British Waterways

British Waterways
British Waterways sign near Gas Street Basin on the BCN Main Line in Birmingham

British Waterways is a statutory corporation wholly owned by the government of the United Kingdom, serving as the navigation authority in England, Scotland and Wales for the vast majority of the canals as well as a number of rivers and docks.[1] It is sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in England and Wales, and by the Scottish Government in Scotland.[2]

The British Waterways Board was created by the Transport Act 1962 and in 1963 assumed control of the inland waterways assets of the British Transport Commission, itself set up on nationalisation of the railways in 1947.

Half of the United Kingdom population lives within five miles of one of British Waterways' canals or rivers.[3][4] British Waterways manages and cares for 2,200 miles (3,541 km)[5] of canals, rivers, docks, buildings, structures and landscapes. This includes 2555 listed structures,[6] more than 69 Scheduled Ancient Monuments,[6] more than 800 designated areas, as well as more than 100 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). Through its charitable arm The Waterways Trust it maintains a museum of its history within the National Waterways Museum's three sites at Gloucester Docks, Stoke Bruerne and Ellesmere Port.



20th century nationalisation of the canals

During the early 20th century, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, many canals in the Great Britain, mostly in rural areas, were abandoned due to falling traffic, caused mainly by competition from road transport. However the main network saw brief surges in use during the First and Second World Wars; and still carried a substantial amount of freight until the mid 1950s. The final blow was delivered by technological change. Most of the canal system and inland waterways were nationalised in 1948, along with the railways, under the British Transport Commission, whose subsidiary Docks and Inland Waterways Executive managed them into the 1950s. During the 1950s and 1960s freight transport on the narrow canals declined rapidly in the face of mass road transport, and several more canals were abandoned during this period. Most of the traffic on the canals by this time was in coal delivered to waterside factories which had no other convenient access. In the 1950s and 60s these factories either switched to using other fuels, often because of the Clean Air Act 1956, or closed completely. The last regular long distance narrow boat carrying contract, to a jam factory near London, ended in October 1970, although lime juice continued to be carried by narrow boat from Brentford to Boxmoor until 1981, and aggregate from Thurmaston to Syston from 1976 until 1988.

Under the Transport Act 1962, the canals were transferred in 1963 to the British Waterways Board (BWB), now British Waterways, and the railways to the British Railways Board (BRB). In the same year a remarkably harsh winter saw many boats frozen into their moorings, and unable to move for weeks at a time. This was one of the reasons given for the decision by BWB to formally cease most of its commercial narrow boat carrying on the canals. By this time the canal network had shrunk to just 2000 miles (3000 kilometres), half the size it was at its peak in the early 19th century. However, the basic network was still intact; many of the closures were of duplicate routes or branches.

Transport Act 1968

The Transport Act 1968 classified the nationalised waterways as:

  • Commercial - Waterways that could still support commercial traffic;
  • Cruising - Waterways that had a potential for leisure use, such as cruising, fishing and recreational use;
  • Remainder - Waterways that no potential commercial or leisure use could be seen.

British Waterways Board was required, under the Act, to keep Commercial Waterways, mainly in the north-east, fit for commercial use; and Cruising Waterways fit for cruising. However, these obligations were subject to the caveat of being by the most economical means. There was no requirement to maintain Remainder waterways or keep them in a navigable condition; they were to be treated in the most economic way possible, which could mean abandonment. British Waterways could also change the classification of an existing waterway. Parts, or all, of a Remainder Waterway canal could also be transferred to local authorities, etc.; and this transfer could, as happened, allow roads and motorways to be built over them, mitigating the need to provide (expensive) accommodation bridges or aqueducts. The act also allowed local authorities to contribute to the upkeep of Remainder Waterways.[7]

Organisation and management

The organisation is overseen at a strategic level by ten non-executive Board members, eight of whom are appointed by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and two by the Scottish Government.[8] There are nine executive directors.[9]

British Waterways' headquarters is at Watford, with administrative offices in Leeds, and 12 regional waterway offices.[10]

Planned independence

In the March 2010 Budget, the Government announced plans for British Waterways (BW) to be changed into a mutual organisation. Details were not released, but it is thought BW could be turned into a charitable trust. BW welcomed the proposal, which it has been requesting for several years, as it will allow the organisation more say over how it raises and spends money and would help it plug a £30m ($45.6m) shortfall in its budget, by giving it more freedom to access grants and charitable funds. Tony Hales, British Waterways chairman, said the plan would preserve the canals and their associated infrastructure, and "safeguard against a return to the decline and dereliction which they faced in the last century." He added: "The proposal reflects a widely-held, cross-party and stakeholder view that the waterways are a national treasure which should be moved into the third sector if we are to unlock the enormous public support that there is for them." Under the current government-funded system, BW receives some £60m ($91m) a year.[11]

In September 2010, the BBC obtained a leaked list of quangos which were due to be abolished under the Government's spending review. British Waterways was included, with the note 'Abolish as [a non-departmental public body] and mutualise'.[12][13]

In October 2011 it was announced that the new charity being established to tend British Waterways' 2,000 miles of canals and rivers in England and Wales would be called the Canal & River Trust. The Trust is due to launch in April 2012.[14]

British Waterways in Scotland is to remain state-owned.[15]


Bank repair on the River Avon

For the year 2007-2008, British Waterways' operating expenses were £164.4m, of which £95.1m was spent on maintenance. Their revenue from government grants was £67.9m and £22m from boat licenses and mooring fees. Other incomes include Heritage Lottery funding, local authorities and a "wide range of growing commercial activities". They ran an operating loss of £1.5m.[16]

Commercial activities

British Waterways owns a large canalside property portfolio which makes a considerable contribution to the funding of the waterway network. This amounted to £130m in the five years prior to 2008. As of 2008, a HM Treasury team is reviewing the management of this portfolio in terms of public sector savings and efficiencies.[17]

In October 2008, British Waterways announced plans to erect 50 wind turbines on waterside land, generating around 100 megawatts.[18][19]

Other inland waterways in Britain

The Environment Agency is the navigation authority for the non-tidal River Thames, rivers in the Fens and East Anglia and some other waterways. The Norfolk Broads are the responsibility of the Broads Authority. The River Cam, Basingstoke Canal and Manchester Ship Canal are also outside the jurisdiction of British Waterways.

See also

Moore Bridge.jpg UK Waterways portal


  1. ^ The Committee Office, House of Commons. "House of Commons - Public Accounts - Forty-Second Report". Retrieved 2010-05-13. 
  2. ^ "About Us". Retrieved 2008-10-30. 
  3. ^ "British Waterways leisure site". Retrieved 2010-05-13. 
  4. ^ British Waterways London Quarterly Newsletter, Summer 2007[dead link]
  5. ^ "British Waterways home page". 2010-03-24. Retrieved 2010-05-13. 
  6. ^ a b British Waterways Heritage[dead link]
  7. ^ "Transport Act 1968". 
  8. ^ "Non-executive Board Members". British Waterways website. Retrieved 2008-10-30. 
  9. ^ "Directors". British Waterways website. Retrieved 2008-11-01. 
  10. ^ "Contact Us". British Waterways website. Retrieved 2008-10-30. 
  11. ^ "Budget plans to give British Waterways independence". BBC News. 24 March 2010. Retrieved 24 September 2010. 
  12. ^ "Leaked list suggests 180 quangos to be abolished". BBC News. 24 September 2010. Retrieved 24 September 2010. 
  13. ^ "Cabinet Office list dated the 26 August 2010, of quangos and other public bodies to be axed or merged by the coalition government...". BBC News. Retrieved 24 September 2010. 
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ "Annual Report and Accounts" (PDF). Retrieved 2008-10-30. 
  17. ^ "BW canalside property in government fire sale?". Boating Business. 1 December 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-03. [dead link]
  18. ^ Eccleston, Paul (2008-10-08). "British Waterways to erect wind turbines by canals and rivers". (London). Retrieved 2008-10-08. 
  19. ^ "Waterways To Strike A Blow Against Climate Change". British Waterways website. Retrieved 2008-10-08. 

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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