Tag Archives: canals

Why canals are so important

Writing as a Druid for other Druids (mostly) I hardly need explain the spiritual and environmental importance of rivers. We know about that. Canals are a whole other thing, and I think it’s worth taking some time to talk about why they matter.

The canals in the UK were constructed right at the beginning of the industrial revolution, when roads were little more than tracks, and horses still dominated them. The canals allowed easier movement of the coal and ore necessary to start the revolution, building the engines that would later put the canals out of business. Horses towed the first narrowboats before the technology for such engines had been imagined.

The canals themselves are stunning feats of engineering and a tribute to the ingenuity of our ancestors. They were bought and paid for in the blood, pain and death of the many navies who dug them with hand tools. That’s a heritage I think needs recognising. Their coming changed the landscape dramatically, and allowed a previously unthinkable movement of goods.

From the first, people living on boats had no ethnic affiliation, they came to work, and came out of need and poverty. This is a tradition modern boaters uphold – we live and work on the canals, sometimes very closely with the waterways, and we tend to do it because, like our ancestors of tradition, this is what we can afford.

The UK has lost a frightening amount of wetland in the last hundred years or so. Canals are not an ideal substitute, because the water tends not to flow, and the banks aren’t ideal for a lot of wildlife. Even so, many water birds use them, and the areas around them. Kingfishers, bats, owls, herons. The towpath is often a toad path on wet summer nights. Swans and ducks breed here, water voles can survive here in the right spots. From an environmental management perspective, canals are also huge water reservoirs, able to contribute to the management of either too much or too little water, depending on what climate change throws at us.

There is a huge urban heritage of canal buildings. In cities, canals and towpaths are green arteries, allowing wildlife to get around. Isolated populations of wildlife are doomed. Those that are connected can survive and thrive. Canals have a huge part to play in this. The towpath provides space for insects and may well have a hedge alongside it, too, this is a vital resource. The towpath is a safe place for walking, running and cycling, usable in most weather conditions. It’s possible to canoe on many canals as well. The scope for exercise and relaxation is a significant consideration – canals are good for human health.

Transport by boat is quieter and more efficient than putting lorries on the road. We could reinvent the canal system as a greener solution to transport. Bristol has boat buses, taking advantage of its waterways. Many urban areas are basing much needed regeneration around canals. It’s so easy to make an attractive, vibrant urban area when you have controlled water in the mix.

The canals are a fabulous and important resource, and there is so much scope for good here. If Canal & River Trust get things right, they could make an enormous positive contribution to the life, health, culture, heritage, and environment of the UK. In all fairness, there are a lot of good projects out there, but those should be entirely what CRT is about. This is one of the reasons it is so important that the charity stops wasting public money and time monitoring how far boaters move, and gets on with looking after the water voles and re-opening derelict canals.

Floating Madness

Last week there was a blog on Autumn Barlow’s site about the things British Waterways do around boat licensing. I live on a boat, and I’ve spent the last week wondering how much to say openly. So here goes…  I do not like what I see when it comes to BW and their attitude to people who live on boats and I do not think they interpret the law fairly. I also believe that there is a conflict of interests issue here, and that people who benefit financially from a system should not be allowed to police said system as well.

My situation is this. I am paying for a permanent mooring for my boat because British Waterways have told me that I must do so to comply with the laws. I have always moved my boat in accordance with the law, but the rules are vague, and their interpretation is not the same as mine. However, if I used the mooring I’ve been obliged to pay for, I would be breaking the law.

Let me explain. There are no available moorings on this canal that have planning permission to be used residentially. All we have are leisure moorings where people can leave hobby boats when not in use. You can live on residential moorings, legally, all the time, you pay council tax and everything. But we don’t have any of those. So in essence I have been told that I am legally required to pay for something that I cannot use, and do not want.

The only way to go up against this, would be to refuse to take a permanent mooring and wait for British Waterways to take me to court, and then slog it out. Or in other words, my only other option is to gamble with my home, because if I lost, I would lose my home. As I have a child, there is no way I am going to risk his physical or emotional security, so I’m paying up.

I do wonder what’s going to happen when British Waterways becomes The Canal and River Trust. British Waterways has made people homeless in the past and, to my knowledge, has threatened a lot more people with homelessness, threatened to take boats out of the water, and encouraged people who live on boats to seek council housing instead. These are people who own their boats and who live far more independently than they would in a council house scenario, at a time when the system is over burdened anyway. Making that entirely crazy.

In these hard financial times, are people going to put their hands into their pockets to support a charity that spends time and money taking people to court, and making them homeless? To my mind, that is absolutely in conflict with the nature of charity. I’d bet I won’t be alone in thinking that.

With my Druid hat on, the whole scenario raises a lot of issues for me. The Canal and River Trust will be responsible for canals and rivers. That’s a great deal of our water supply and watery infrastructure. It’s a huge environmental consideration as well as covering a lot of heritage and history. For me, there’s a spiritual aspect to the rivers as well. These are things I want to see protected, and things I care about passionately. Personal issues aside, there’s a huge moral dilemma for me here. I want to support the environmental and heritage angle of the Canals and Rivers Trust. But at the same time, I also care about human rights issues. I’m conscious that by speaking up about the treatment of boaters, if I succeed in drawing attention, I will be undermining a charity that should be doing work I believe in. But I want to support a charity that spends money on restoration and conservation, not one that pays people to monitor the movement of boats, and spends money on harassing people, no matter what the legal justification is. To the best of my knowledge, the enforcement department at British Waterways is talking like it expects to be part of the charitable trust.

Laws should be fair and reasonable, complying with one should not push you into breaking another. No one should have to pay for something that they cannot use, that’s just nuts. The breaking of laws and the enforcement of laws is, in my opinion, the business of the police, and not the proper work of a charity. Those who benefit financially if allowed to interpret the laws unchecked, should never be given the power to police the system. There should be no victimless crimes, and how far a boat moves really makes no difference to anyone so long as it moves often and far enough not to violate planning laws. Under no circumstances should a charity be working to make a person homeless. The whole system needs cleaning up.