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The People’s Canals?

Mark Walton
On the potential for the inland waterways to support new social enterprise and community activity.

On May 24th Lynne Berry, the Vice Chair of the newly established Canal and River Trust spoke at a regional RSA event in Nottingham on the subject of ‘The People’s Canals’.

We know from the work The Waterways Project has undertaken, mapping canalside communities in East London, Monmouthshire & Brecon and the Calder Valley, that there are a host of enterprising community organisations and social enterprises located in close proximity to the waterways.  Many of these know they could extend their activities, involve more people, create new jobs and attract new funding if they had better access to the land and properties associated with the canal.

Much of the lobbying undertaken by The Waterways Project focused on the need for the new waterways charity to have an explicit objective to ensure that the waterways are operated in order to maximise public benefit; and to actively promote the sustainable social, economic and environmental development of communities living on and alongside the waterways

It was therefore heartening to see that the Canal and River Trust’s founding documents do include charitable objects which commit it to the promotion of sustainable development in order to “improve the conditions of life in socially and economically disadvantaged communities”, and “promote sustainable economic growth and regeneration”. It was also encouraging to hear Lynne Berry declare a strong commitment to enabling local social enterprise and micro business on and alongside waterway assets.

There was also a recognition that the Regional Partnerships created within with new charity are a starting point when it comes to devolving control of the asset and that decision making on some issues will need to move to a more local level.

Such changes take time, requiring shifts in culture and mindset as well as new structures and organisational objectives. However we believe that a move towards a ‘presumption in favour of community management’ would provide an opportunity for  much greater local level engagement; one that provides mutual benefits to canalside communities and to the new waterways charity.

If a consortium of local groups came forward with a proposal to manage the assets associated with a stretch of the canal (land buildings etc) it would have the right to enter into negotiation with the new charity.  It would have to demonstrate that it had the skills and capacity to meet the standards for management set by the local board, including any sites with particular value or sensitivity, such as for heritage or environmental reasons.

It is unlikely that such community-led proposals would seek to deliver the core business of the new waterways charity, such as maintaining the navigation or primary functions of the canal. More likely is a consortium of local organisations wishing to manage the ‘non-navigation’ aspects, delivering enhanced biodiversity, economic regeneration, and social benefits to the local community.

Negotiations between the community and the new charity would form the basis of a ‘licence to manage’: a formal agreement leasing the assets over a number of years.

There would be an expectation that the arrangement would deliver cost savings to the new charity. Where significant financial benefits would arise from the lease e.g. from trading activity, energy generation etc., the new charity could expect to negotiate a revenue sharing arrangement.

If for any reason the delivery by the local consortium failed to meet the agreed standards, the new charity would have the right to withdraw the lease and bring the asset back under direct management.

We believe such an approach would open the asset base out to the innovation and energy of local communities and enable the canal network to become a leading international example of community-led sustainable development infrastructure.

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