Can new homes help create a new generation of waterways and make developments more popular?
OUR RESTORATION FEATURE article in the October 2011 Canal Boat began with the words ‘A row of town houses faces the canal across a gravel towpath’, describing the footbridge, road bridge and lock which completed the scene – before providing the rather startling revelation that a year earlier there had been neither town nor canal there.
In fact there had never been a canal there. This was Wichelstowe, a major housing development on the south side of Swindon incorporating the construction of a new length of the Wilts & Berks Canal (whose original line lies partly buried under the town centre).
It was an example of ‘development-led restoration’. And today, the idea of developers and local authorities creating lengths of canal to improve the value and attraction of development schemes is starting to extend to not just recreating abandoned historic waterways, but building brand new ones.
We have, to a certain extend, been here before. The phrase ‘development-led restoration’ became current among canal restorers 30 years ago when it was first realised that a canal at the end of the garden was no longer something to keep quiet about, but could actually add value to a house. Unfortunately (and not helped by one or two ‘restoration reports’ from less-than-reputable sources which turned out not to be worth the paper they were printed on), development-led canal restoration didn’t always live up to the early hopes. Some recent examples suggest, however, that perhaps its time has come.
£ 8.75M FOR THE DAVENTRY ARM? The plan to build a new canal arm to connect the Grand Union Canal to Daventry was covered in detail in last month’s Canal Boat. But even in the short time since then it has moved a step closer to reality with the approval by Daventry District Council’s Strategy Group of £ 8.715m towards a three quarter-mile length of waterway – although it still awaited full council approval as we went to press.
The money, funded initially by the district council (but with the hope that housing developers would contribute to the cost), would pay for construction of the middle section of the canal arm, which falls within an area scheduled for major residential development.
It would also include a long-term mooring basin and a footbridge connecting to the Country Park which surrounds Daventry Reservoir. The connecting link (with locks or lift) to the GU Main Line would still need to be funded and built, as would the final section at the Daventry end, which would form part of a town centre regeneration.
Chairman of the Daventry Canal Association Dean Hawkey cautioned Canal Boat that he couldn’t predict how the full council would vote on July 27. However although the plans are controversial (one opposition councillor described the canal scheme as ‘ludicrous’), he felt that with support from local businesses the momentum was in favour of approval. If agreed, a 14-month construction programme would start in April 2019. BEDFORD-MK: PART OF THE PLAN? Some 30 miles south-east from Daventry, another major greenfield development scheme could also help to create a new navigation: the Bedford & Milton Keynes Waterway Trust’s proposed new link, to be built as a waterways park connecting the Grand Union Canal to the River Great Ouse.
The Draft Local Plan for Central Bedfordshire, which will provide overall guidance for planning applications between now and 2035, includes options for a series of ‘new villages’ in three areas of the county.
Two of these areas are on the route of the proposed waterway: Aspley Guise – three villages, totalling 3,000 new homes plus employment land; Marston Vale – four villages, totalling 5,000 new homes plus employment land.
The Plan notes that there are already a number of lakes in the area resulting from former clay pits which ‘offer significant potential for recreation and tourism and could be unified as the proposed Bedford to Milton Keynes Waterway’. It envisages the waterway being delivered by developers and forming a central feature linking the new villages.
B& MKWT Chair Jane Hamilton said: “We are delighted that the role which the Waterway Park can play in creating an attractive location around which new homes and businesses can grow has been recognised by Central Bedfordshire Council.” She added that the Trust hoped it would “add a positive to the always difficult debate about new homes”. WILTS & BERKS: FILLING THE GAPS Although the Wilts & Berks is a restoration scheme, there are some key places in which it is likely that it will amount to something more like a new waterway. At its three extremities – the links to the Kennet & Avon, the Thames, and via its North Wilts branch to the Cotswold Canals – important sections have disappeared under Melksham, Abingdon and Cricklade respectively.
And at the centre where the three arms meet, Swindon has obliterated miles of the original route. The Wilts & Berks Canal Trust’s plans will see significant new canal construction in all four of these areas – to the point where the restored Wilts & Berks will probably involve more new canal than the newly-built Bedford & Milton Keynes. And on the south side of Swindon, the first of these lengths is well under way.
As described in our introduction, the first length of the new waterway route (which is planned to create an east-west bypass around the town) was constructed as part of East Wichel. This, the first phase of the Wichelstowe residential expansion to the south of the town, has been followed by the start of work on Middle Wichel. Although this new phase won’t create any more new waterway, it will be centred on a restored length of the original canal – and give it a new canalside pub.
The plan is that the final phase, West Wichel, will link the new length of canal already built to the original route, and also create another new length which might in turn help to get the restored canal under the M4 – one of the more serious obstructions on the route. That would bring it closer to linking up with sections currently under restoration, bringing the prospect of through navigation from Swindon to Wootton Bassett.
Meanwhile at the south end of the canal, a plan dubbed the Melksham Link, foresees making use of part of the River Avon through Melksham, once again with housing development delivering the new canal sections to connect it to the Kennet & Avon.
Those are three current examples, but there are more. On a smaller scale, the redevelopment of Dunsfold Aerodrome and the Brimscombe Port industrial estate could help a great deal with reopening the Wey & Arun and Cotswold canals, while a town centre regeneration in Chesterfield promises a urban terminus for a restored Chesterfield Canal, around a basin already excavated.
But the comment by Jane Hamilton about the ‘difficult debate’ is a pertinent one. Many lovers of our country’s traditional waterways and quiet countryside will cringe at the thought of yet more acres of farmland disappearing under housing, wince at descriptions of ‘new villages’ by the waterside, and swear that they will scream if they hear the words ‘vibrant canal quarter’ to describe a waterside development one more time.
But if local authorities are determined that housing, retail or office construction must take place on these sites, it will often be a choice of development-plus-canal or development without.
Not all of these proposals will come to fruition. The post-Brexit recession predicted by some EU supporters might cause a major slowdown in home construction, as did the 2008 economic downturn.
Many of these plans are contentious among local politicians: an election and change of ruling party could scupper them. And the Bedfordshire villages idea is only one of a number of options being considered. But perhaps, in a decade or two’s time, we’ll be cruising to new destinations which have only been made accessible thanks to such schemes and wondering where else this approach might lead…
New homes and new canal at East Wichel
Bedfordshire Plan - with canal