Wa­ter­ways cam­paign­ers and boat­ing groups fear that the Union and Forth & Clyde canals could be slip­ping back into dere­lic­tion - but Scot­tish Canals says it’s work­ing to­wards a sus­tain­able fu­ture. So who’s right?

Canal Boat - - NEWS SPECIAL -

The Scot­tish Low­land canals were seen as one of the great suc­cess sto­ries of the wa­ter­way restora­tion move­ment – and in terms of mileage and cost, the great­est achieve­ment of the ‘Mil­len­nium Boom’ se­ries of wa­ter­way open­ings. The Forth & Clyde Canal had been aban­doned in the 1960s when the in­con­ve­nience of all the open­ing bridges was felt to out­weigh its use­ful­ness for get­ting small sea-go­ing ves­sels from coast to coast (and in­land plea­sure boat­ing had yet to catch on), while the Union Canal’s link to Ed­in­burgh had been sev­ered even ear­lier by the de­mo­li­tion of the con­nect­ing flight of locks near Falkirk. Fol­low­ing many years of cam­paign­ing and lo­cal re­vivals and re­open­ings by groups such as the Lin­lith­gow Union Canal So­ci­ety and the Forth & Clyde Canal So­ci­ety, both canals were com­pleted – in­clud­ing new road cross­ings, re­in­state­ment of filled-in sec­tions, and di­ver­sions around ob­struc­tions – at a cost of the best part of £100m, thanks to the Mil­len­nium Fund, Euro­pean and Scot­tish fund­ing. The crown­ing achieve­ment was the open­ing in 2002 of the re­mark­able Falkirk Wheel, the world’s only ro­tat­ing boat lift and a new Scot­tish icon, at the heart of a re­born canal sys­tem which con­nected the coun­try’s two great­est cities to its East and West coasts – and looked to have a bright fu­ture.

But just 16 years on, Scot­tish and UK wa­ter­ways or­gan­i­sa­tions are por­tray­ing a very dif­fer­ent pic­ture – of a canal sys­tem starved of cash by Scot­tish Canals (the Scot­tish Govern­ment body which took re­spon­si­bil­ity when English and Welsh wa­ter­ways trans­ferred to the Canal & River Trust), with nu­mer­ous clo­sures caused by fail­ures of locks and bridges, un­con­trolled weed growth and rub­bish de­ter­ring boats, staff cuts se­verely lim­it­ing open­ing times (as all locks are op­er­ated by SC), and fears that the canals are slip­ping back to­wards the dere­lic­tion of the pre­vi­ous 40 years.

Is this an ac­cu­rate sum­mary of the state of the canals? There have cer­tainly been some prob­lems with them re­cently. Ear­lier this year the In­land Wa­ter­ways As­so­ci­a­tion high­lighted two in­def­i­nite clo­sures of power

op­er­ated road lift­bridges (Twechar and Bon­ny­bridge) on the cen­tral sec­tion of the Forth & Clyde Canal, as a re­sult of fail­ure of mech­a­nisms in­stalled at the time of the re­open­ing – with ap­par­ently no funds avail­able for re­pairs. These were fol­lowed by fail­ure of a tra­di­tional foot­path lift­bridge in Knightswood, Glas­gow, cut­ting off the nav­i­ga­ble routes from the city to both the Forth and the Clyde. IWA wrote to SC, de­scrib­ing the clo­sures as ‘un­ac­cept­able’.

A cam­paign group formed of 11 Scot­tish wa­ter­way or­gan­i­sa­tions has taken this fur­ther. The Keep Canals Alive cam­paign, which in­cludes canal so­ci­eties, boat op­er­a­tors and boat­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions, has writ­ten to all seven lo­cal au­thor­i­ties on the route, call­ing on them to press SC to ful­fil its obli­ga­tions to keep the canals open.

The open let­ter was penned by Ron­nie Ru­sack MBE, well-known Scot­tish canal sup­porter and lead­ing light of the restora­tion cam­paigns for the Union and Forth & Clyde restora­tions. He said: “Af­ter 47 years of cam­paign­ing for the Low­land canals I’m not pre­pared to al­low them to de­te­ri­o­rate any fur­ther”. Speak­ing on BBC Ra­dio Scotland, he said: “I’m fright­ened they’re go­ing to close the canals: grad­u­ally run them down and close them. It’s get­ting bad. They’ve not been dredg­ing. The main­te­nance has gone down all the time.”

In the let­ter, Keep Canals Alive high­lights the clo­sures, ex­presses fears of a threat to jobs in the hire­boat op­er­a­tion and to canal­side busi­nesses, and says that SC “has not main­tained the canals ad­e­quately”. The pro­por­tion of its bud­get spent on ba­sic main­te­nance has fallen by one third, it adds, re­sult­ing in nu­mer­ous fail­ures, while staff cuts mean that some lengths are only open one day per week – and ap­pear “vir­tu­ally dis­used again”. Mean­while, the let­ter says, none of the money that SC raises from canal­side de­vel­op­ments finds its way into the main­te­nance bud­get.

The let­ter points out that lo­cal coun­cils paid £7.2m to­wards the restora­tion, and calls on them to press SC to ad­just its bud­gets to meet its statu­tory main­te­nance re­spon­si­bil­i­ties – not to stop in­vest­ing in canal­side de­vel­op­ments, but to “re­align pri­or­i­ties to en­sure that the canals do not re­turn to the dread­ful state they were in be­fore the Mil­len­nium. We are ask­ing for a re­view of new canal de­vel­op­ments – some of which have new open­ing bridges – un­til SC is able to main­tain the bridges it al­ready has”.

In re­sponse, Falkirk Coun­cil was due to de­bate a mo­tion sup­port­ing the cam­paign and call­ing on those who funded the re­open­ings to urge SC to com­ply with its obli­ga­tions to keep the canals open. And the is­sue has reached the Scot­tish Govern­ment, with par­lia­men­tary ques­tions tabled by the Scot­tish Con­ser­va­tives, who pointed out that a free­dom of in­for­ma­tion re­quest had re­vealed that 35 hol­i­day hire­boat book­ings had al­ready been can­celled so far this year, and ex­pressed fears that tourism would suf­fer if the canals were “left to rot”.

But SC Chair­man An­drew Thin coun­tered that the canal was still open “to 99.9 per cent”, when count­ing all the users be­sides boaters, said that SC was “gen­er­at­ing more self-earned in­come for rein­vest­ment in the na­tion’s in­land wa­ter­ways than it re­ceives in Grant In Aid from the Scot­tish Govern­ment”, and de­fended its Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Steve Dun­lop from “be­ing cas­ti­gated for al­leged fail­ure” af­ter “the bear­ings and hy­draulics fail on a cou­ple of 18-year-old me­chan­i­cal bridges”. And a spokesman for SC said that “the vast ma­jor­ity of canal users, from run­ners and walk­ers to cy­clists and kayak­ers, will be com­pletely un­af­fected by these re­stric­tions.”

Ron­nie Ru­sack isn’t con­vinced by that. He quotes the Scot­tish Govern­ment’s own pol­icy pa­per Mak­ing the most of Scotland’s Canals, which says “Boats add colour and in­ter­est to the canals. We wish to see fur­ther growth in the num­bers of boats nav­i­gat­ing our canals, and en­cour­age both Scot­tish Canals, boaters and other par­ties to work to­gether to­wards ex­ploit­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to achieve this.”

SC in­sists that “we are com­mit­ted to bring­ing these bridges back into op­er­a­tion as quickly as pos­si­ble”, and that “by gen­er­at­ing our own in­come to rein­vest in the canals, we are work­ing to­wards a long term fi­nan­cially sus­tain­able fu­ture”. How­ever it also cau­tions that “with age­ing as­sets, the im­pact of cli­mate change and the in­creas­ing pop­u­lar­ity of Scotland’s canals, we don’t have the money to do all we need to do” – adding that there is a £70m back­log of re­pair and main­te­nance work on its canals.

In the mean­time, ar­range­ments were made in early May for the first re­stricted open­ings of the three af­fected lift­bridges for boaters need­ing to move their craft. But SC has made it clear that the state of the lift­ing gear means that in the case of Bon­ny­bridge Bridge, this is a one-off with no fu­ture open­ings un­til funds can be se­cured for full re­pair.

Knightswood bridge, Glas­gow, be­fore clo­sures pre­vented craft from mak­ing sea-to-sea jour­neys

The Forth & Clyde Canal be­fore restora­tion

The Falkirk Wheel: crown­ing achieve­ment in 2002

Twechar lift­bridge: funds needed for full re­pairs

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