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.

 
 
 
 

Meet the Sheffield social enterprise using shipping containers to tackle the housing crisis

A shipping container, repurposed as housing. Image: REACH.

A Sheffield-based social enterprise is hoping to navigate the rocky waters of the UK housing market, by creating affordable 1, 2 and 3-bedroom homes from shipping containers.

Inspired by an episode of Grand Designs, former police officer Jon Johnson set up REACH – Recycled, Environmental, Affordable Container Homes – in January 2017. Following a small grant from charity UnLtd, the social enterprise built a prototype which it is currently showing off to interested parties from around the UK. Johnson believes it can build 6,000 units a year, helping to plug the housing shortfall and creating genuinely affordable homes.

Just 1.4 per cent of homes in large developments approved by planners in Sheffield in 2016 and 2017 met the government’s affordable definition. In Manchester, it was literally none..

“We need to build the houses people want, where they want them, rather than what developers can bully through,” says Johnson. “I’ve got 40 or 50 housing reports. Are we going to keep writing reports or are we going to do something about it?”

During Johnson’s almost 30-year career in the police force, he saw first-hand the effects that insecure and poor-quality housing can have on communities in Britain. “It underpins everything in society. Everybody needs somewhere to live,” he says. “And if you haven’t got a decent place to be, that is adding to mental or health problems. You're onto a loser from the outset.”


“Decent housing is a human right like air and water,” he goes on. “It’s always been done to us by people who don’t care about standards or quality as long as they’re making money.”

Johnson used skills learnt through his furniture recycling store, Strip the Willow, to decorate the prototype, and sourced every bit of second-hand wood he used locally. The panelling used to be a counter in a local Indian takeaway, the cladding on the roof came from a local mosque. The bedroom headboard is made out of a piano, and light fittings are made out of cymbals.

Each of his eco homes will be 60 per cent recycled, built offsite in three weeks and powered by renewable energy sources. “We aim to make use of million tons of waste we put into landfill every year,” he says.

Changing the playing field

But followers of the UK housing market will be unsurprised when Johnson says there are vested interests and serious obstacles to overcome before REACH can achieve its dream of turning a cottage industry something more substantial.

“The same people will just keep profiteering out of everyone else’s misery,” he says. “We're trying to do housing the right way. It’s about people and planet, not just profit. Housing shouldn't be about giving out millions in bonuses at end of the year.”

But REACH won't be able to build any homes without land – perhaps the biggest hurdle for them to get over.

Following the Second World War, the government freed up land and built prefab housing estates around the country. Johnson believes a similarly bold approach is needed to meet the housing demands of the 21st century.

However, the publication of the social housing green paper last week made no promises to build more social housing. It “doesn’t commit a single extra penny towards building the social homes that are desperately needed,” said housing charity Shelter.

Frustration with this situation led Johnson to set up the National Federation of Affordable Building (NFAB), which brings together organisations from across the offsite construction sector who all would like to see a change in policy. “The reason we set up NFAB was because so many SMEs have had conversations with Homes England and got nowhere.”

The current Homes England system for listing land means building companies need to have a turnover of £50m before they can even be considered for public land – a bidding process that excludes all SMEs such as REACH.

REACH does have backing from the Local Government Assocation, though. It also has Sheffield City Council on board, and is hoping the council will soon be given a piece of land to build the first nine homes, freeing up funds for its first off-site factory.

It's clear that it’s going to take some forward-thinking councils for it to succeed. “We need a Dunkirk style situation with SMEs getting some innovation into the market,” Johnson says. “The issue of land and how much its worth is entirely notional. Land is expensive because people think it is.

“If Homes England can ringfence a percentage of the land they give to the big builders every year, and have that for affordable development, we won’t have a problem because the SMEs will have somewhere to access the market instead of queueing up for massively expensive land.”

At the moment, he notes, “Big builders don’t want to do things any differently because they're protectionist of their profit margins. SMEs can’t get a look in. We need to alter that playing field.”

A sustainable trend?

One popular misconception of homes made from shipping containers is that they are too cold in winter and uncomfortably hot in summer. Some critics also suggest that say the current trend for modular housing is a fad.

But Johnson says that residents will need the heating on for only two months a year: the homes are designed using ‘Passivhaus’ principles, which optimises energy efficiency through its design.

“They are light and spacious,” he says. “It’s how we use the offset of parts of the containers. They are like adult Lego. We can use architectural glass and make some fabulous buildings.

“They’re affordable but they will look like architect-designed houses.”

The one, two and three bedroom models will be sold at £35,000, £65,000 and £90,000 respectively. There is already a large waiting list of people ready to move in once they've secured some land.

At present, “I don’t think it’s a trend,” Johnson admits. But “it will take over the market if it's done right. The tech has now caught up and modular housing can be controlled a lot more intelligently in the factory. It cuts down on construction costs, waste and theft of materials from sites. It makes the whole process of housebuilding a lot more efficient.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to get housing moving in the right direction and get sustainability on the agenda,” he concludes. “That’s not going to happen if we leave it to the big builders.”

Thomas Barrett is the editor of New Start magazine, where this story first appeared. He tweets as @tbarrettwrites.

All images courtesy of the author/REACH.