Wales’ canals under threat as UK Government announces significant cut in funding
The UK Government has been accused of putting the future of Wales’ historic canals at risk after announcing a significant funding cut.
Glandŵr Cymru, the Canal & River Trust in Wales, has issued a warning that a UK-wide reduction in grant funding of over £300 million in real terms, will threaten the future of the nation’s historic canals, leading to their decline and to the eventual closure of some parts of the network.
The reduced grant from 2027 will almost halve the value of public funding for canals in real terms compared with recent years.
This comes despite a UK Government Review, shared with Glandŵr Cymru and expected to be published imminently, confirming that its funding is ‘clear value for money’, with canals shown to deliver substantial benefits to the economy, to people and communities, and to nature and biodiversity.
The reduced funding comes at the same time as the costs of maintaining canals are increasing, due to the growing impact of climate change, with more periods of drought and extreme storm events taking their toll on ageing 250-year-old infrastructure.
UK Environment Secretary Therese Coffey announced on Monday that the Trust will receive a funding package of £400 million between 2027 and 2037, along with £190 million between now and 2027, and that it has to increasingly move towards alternative sources of funding.
Richard Parry, Glandŵr Cymru’s chief executive, welcomed the UK Government’s commitment in providing long term support to such a critical national network, but warned that, unless a more realistic funding settlement is secured, it will turn the clock back on one of the nation’s greatest heritage regeneration stories and lead to the loss of substantial public benefits.
“We are tasked by government to care for and manage safely this important and historic infrastructure. The UK Government has confirmed the value and importance of the nation’s canals and their vital role in our health and wellbeing, for wildlife and nature, and in supporting jobs and the UK economy. Yet, at the same time, they have announced a funding decision which puts the very future of canals at grave risk,” Parry said.
“By sharply reducing their investment in the critical work to care for and safely manage this vulnerable national canal infrastructure, the UK Government is failing to recognise the full cost of sustaining the vital benefits they provide.
“We have ambitious plans for continued growth in income from donations, investments and other funding streams and are also growing volunteer numbers to help with our work. However, even taking these into account, the decision by government leaves a substantial funding shortfall which puts decades of restoration and recovery of these much-loved historic waterways at risk.
“Our industrial canal heritage is as vital today as it was in the past, and will continue to be in the future, by bringing the benefits of green space and nature corridors into urban areas, as well as contributing to flood defences and transferring water to areas of shortage. It is a critical part of our national infrastructure, and its decline would impact communities across the country.”
Mr Parry warns the funding cuts will have a “potentially devastating impact” on the Canal & River Trust’s ability to care for and protect the 2,000-mile-long waterways network and its heritage – the locks, reservoirs, bridges, tunnels, aqueducts and embankments. At a time of increasing costs, the proposed cuts will see the value of public funding for canals reduce in real terms by more than 40% – or over £300 million in total – compared to recent levels.
“Glandŵr Cymru, together with all those who use the canals, the boat-owners and anglers, the businesses that depend upon them, and the millions of towpath users, is determined to keep making the case for a sustainable partnership with the UK government, crucially with the funding that the future of the canals depends upon,” he said.
A Defra spokesperson said: “Since it was first created in 2012, we have been very clear that the Trust would have to increasingly move towards alternative sources of funding.
“To date, we have awarded them £550 million funding and are supporting the Trust with a further £590 million between now and 2037 – a significant sum of money and a sign of the importance that we place on our canals.
“We have been discussing this with the charity for some time and have been offering support on how it can increase income from other sources, as per the original objective of the grant funding.”
Many hundreds of miles of waterways were lost in the 20th century, but in the past fifty years they have experienced an extraordinary renaissance.
Today there are more boats on the canal network than at the height of the Industrial Revolution and the network provides vital green space by water and access to nature to more than ten million people each year.
Independently verified research using government methodology has found the Trust’s canals across the UK support 80,000 jobs and contribute £1.5 billion annually to the economy.
They deliver £4.6 billion of social welfare value to people and communities, including health benefits that contribute £1.1 billion in savings to the NHS from the millions of people making active use of its waterways and their towpaths.
Glandŵr Cymru says it continues to develop other sources of income, reducing the share of its funds from the UK government when compared with the former publicly-owned British Waterways, now less than 25% of its total income.
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