Canal & River Trust warns of canal closures in annual report

three canal boats taking part in a boating parade in Birmingham

The UK waterways charity, the Canal & River Trust, has published its annual report and accounts for 2022/23, revealing an increase in spending on charitable activities, despite a real-term funding decrease from the government.

In its report, the trust highlights the importance of the 250-year-old canal network in helping to address key societal challenges, but also the significant risks the ageing canals are facing due to a shortfall in funding and more frequent extreme weather events brought about by climate change.

Whilst the report celebrates record usage of the network with 888m visits and more boats than ever before, it also highlights the impacts of rapid inflation and external, global factors affecting supply chains. These have added to the increasing cost of maintaining the trust’s 2,000-mile network with its many thousands of structures, including reservoirs, aqueducts, bridges, locks and heritage buildings.

There was an increase in income to £225.1m (2021/22: £214.6m) mainly due to inflationary increases in commercial revenue. Spending on charitable activities increased to £199.5m (2021/22: £180.2m). The financial contribution from the government, representing just under a quarter of the trust’s income, remained frozen with no allowance for inflation and therefore continued to decline in real terms.

Canal_River_Trust_Boat_Peak_Forest_Canal_Furness_Vale_Derbyshire

The Canal and River Trust delivered one of its largest programmes of repairs and maintenance to date, described in the report, with 83 large-scale works, including statutory works to reservoirs and a further 325 in-house construction projects. Nonetheless, with rapid inflation and the increasing fragility of the ageing network, measures had to be taken to address a projected shortfall in its finances, with maintenance and repairs focusing on the most critical and urgent issues.

Beyond 2027, when the trust’s existing grant agreement ends, the government has announced year-on-year cuts to funding amounting to more than £300m in real terms compared to recent levels. Launching a campaign to ‘Keep Canals Alive’, the trust has warned that the proposed cuts to funding would see an inevitable decline in the condition of the network leading to eventual canal closures.

“Our canal network can help address a number of challenges faced by today’s society,” says David Orr, chair of the trust since September 2022. “It brings nature into our towns and cities, improves community wellbeing, helps tackle health inequalities, provides traffic-free routes for active travel and recreation, supports jobs and local economies, and plays an important role in the nation’s water and utilities infrastructure. Just as they were the catalyst for the Industrial Revolution, canals have the potential to shape our futures.

“We remain committed to our mission of protecting and enhancing the canal network in perpetuity for the benefit of current and future generations. We want to unlock the full potential of our waterways to help society to prosper and to mitigate the effects of climate change and biodiversity decline. This requires the support of all who use our waterways, and we remain extremely grateful to those who donate and volunteer to help keep our canals alive. The unique value of our historic canal network to deliver wide-ranging benefits to society only comes from a resilient and adequately funded waterway system.”

Richard Parry, chief executive, adds: “The government’s announcement that, despite concluding that the trust has delivered value for money, our funding is to be further reduced so that it will fall by half in real terms by 2037, means a perilous future for the much-loved waterways. It puts at risk the huge and varied public benefits that they contribute.

“This is why we have launched our Keeps Canals Alive campaign to raise awareness of what’s at stake. We believe there is a strong case for greater ongoing public funding to complement the much larger amount raised from other sources to help prevent the deterioration of our canals and keep them safe, given the evidence of their positive impact on people, communities, the economy and nature, and their potential to tackle the stark environmental problems that we face.”

Other highlights from the year include the continued contribution from volunteers, which, in the reporting period, saw the landmark of five million hours of volunteer time given since the creation of the trust. There was also continued growth in the number of canals receiving Green Flag accreditation – with now almost a third of the trust’s network holding a Green Flag award.

The 2022/23 Annual Report & Accounts is now available to view online.

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