Welsh Restoration

Published: Wednesday, 23 September 2009
WE MAY no longer have a British Waterways board director with responsibility for boaters (not that the one we had was of any use!) but we do have one with responsibility for Wales—John Bridgeman, writes Allan Richards. Not only that but at its July 2009 board meeting BW set up a British Waterways Wales Group (BWWG) and subsequently advertised for volunteers to man it. The advert asks for 'talented individuals to help drive and position the business in Wales as part of the BWWG. The role provides a dynamic and ambassadorial opportunity to help develop BW's status, relationships and profile in keeping with its enhanced role as an active, responsible member of the Welsh community'.
These are the first and, to date, only voluntary posts BW has advertised. It does, at least, show that BW will countenance having its own volunteers rather than simply encouraging other organisations such as the Waterways Recovery Group to do more. Perhaps, it will now make the vital step of expanding its own volunteers, provide training and take on the associated risks as suggested by the WRG.

Work cut out

It is not known what the response to BW's request has been but any volunteer ambassador will have his or her work cut out convincing the Welsh community that BW is a responsible organisation. The recent spate of high season stoppages is being linked to BW's unwillingness to maintain the system in a satisfactory condition despite having the resources to do so. Of course, this is nothing new and the underlying causes for the current emergency stoppage on the Shroppie due to a leak at Shebdon Embankment are the same as those for the recent 18 month emergency stoppage on the Mon and Brec. Less well known, but again due to maintenance under spend and unwillingness to deal with reported problems, is the effective closure of parts of the unconnected Montgomery Canal with resulting loss to local tourism.

Swansea, Neath and Tennant restoration

Later this year, British Waterways will be presenting local councils, waterways groups and a navigation authority in the Swansea and Port Talbot area with an overview of its work, its vision of the future for canals in Wales and, in particular, the Swansea area.

It is believed that BW will present the strategic national project, first documented in 2003, to restore parts of the Swansea, Neath and Tennant canals to create an unconnected 35 miles of waterway at an estimated (2003) cost of £55 million. This would allow an easy one week cruise by hire or trail boat or a more energetic short term break. One of the benefits quoted in 2003 was a £4-5 million projected increase in tourism spend.

Cotswolds remembered

However, those involved in the presentation would do well to remember the Cotswolds Canal fiasco and BW's withdrawal of funding from the partnership. Whilst the view of many is that BW withdrew its support and funding simply because it deemed spin off canal side development was not as profitable as first thought, BW maintained that it needed the money to fund unexpected repairs to the Mon and Brec.

Whatever the reason, EFRA, the governments Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs Committee stated in its report: 'Defra has also recently given BW a clear steer that it should give top priority to maintaining the present network. It is much worse for all concerned for BW to commit money to a restoration project and then withdraw it than not to commit it in the first place'.

As a result BW says it will no longer commit funds to restoration projects.


So why is Wales getting all this attention? In particular, why does BW want to add another 35 miles in the Swansea area, some of which it does not own, to a cruising network it is not maintaining properly?

Perhaps the answer is that the current Waterways Minister is Welsh, and Swansea, Neath and Tennant is the nearest restoration project to his constituency! Later this year the governments policy document, Waterways for Tomorrow, is being rewritten (or in government speak—refreshed!). It does not stretch the bounds of credulity too far to suggest that BW's increased interest in Wales is to ensure that they are seen as active on a wider front than simply maintaining the existing network.

BW's special interest in Wales will, no doubt, last about as long as the current waterways minister remains in office—less than a year!