London’s waterways are a neglected and wasted resource
A report by the Green Party Group on the London Assembly. December 2004
“London’s canals are a wasted resource. There is
potential for moving millions of tonnes of freight by canal and
reducing lorry traffic through London. But many parts of the canal
network carry no freight traffic at all. This has to change.
London’s canals must be put to work again.” Jenny
Jones, Green Party Member of the London Assembly
This report outlines the current use of London’s
canals and identifies threats to their well-being. It calls for a major
transfer of freight from the capital’s roads to its canals. This
would lead to a dramatic reduction in lorry traffic, cleaner air, safer
streets and increased funding for the support and improvement of the
canal network, its towpaths and surroundings.
Facts on London’s Waterways Network:
London’s waterways were built about 200 years ago –
just as the canal building era was ending. They fell into disuse
with the development of rail, and especially, roads.
London’s canals form a 65 mile network of waterways which
link the east and west of the city, and connect to thousands of
kilometres of national waterways.
London’s canals pass through 15 of the capital’s
boroughs: Brent, Camden, Ealing, Enfield, Hackney, Hammersmith and
Fulham, Haringey, Hillingdon, Hounslow, Islington, Kensington and
Chelsea, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Waltham Forest, and
Some 2000 people are estimated to live on canal boats in
One million Londoners live within a 10 minute walk of
London’s waterways (Note 1).
Only a tiny amount of freight - 17,000 tonnes in 2003 - is
carried on London’s canals (Note 2). At their peak,
London’s canals carried more than 4 million tonnes of
materials per year.
Many stretches of towpaths are used by walkers and cyclists.
The entire canal network is designated as a “Site of
Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation”. It supports
a wide range of wildlife including spiked water-milfoil, emerald
damselfly, sand martins, and fish such as roach and bream (Note
Several canals have been lost including the Grand Surrey and
Croydon Canals in South London and the Kensington Canal. The Grand
Union Canal was rescued through a campaign in the 1960s.
Who runs and funds London’s canals?
London’s canals are managed by British Waterways,
for leisure, conservation and transport. The funding comes from
licensing and mooring fees, other earnings (for example for water
services, cabling under towpaths, a property portfolio and rental
income) and third party sources (such as planning gain and lottery
funding). Last year London’s canals received no direct funding
from the government.
The government expects British Waterways to raise funds from its
assets, including the development of canalside land. This development
generates funds to invest in the canal network. But in some places the
loss of canalside land to housing directly conflicts with the use of
canals for freight transport and the use of adjacent land for
operational purposes, such as wharves, warehouses, boatyards, waste
management, recycling and reprocessing facilities.
British Waterways has carried out many improvements to London canals in
recent years. However funding is too little and too uncertain to pay
for the major comprehensive overhaul which is now urgently needed if
full use is to be made of the canal network for transport of heavy and
bulky goods, especially waste and building materials, as well as for
recreation and wildlife.
Current usage of London’s canals
Here are some examples of the important roles which the
canals can play in London.
- 60,000 tonnes of sand and gravel per year are being shipped along
the Grand Union Canal from a pit at Denham to West Drayton in
Hillingdon. Planned to last seven years, this is removing over
5,000 lorry journeys a year from a 5.5 mile stretch of road
- The recently approved plan for a waste and recycling centre at
Old Oak Railway Sidings, Willesden Junction, will unlock the
potential of West London’s canals. The plan includes a new
wharf on the Grand Union Canal to allow waste and materials to be
brought in and out by water, taking over 100,000 lorry journeys off
West London’s roads, and allowing transfer between canal and
- In Hackney, the proposed “waste by water” scheme
could result in domestic waste being transferred from road to the
Lee Navigation – reducing lorry miles from 124,000 to 45,000
a year (Note 5). However, this scheme is under threat and
needs a political boost if it is to happen.
- 12,000 tonnes, or 1,500 lorry-loads worth, of waste scrap
by-product, which currently travels 12 – 15 miles from
Edmonton to Canning Town by road, could be transported by boat on
the Lee Navigation, according to the Freight Study Group (Note
- The canals provide many opportunities for recreation, which in
turn help to maximise their social, economic and environmental
potential by providing natural surveillance and moving the water,
thereby preventing stagnation. These already include boat trips
between Camden and Little Venice, the Canal Museum in Islington,
the Hanwell flight of locks, the Pirates project at Camden (with
boating activities for young people and families), the Islington
and Laburnum boat clubs, other canoeing clubs, narrow boats,
rambling, fishing, exploring wildlife, and Thames21’s
thriving canal-based volunteer projects. An imaginative proposal
for the future is a leisure waterbus serving a six mile ring from
Limehouse Basin, along Limehouse Cut, the Lee, Hertford Union Canal
and Regent’s Canal back to the Basin.
- Many stretches of towpath are accessible to walkers and cyclists.
Other stretches need to be opened up, signed and maintained. For
example, funding is required to provide for cycling on the Grand
Union Canal between Paddington and Greenford, and between Brentford
and Hayes (Note 8). Such ‘Green Corridors’ open
up central London and provide safe alternatives to cycling and
walking on roads.
Threats to the well-being of London’s canals
London’s canal network remains hugely underused for
navigation. In some places the canals are empty waterways, silted up
and unattractive havens for old tyres. Some redevelopment schemes on
the canals will actually prevent the canal network being used fully for
transport and recreation.
“There are already many inspiring examples showing
how London’s canals can be brought back to life. We must take
this vision forward and make London’s whole canal network fully
operational for transport, whilst protecting nature and leisure
activity,” Darren Johnson, Green Party member of the London
Obstacles to a canal revival
Lack of a strategic advisory body for all
There is duplication and overlap between the Thames and Waterways
Steering Group and the London Canals Committee, both of which are
dormant, leaving an absence of strategic policy making and expert
Conflicting interests for British Waterways
British Waterways is responsible for both promoting navigation on the
canals and for raising funds for the canals from development of its
property. These two roles can conflict and undermine opportunities to
increase waterborne transport.
British Waterways’ funds are limited. Funds from other sources
(e.g. the government’s Freight Facilities Grant and Transport for
London) are too small and too uncertain to refit London’s canal
network for modern navigation. Funds are needed to dredge to greater
depth, automate and improve locks, and develop more wharves in the
Weak planning controls
The Blue Ribbon Network policy in the London Plan is an important step
forward in protecting London’s canals for water-based uses, but
it still does not give sufficient priority to navigation on the
waterways network. London faces huge development pressure and waterside
sites are especially attractive for housing development. Even with the
Blue Ribbon Network planning policy, wharves, warehouses, boatyards and
waterspace are being lost to housing and other development.
Lack of incentives and help to switch freight from road to
Transport of freight by water is not promoted actively to potential
customers. Advice and technical assistance is hard to obtain. Without
financial incentives it is unlikely that many freight handlers will
overcomes these barriers.
Lack of integration with rest of London’s transport
The waterways network is managed by British Waterways without a formal
connection to Transport for London. This makes it hard to plan for
transfer of freight between water, road and rail, and the development
of passenger services.
Recommendations for London’s canals
- A Blue Ribbon Network Agency should be set up by the London Mayor
to be a strategic body for all London’s waterways, resourced
from the Greater London Authority, and chaired by a London
- The London Mayor, Transport for London and British Waterways must
develop a joint action plan to increase waterborne transport of
- Larger and more certain funding streams should be identified to
improve and maintain canals for navigation, improve and maintain
towpaths, enhance wildlife and, where possible, facilitate cycling.
Jenny showing Mayor’s Advisor Neale Coleman the potential of
- Financial incentives should be available for waterborne freight.
A feasibility study should assess practicality and the level of
- All development benefiting from proximity to canals should
contribute to a “London Waterways Fund”, whether
through Section 106 planning gain agreements or other mechanisms.
Business Improvement District grants from canalside districts
should also contribute to the fund.
- There should be an action plan for each canal route, including
specific proposals for transport use.
- Waste contracts for boroughs on the waterways network should not
be approved unless the contracts require substantial use of
waterways for carrying waste and recycling. The pilot “waste
by water” scheme in Hackney needs financial support.
- All developments on the canals, including supermarkets, should
have a recycling station with canal access for shipment.
- A range of major transport projects and mixed use developments,
located on the canal network, are either already underway or
planned. These schemes should be required to make use of waterways
for the transport of construction materials, waste and tunnel
spoil. They include the Kings Cross redevelopment, Crossrail and
the supersewer tunnels, and the Olympics/Lower Lea Valley
- Restoration of the Bow Back Rivers should be a priority.
1. British Waterways London, Fact File
2. Guardian, 5 August 2004
3. London Biodiversity Partnership
4. Freight on Water – a New Perspective, report of the Inland Waterways
Freight Study Group, 2002
5. As above
6. West London Canal Network study, 2004
7. Freight on Water – a New Perspective, as above
8. London’s Green Spaces – Under-used Assets, London Cycling
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London Assembly members
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London Assembly Green Party Members
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