Why I am leading the debate for the UK’s canals, by Michael Fabricant


Westminster, (Parliament Politics Magazine) – Recently, I had a pleasant day walking with a colleague along the Coventry canal and the Trent and Mersey canal, where they intersect at Fradley junction in my constituency of Lichfield. Nothing can be more glorious than sitting outside a nice pub to look at the swans, the geese, the ducks and the narrowboats manoeuvring through the locks.


Before covid, I had a very different experience on the Chesapeake and Ohio canal when I went on a narrowboat in Washington DC. A couple of rangers, whose National Park Service administers the canal, told me that they were saving all their cash to hire a narrowboat and have a canal holiday in the UK. As one said to me, “You guys just don’t know how lucky you are having thousands of miles of canals. You don’t realise how loved something is until it’s gone.”


Our canal system is not just for narrowboaters; it is for those who enjoy the tranquillity of walking along canal towpaths and watching the wildlife that thrives there. Canals bring blue and green space to the heart of urban areas, connecting town and country and enabling people to connect with nature and enjoy traffic-free routes. Millions of Brits enjoy the canals, be it boating on the water, canoeing, paddle boarding, rowing, angling from the banks or simply enjoying these special, beautiful places away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. There are now over 800 million visits per year to the Canal & River Trust’s waterways alone, and that figure is rising. Waterways are on the doorstep for 9 million people, including many of the one in eight UK residents who do not have a private garden.


Our canals and waterways also form an important part of the UK’s nature recovery network, providing a vital corridor for wildlife, with habitats that contribute hugely to biodiversity – supporting some of the key goals of the UK’s 25 Year Environment Plan – giving people the proximity to nature that inspires them to care about the natural world, whether what’s around us or across the planet. And this is all in addition to billions in economic benefits that our canals provide to the British economy every year.


At the forefront of championing these national treasures are the Canal and River Trust. The Trust is guardian to 2,000 miles of the nation’s canals and waterways across England & Wales and thousands of significant historic structures – including 71 of our oldest reservoirs, major docks and over 2,700 listed buildings.  The oldest parts of this extraordinary network date back 250 years when they served as the arteries of the Industrial Revolution.  


Since it was formed in 2012, with cross-party support, the Canal & River Trust has proven an effective steward of our canals and waterways. It has successfully raised their profile and grown use of the waterways and appreciation of their value to our society. 


However, caring for waterways is costly. The Canal & River Trust currently receives around a quarter of its funding from Government, in an agreement secured when it was formed in 2012. This has been vital in underpinning its progress. DEFRA is currently undertaking a Review of its future grant for the period beyond 2027 when the agreement comes to an end. A decision was due in July, but there have inevitably been delays to this process, owing partly to Covid, and then to changes in the Government.


Without adequate funding, the Trust’s ability to maintain the waterways is jeopardised, and millions could stand to lose the enjoyment of such a wide-reaching and essential national asset.


For those who live on boats, for the businesses who depend upon it, and for the services and utilities that need to be carried in well-maintained towpaths, the effect could be even more devastating. Their decline and deterioration is an unthinkable outcome for us as a nation.


Michael Fabricant has been Member of Parliament for Lichfield since 1992 and is currently chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Waterways.

Michael Fabricant MP

Michael Fabricant has been Member of Parliament for Lichfield since 1992 and is currently chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Waterways.