Can extra money stop Scottish canal closures?

PUBLISHED: 14:36 09 August 2018

Twechar bridge: to be restored thanks to £1.6m extra cash (photo: Martin Ludgate)

Twechar bridge: to be restored thanks to £1.6m extra cash (photo: Martin Ludgate)


Following three liftbridge closures on the Scottish Lowland canals, the Scottish Government has provided extra funding – but waterways supporters are not convinced that it will save the system

In response to the worsening maintenance backlog which has already resulted in three indefinite liftbridge closures on the Scottish Lowland canals and the threat of permanent abandonment, the Scottish Government has been stung into providing £1.6m of extra funding – but waterways supporters are not convinced that it will save the system.

An Asset Management Strategy report by Scottish Canals makes worrying reading. Despite £78m (largely from the Lottery, the EU and Scotland) having been spent on saving them from dereliction and reopening them just 17 years ago, there is already an increasing backlog of repairs costed at £70m, and the Strategy casts grave doubt upon SC’s ability to fulfil its statutory maintenance duty in the future. And its options include proposals that some sections should be abandoned.

The report identifies five levels of maintenance: ‘steady state’ (operation with no backlog), ‘operational with risk’ (the current state, where there are risks of temporary closures as a result of the backlog), ‘restricted operation’ (maintaining some use until failures cause them to close), and ‘conserve’ and ‘preserve’ (effectively two different options involving closure to navigation).

Under the current funding of around £11.5m a year, the report indicates that it will be possible to maintain the Caledonian and Crinan in ‘operational with risk’ condition, but the Lowland canals are already at ‘restricted operation’. Any cut (and in real terms, grants have fallen in some years recently), and most of the Lowland canals face closure.

Following a high-profile campaign attracting media attention by Scottish waterways users and operators as well as the Inland Waterways Association (which was met by comments from SC’s Chairman Andrew Thin to the effect that the 99.9 percent of non-boating users were unaffected) First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced an extra £1.6m which will repair the closed liftbridges at Twechar, Bonnybridge and in west Glasgow, reopening the through route from the Forth to the Clyde.

However with an estimated £6m more per year needed to achieve ‘steady state’, IWA fears there is still a very real threat that SC could go ahead with its threat of permanent closures on the grounds that the boat traffic doesn’t justify the cost of retention. IWA believes that this low traffic is a result of lack of dredging, poor maintenance, and restricted hours of operation – and that “Given the importance of the Falkirk Wheel and the Kelpies to Scotland’s tourism it seems ludicrous that Scottish Canals should even be considering closing the through route that helps to keep these tourist attractions alive with boats.”

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