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This week, I have been offering some frustrating accounts of the failure of the Government to release land for much needed new housing. I would like to finish the series with a more positive example.
The Canal & River Trust are making a genuine effort to see development on the relatively small amount of land they own – including pushing through deals with local councils and others who owning adjoining tracts of land. While this is a series on “state land banking”, the Trust is not in the public sector. It was formed in 2012 taking over from a Quango called British Waterways which used to be subsidised with £60 million a year from the taxpayer via the Department of the Environment. In its privatised incarnation, the funding from DEFRA is a bit lower – down to £50 million a year. But as commercial income has risen, along with charitable fund raising, the total revenue is higher than it was under British Waterways. New moorings have been provided – resulting in more income from that business. Since 2012, the number of houseboats on the Trust’s waterways has increased from 2,326 to 4,098.
It is surely not pure coincidence that since being liberated from the dead hand of state ownership, our canals our better managed and maintained. Part of that financial rigour means proper asset management. That means fewer derelict eyesores and more attractive new homes – especially sought after along the waterfront.
A spokesman for the Trust tells me:
“The Trust owns land and property which formed a key part of the endowment transferred to the Trust on the charity’s formation in 2012. This investment portfolio is used to deliver a substantial part of the funding we require to look after the waterways in our care, both now and in the future. As such, this non-operational land is not “surplus”.
“As part of our property management, we have an established role in working with local authorities, other landowners, and the private sector to drive the regeneration of waterside property. Often such sites include substantial elements of residential development.
“Over the next five years we anticipate delivering around 5,000 new homes on approximately 55 hectares of the land we own either directly, in partnership with our joint ventures, or which we have made available to third parties or the private sector.
“As we only own circa four per cent of the land adjacent to our waterways, much of our impact can come through encouraging others to provide new waterside housing that creates great places which fully embrace the waterways and the contribution they can make to the sustainability and wellbeing of communities.”
Among the examples are:
Last year the Trust reports:
“We spent £157m on our charitable activities, notably maintaining and repairing our waterways, an increase of 6% from the year before. We undertook our largest ever programme of lock repairs and gate replacements with 197 lock ‘stoppages’ and 160 lock gate leaves replaced. We carried out hundreds of thousands of minor repair and maintenance tasks ranging from tree felling and servicing of bridges and locks to building repairs and vital inspections of embankments and hidden culverts.”
Volunteers gave up over 540,000 hours of their time, an increase of 12 per cent from the year before, to help the Trust. 181 community groups have now ‘adopted’ a stretch of their local canal or river.
No doubt more could be done. A gradual reduction in the annual DEFRA grant would provide a spur. There should also be a challenge to public sector agencies with neighbouring land not to be obstructive. Nor does it follow that everything proposed will be attractive. Richard Rogers’ firm was chosen for the Paddington Basin site – absolutely appalling cladded towers. Of course that is unacceptable, but that is a failing of the planning system. The answer to bad development is good development – it is not no development.
Anyway, I would conclude that overall what is happening along our canals is a success story. It offers a message of hope to those waiting for their aspiration of home ownership to be fulfilled. It also shows how building new homes can enhance rather than threaten the environment.