Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by The Horseboating Society (BW 12)


  The Horseboating Society (HBS) requests central government to reinstate and maintain full and ongoing funding of the inland waterways, especially in relation to the work of British Waterways. We are aware of the enormous improvements that have been brought about over the last decade due to the increased funding made available from the government. We wish these better standards on the waterways to be maintained and built upon to continue to benefit all members of the community.

  We note in "Waterways for Tomorrow", Defra, June 2000 (ch 3, para 3.3, 3.5, 3.6) the reference to IWAAC's report and we support those findings in "Britain's Inland Waterways: An Undervalued Asset", IWAAC 1996. We agree with IWAAC that the waterways were the "Cinderella among our heritage and conservation assets" and the "system is not a museum but a useable asset and its heritage a living one". The waterways are now well promoted by BW and user numbers have increased dramatically but this process continues to need to be supported to gain maximum potential. We note the government's positive response (ch 3, para 3.8, 3.16).


  1.  The Horseboating Society was founded in 2001 with the primary aim of preserving and promoting horseboating on Britain's inland waterways.

  2.  The 200-year old canal system we have today was designed and built for the horse-drawn age.

  3.  This organic, horse—era design is what gives the waterways their unique human scale recognised in the Defra document "Waterways for Tomorrow", published June 2000 (WfT, chapter 6, paragraph 6.19)

  4.  Cargo traffic on Britain's rivers and canals was primarily horse-drawn from earliest times until the 1920s, continuing until the 1960s. Passenger boats operated until superseded by rail and improved road transport.

  5.  Horseboating then found a continuing role in leisure and tourism and the interpretation of the heritage of the waterways. There are a small number of passenger trip-boat operations on the navigations of British Waterways (BW) and other authorities (National Trust, and Devon County Council).

  6.  These 12 passenger boats were at a peak of operation in 1980s but their numbers declined by 2005 to only five, of which three were on BW waters. This is in contrast to the increase in use of horse drawn vehicles on roads and tracks. These horse drawn trip boats provide many thousands of passengers each year with an introduction to cruising on the waterways, with also the unique opportunity of experiencing the horse drawn heritage of the canals.

  7.  Early in 2005 in consultation with HBS, BW issued an Operating Instruction to its managers to assist the passage of both horse drawn commercial trip boats and those horseboats involved with heritage and educational work along the system.

  8.  However such operations are very vulnerable to increased charges (eg for mooring and licences or increased staff levels) as they have inherent high labour overheads to attend to the welfare of the boathorse(s) both while it is working, during its non-working periods and after the end of its working life.

  9.  The Horseboating Society is keeping alive the horse drawn use of the national waterway network by making short and long distance journeys with historic horseboats. The HBS is currently in receipt of a Heritage Lottery Fund grant and is half way through a 3 year programme of events recreating the story of the horsedrawn waterway era. The culmination of the project is to journey with Britain's oldest wooden narrow boat, built in 1854, to attend the World Canals Conference being held in England at Liverpool in 2007. British Waterways has been fully supportive of these efforts.

  10.  All members of the community can join The Horseboating Society for a modest subscription (£10 per annum in 2007).It is one of the waterway organisations which enable anyone to go boating without the need to own or hire a boat. At present we represent about 1,000 with many more supporters.


  11.  Soon after our formation BW invited the HBS to be represented at national level on user group meetings and to participate in the British Waterways Advisory Forum. We are represented at national meetings almost monthly. We feel that we are making some progress (albeit slowly) in educating BW staff about the importance and needs of horseboating.

  12.  One problem encountered is that knowledge about horsedrawn operation and the associated detailed infrastructure has been almost lost since the 1950s. To attempt to rectify this, the HBS have published a guidance document on retaining horseboating heritage features. This was formally accepted by BW's chief executive in 2005 and has since been developed further in consultation with senior BW staff.

  13.  We have been encouraged by the recent appointment of heritage advisors in each of BW's management units. We hope BW will be able to give increased focus and care of the built and living heritage of the waterways.

  14.  Despite our involvement and the acceptance of our advice at the highest levels we are concerned that the tension between BW's roles as a self-sufficient quasi-commercial organisation and the custodian of a potential world standard heritage asset can lead to our advice being ignored on the ground. We find this is because of commercialism, income generation and pressure to maintain the waterways at the lowest possible cost, as well as a constant drive to modernise the system.

  15.  The pressures for income generating activity by BW have already contributed to the failure of two horse drawn trip boat operations (Foxton Boat Services and Calder Valley Cruising) because of the boat moorings created on their long established plying (cruising) routes. This is also causing difficulty to some of the remaining horseboating operators, who are finding that increasing pleasure-boat numbers and mooring facilities cause serious operating difficulties requiring extra staff. This led to The Horseboating Society making an Official Complaint to BW in late 2005 in order to both look at the case of Calder Valley Cruising and to prevent such an occurrence again. Currently a director of BW meets with us to discuss the prospects of "increasing awareness, understanding and appreciation" of these horse drawn passenger trip-boats.

  16.  We note in WfT, ch 3, paras 3.17 and 3.18 that conflicts are recognised but the expectation is for them to be overcome by the management processes of BW.

  17.  We are pleased to note that the Montgomery Canal Partnership "will actively encourage and support optimum boat designs ... with a presumption in favour of horse-drawn trip boats" due to their environmentally friendly nature. (Montgomery Canal: Regeneration through Sustainable Restoration—Summary Document September 2005, p 9).

  18.  We would like to see more BW support given to horseboating operations where problems or conflicts arise on the network in line with WfT ch 8, para 6.60.


  19.  Most users of the waterways are casual leisure visitors—such as walkers, joggers, cyclists and those visitors enjoying heritage, wildlife, or waterside pubs and restaurants. 165 million visits per year were cited in "Waterways for Tomorrow" in 2000, (WfT, ch 6, para 6.2) but numbers are believed to have almost doubled now. These visitors are the chief beneficiaries of our society's educational activities, whether they meet us along the waterway corridor or at waterway events.

  20.  There is no direct income to BW from these visitors beyond grant-in-aid from central government, and the open nature of the waterway system makes it impossible to control or charge for access, except for a few sites and where BW controls car parking.

  21.  In common with many other organisations we are concerned that the effects of the reduction in this grant will be:

    —  increased charges to the minority captive audience of boat users and anglers;

    —  a particular risk to the types of historic boat which are more expensive to maintain or operate, such as horseboats;

    —  increased pressure to redevelop rather than conserve the waterways;

    —  pressure to maintain and restore on the cheap leading to poor design, and subsequent loss of the heritage and horse drawn feel of waterways;

    —  postponement of major and minor repairs and routine maintenance, causing long closures of some waterways on safety grounds This can be the towing path alone and/or the water channel. Consequently there is a loss of amenity to all the many varied types of users of the waterways; and

    —  a loss of confidence in the waterways by commercial developers seeking to regenerate canal side land and property.


  22.  Our evidence concentrates on BW's stewardship of historic assets at detail level.

  23.  The Defra document cites original features indicating individual company variations as an attraction. Substantial amounts of this variation have already been lost over the past 50 years, as economies have led to standardisation, such as of lock-gates and paddle-gear.

  24.  Our HBS guidance document describes the function and use of heritage items of canal "furniture". While not needed by the majority of pleasure-boaters, they are still needed by those using horsedrawn and other historic craft and they contribute to the heritage ambience and tell the story of the waterways.

  25.  The Historic Narrow Boat Owners Club (hNBOC) has also published a document, "Our Disappearing Heritage", that describes losses of heritage features.

  26.  HBS would like to see proper funding and the strengthening of BW's role as stewards of unique living history that is available for use in modern and old ways.


  27.  Boats moored to the towing path are one of the major problems for horseboating nowadays. The boats with their chimneys, TV aerials, and other items on the roofs obstruct towlines of horseboats.

  28.  We are pleased to see BW encouraging the development of off-line marinas, which may eventually reduce this problem. Their attendance at the Dairy Show at Stoneleigh 2006 was an example of BW reaching farmers with the view of attracting them to consider setting up marinas on waterside farmland.

  29.  The number of boats being built now far exceeds current marina capacity. The projected increase in the number of boats will also in the medium term overwhelm the projected marina capacity. Long linear moorings along the waterway corridor have increased greatly in recent years.

  30.  We are concerned that BW's increasing reliance on income from users is leading them to pursue income from licences and mooring fees by encouraging unsustainable growth in boat numbers and tolerating moorings to the towing path. This has already led to loss of amenity and destruction of atmosphere on some parts of the waterways, like the Trent and Mersey or the southern section of the Oxford Canal. Long linear moorings to the towpath are a major problem to horse drawn boats on journeys as our towline must be disconnected or lifted with difficulty on poles over moored boats.

  31.  HBS believes there is potential for more visitors to the waterway system to enjoy the unique experience of the horse drawn passenger boats, offering an hour trip or two day cruise. It is essential for these home and overseas visitors to have confidence in a well-maintained waterway system they wish to sample and enjoy.


  32.  Our evidence concentrates on BW's relationships with Local Authorities.

  33.  Local Authorities do much work around the waterways such as the installation of lighting in urban areas, signage and motorcycle barriers and resurfacing of towing paths. They are rightly expressing pride in their local waterway environment.

  34.  However the danger is that financial and other pressures mean that BW is allowing these Local Authorities to carry out works without due regard to or understanding of the needs of waterway users and without adequate controls to preserve heritage.

  35.  Such examples include the use of tarmac on towing paths which may be suitable for cyclists, but is not for long distance walkers, or horses which may slip and fall. Installation of street lamp-posts and signposts creates a barrier to towing lines when put at the water's edge instead of to the back of the towing path. This is found in Stalybridge town centre on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal. The route over Hyde Bank Tunnel on the Lower Peak Forest Canal has been spoilt and made very difficult for a boathorse by the introduction of steps and chicanes. Had the Local Authority been made aware by BW of the ongoing use of waterways by boathorses, a different style of barrier to motorbikes could have been created.

  36.  It is worth paying particular attention to motorcycle barriers. Both BW and Local Authorities have installed these across towing paths in an attempt to prevent abuse of the towing path by motorcyclists. They have the unfortunate side effect of preventing access to legitimate users such as boathorses and wheelchair users and those with baby buggies. HBS was involved in a 2005 consultation between BW and users. We applaud BW's audit of these motorcycle barriers during the winter of 2006-07. We hope very much that many of these barriers will be removed or replaced with others of designs that will not adversely affect the passage of boathorses and other legitimate users.

  37.  In December 2005 a pedestrian access point to the towing path was redesigned at Hanover Street North, Audenshaw, Manchester. This was a joint project between BW and the Local Authority and Groundwork. A steep flight of steps was put in, making boathorse use impossible even though we have used this location for access from 1978 to 2005 to reach the horseboat Maria, the flagship of The Horseboating Society.

  38.  One effect of the Defra cuts to BW in 2006 has been that BW NW Waterways has run out of its budget to be able to put in a ramp for us now at this location. We are bitterly disappointed by this.


  39.  BW has made and unfortunately continues to make mistakes in our opinion. However, we believe that most of the present management are working hard to promote waterways for very many varied types of users, and to listen to customer opinions. We hope BW will further recognise the heritage value of their assets. We believe that these opinions are shared by many other waterway user organisations.

  40.  We would like to see BW's mission more geared to preservation and conservation of the heritage assets—similar to English Heritage—than to modernisation and exploitation of this unique asset. The canal heritage is unique in its vernacular built structures, and it is freely available and within easy reach of the great majority of the population.

  41.  Their funding model needs to recognise and support this. Funding should be in proportion to users. The vast majority of users are funded at present through grant in aid because of their inherent free access to the system.

  42.  Cuts to BW's grant-in-aid are already having unfortunate effects such as the cancellation of the 2006-07 winter dredging of some canals like the Lower Peak Forest Canal. This will now allow silting up to continue and could lead to blockages.

  43.  Unlike the road system, if a waterway is closed for a period because it has become impassable or unsafe, there is rarely an easy alternative route. Diversions can add several days to a boating journey. The adequately funded maintenance of the waterways is essential if we are to keep the network open and vibrant.

  44.  The towing paths have been subject to a BW "Veg Pledge, from the hedge to the water's edge" since the winter of 2004-05 which ensures that paths will be cut as a minimum at least once a year. This had become essential as vegetation cutting had been reduced and subsequent tall soft vegetation and trees were covering the paths. With so much increased use by walkers, runners, cyclists, and anglers as well as boaters the towing paths need to be kept clear to allow all to enjoy and share the towing paths. Cuts in BW funding would see a back-slide in the much welcomed Veg Pledge which is essential as it sets a minimum standard.

  45.  The cutting of towing path vegetation to the standards that would have been expected when the corridor was a working horsedrawn system especially helps horseboating as the removal of trees at the water's edge stops trees from fouling the towline.

  46.  The Horseboating Society wishes Central Government to continue to support BW's role as steward of the heritage asset, both with the fine words in "Waterways for Tomorrow" and with sustained funding to support the use of waterways by the wider public.

  47.  Grant-in-aid needs to at least stay in line with BW's rising costs in order to maintain the waterways to their much improved standard in recent years. We do not wish to see a return to the crumbling towing paths and silted up and closed waterways of a few decades ago.

  48.  We feel that the current management of BW have shown more interest and encouragement for horseboating than any other in the decades between1950-2000.

The Horseboating Society

January 2007

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 31 July 2007