The future of our canals

In the 50 years since the 1968 Transport Act was passed, the nation’s waterways have been transformed from industrial infrastructure to avenues for leisure and recreation. But what will the next 50 years bring?

This October marks the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Transport Act: a crucial milestone in the history of Britain’s inland waterways, which sparked a remarkable canal renaissance. This significant anniversary has prompted us to take stock of how far we’ve come over the last half a century; reflect on the current health of our canals and rivers, and consider
what the next 50 years might bring. We asked five of our staff at the Trust – who look after volunteers, leisure activities, urban design, donations and the arts – about their hopes for the future of our waterways.

Edd Moss, National Volunteer Manager
When Edd Moss thinks about the future of canals he anticipates an environment where people out and about on the towpath will often encounter members of the Canal & River Trust – and that, more often than not, these guardians of the waterways will be volunteers.

“We will have more people representing the Trust out on the banks, the towpaths and in the communities around the waterways, and many will be volunteers – our people,” he says. “The considerable enthusiasm we’ve seen in the past 10 years for people to join our teams will, I’m sure, continue and our volunteer base will increase massively. I can see the practical and customer focused tasks that our volunteers do now getting a lot bigger, complemented by our volunteers working across the Trust in many new areas, just as the Trust itself will be doing a lot of different things we can’t anticipate yet.”

The Canal & River Trust has hugely increased its volunteer base in the past decade, but Edd suspects the numbers of volunteers welcomed to the Trust will one day reflect those enjoyed by organisations such as the RNLI or the National Trust, where volunteers are measured in the tens of thousands. These volunteers will also more closely resemble the communities they come from in terms of gender, age and ethnicity. As a result, the volunteers will be able to drive the Trust’s future direction.

“They will allow us to engage with waterside communities and increase our understanding of what local people want. We will have an even broader array of partnerships with local groups who will be working with us.”

Ellesmere Port, Before and after

Ellesmere Port, 1960 to now

Nick Smith, Activity & Sports Manager
In the past 50 years, the waterways have become a place for leisure and recreation, but as the Trust increases its focus on wellbeing, Nick Smith envisages that the range of activities available will become increasingly more diverse. It will also be more closely coordinated with those areas of the country that experience high levels of physical inactivity, allowing the Trust to play a role in improving the UK’s public health, social care and mental health.

“My aspiration is that local communities will be using their waterways as part of their everyday routine,” he says. “It will be a place they are naturally drawn to and it will be easy for them to participate in activities.”

These will include everything from angling, jogging and paddle boarding to outdoor gym space, which combines exercise with socially beneficial activities like gardening and litter picking.

As the Trust learns to measure ways that the waterways contribute to public health, it will also open up new areas of funding. “We need to show we’ve made a difference at a local level to peoples’ lives,” says Nick. “We face huge challenges around the health and social care system, but the physically inactive don’t need to go to the gym, they can come down to the canal. Once we demonstrate we are having an impact, then the resources and funding will follow.”

Tim Eastop, Arts Development Manager
“Creativity is better by water, it really does inspire people,” says Tim Eastop, the Canal & River Trust’s Arts Development Manager. “It can be a world of the imagination but also a space for personal and collective wellbeing.”

Tim believes that in the years ahead canals will increasingly profit from this relationship between creativity, the cultural industries and water. “The arts can offer communities a way of seeing and experiencing their world in a way that is both innovative and original, and we will be working with communities who don’t usually connect with the waterways or the arts. With performance and events we can bring thousands of people to the waterways and inspire them to adopt or care for their stretch of waterway. This needs to be done in a bold way, we need investment but it must be creative, and there should be big conversations with new stakeholders.”

But Tim also sees the conversation between the canals and the arts developing in other ways: by using the imagination of those who work in the arts to come up with new concepts for the future of the waterways. “We have a connection with people who experiment and take risks – creative people in other words,” he says. “There’s tremendous potential for tapping, in an entrepreneurial way, into this creative thinking about the future of the waterways. We would be missing a trick if we didn’t grab that opportunity.”

Ashton canal, Before and after

Ashton canal, 1960 to now

Marcus Chaloner, National Design Manager
People have lived next to canals for far more than 50 years, but the future of waterside living could be taking shape at Port Loop, a loop of canal off the Birmingham Old Line near Edgbaston reservoir. This partnership between Urban Splash, Places for People, Birmingham City Council and the Canal & River Trust will redefine the concept of “waterway neighbourhoods” for decades to come. The development contains an integrated mix of moorings, leisure and retail space and 1,100 homes, with the canal forming a unifying presence. There is the ambition to provide a community kayak store for those who want to paddle to work. If it’s a success, further developments will follow.

“We want to create a community that will actively engage with the water,” says Marcus Chaloner. “We can promote that pride of living near the water and the health and wellbeing that comes from that, but also making better use of the water itself. If this works and gives developers confidence, we can use it as a model for other developments.”

Marcus believes canals will increasingly be used in placemaking, helping give new developments and communities identity. “In the huge Old Oak Park Royal development in West London the canal could be a fantastic way of establishing a sense of place – a link to the past and also a link to other places. We will be building on that wonderful functional elegance of the waterways that’s embedded in the way canals were developed to create more thoughtful waterside developments.”

Jas Chahal, Legacy Giving Manager
When Legacy Giving Manager Jas Chahal ponders the future of our canals, she can’t help thinking back to the last 50 years and feeling grateful that we’re in the position to contemplate the next half century.

“50 years ago we almost lost our network to dereliction and destruction and it was directly due to the foresight of men and women who dedicated themselves to saving the waterways, as well as the Act, that we now have these beautiful canals and rivers that provide so much pleasure to so many people.”

Jas is excited to hear about the ambitions her colleagues have for various aspects of the Trust’s work, which show the huge benefits that are possible with our waterways. But she understands that the Trust’s ambitions can only be realised if the waterways receive the care and protection needed to keep them fit for purpose.

“Keeping the waterways full and flowing for the future means taking meticulous care of our centuries-old locks, tunnels, embankments and bridges,” she says, “as well as keeping towpaths safe and clean, and the water in good condition.”

“Our army of volunteers is instrumental in much of this but we also need the expert care and knowledge of specialist teams in engineering, restoration and heritage. Together there’s an army of people working together to make sure our waterways are the absolute best they can be.”

The current challenge facing the Trust is that it’s now a charity and will increasingly rely on donations and public support. When Jas thinks back to the foresight of those who fought for the survival of the canals 50 years ago, she feels theirs is a legacy we must continue.

“Charitable donations can be a fantastic way to contribute to the potential of the waterways,” she says. “And one way of supporting the future of the waterways is through giving gifts in wills, to help us realise the benefit we know water can bring to people’s lives and to drive the Trust’s ambitions even further. My vision is that people will keep on loving and supporting our wonderful waterways and that, with their support, we can exceed our ambitions for the future. Who knows where the next 50 years could take us!”

Caen Hill, Before and after

Caen Hill, 1960 to now

You can find out more about volunteering with us on our website. If you’d like to hear more about leaving a gift to the Trust in your will, please fill out the form on our website and we’ll get in touch with more information.