Phil Sharpe - Volunteer of the Month May 2014
Photo: Phil Sharpe operating lock on the River Nene
Phil Sharpe's interest in canals came about whilst he was still at school in 1965. Just two years later Phil became a member of IWA and was inspired to take action to help save the canals. Since then Phil has taken on many roles and contributed to the waterway sytems in a variety of ways. Read on to find out more about his current role as IWA Lichfield Branch's Planning and Website Officer and why he believes making information accessible online is important but also relies on the help of members.
How and when did you become interested in the waterways?
Whilst still at school in Manchester in 1965 a group of friends hired a narrowboat for a weekend trip down the Bridgewater Canal and the Trent & Mersey to Anderton. We had great fun going through the tunnels and trying to steer a full length boat round the tight bends overlooking the Weaver valley. The whole experience of superb scenery, a historic transport route and shared endeavour made a lasting impression. Shortly afterwards a larger group of us clubbed together to buy a wooden Leeds & Liverpool short boat and spent weekends working on it and holidays taking it to Runcorn, Liverpool and over the Pennines to Yorkshire. I also joined the Peak Forest Canal Society and enjoyed many working parties on the restoration of Marple Locks.
How did you first get involved with IWA?
I joined IWA in 1967 and went to Manchester Branch meetings for some years. Inspired by the campaigning spirit of the Bulletin and Norwester, we started a canal society at school and I wrote to Barbara Castle about keeping the waterways open for recreation, which her 1968 Transport Bill subsequently did. I’ve been a member ever since but it was not until 1988 that I joined an IWA committee, that of Lichfield Branch, and was Branch Chairman from 2008-11. I was on the West Midlands Region Committee for six years, first as Secretary from 1993 and then as Chairman and a Council member and Trustee from 1997-99. I was also a member of Restoration Committee from 1995-2004. I have had the job of Lichfield Branch Planning Officer for over 20 years, since 1993, and Website Editor from 2010.
You’re the Planning Officer and Website Officer for Lichfield Branch – what do these roles include?
The planning system controls what can be built, where its located and what it looks like, which can have significant affects on the environment of the waterways. To fulfil IWA’s aims on conservation, restoration and development Branches need to engage with development plans as well as commenting on planning applications.
As Planning Officer I am registered with all the local planning authorities in our Branch area (14 County, District and Borough Councils plus small parts of 3 others) to receive consultations on local plans and all planning applications affecting the waterways. Some Councils are better than others at consulting us but by checking all their planning websites weekly, as well as the CRT weekly list, not much gets missed these days. We are also occasionally consulted on the plans of other agencies such as CRT, Environment Agency, Natural England, English Heritage, Network Rail and Department of Transport. Where plans overlap with adjacent Branches the one most affected generally takes the lead.
As Website Editor I create and maintain our Branch pages including details of forthcoming events and reports on recent Branch activities such as walks, work parties and meetings. The News page carries a wide variety of articles on awards, donations, updates on HS2 and other notable planning issues, local restoration progress, festivals, CRT open days, etc. There are also pages on our Branch area and committee, meetings venue, newsletter, planning, AGMs and local links.
Why do you think it’s important to keep up to date web pages for the branch?
Although we now have our own printed quarterly Branch newsletter the trend is towards more use of electronic communications which people expect to be up-to-date, informative and interesting. We do our best but I and the committee can only originate so much material and contributions or feedback from members are always welcome.
As Planning Officer, on average how many planning matters do you deal with in a year and what do they cover?
On average, our Branch is consulted on, considers and responds to over 200 planning matters each year, about half of which are planning applications. Relevant applications are those concerning, adjacent to, or potentially affecting the waterways through visual impact or in other ways. They include everything from large new housing developments or industrial estates down to single householder extensions. Applications directly affecting the waterways can include new road or rail bridges, new marinas, or changes to Listed lock structures, etc.
What planning matter is of the most importance to the branch at the moment and how are you dealing with it?
The HS2 High Speed Rail plans are undoubtedly the most contentious and time-consuming at present. Various consultations have been underway since 2010 and it is likely to go on for many more years yet. We have responded in detail on local issues, contributed to the national responses, and been instrumental in the consultancy study on an alternative alignment to avoid the worst canal crossings at Woodend, Fradley.
The planning system has undergone many changes over the last decade, not all of which have been beneficial. Although development control (planning applications) generally works well the once simple and functional forward planning system has, due to constant political meddling by successive governments, become chaotic, ineffective and increasingly incomprehensible to the layman. The latest manifestation of this is a rash of very large housing site proposals on greenfield and often Green Belt land, seeking to take advantage of the delays in approving new Local Plans. We are currently opposing and/or trying to reduce the impacts of several large canalside housing and industrial sites proposed around Stafford, Lichfield, Burton, Atherstone, Nuneaton, Walsall and Minworth.
What’s your proudest IWA volunteer moment?
That’s a difficult one. Probably my involvement in work parties and boat trips on semi-derelict waterways in the mid 60s to early 70s when the future of many canals was at risk. Single events that stand out include the two big digs on the Ashton Canal, and winning the boat tug-of-war at the 1968 National in Liverpool!
In more recent years I can look back with pride about serving on IWA Council, ResCom and as Branch Chairman. My two main roles at present keep me occupied and give a certain amount of satisfaction on the occasions when our planning representations are listened to, and when the Branch webpages seem to be appreciated.
Thank you to Phil for this interview. If Phil's expereinces have inspired you to get involved, take a look at our many volunteer opportunities to find one that suits you.Back