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.
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.