added; the Buck­ing­ham and Wen­dover were aban­doned (al­beit both are now un­der restora­tion); the Northamp­ton and Ayles­bury ( just) sur­vived; the New­port Pag­nell was con­verted into a rail­way. But Daven­try re­mained canal-free.

So, you might ask, if it wasn’t pos­si­ble to jus­tify build­ing a Daven­try Arm in the Canal Ma­nia years of the late 18th Cen­tury, how is it pos­si­ble to jus­tify build­ing one to­day? Be­cause that’s ex­actly what the Daven­try Canal As­so­ci­a­tion and its pre­de­ces­sors have been propos­ing since the early 2000s. And if you’ve been fol­low­ing their progress from a dis­tance, you might think that would be a dif­fi­cult ques­tion to an­swer. Pre­cious lit­tle prac­ti­cal progress has been achieved on

the ground, and the lo­cal news sto­ries are full of po­lit­i­cal fights be­tween the town and district coun­cils over whether it should be built at all, with re­ports of plac­ard-wav­ing lo­cals tak­ing to the streets in an anti-canal demo.

But speak to the Canal As­so­ci­a­tion’s Chair­man Dean Hawkey, and you get a dif­fer­ent story, and a much more op­ti­mistic one (al­ways as­sum­ing you’re on the side of those who want to see the arm built).

As re­gards the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for build­ing it, the As­so­ci­a­tion be­lieves that it could bring long-term com­mer­cial and cul­tural vi­tal­ity to the town, at­tract more vis­i­tors, gen­er­ate ex­tra em­ploy­ment in the ‘canal quar­ter’ which is en­vis­aged sur­round­ing the canal’s ter­mi­nus, gen­er­ally just add a cer­tain ‘some­thing’ to the char­ac­ter of a town which has no nat­u­ral wa­ter fea­tures, and be an at­trac­tive and use­ful new des­ti­na­tion for boaters. Dean Hawkey calls it “the first new ‘des­ti­na­tion’ wa­ter­way”, as op­posed to new nav­i­ga­tions such as the Rib­ble Link and Fens Link whose main aim is to con­nect ex­ist­ing canals or rivers.

As men­tioned ear­lier, not ev­ery­one sees it that way. In par­tic­u­lar the Town Coun­cil op­poses the plans, say­ing that the canal would take up valu­able agri­cul­tural land; that there wouldn’t be an ad­e­quate wa­ter sup­ply; that there will be loss of nat­u­ral habi­tats; that foot­paths and ac­cess to the ex­ist­ing coun­try park will be blocked; that the new locks and bridges will be ‘ob­tru­sive’ (and that based on past ex­pe­ri­ence, it will take a cen­tury or more for them to ma­ture and start to look at­trac­tive); that it could en­cour­age ver­min or in­va­sive species; that even if it does suc­ceed in at­tract­ing more vis­i­tors to Daven­try, there are no plans to im­prove the roads or other in­fra­struc­ture to cope; and that the con­sid­er­able cost will fall largely upon lo­cal coun­cil tax pay­ers.

Do they have a point? Dean Hawkey feels that it’s more of a party po­lit­i­cal dis­pute – the Con­ser­va­tive-con­trolled district coun­cil and largely Labour­sup­port­ing town coun­cil feel duty-bound to op­pose each other. In this case it’s the Tories who are for it and Labour against, but it could equally have been the other way round. And more to the point, it’s the district coun­cil that’s the plan­ning au­thor­ity – and ear­lier this year it gave ap­proval to the scheme.

But while many read­ers may look at canals else­where and dis­miss at least some of the above ob­jec­tions as spe­cious, the fi­nal one re­gard­ing the cost might be worth con­sid­er­ing. How ex­actly do the district coun­cil and the Canal As­so­ci­a­tion pro­pose to pay for it? To get a feel for how much it might cost and where the cash might come from, let’s take a trip along the route.

The pro­posed junc­tion with the Main Line is about three quar­ters of a mile east of Braun­ston Tun­nel: if you want to find it for your­self, it’s near where a power line spans the canal, and just east of where a gap in the tow­path hedge leads to a sluice struc­ture re­lated to the reser­voir and its con­nect­ing feeder.

There’s cur­rently no pub­lic ac­cess to the first half mile of the route, but from

the tow­path you can per­haps pic­ture it me­an­der­ing gen­tly south west­wards across the fields, climb­ing through two locks from the junc­tion, then a fur­ther four as it ap­proaches the reser­voir. At one time a boat lift was pro­posed as an al­ter­na­tive to locks, but the canal’s sup­port­ers now feel that the ex­pense of keeper op­er­a­tion (es­pe­cially at quiet times of year) means that conventional locks would be prefer­able – even though they would need back­pumps to pro­vide a wa­ter sup­ply. In­ci­den­tally the locks and chan­nel are planned to be nar­row-beam, to re­duce the amount of ex­ca­va­tion (and there­fore the cost).

The next mile of the route is much eas­ier to see: it fol­lows the east and south sides of Daven­try Reser­voir, whose wooded sur­round­ings form the coun­try park men­tioned above. Foot­paths lead from the dam along the shore of the lake, and at many points there are gaps in the hedge which open into the ad­ja­cent fields: at the time of our visit, a mown strip along the edge of the fields gave a good in­di­ca­tion of the pro­posed canal’s route.

Leav­ing the reser­voir be­hind and ap­proach­ing the round­about where the A425 and B4036 roads meet, we reach the site for a ter­mi­nus basin not far from the town cen­tre which marks the end of the sec­tion for which plan­ning per­mis­sion has been granted. But as a se­cond phase, the aim is for it to con­tinue through a nav­i­ga­ble cul­vert un­der the A425 (al­ready built sev­eral years ago as part of road works, and cur­rently a pedes­trian un­der­pass) to the site of a pro­posed ma­jor ur­ban de­vel­op­ment. The 14-acre site, cur­rently a play­ing field, is ear­marked for the WaterS­pace re­gen­er­a­tion, which would see new hous­ing, of­fices, a health cen­tre, a ho­tel, restau­rants and bars – with the fi­nal half-mile of canal in­clud­ing two basins as a cen­tre­piece.

Note that on the whole route we’ve only crossed one road (and that one’s al­ready got a bridge) – which should keep the cost down – and also that it should be pos­si­ble for the WaterS­pace scheme’s de­vel­op­ers to fund the fi­nal length as part of a plan­ning agree­ment. But that still leaves a mile and a half of chan­nel, six locks, and sev­eral foot­path and farm cross­ings to pay for – at a cur­rent es­ti­mate of £22m.

So where will it come from? Ear­lier we de­scribed how the route passes through agri­cul­tural land as it climbs the locks and skirts the coun­try park. To lovers of ru­ral land­scapes it will not come as good news that a large pro­por­tion of this land is sched­uled for hous­ing de­vel­op­ment; how­ever for canal sup­port­ers it pro­vides a real chance of pay­ing for con­struc­tion. That £22m might sound a lot, but it isn’t such a huge sum com­pared with the price of 4,000 new homes.

Given the of­ten-quoted fig­ures of 10-20 per­cent up­lift on house prices that a wa­ter­side site might gen­er­ate, plus the district coun­cil’s po­si­tion as the plan­ning au­thor­ity, not to men­tion the op­tion to re­place the un­sightly over­head power lines men­tioned above with ca­bles buried un­der the tow­path, it should be pos­si­ble to en­sure that much of the canal gets built by the hous­ing de­vel­op­ers. Per­haps that’s op­ti­mistic, but it has hap­pened, for ex­am­ple, with the new length of the Wilts & Berks built as part of the Wichel­stowe de­vel­op­ments in south Swin­don.

If it does hap­pen (and Dean is re­ally quite con­fi­dent that it will), then it could hap­pen very quickly (at least by canal re­open­ing stan­dards).

The first hous­ing schemes have al­ready got plan­ning per­mis­sion – which will ex­pire af­ter three years. So work on the houses must start by 2020, and Dean be­lieves that the District Coun­cil will want to see work be­gin on the canal at the same time (oth­er­wise the canal’s per­mis­sion will ex­pire too).

And once it starts, con­struc­tion might take no more than two years.

So will we re­ally cruise into Daven­try in 2022? Dean be­lieves that it would take some­thing dras­tic to stop it in its tracks. For ex­am­ple some of the op­po­nents of Brexit have been pre­dict­ing that it will lead to a deep re­ces­sion, which would hit hous­ing con­struc­tion (in the same way that the post-2008 eco­nomic down­turn did, which was one rea­son that the Daven­try canal scheme had gone quiet for a few years un­til re­cently).

But it would have to hap­pen very soon. Bar­ring that, per­haps Daven­try will get the canal that it was promised – just 230 years late...

A boat lift, as a pos­si­ble al­ter­na­tive to locks

The pro­posed route skirts Daven­try Reser­voir

The mown strip marks the route for the canal, viewed from the Coun­try Park

The one bridge needed has al­ready been built

The WaterS­pace plan for de­vel­op­ment around the ter­mi­nus

The ter­mi­nus site is now a play­ing field

Im­pres­sion of town basin

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