Tuesday, 29 July 2014

History Replayed

Today I may sound a bit like 'Old Moore's Almanac' that low quality print pamphlet that used to be available at the travelling fairs. This is because, I have been doing a bit of research, looking at issues that had an effect upon the canals from the earliest of times. Done in the main by utilising contemporary newspaper cuttings of the period. I have also looked at other European countries that have significant inland waterways such as France, Holland and Germany. The main difference is that in other countries the canals were owned and operated by the state. Whereas in the UK they were privately owned and operated. 

There was stiff competition between different waterways and links between the two were jealously guarded. Tolls were placed upon the cargo carried and some, but not all waterways made good profits. The very colourful history of the canals actually reflects that throughout the golden age of the canals, improvements and developments had been taking place. From the early towing of boats by hand, to the use of a horse and latterly by using an engine. Technology and ingenuity has been adapted and applied. The concept of health and safety was not on the agenda and some major disasters also took place.
In a way, the rolling changes are just another reflection of canal life in general. As the loss of commercial boat traffic through the better economics and speed of the railways brought about change. However by way of an unintended consequence. This was then followed by reduced profits which then led to budgets cuts by the owners (in some cases the railways) in anything other than the most essential maintenance. There have also been more recent, but equally significant changes in the way the canals are used. This time the move was away from working vessels to leisure craft being more prominent in numbers.  The appeal of leisure boating was in the lack of speed and the much more leisurely pace of life. I did not realise it at the time but I witnessed this slow but inexorable change taking place. 

I was wondering, if we are entering another period similar to the post war period of downturn and budget cuts. There are some other significant but less obvious changes that are now upon us. Does what happened in the past have any bearing on what is happening around us. Are there any lessons that can be learned?

This is the current conundrum. 

The day to day costs of boating is making entry prohibitive for many who would like to be live aboard or recreational boat owners on the inland waterways. Especially if you want it to be a retirement option. This is being reflected in the falling number of licensed craft. Climate change is making our weather even seasonally unpredictable. I remember the old witticism - 'If you don't like our weather - just give it half an hour.' But water shortages followed days later by floods have not done us any favours either. Boat yards and marinas going out of business, lines of hire boats moored up. Some Marinas being forced to reduce their charges as space is no longer at a premium.

I have a niggle - a doubt - about the long term future. The whole idea of a move away from quango to charity is something I would have wanted. However, the press cuttings reveal that this change had been mooted several times over recent decades. The niggle for me, is that the choice of the actual timing was one decided upon by government, and done in a down turn. Not doing it during a period of affluence, which would allow other funding streams to be developed. Change was decided upon during a period of savage government cuts and without any semblance of altruistic motivation. There are 150,000 charities in the UK all competing for a dwindling source - the public's money.

However, if as the history of the canals proves to be just another iteration of the same cause and effect. If what goes around, actually really does comes around. There should at some time in the future a renaissance of the inland waterways. However, the rub would be, not as a leisure waterway for boaters, but as a linear wildlife conservation project. One where motorised craft would be too intrusive. In some places this has already started. Yes - we will keep the heritage aspect. But it would be hard to justify modern leisure craft as having any form of realistic heritage worth. After all 'Cressy' was broken up and burnt many years ago. As the bottom gets closer to the top the problem is only going to be more exacerbated.

This may sound to be quite downbeat, but its not something that's going to come around over night. The key to forestalling such a change in the future, is getting the infrastructure right. That can only be done with obtaining the correct level of funding and from reliable, dependable sources. 

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