Developers shouldn’t just treat canals as an aesthetic bonus. It’s time to use waterways for construction again

A disappointingly tiny proportion of the materials used building the 2012 Olympic park were transported via canals. Image: Getty

While London’s canals have seen a great resurgence in the last forty years, they’ve also witnessed a drastic move away from their originally intended purpose.

Once employed to ferry freight to and from the capital’s docklands, canal boats are now mainly used for leisure and alternative living.

It’s easy to put this down to the ongoing housing crisis, which has made many aspiring property owners view setting up home in a floating sardine as a viable option, but the truth is it's a vicious circle, with canals – or to be more specific, their misuse – playing a part in the capital’s housing woes.

As ex-industrial areas, many of which proudly sport a canal or river, continue to be developed, barges are being overlooked as a viable way to transport away construction waste and bring in materials.

Two prime examples of this are the Enfield Meridian Water Development and west London’s Old Oak Park Royal Development Corporation, two large canal-side development projects that could easily incorporate the waterways into their efforts.


The Meridian Water development plans proudly boast of its canal-side location.

With HGVs causing a vastly disproportionate amount of cyclist road deaths, getting freight off the roads would be safer, as well as reducing traffic and environmental impact. Transport via water uses around a quarter of the energy of an equivalent road journey. What’s more, any additional costs incurred by transporting freight by water are negated thanks to government backed grants.

Advocates of this mode of transport saw a brief glimmer of hope when Stratford was identified as the site for the 2012 Olympics. The area around the proposed park is riddled with canals and backwaters, perfect for heavy freight. Despite promising noises and the building of a new lock at Three Mills, which opened up a route to processing plants along the Thames Estuary, this option was not engaged with in any meaningful way.

Because while the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) moved an impressive 63.5 per cent of the materials used in and out of the park off-road, only a tiny proportion of this was via canal. The long hoped-for revival of waterways freight never happened and with the privatisation of the canals, it seems even further away.


The Canal and River Trust (CRT), the charity that now manages England and Wales’s canals, does little to encourage waterborne freight. Its website advises planners that “local staff may be able to put you in touch with companies potentially able to help” – which is quite simply a whole load of vagueness. While its predecessor, the government-run British Waterways, had a dedicated sustainable transport manager, CRT’s answer to this, the Freight Advisory Group, hasn’t met for almost five years.

A concerted EU effort has seen a great resurgence in freight borne on inland waterways in mainland Europe, but unfortunately nothing comparable is happening on this side of the Channel – but not due to a lack of options. The UK has the infrastructure in place already. It is just a matter of using it.

Having overcome their decline, canals are now seen as a great feature of modern cities. They pass through the centre of hundreds of towns and cities across the UK such as Birmingham, Glasgow, Nottingham and Manchester. Yet developments, despite being very willing to boast their canal-side credentials, are far less interested in using the waterways. Instead developers clog the roads with HGVs, blind to the fact the old-fashioned way just might be the best option for the future.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.