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“We cannot sit back and allow the hard-won progress of the last 60 years to be reversed”

EA’s threat to close some Anglian waterways requires urgent action, says IWA chairman Les Etheridge

A boat having obvious difficulty navigating Salters Lode Sluice, which gives access to the Old Bedford River. (MICHAEL DANES)

Back in 2015, the Inland Waterways Association relaunched its campaign to get parliamentarians to agree to redress the missed opportunity from three years earlier, when the Environment Agency’s navigation responsibilities were retained by the government agency and not transferred to the Canal & River Trust, along with those of British Waterways.

Since then there has been encouraging progress, not least in the creation of a joint CRT and EA working group to examine the problem areas that will need to be resolved to enable a transfer to take place.

But now we appear to have reached a tipping point, and hard decisions need to be taken that will allow the transfer to move forward. If politicians lose their will now the discussions will collapse again, with potentially disastrous consequences for EA waterways.

Closing navigations

When we began our current campaign 18 months or so ago, we highlighted the fact that EA’s budget for capital expenditure on navigation had slumped from £10.7m in 2012/13 to just £3.5m in 2014/15, with further cuts expected. We warned then of the increasing risk of navigation closures, and the false economies of deferring maintenance on locks and other structures for the sake of short-term savings.

Now it seems our worst fears are being realised, with EA officials on the transfer working group talking about closing navigations due to lack of funds.

We see these latest developments as a totally unacceptable breach of the government’s responsibilities and obligations, and a complete vindication of our campaign to rescue EA navigations from a spiral of neglect.

We are extremely wary of EA’s statement that “there is no immediate risk of closure to any Anglian Waterway navigations”, as we see how many navigations have already been closed by the agency in recent years and remain so, including the lower River Stour, the upper River Ancholme and the Forty Foot Drain. In addition, the Old Bedford River is mostly unnavigable due to lack of maintenance. What is the agency’s definition of “immediate risk”?

Government indifference

We are also alarmed by some of the responses offered by the current waterways minister, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at Defra, Thérèse Coffey, to questions asked in the House of Commons by David Mackintosh MP in February, and we have written to her to seek reassurance on several items.

A number of her statements completely ignore the fact that EA has a statutory obligation under Section 8 of the Anglian Waterways Authority Act 1977 to maintain the main navigable channels and navigation works for recreational navigation. We say that government agencies have no right to ignore laws that are inconvenient, and should be held to account.

Invoking the all-embracing “health and safety reasons”, Dr. Coffey makes light of EA having “temporarily closed some assets such as locks and landing stages, that have made some waterways difficult to access for some craft”.

The Horseway Channel, viewed from Welches Dam Lock looking towards Horseway Lock.(ALISON SMEDLEY)

Some of these closures have, in effect, made whole lengths of waterway inaccessible, such as Harlem Hill Lock on the River Ancholme, where the top 2 miles of navigation have been cut off since the lock was closed for an inspection in 2012.

And it gets worse. Welches Dam Lock in Cambridgeshire – a key route from the Middle Level to the Great Ouse – was closed without notice in 2006 by EA, which piled the lock entrance and made passage by boats impossible. Eleven years later, EA has still not agreed either to restore the lock itself or allow the voluntary sector to restore it. Temporary closure?

Back to the dark days

It’s not only the declining budgets, under pressure from the political whims and shifting priorities of government, that are a depressing throwback to the bad old days of British Waterways, which IWA fought so hard to change. Even the rhetoric is similar.

In the 1950s and ’60s, government attempted to close waterways on the basis of lack of use, conveniently disregarding the fact that it was government that had allowed them to become unusable. Today’s minister seeks to reassure that EA “will consider” (no guarantees there!) reopening closed navigable waterways “depending on the amount of future funding available and the importance [of the waterway to be reopened], such as the level of use”.

Sound familiar? IWA has never accepted “level of use” as an excuse for closures. These are important national assets that bring a host of benefits to the communities and regions through which they flow. We cannot sit back and allow the hard-won progress of the last 60 years to be reversed.


As long as we have had inland navigations – be they rivers or canals – directly funded by government, the resulting penny-pinching and ultimate deterioration always seems the same.

Our preferred solution remains that EA waterways are transferred, with a sufficient and suitable funding package, to the stewardship of CRT. But we are also calling on the minister to ensure that, whether or not the transfer is achieved, the waterways receive the increased funding they need from government to halt the progressive deterioration that is currently taking place. A return to the budget levels of 2012/13 would be a good start.

You can download the magazine page of this article.

Thursday 6 April  | Bobby Cowling  | 8.00am, Thursday 6 April 2017

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