Sunday, 14 June 2009

Ridgacre Branch - a lost cause?

Interesting discussion on Canal World Discussion Forum about the present state of the unloved section of the Wednesbury Old Canal that is a dead-end off the top of the Ryders Green locks.

After the BCN Marathon Challenge, one boat - I was on it - decided to venture up to the end, despute an unofficial sign stating that the canal was unnavigable. The discussion on the forum has developed along two lines: should this boat have gone there and should these short industrial arms be saved.
My view? Yes to both questions. More detail below.

On the question of whether NB Tawny Owl should have gone up the arm, BW have a mechanism for stopping boats using a canal. They have not used it for this canal; ergo it is open for navigation. Should there be significant concern over pollution then they, Sandwell Borough Council or the Environment Agency can all effect closure. The authorities are actually well aware of the sediment, having successfully prosecuted a riparian landowner. A bigger concern is whether the substantial fine from that prosecution was ever used to remediate the situation in the canal.

In the long-term, the best hope for the entire waterways system may well be an electoral guarantee by all three major political parties that all revenue generated from the canals will be reinvested directly. This would make it worthwhile pursuing a whole load of opportunities and would encourage volunteer efforts.

If a canal is open, it is reasonable to be able to use it. Claiming a canal to be unnavigable when it is actually not is disingenuous and counter-productive. Indeed, the BCN Marathon Challenge originally existed to save this very stretch of canal, so it is perhaps particularly apt for boats to be encouraged to use it during this event. Also, it is equally counter-productive for the BCN Marathon Challenge to explicitly discourage navigation to the very extremities of, among others, the Cannock Extension and the Engine Arm. While I appreciate that there are residential boats in these places, the event is only over one weekend annually and attracts a relatively small number of boaters. There may come a time soon when closure beckons for these little arms and branches, and these very residents may expect the wider waterways community to rally to save them; this is considerably more likely if those arms and branches are considered part of the network rather than private property.

On the second issue of the valuation of environmental services, it’s not just a question of environmental services. Canals have been shown to have a significantly higher value in urban regeneration than almost any other factor; possibly the only more important element is iconic architecture and canals often have this as well – plenty of examples of that around the country.
When it comes to canals, some towns – Swindon and Stroud – are desperate to get canals back and, in Swindon’s case are even proposing to have a canal where none have gone before. Sadly, in the West Midlands, I get a strong sense that canals are used as the magnet for property development but thereafter there is an active drive to remove the very community who through the last 50 years have kept these waterways open and alive.
It’s still fairly shocking that property developers pay absolutely nothing for waterway frontage other than a premium to the previous owner which they pass on to subsequent users, yet contribute absolutely nothing to the canal or waterways communities.
We, boaters and anglers (and some specific industries and utilities), are the only part of society that pay directly for the waterways, and society in general is paying, in real terms, less every year for the upkeep while putting ever increasing pressure on the system. Furthermore, despite contributing nothing, most new property developments actuallhy put big signs up saying "No Mooring". Given that I am actually paying along with every other boater, for the water to be alongside those luxury apartments, I should be able to moor where I damn well please! In fact, it would be quite a nice idea to encourage new developers to start voluntarily putting some cash into the canals to avoid unwanted derelict boats being moored with mud anchors six inches off their property. (Now there's a campaigning thought!)

If there was a more equitable financing structure for all the environmental services, landscape services, and tourism and social services performed by the canals, many of our long closed canals would still be open and many restoration projects would get the money needed overnight. The potential value added by canals in an aging population is considerable and even the unloved, grimy corners may one day have a part to play. Have a look at old photographs of the Trent & Mersey, Caldon, Gas Street and many others to see that the eventual transition from industry to leisure and beauty is not an impossible dream.

If the Ridgacre/Wednesbury Old Canal has contaminated silt in it, then the authorities should get rid of it. It is not acceptable to say that BW cannot afford it, because even if the canal is closed and filled in, it will still require environmental remediation. The difference being that closure and in-fill would require remediation before further use, whereas remediation of a canal can be done over time, bit by bit.

So whatever anyone thinks of the situation, the Ridgacre should be cleaned up because one way or the other it will have to be done anyway, and the cheapest option is to do it as a canal. Then maybe one day in fifteen years or so, we can perhaps see something that reattaches the Balls Hill Branch, the Ridgacre, the Halford, the Dartmouth and the Jesson to the network.

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