Waterways framework may lead to increased water transferring

The UK Government has proposed an increase in the amount of water transferred using British Waterways' 2000 mile network of canals and waterways as part of a new framework for the network announced on 18 February 1999.

Announcing the package of measures, UK Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said that the national transfer of water on a wider scale than present is technically and environmentally feasible in many parts of British Waterways’ network.

British Waterways already uses its network to move supplies of untreated water to serve individual water companies (e.g. Bristol Water via the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal). It has also carried out water transfer for its own operational needs (e.g. extracting rising groundwater from disused mines under Birmingham to maintain water levels for navigation on the Oxford Canal which has historically suffered from poor water supply).

The framework package includes £24 million of extra investment, the phasing out of debt, opportunities to develop partnership schemes with the private and public sectors and a membership scheme.

This is intended to help British Waterways develop its 2,000 miles of canals and waterways. The network is used by ten million visitors a year. Total expenditure by those visiting the waterways is estimated at £1,340 million per annum, directly supporting about 54,000 jobs.

The extra investment will be devoted to tackling the urgent backlog of maintenance.

British Waterways’ network offers a ready made infrastructure with the potential to transfer water from places of surplus to places of shortage at a competitive cost compared to other solutions, Prescott said. Substantial investment would be required and the environmental impact of such schemes would need careful evaluation.

Transfer schemes could involve reversing the flow of water in parts of the canal network, the installation of backpumps at locks, the lowering of canal beds and the raising of canal banks to cope with an increase in the volume and flow of the water, and the installation of short lengths of pipeline to avoid excessive flows of water around and through restricted-width bridges.

Prescott claimed there would be indirect benefits to British Waterways and to canal users, in that improvements to the infrastructure would mean improved navigation depths and greater security of water flow, and a possible reduction in the backlog of safety maintenance. The public-private partnership would entail a partnership with a private sector organisation to implement further development of the network for this purpose.

“Over the years British Waterways network has been starved of resources, saddled with debts and unable to develop their full potential,” said UK Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. “This new framework sets out how British Waterways can start to achieve this. I am also putting in place measures to reduce their debt while at the same time increasing their grant.

“This unique heritage requires the support of the nation. I believe this is best served by retaining ownership of British Waterways in the public sector within a new flexible framework of public/private partnerships.

“We have met in full the Board’s request for greater investment to tackle the urgent maintenance backlog resulting from years of inadequate funding.

“British Waterways will be working with the public and private sectors to develop its business. Exciting possibilities exist to transfer water from areas of surplus to areas of shortage.”

The main elements of the Government’s package are:

  an increase in grant to British Waterways, by £8m to nearly £59m a year. Over the next three years this will enable British Waterways to increase the amount of investment and reduce the backlog of urgent maintenance from £90m to £40m;

  British Waterways will collaborate with the private sector to develop public/private partnerships in its property, water transfer and maintenance activities;

  British Waterways will consult on a membership scheme, and the possibility of a parallel charitable trust, with the chance of a seat on the board of British Waterways being eventually offered to the membership. Half of the UK population live within five miles of a waterway;

  British Waterways will seek to collaborate with local authorities and other public sector partners to provide local improvements to its waterways; and

  the gradual phasing out of most of British Waterways’ outstanding debt to the National Loans Fund, enabling it to make better use of the funds at its disposal.

The full Government package for the future of British Waterways is set out in a separate document “Unlocking the potential …. a new future for British Waterways”. Copies are available from Mike Seager, DETR, Zone 5/D9, Ashdown House, 123 Victoria St., London, SW1E 6DE.

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