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Saunterings:  Walking in North-West England

Saunterings is a set of reflections based upon walks around the counties of Cumbria, Lancashire and North Yorkshire in North-West England (as defined in the Preamble). Here is a list of all Saunterings so far.
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192.  Who should we Trust with our Waterways?

Recently the Canal & River Trust has been complaining that a £300 million cut in its Government grant will limit its ability to care for our waterways. This made me wonder just who is, or should be, responsible for our canals and rivers.

I set out to walk home alongside the Lancaster Canal and the River Lune to mull over this question. Before reaching the canal I passed what I think of as one of Lancaster’s finest buildings although it doesn’t feature in its literature. It was designed by the local architect E.G. Paley and built in 1870 with the original name of “the Royal Albert Asylum for idiots and imbeciles of the seven northern counties”. In the 1960s it had over a thousand patients. It was closed as a hospital in 1996 and today it is the rather private Jamea Al Kauthar Islamic College.
Jamea Al Kauthar Islamic College        lancaster canal

Left: Jamea Al Kauthar Islamic College;  Right: Lancaster Canal (photo taken on a different occasion).

The sun had not yet risen sufficiently to lift the gloom along the canal from the South Road bridge but I could see that the area had been somewhat revitalised, with newish flats overlooking the canal and offices occupying some of the old mill buildings. Despite numerous proposals over the decades, some areas of dereliction still serve as car parks – which perhaps the City Council prefers since they are significant sources of income that the council can control.

The canal seemed perfectly pleasant. I noticed no supermarket trolleys or the like tipped in it. There were a few dog-walkers and joggers about but otherwise it was quiet. I don’t know how lively the canal is in summer months but I’m sure that the canal is, or could be, an attractive feature of the city of Lancaster.

CRT The Canal & River Trust seems to be mainly concerned with canals rather than rivers, judging by its website. It says that it looks after 2,000 miles of waterways but that must be almost all canals. Wikipedia lists 162 canals in England, the 10 longest of which total over 1,100 miles. Lancaster Canal is the 11th longest at 61 miles. Our rivers must be several thousands of miles more. There is no precise definition of a river. If we include all the tributaries then determining the total length would be like determining the length of a fractal, which is infinite. Anyway, the Lancaster Canal is within the Trust’s remit.

The Canal & River Trust says that the cut of £300m is a reduction "in real terms of more than 40%". Yes, the previous grant was for £750m, so a cut of £300m does look like a 40% cut. However, that grant was for 15 years (so, £50m a year). The proposed new grant of £400m is for a 10-year period, starting 2027 (so, £40m a year). Has inflation been high enough to turn that 20% cut into 40%?

The Canal & River Trust was established by the Government as a charity in 2012, to replace the old British Waterways. How many charities are there that have been set up with a £750m Government grant?  The charity is clearly not independent of Government – although the latter wishes it to become so. The Government says that the £10m a year decrease is not a cut, because it was always understood, at least by them, that the £750m was an initialisation grant. The Trust was expected to increase its income from other sources. I can't imagine what other sources there are that will contribute millions of pounds a year for such a cause.

It is possible to become a 'friend' of (essentially, to give a donation to) the Canal & River Trust but not, I think, a member with voting rights, as you can for, say, the National Trust. I am always interested in the governance of charities that plead poverty and seek support from the public for their worthy objectives. The Canal & River Trust has an 11-person Executive Team and an up-to-50-(currently 34)-person Council. I didn’t recognise the name of any of them (I thought there might be a renowned environmentalist amongst them). Who appoints the Executive Team?  And if it's the Board of Trustees (another 11 names), who appoints them?  I am sure that the Government oversees the use of its (or our) £750m, plus soon £400m, with its customary diligence. The Trust has both investments and reserve funds of about £1 billion. The salary of the Chief Executive was £224,503 in 2022/2023. Our canals – valued havens of peace and corridors for wildlife – must be more valued than I thought.

I walked on to the Lune Aqueduct, with a biting wind blowing down-river. I noticed that the aqueduct has acquired a red plaque from the Transport Trust, another of our estimable Trusts, for being “the largest all-masonry aqueduct in Britain”. This aqueduct has had two major repairs in the last decade, both paid for by the Canal & River Trust, I assume. I dropped down to the path along the old railway line, beside the River Lune.
Lune Aqueduct        halton br

Left: Lune Aqueduct;  Right: Halton Bridge at Denny Beck.

EA We know who is responsible for the Lune – the Environment Agency. We always see some representative of the EA in TV reports of flooded or polluted rivers. The EA is described as an “executive non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs”. It is therefore effectively under the control of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The present Government has had five such ministers in four years: can you name the present one, after the latest cabinet reshuffle?  Since a shuffle is to produce randomness, perhaps it doesn’t matter who it is, as all cabinet members are assumed equally knowledgeable about everything.

The EA's budget has, of course, been greatly reduced since 2010. I say "of course" but there is no of course about it. It seems 'of course' because almost everything has been reduced since 2010. It was a Government choice to decrease funding of the EA's protection services from the equivalent of £213m (taking inflation into account) in 2010 to £94m in 2021.

The EA’s oversight of our rivers is not as straightforward as it may seem. When we needed work done on our beck-bank we knew that, as riparian owners, permission is needed for any work in or beside a watercourse. But permission from whom?  We assumed the EA but their brief ends, it seems, with the major rivers. Little tributaries like ours are the responsibility of the County Council. How the EA can ensure the well-being of the rivers while ignoring their tributaries I don’t know. (This was a few years ago: perhaps the arrangements have changed?)  The County Council seemed more concerned about the built environment than the natural one – reasonably enough, as they wouldn’t want work to, say, cause flooding that damaged bridges or roads. Of course, it is impossible to manage our rivers (including the tributaries) as enclosed entities. The health of a river is determined mainly by what enters it, such as various chemicals from farms and sewage from water utilities.

rivers trust I walked on into the wind, with my head achingly cold. I paused at the Denny Beck Bridge and noticed the platform provided for disabled anglers, installed by the Lune Rivers Trust. How do the Rivers Trusts fit into all this?  There are 60 Rivers Trusts under the umbrella of The Rivers Trust, each concerned with one or more rivers. The Rivers Trusts are charities, relying on volunteers with usually a few paid executives. They do not receive direct Government grants – but they are not really independent of Government because most of their income comes from projects paid for, and usually initiated by, Government agencies such as the EA. The Government presumably feels that it is better to stay at arm’s length and leave those with local knowledge to carry out the work.

I paused at the Halton weir, in case I could see any salmon leaping. Perhaps it’s too late in the season?  Anyway, I saw nothing, as has been the case for a while. Beyond the weir I left the old railway line to walk by the river, with some trepidation, as I expected it to be very muddy. However, the cold wind had frozen the mud. So, I continued by the riverside beyond the Crook o’Lune, which is indeed a fine walk and one that I haven’t taken since they’ve planted many trees by the river (I wonder whose initiative that was).

Of course, we’d like healthy waterways – but is it too late?  According to a Rivers Trust report of 2021 only 14% of England’s rivers are in good ecological health, and every single one fails to meet chemical standards. I doubt that the rivers have improved since 2021, with one of our afore-mentioned Secretaries of State commenting that “reaching the gold standard for ecological status would mean taking us back to the natural state of our rivers from the year 1840”, which was “not practical or desirable”.
lune 1

River Lune downstream from the Crook o'Lune

lune 2

River Lune upstream from the Crook o'Lune, with Waterworks Bridge ahead

    Date: January 9th 2024
    Start: SD473594, Ashton Road  (Map: OL41)
    Route: (linear) N on Ashton Road, past hospital – canal bridge – NE, NW – Lune Aqueduct – NE, E – Halton weir – E by Lune – Crook o’Lune – NE – Waterworks Bridge – S – Brookhouse
    Distance: 8 miles;   Ascent: 20 metres

The following item:
     193.   Reflections on Three Walks, Remembering Nicola Bulley
The two preceding items:
     191.   Back in Barbondale
     190.   Sixty Lake District Tops in Sixty Days
Two nearby items:
       72.   Turner and the Lune Aqueduct
     117.   Empirical Studies into Gender Differences in Hilly and Horizontal Pedestrianism
A list of all items so far:
               Saunterings

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    © John Self, Drakkar Press, 2018-

Blencathra

Top photo: The western Howgills from Dillicar; Bottom photo: Blencathra from Great Mell Fell