IWA Calls for Joined-Up Plan To Stop Loss of Waterways Heritage

7th May 2020

The Inland Waterways Association (IWA) has launched the first part of a report which aims to highlight the significance of waterways heritage across the UK. Produced with the endorsement of the Historic Narrow Boat Club, National Historic Ships UK and the Railway & Canal Historical Society, with support from Historic England, the report is focusing on the need for better protection of waterways heritage assets and is also calling on navigation authorities, councils, planning authorities, developers and builders to consider waterways heritage in any future development plans for local waterways and adjoining land.

Britain’s waterways form a vast, open-air network of working canals and rivers, connecting city and countryside, alive with boats and enjoyed by millions. As a heritage asset it is unsurpassed in scale and accessibility, telling the story of Britain’s industrial past as well as being important to its future, in terms of tourism, physical & mental health and our national sense of identity. Surprisingly, many of the unique and diverse heritage features that make the waterways so special are not protected and while vast numbers have already disappeared, those that still remain are at very great risk of being lost. 

IWA is highlighting its concerns and calling for a greater level of protection for waterways heritage features, over and above the 2,800 larger structures that are already listed through the Historic England register. These include 70 scheduled ancient monuments and five UNESCO world heritage sites.

Ivor Caplan from IWA’s Heritage Advisory Panel says, “Our waterways heritage is at risk– from urban development, lack of protection, loss of skills & knowledge and also climate change. We aim to improve understanding of what waterways heritage is, how it is at risk and demonstrate its value in terms of regeneration opportunities, visitor enjoyment, tourism and education.

“The removal of a strapping post here or a starting pin there doesn’t seem like a big deal when viewed as a single action, but when you view the broader picture, you realise that these small details each have their own part to play in a much larger story. Too much of our waterways heritage is being lost due to insensitive development. If something isn’t done now, it will be gone forever, and the history of our waterways will never be the same again.

“We are not asking for the waterways to become a museum. In fact, we want the very opposite. The waterways network needs to continue to be a usable and valuable asset now and into the future. All we are asking is that its history is protected and included in development plans rather than being removed.”

The reason why there is so much heritage on the inland waterways can be found in the way it was built. Canals started to appear from the late 18th century as a series of disconnected waterways which were built to transport raw materials. The look and feel of the waterway depended on when it was built and the technology available as well as the terrain that it was moving through. The additional stylistic elements were very much on the whim of the engineer or the company that was funding the construction. This lack of centralised planning is what gives the inland waterways network its regional differences and adds to the vast number of important heritage elements. Each canal has a unique look and feel, which not only gives it its appeal but also increases the need for protection. There will never be a case of one rule works for all and IWA is actively working against the homogenisation of the waterways.

Ivor Caplan adds, “IWA is asking local authorities to work with their local heritage organisations when considering any level of development on or alongside the waterways. Any detrimental effects must be mitigated and the unique elements of each individual waterway must be maintained.”
Another concern that the report uncovered was the dramatic loss of traditional skills. IWA is working with National Historic Ships UK to develop training courses for anyone who is interested in learning waterways skills so that these can continue into the future.

Part two of this report will be released in the summer and will go into more detail about the value of waterways heritage using a series of in-depth case studies alongside other resources. It is part on an on-going campaign to protect waterways heritage, the need for which was uncovered as part of IWA’s Value of Inland Waterways report authored by Nicki Schiessel Harvey of Birmingham City University, which launched in 2019.


For further press information please contact:

Jo Henderson, Press Officer, IWA – email: jo.henderson2@waterways.org.uk