The Politics of Restoration


By Michael Handford

I remember the date precisely.  It was October 8 1959 – general election day.  My parents had bought the cruiser Ballerina in Nottingham and we were moving the boat to Dobson’s Yard at Shardlow.  That was the first day I got involved with inland waterways apart from earlier that summer when my parents reprised their pre-war holiday on the Norfolk Broads.


Shortly afterwards I did a few days navvying on the Stratford Canal.  It means I have now been involved in inland waterways for over fifty years!


It seems only yesterday that a tiny Kennet and Avon Canal Society (as it was then) talked of re-opening the canal from Reading to bath and that work had yet to start on restoring the Southern Stratford Canal. Only a few years earlier there had been a real prospect that the entire canal system outside the main river navigation would be closed for good.  Even the Inland Waterways Association lamented that restoration of the Thames and Severn Canal was now impossible after a major embankment and aqueduct had been removed.


Watching so many new waterways societies develop, thrive and reach their objectives has been an enjoyable pastime over those fleeting years.  Today, with nearly a hundred societies in the country, each postal delivery brings fresh news of restoration work in dozens of different locations up and down the country.


There have been losses, of course, as well as disappointment.  Two important restoration schemes of national importance have failed to strike effective roots in their respective localities. For example, the Yorkshire Derwent scheme has been abandoned after vociferous opposition from landowners. Nevertheless it is hard to escape the conclusion that the general picture has been an encouraging one and that there is far more public awareness today of the potentialities of canals than ever before.  Who would have believed a decade ago that local authorities in the Montgomery, Droitwich Barge, Rochdale, Forth and Clyde and Huddersfield Narrow Canal areas would play such a constructive role in these important restoration schemes?


Different restoration societies have achieved different degrees of success according to the difficulty of the task involved and the skill and energy with which they have applied themselves.  You have only to observe the slow but sure changes in public perception along the Wey and Arun Canal, for example, to see that this ‘impossible’ restoration scheme is not nearly so unlikely as it was.  Project that general and now well-established trend forwards another decade and it is possible to see the Wey and Arun Canal Trust leading one of the major restoration schemes of the twenty first century.  A similar conclusion could be reached on the Foxton Inclined Plane, the Monmouthshire Canal, the Grantham Canal, the Chesterfield Canal beyond Norwood Tunnel, the Upper Lancaster Canal, and the Wilts and Berks Canal and especially the talented and imaginative group involved in the Herefordshire and Gloucestershire Canal.  Then there is the large, very professional and successful Cotswold Canals Trust pushing a restoration given the highest priority by the Inland Waterways Authority Council.


The difficulty in describing these three essential ingredients for success is that each of these processes is not separate or isolated from the other two and that developments in one field invariably have beneficial repercussions elsewhere.


So in seeking to describe the three processes individually I simplify an essentially complex interaction and thereby distort reality.  Nevertheless, provided we bear this reservation in mind, it remains instructive to see the three processes as individual ones, which follow one another in sequence.  For purposes of identification I label these three processes in the order in which they occur – the political, the financial and the physical.


If we accept that the prime objective of the waterways restoration movement is to renovate disused navigations and develop their potential, it may seem surprising to argue that one of these processes – the actual physical restoration on the ground – is the easiest and least important of the three.  I do not suggest for one moment that serious restoration work is easy – you have only to think of the backbreaking work done on Carreghofa Locks by the SUCS working parties, the grinding work by the superb MSC teams on the Rochdale Canal or the arduous effort by man WRG organised teams on many sites all over the country.  Nor do I suggest that such restoration is unimportant.  On the contrary, it is realising the ultimate objective of the various trusts – the total restoration of their own Canal throughout.  The comparison then is purely relative – compared with the two earlier processes the final process of physical restoration is essentially straightforward.


What is the significance of the two earlier processes and why is their successful completion so crucial to ultimate success?  We can answer this by outlining the content of tasks involved.


First of all there is the time consuming long winded, often frustrating sometimes disappointing but absolutely vital educational discussions with district and county councils, water authorities, statutory bodies like the Nature Conservancy Council as well as the wider campaign with taxpayers, ratepayers and the general public at large.  This initial process is by far the most important long-term activity of any restoration trust.  It is primarily a political campaign – persuading reasonable people that this course of action (restoration) is preferable to that course of action (neglect) and that it is in their personal and collective interest to follow it.  This first process is crucial too because local and national authorities do not often seek to damage inland waterways.  In many cases, like Powys County Council’s view of the Montgomery Canal in the 1960s they were hardly aware of the existence of the canal let alone its potential amenity and economic potential recently identified by the influential Atkins report.  It never occurs to the great majority of such myopic authorities (and I speak as a District Councillor myself) that restoration is a practical possibility.  Bringing the canal to their attention, showing by limited restoration work or the example of schemes elsewhere what can be done, pointing out the benefits that can accrue from restoration, gives these authorities a new perspective.  County and District Councils are far more ignorant that wilful.  Whether they like it or not an active restoration society gradually changes a local Council’s perception of inland waterways and in the long term makes them think of canals as part of their planning processes.  In some cases this is so successful that a consortium of local authorities take on the entire restoration as on the Rochdale Canal.  A superbly run Huddersfield Canal Society, probably the most well run of the restoration trusts formed in the early 1970s achieved that coup.


This initial educational process often takes a decade or more.  Sometimes, understandably, impatient committee members of restoration trusts argue this is too long, that only physical restoration work on the ground, only the work of the naves, is important.  In the long term they are mistaken.  The first political process is absolutely crucial because without it, without a successful job of persuading people living in the area that restoration is possible, preferable and practical, long term success in restoring andmaintaining a derelict navigation is never ever a feasible option. 


The two subsequent processes – the financial and the physical – are, therefore, totally dependent on a successful first one.  The Kennet and Avon Canal was completed not primarily because of the enormous amount of labour expended nor because of the finance provided by the Trust, local and national bodies over a quarter of a century.  They reached completion because the trust had organised enough people that restoration was possible, preferable and practical.  Money (the financial stage) and labour (the physical stage) have, therefore, been made available in sufficient quantities to complete the task.


Sometimes, as in the case of the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal, money can quickly be made available once the initial political phase is complete.  Occasionally local authorities may be totally convinced a restoration scheme is desirable but hesitate because they believe the local waterways trust is deficient in organisation, personnel or management.  It is not unknown for a member of the highest family in the land to express a general interest in a scheme and indicate that general interest might find a more concrete expression if a County Council were prepared to back such a scheme unconditionally.  Such a county council might support a scheme in principal but be reluctant to move without full district council support.  A district council might also support such a scheme in principal but be unwilling to embark upon it unless a trust is run on professional lines with sensitive, competent and well-organised personnel.  In these sad circumstances a trust could be regarded by those whose support is essential for eventual success as the greatest single obstacle to total restoration.  This might conceivably explain why some initially promising restoration schemes have achieved so little on the ground and been left behind by trusts more recently established.  There is nothing to be done until the ordinary members of such a trust realise the wasted potential and take matters in hand to establish constructive relations with the relevant local authority.  No successful restoration scheme has relied on volunteers alone for finance and labour.  If they try to proceed without substantial local authority financial support another decade brings the ultimate objective of total restoration only an extra lock or two nearer.  In these circumstances the restoration has failed.


The second phase of restoration, which follows a successful political campaign and precedes large-scale restoration, is raising the money to get things done.  This can also be a difficult, long winded and frustrating process though smaller sums to restore short lengths or the occasional lock from public appeals are easier to raise.  Judging by the track record of waterways restoration over the last fifty years or so this essentially financial campaign is only successful if a well established, carefully run and thoughtful trust has been working hard locally for many years.


So the lesson seems to be that if we want to restore a particular canal we must take the long-term view and concentrate our efforts on the political campaign to bring it to people’s attention.  Minds are not changed in a day but a detailed joint examination of the case for restoration; coupled with the responsible activities of a mature society, invariably win in the end.  ‘Get the politics of restoration right and the rest will follow in time’.  The money for the second financial phase and the labour for the third physical restoration phase do not fall into our lap when we have done this, but the back of the problem is broken.





Michael Handford

is the author of several books on the Stroudwater Canal, is a long serving director on the Company of Proprietors of the Stroudwater Navigation and was a founder member of the Stroudwater Canal Society (now the Cotswold Canals Trust) in 1972.  He fought successful public enquiries on the Forth and Clyde and Union Canals, the Montgomery Canal, The Wendover Canal and, most notably on the Rochdale Canal where the Ministry of Transport was obliged to redesign the Manchester Outer Ring Road Motorway, move a supermarket and several miles of concrete.


At various times he has been involved with the Bude Canal (ex director), Ashby Canal (on Ashby Canal Trust committee), joint founder and first chairman Melton Mowbray and Oakham Canals Society (now Vice President), early promoter of the Herefordshire and Gloucestershire Canal Society, joint founder of the Derby and Sandiacre Canals Trust, former Vice Chairman Foxton Inclined Plane Trust and was for many years Chairman of the Inland Waterways Association Restoration Committee.  He helped organise the opposition to the closure and infilling of Bristol docks in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is a founder member of the Montgomery Waterway Trust, suggested and helped form the original ideas for a Shrewsbury and Newport Canals Society through the Shropshire Union Canals Society walks.  He was honorary consultant to the Lancaster Canal Trust and the Monmouthshire Canal (where the Department of Transport, believing it could never be restored, agreed to remove and pay for the removal of road obstacles in Cwmbran if it was).  As ex Chairman Monmouthshire Canal Trust, he first suggested links between the Swansea, Neath and Tennant Canals to form a viable 30 odd mile network.  He is member number one on the Friends of the Leominster Canal.

This page was added by Iris Capps on 12/01/2011.

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