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.

 
 
 
 

“The enabling authority”: What explains Warrington’s economic boom?

Warrington’s Georgian Town Hall, behind its Victorian gates. Image: Racklever/Wikimedia Commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

When you’ve spent a couple of years trawling a database, you start to notice patterns. Here’s a map of GVA per worker, a measure of productivity, across the main British urban areas. Darker colours mean higher numbers:

Image: Centre for Cities.

That darker, green blob about halfway between Liverpool and Manchester, is Warrington. It’s by far the most productive city in the north west of England.

Another map. This one’s welfare spend per capita: you’d probably want your blob to be as light as possible, to represent that everyone is doing alright without government support. And once again: Warrington sticks out like a sore thumb.

Image: Centre for Cities.

Last one. This one’s wages. It’s less obvious here, because Warrington’s weekly wages are roughly on a par with those of Liverpool and Manchester (in fact, they’re slightly lower). But you’d expect wages to be highest in a region’s big cities, and lower in the smaller, nearby towns. And yet Warrington, unlike the other cities of the north west, is competing with the big boys.

Image: Centre for Cities.

The obvious question is: how?

History and geography

Context first. Warrington started out as a market town, on the Lancashire bank of the Mersey, by this point little more than a stream, although it swiftly spread across the river into Cheshire, the county it’s now part of. Half a century ago, it had a lot in common with the other smaller, industrial settlements of the north west: it was a centre for brewing, distilling and, most notably, wire manufacture. (The number of things in the town still nicknamed “The Wire” – a football team, a rugby team, a radio station – is faintly unsettling to any fan of the work of either David Simon or Doctor Who.)

Warrington in context. Image: Google Maps.

In 1968, though, Warrington was designated as one of the government’s final wave of new towns. Land left vacant by the closure of the munitions factory at ROF Risley was purchased by the Warrington Development Corporation and redeveloped as the new residential estate of Birchwood. Other sites – notably that of an airbase, RAF Burtonwood – have since also been repurposed as housing. Over the last half century, the population of the town has roughly tripled, to over 210,000: in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the decades when many northern industrial cities were in decline, Warrington’s population boomed.

The Village Hotel: a very ’80s vision of the future. Image: Jonn Elledge.

You can see this dual history – part ancient market town, part post-war boomtown – in the fabric of the place. The main thing I knew about Warrington before I visited it that it was a new town, so I was expecting a sort of northern Milton Keynes.

That wasn’t entirely wrong: the majority of the housing is relatively recent. And one of my meetings took me to a combined hotel bar/café/health club which offers something called “Inspiration Suites”, and whose enormous brick-surfaced car-park surrounds a fountain spouting extravagantly dyed water, like a vision of the future, c1986.

But there’s another Warrington: the covered market square, where there’s a pub dating from 1561; the grand Georgian and Victorian buildings on Sankey Street and Palmyra Square. The town hall is the Grade I-listed Bank Hall, which dates from 1750; its grand gates, at the foot of its long lawn, were created as a gift for Queen Victoria. She declined them, but nonetheless: Warrington was and is a real place in its own right, not merely an overflow for people who wanted to escape the big cities on either side.

The market square. Image: Jonn Elledge.

Economics

So why is Warrington doing so well, when so many similar sized northern cities are doing so badly? Why is it attracting the knowledge intensive service businesses that a modern western city needs to boom?

Image: Centre for Cities.

Geography is clearly a factor. The town lies within relatively easy reach of both Liverpool and Manchester, via train and motorway and, should you fancy it, canal. It lies on the main north-south routes (the West Coast Main Line; the M6), too. Whethe you’re a commuter or a business, it’s a good place to be based.


That doesn’t explain why it should have done so much better than Wigan, 10 miles to the north, which shares many of these advantages, however. So here’s another theory: Warrington’s success is the legacy of its history. Its new town status meant it had a lot of land, ready and hungry for development. It also gave the town what Steve Parks, managing director of Warrington & Co., terms an “enabling authority”: a council that saw economic development as a key part of its role.

The development corporation responsible for the new town closed its doors in 1989. But today Warrington & Co. essentially continues its mission, by providing business support, and leading local development and regeneration schemes. It creates the infrastructure necessary to unlock new developments; helps developers get planning permission; and manages the council’s property portfolio, providing it with a handy revenue stream.

Technically, Warrington & Co.’s staff are council officers; but their email addresses suggest otherwise, and they were largely recruited from the private sector. “When an investor thinks they’re talking to Warrington Borough Council, they think they’re all about car parking and grass cutting and so on,” Parks says. The impression of a private company was created intentionally, “to drive a different dynamic”.

“To some extent,” he goes on, “it’s a northern post-industrial town. We’ve had out of town development and the new town, but there’s a donut effect: the donut has done well, at the expense of the demise of the town centre.”

So the priority at present is correcting for that. Its big scheme of the moment is Time Square, a new chunk of town centre including a cinema, offices, eight new restaurants and two new bars. The council, through Warrington & Co., is taking on the development risk itself. Other schemes are in the pipeline, too. “We’ve broken the town centre into seven quarters,” Parks notes. “But we’re doing them all at the same time so we don’t just chase the blight around the own.”

A hoarding for the new development. Image: Jonn Elledge.

There’s much still to do. The first thing many visitors see when they arrive at Warrington Bank Quay station is the town’s biggest remaining patch of industrial decay, a spit of land between the river and the railway, which the counc il fears shapes perception of the place: a new road is needed to unlock its re-development. There are plans to bring residents back to the town centre, too: the council has planning permission for another 500 extra homes; James Peacock Developments has already created a chichi apartment block next to Central station. Parks talks, perhaps optimistically, of attracting tech business to a local digital hub, too.


All sorts of factors have contributed to Warrington’s success, but one of them must surely be this: a council willing and able to do the things necessary to push the town forward, and with the land, and cash, to do it. It’s the same attitude that led it to create a second arms-length company, Warrington’s Own Buses, which does what it says on the tin. It’s like a Victorian municipal corporations, still running in 2018.

Most of the factor that enabled Warrington’s boom aren’t replicable. But with some thought and some investment, this one, perhaps, could be.

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