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Our canals: at risk because of more Defra chaos

Friday 01 December 2006

Our countryside and rural affairs commentator John Sheard is seething with anger as yet more disastrous news leaks from the rural affairs ministry Defra. This time, it is our much-loved canal system that is being put at risk

A REGULAR reader might have noticed that I get somewhat peeved at the way the Government manages - or mismanages - countryside policy. Sadly, I have had to write article after article about the serial cock-ups at the rural affairs ministry, Defra, a department conceived in chaos and, it would appear, determined to carry on the tradition.

leeds liverpool canal skipton
At risk - thanks to Defra

But this week, I am totally and utterly furious because news has leaked out the latest victim of the Defra disaster is our canal system, a wonder of the world equal in its historic importance to the great pyramids of Egypt and a rare example of our industrial heritage being converted into an environmental triumph - thanks mainly to the work of amateurs.

Last weekend, my wife and I were stopped by the Leeds-Liverpool canal in Skipton, handed a colour brochure with a headline blaring "Your Local Waterway is at Risk", and asked to sign a petition protesting about the fact that Defra has cut the funding of British Waterways, which run the canals, by £9 million.

This was on the same day that figures were leaked showing that there are some five million people of working age in Britain drawing permanent sickness benefit - half of them for hard-to-prove ailments like stress or bad backs - and this costs the nation more than £50 billion every year, the highest spending per population of any country in the developed world.

Note the figures: fifty billion, a figure that grows by the year despite promises by Tony Blair to get people back to work, and nine million, a mere drop in the ocean in Government spending terms - yet one that could cut our canal system into little, unconnected bits, just as Lord Beeching did to our railways 40 years ago.

...our boat-owners, anglers, and the wildlife that has made our canal system a major haven will meet the bill for yet more civil service incompetence

Most canals, you see, are 200 and more years old, a tribute to the genius of the 18th century engineers who planned and built them. But they are also labour intensive: surprise, surprise, they can leak! Structures like locks need regular replacement. Some aqueducts, wonders of the world when they were built, need constant monitoring.

To make such repairs, lengths of canal have to be drained whilst the work is carried out. But according to the Inland Waterways Association (IWA), the voluntary body to which tens of thousands of boat owners belong, the drainage will still have to be done - but there will not be enough money to refill emptied sections. So hundreds of boats will be stranded away from their home moorings.

The reason for this, according the IWA, is the "calamitous mismanagement" of the Defra subsidiary, the Rural Payments Agency, which still owes thousands of farmers their subsidy payments from two years ago. As a result, the agency has been fined some £300 million by the EU - and Chancellor Gordon Brown, having wasted hundreds of billions on schools, the NHS and sickness benefit to no noticeable beneficial effect, is refusing to meet the bill.

We have covered this story many times in recent months. It is not just farmers who have been forced to the point of bankruptcy. Defra has also slashed its budget for river and costal defences - threatening ever-worse flooding this winter - and has even cut the veterinary research budget just as the avian flu season is starting with the arrival of migrating birds which over-winter here.

campaign banner
Campaigners fight for canal funding
Photo: Inland Waterways Association

So our boat-owners, anglers, and the wildlife that has made our canal system a major haven will meet the bill for yet more civil service incompetence. But what's new? Defra was born out of the abject panic which ensued five years ago when the old Ministry of Agriculture made a total hash of the foot-and-mouth crisis and had to be scrapped to save Government face.

But the story goes back much further than that. The 1945 Labour Government, when it nationalised the railways, did not know that most of the canals had been bought by the railway companies. It was several years before ministers even realised they owned the canals, too, during which time they descended into being little more than open sewers.

That situation was retrieved by the work of legions of volunteers whose efforts eventually forced Whitehall into recognising that in this historic transport system it had a marvellous asset on its hands for social life, leisure, land drainage and wildlife. Sadly, it is mainly those volunteers who will have to cough up more hard-earned cash to pay for such mind-bending mismanagement.

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