Scottish canals could be closed

Published: Monday, 30 April 2018

THE Forth & Clyde and Union canals are deteriorating so fast that they are facing 'progressive failure'.

That is the warning from 'Keep Canals Alive!', an organisation brought into being to keep the Scottish canals open, who tell that they are facing closure due to mechanical failures and reduced operating hours.

Continuously neglected

It believes the £79 millions Millennium investment that led to their reopening is going to waste as the waterways are continuously neglected.
Keep Canals Alive! has written to the chief executives and council leaders of the local authorities through which the Lowland canals run, asking that they support the voluntary organisations in persuading the Board of Scottish Canals to meet its statutory obligations.

Seven local authorities played a pivotal part in the work to re-open the canals after years of dereliction. Of the £79 million raised on the initial Millennium Link project, £7.2 million was contributed directly from council funds. Each council has seen the benefit from the canal restoration, both social and economic. The councils will be the first to feel the effects of degeneration but without the ability to do anything directly to stop the decline.

47 years of campaigning

Ronnie Rusack MBE, well-known canal enthusiast and campaigner and Chairman of the Lowland Canal Voluntary Group, explains:

"After 47 years of campaigning for the Lowland canals I’m not prepared to allow them to deteriorate any further and slip back to becoming remainder waterways.

"The Scottish Lowland Canals are not only part of our heritage but play a vital role in tourism, health and the well-being of the Scottish people and have something for everyone as proved by their usage. I am delighted to have received expressions of support from councillors of all shades of opinion in three areas already.”

Keep Canals Alive! Comprises of 11 voluntary organisations who have joined forces to campaign against and prevent the dereliction of the Lowland canals. These include Bridge 19–40 Canal Society; Capercaille Cruisers; Edinburgh Canal Society; Forth & Clyde Canal Society; Forth Yacht Clubs Association; Linlithgow Union Canal Society; Lowland Canals Association; Lowland Canals Volunteer Group; Re-Union Canal Boats; RYA Scotland and Seagull Trust Cruises.

The letter to the various authorities:

Progressive Closure of the Forth & Clyde, and Union Canals

I write on behalf of all of the organisations listed below to draw to your attention to our deep concern about the progressive closure of the Forth & Clyde and Union Canals, upon which so much public money was spent re-opening just a few years ago.

The Forth & Clyde Canal is presently closed to through traffic due to mechanical failures, with no date proposed for re-opening. As the Union Canal has fewer locks and opening bridges it remains largely open – but access into the Edinburgh terminus is now restricted to just four periods each week. Long-term implications locally include a threat to the 19 FTE jobs in the hire boat fleet at Falkirk, loss of income to canalside pubs in West Lothian, North Lanarkshire and East Dunbartonshire, and a cessation of weed cutting and floating litter clearance, especially in urban areas.

The seven Local Authorities through which the canals run played a pivotal part in the work to re-open the canals after years of dereliction. Of the £79 million raised on the initial Millennium Link project, £7.2 million was contributed directly from Council funds and the political support from Councils was instrumental in unlocking additional funds from Scottish Enterprise and the European Regional Development Fund. In 2011 the Scottish Ministers upgraded the legal status of the Lowland Canals for the express purpose of protecting that expenditure. SSI 2011/118 was explained thus:
"This Instrument will formally safeguard the investment made by government (central and local) and the Millennium Commission by placing a statutory maintenance obligation on British Waterways Board". (BWB is now known as “Scottish Canals”.)

Scottish Canals have not maintained the canals adequately. Analysis of their annual reports shows that the proportion of their total budgets spent on their core statutory maintenance obligation has fallen steadily from near 60% to less than 40% over the last ten years. The result is that new opening road bridges, built for the Millennium, have now failed; numerous closures have been caused whilst locks have failed – including one failure that prevented most boats attending the Royal opening of the new canal extension at the Kelpies; and rubbish and weed growth have discouraged sea-going boats from attempting to venture through. The lack of maintenance has driven away existing users; canal staffing has been reduced so that availability of the canal system has been restricted to as little as one day a week in places. As a result, for 2018/19 the canal between Bowling and Glasgow and between Kirkintilloch and Bonnybridge will appear virtually disused again.

The Scottish Canals Chairman and Chief Executive paint a glowing picture of the many developments that are taking place alongside the canals. We welcome canalside development as regeneration raises significant revenue to supplement Government grant in aid – but none of the additional £6 million per annum that Scottish Canals earn from property is yet being used to maintain the canals themselves.

The enhanced value of canalside property depends on the canal being used by boats. The basic concept of the Millennium Link was that by making the canals useable again, they become interesting and desirable place to live, work and play beside. The Scottish Government’s policy paper "Making the most of Scotland’s Canals" explains the concept clearly:

"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." (See

Once large boats stop moving, the waterway silts up, weed growth accelerates and rubbish accumulates. The attached pictures of Ratho, Kirkintilloch and Glasgow were taken less than 10 years after the canal was originally closed in the 1960s. If scenes like that return in a few years’ time it will be Local Authorities that will bear the brunt of complaints from residents of houses and businesses recently built along the banks of an increasingly derelict and dangerous water hazard.

We ask the Local Authorities to back our call for Scottish Canals to adjust their priorities and internal budgets in order to meet their statutory responsibilities: we are not asking for investment in canalside developments to stop – just a re-alignment of their priorities to ensure that the canals themselves do not return to the dreadful state that they were in before the Millennium. Their existing property earnings should be helping to maintain the canals for use. We are asking for a review of new canal developments – some of which include new opening bridges – until Scottish Canals are able to maintain the bridges that they already have.

The Millennium Link was a successful co-operation between Central and Local Government, aided significantly by the voluntary sector whose contribution was valued at £2.4 million. Much of that was through the provision of large passenger boats, mainly operated by charities, which take almost 30,000 people on day trips each year. Private companies have produced a fleet of 19 hire boats that enabled 494 family holidays to be taken cruising through central Scotland last year, with an estimated spend of £250,000 by holidaymakers.

Scottish Canals' policy of pursuing property development at the expense of keeping the canals open for navigation risks losing that community spirit and co-operation; it risks losing the social and environmental benefits that restoration of the canals brought about; and in the medium future it puts at risk the investment in canalside property.

Please will you ask your Council to support the voluntary organisations which have worked so hard to resurrect our canals by lending your weight in persuading the Board of Scottish Canals to meet their statutory obligations.
Yours sincerely

Ronnie Rusack MBE
On behalf of Keep Canals Alive!
Chair of the Lowland Canals Volunteer Group