Value of waterways heritage

Govilion Wharf
Created on 22/11/2019

Our new campaign aims to protect and record historic assets along the UK's canals and rivers.

Launching this winter, IWA’s Value of Waterways Heritage campaign will look at heritage that has been lost and heritage that has been saved as well as uncovering assets that are currently causing concern. It will explore how these can be better protected and the role that planning officers at local IWA branches can play in managing any developments taking place along our inland waterways.

What is waterways heritage and what does it means for IWA?

Rope marks on the bridge Autherley Junction

Waterways heritage is much more than the locks, bridges and buildings that are common along any given waterway, especially the canals. It includes the signage and less noticeable canal furniture, as well as traditional skills and obscure remnants of the area’s industrial past. It is the grooves that have been worn into the side of a bridge from the ropes being drawn by the horses pulling barges; it is the metal supports across the towpath that were used to give the horses’ feet some purchase as the path went uphill. It is the stories that were told, the skills that were learned and the views that can be seen both from the water and the land beside the waterway.

Ivor Caplan, member of IWA’s Heritage Advisory Group, says: “IWA takes a holistic view of heritage to include the buildings, engineering structures, working mechanisms, artefacts, boats, people and operations. This view looks at the total operating waterways system, a ‘museum without walls’ with structures and artefacts in their correct location and, where possible, working as they should.”

IWA’s Heritage Policy has been updated and now reads: “IWA considers that heritage is a vital aspect of the inland waterways and must be actively preserved for the enjoyment and understanding of present and future generations.”

IWA supports the retention of the heritage of the inland waterways system as a high priority; the organisation is looking at the value and positive contribution it can make to different areas including well-being, tourism and education. Rather than just requiring protection in its own right, heritage also deserves recognition, respect and consideration. 

Why is IWA looking at the value of waterways heritage now?

We are always looking at the heritage of the waterways – it forms the basis of the IWA Restoration Hub, which aims to bring derelict and forgotten waterways back to life. Recently IWA has been aware of new developments and redevelopments that are changing the face of the waterways, without due consideration of the heritage that is being lost.

This was a key element of the recent Vision for London report produced by IWA London region; inappropriate and unsympathetic developments have caused waterways heritage in London to be lost. IWA is campaigning to prevent this from happening further, and will fight against any proposed developments with scale or character that will adversely impact the waterways. Derek Humphries has been appointed as Heritage Advisor for IWA London Region and also sits on the Heritage Advisory Panel. He is currently undertaking a review of the listed buildings along the waterways in the capital.

IWA West London Branch is also focusing much of its attention on protecting waterways heritage in its area. This includes the vast development at Old Oak and Park Royal where the branch is heavily involved in the planning aspect and is looking at the project from the perspective of the Grand Union Canal as it travels through the heart of the building work.


IWA Trustee Nicki Schiessel Harvey recently published The Value of Inland Waterways. In this report, Nicki researched the vast amount of information that is available regarding waterways and heritage, but uncovered a gap in knowledge about the specific value of waterways heritage. Off the back of this report, IWA is planning to undertake further research to look at assigning a monetary ‘value’ to waterways heritage that quantifies the benefit it brings to the region.

Importance of views and visual character

Sometimes it’s not the tangible things that need protecting; waterways heritage also covers views. The Mayor of London makes specific reference to the importance of protecting heritage assets and riverscapes in his New London Plan. IWA wants to take this a step further and protect waterscapes across London and beyond, taking into consideration the wider impact of development on the visual character of the waterway. This is not just the view in terms of the buildings that you see (whether newly built or redeveloped) but also things like hedges, railings, bridges, trees and pathways. Each of these has an impact on the heritage of the area.

Managing the change

Where possible, IWA supports the principle of waterside buildings being used in a way that is compatible with their original function, e.g. boat-building and boating services. However, this is not always feasible. In these cases, IWA appreciates the need for sympathetic and appropriate restoration and conversion, for example into residential property. Local IWA branches, through their planning officers (where available), need to be aware of these proposals and get involved in early discussions to ensure the waterways heritage is not lost.

Ivor Caplan comments: “Sometimes there needs to be change on the waterways, but IWA wants to be at the forefront of managing that change and working with local authorities to ensure they make informed and conscious decisions when looking at development plans and to acknowledge the value of waterways heritage in their area.”

Speaking for heritage before it's lost

IWA recognises that navigation authorities and other owners cannot be expected to maintain unused buildings indefinitely purely because of their historical significance and appreciates that sometimes the only decision may be destruction. Demolition should only be considered as a last resort and when the building or structure is not a rare example of its type. IWA expects a full heritage and photographical survey to be carried out and archived, and that, where possible, artefacts associated with the building are conserved.

Canal conservation areas

IWA’s Heritage Advisory Panel supports listing on the Historic England register as the means of ensuring the retention of significant buildings and structures, but has discovered that this protection brings with it a whole host of difficulties and restrictions. The panel is recommending that IWA looks at conservation areas as a way of affording a level of protection to waterways heritage. IWA will be encouraging local authorities to designate conservation areas covering the whole entity of related waterways assets, for example a lock flight or a complex of canal basins and warehouses or even the whole waterway.

Online Heritage Tracker

We would like to find out how you feel about waterways heritage and its importance; please share views with us on our IWA Waterways Heritage Tracker survey.

Sign up for email updates

Keep up to date with all the latest waterways news. 

first name:

last name:


We will never share your email address with anyone else and you can update your subscription preferences at any time.