UK waterways coalition: Funding cuts will have ‘devastating’ impact

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The UK’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has confirmed it will provide an additional funding package to the Canal & River Trust (CRT) beyond March 2027, when the current grant comes to an end.

Fund Britain’s Waterways, a new coalition of organisations representing hundreds of thousands of users and supporters of inland waterways, says it welcomes this news but is expressing significant concern about relative cuts in real terms.

Members, including the Inland Waterways Association (IWA), are concerned that the secretary of state only offered ‘over £400m’ for the ten-year period from April 2027, which marks a further dramatic cut compared with funding in the past.

According to CRT, this will equate to at least a 40 per cent reduction of funding in real terms compared to recent levels. The current funding, which has been fixed at £52.6m per annum since 2021, is already said to be failing to keep up with inflation and the physical toll that more frequent severe weather is having on the waterways’ infrastructure.  

According to FBW, DEFRA’s offer is simply not enough to avert the decline of CRT’s network, particularly given the charity already faces a deficit of £12-15m. The grant it receives from DEFRA makes up almost a quarter of its income and is critical in helping it lever in other sources of income and fund its essential maintenance programme.

Richard Parry, chief executive of CRT, has said the decision about funding for 2027/2028 will have a potentially “devastating impact”.

In a statement, Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey argues that the trust is a ‘private charity independent of government’ that has to ‘increasingly move towards alternative sources of funding’.

FBW says it is campaigning to ensure that beyond this parliament, there will be sufficient grant funding to retain the huge environmental, economic and social benefits that Britain’s inland waterways provide. That includes the 2,000 miles of waterways managed by CRT, which alone contribute £6.1bn per year in economic and social value.

FBW says it will continue to work with CRT and others to ‘encourage the government to rethink this funding announcement.’

“The government must take heed of CRT’s warnings,” says Les Etheridge, chair of FBW. “Otherwise, these proposed cuts will result in the closure of waterways, harming businesses and placing communities at risk as the condition of CRT’s waterways inevitably deteriorates.”

IWA’s CEO, Professor Sarah Niblock, adds: “The waterways renaissance has been one of the UK’s biggest success stories of the past 50 years on all levels. It is actually hard to find the words to express how devastated we feel and how fearful we are for the future in the wake of this decision.

“Sadly, the government don’t seem to have even referred to its own data on the sheer scale of benefits offered by the waterways to our economy, ecology and wellness. I urge everyone to express their concerns to their MPs as a priority.”

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