Articles by John Liley

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Container traffic

The Government’s commitment to the waterways is small change, says John. In France they spend serious money…

So, it’s £39 million. This is the amount our government is prepared to give each year – “the best start it can afford” – towards the charity that will take over from British Waterways. With the suggestion in that crafty phrase of scouring the national purse, the grant will extend a further 11 years – “a much larger timescale than previously hinted.” “Wow,” we are invited to say. “Thank you very much.” There will be the donation of the property portfolio, too, the one British Waterways already has.

Before we hang out the bunting, let it be remembered that in 2008 the financial consultants KPMG reported “a funding gap of at least £29m per annum between the cost of maintaining the waterways and the funds available to BW”. The grant from government in that year was £55.5 million.

Add these figures together and the British Waterways system, according to KPMG, needed “at least” £84.5 million. So the government’s present offer, even if inflation is overlooked, falls short by more than half. Of course there is always the property portfolio to take into account, in the hope it can miraculously expand. There’s the input of volunteers to look forward to as well, and other income streams – whatever those might be.

£39 million is marginally in excess of the turnover of a single Morrison’s store (they have 425 of them, by the way). It would pay for 220 yards of the mooted high-speed railway between Birmingham and London, a glamour project that, despite the financial gloom, the government is by no means shy of promoting. £39 million also amounts to 1% – yes, one per cent – of the investment going into the new Seine – Nord Europe Canal. (You can look this up on Google, if you wish, where there are sites in English.)

As has been obvious for years, British governments, or, rather, the civil servants behind them, do not value waterways. Read Sir Frank Price’s memoirs on his days as BW chairman. Nor does the general public think much of the possibilities either. When I mentioned to a high-school headmaster the carrying of 50 lorry-loads of containers on a single barge between Le Havre and Burgundy, he looked surprised, before supposing it only works “where speed does not matter”. Like the great majority, he knew no better. He knew about narrowboats, of course, and roses and castles, and rallies in the meadows, for that is all he sees. I have a fondness for narrowboats myself, and grooves caused by towlines, but have to recognize that nostalgia (which for years hindered the cause of our railways) is a prime reason for our waterways being as undervalued as they are. Few MPs seem any the wiser either. Nor mainline journalists. Outside of magazines such as Waterways World, media coverage of Continental developments has been negligible. Were it otherwise, questions would be asked. Environmentally friendly, economic, relieving the road system from din: why is not Britain having the same?

By all means let the narrow canal system be preserved. It should be; but it has low status. Throw in, though, such factors as restoring freight to the Trent, Thames, Severn, Weaver and Lee then the parliamentary mindset would alter – and proper money be discussed. The British Waterways Board having abnegated responsibility in this area, and the Inland Waterways Association perceived as narrow canal society only, it is left to the admirable Commercial Boat Operators’ Association to fight this corner on its own. It needs all support.

The alternative, for those whose interest rests only with narrow canals, will be a long, crisis-strewn scuffle. Appeals to save this and that. Charity runs. The rattling of tins. Roll up for the Small-time Show!

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