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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 20th November 2009
What might happen if the canal system is sold off in the government’s money-raiding sale? asks David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society.

The government needs money. With the disastrous recession of the last year or so, and with the large amounts of money that have been pumped into the banks and printed to bring about ‘quantitative easing’, that’s not a surprise. Yet some of the ways that are proposed to recoup the deficit are, we might think, rather odd.

There is to be a sale of government assets – ‘the family silver’, as the tabloid newspapers describe them. It has all the aspects of a fire sale – see how much we can get for things that we don’t really know how to deal with otherwise. The list of items for sale includes the Royal Mint, the Met Office, the Ordnance Survey, the Land Registry, the QE II Conference Centre, the Dartford Crossing, the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency, the Oil and Pipelines Agency, and British Waterways.

Whatever your opinion of the merit or otherwise of selling the members of this oddly-assorted group – and some seem more likely candidates than others – the sale will have an impact. It would be possible to argue that nearly all of them might have a significance for people in Ripon, but among them the sale of British Waterways may be the most worrying.

You can see the attraction for the officials sitting at their Whitehall desks of selling the canal system. Perhaps the thinking goes ‘We’ve privatised the railways, and the canals are just another transport infrastructure. Let’s do the same with them.’ Or maybe it’s more a case of ‘These canals are a nuisance and are costing us money. Let’s see if we can offload them.’ Certainly it must look attractive to stop paying subsidy to British Waterways for the upkeep of the canals.

Ripon’s position as the most northerly point of the connected canal system had long been attractive to boating people. And when the canal was restored into the heart of the city in 1996 it was another notch on the rudder for the people who like to collect superlatives. Now Ripon’s canal basin is no longer the goal – boaters go to Tewitfield in Lancashire, since the new Ribble Link connected the Lancaster Canal to the system.

That investment – like the investment in Ripon’s new John Smeaton Centre, the Marina and the whole of the restoration of the Ripon Canal – represents a significant turnabout in the fortunes of canals over the last 40 years. When the British Waterways Board was set up under the 1962 Transport Act, the commercial canal system was still pretty much intact. The harsh 1963 winter changed things; British Waterways decided after that to abandon commercial use. The 1968 Transport Act required some mainly in the north-east to be kept for limited commercial traffic. Others, like the Ripon Canal, were classified as Cruising Waterways. British Waterways had responsibility for them and had to treat them in the most economic way – but they weren’t required to keep them in a navigable condition; economic treatment could mean abandonment.

But gradually opinions changed. Urged on by local groups around the country – including in Ripon – canals came to be seen as an asset, not a millstone. British Waterways reversed its policy and began an active campaign of restoration and enhancement, though its official policy is that it will not take on support of newly restored navigations unless they come with enough funds to pay for their continued upkeep.

So the situation as it stands is that British Waterways works with local groups to restore and preserve canals. As almost a by-product of that work, it also owns land – not just the canal bed and towing paths, locks and pounds, but additional, relevant land alongside the canal, too, perhaps where there used to be wharves or warehouses. It seems to be the land that makes British Waterways a candidate for the government’s sell-off.

What might be the consequences? Unlike the railways, the canals don’t offer prospective buyers the chance to make money from passengers or freight. The amount they can make from boaters’ fees must be limited. They could, perhaps, try to charge for walking on or fishing from the towing path and bridges – though that seems rather unlikely, and would no doubt cause a vociferous backlash. But what is most likely is an attempt to use the land holdings for commercial profit – industry or housing.

It may be that the Ripon Canal is less vulnerable to such exploitation than are other canals in more populous places. But if the sell-off goes ahead (it was already suggested and rejected some years ago and is opposed by British Waterways) we shall need to be vigilant in making sure that one of the city’s most attractive assets is not lost.

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