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Tuesday, 13 August 2013 00:00

Giving the family silver to charity

by Eric Rose

A look at the birth of the Canals and Rivers Trust

There was no doubt that Maggie Thatcher had plans to privatise most nationalised industries in the 1980s.

She sold off our railways, our telephones, our waterworks, our power stations and much else.

Even that well-known Bolshevik, ex-Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan, described Maggie's privatisation frenzy as "selling the family silver."

However Thatcher didn't have much hope in finding buyers for the inland waterways. Commercial carrying had almost gone and the future of the canals was uncertain.

The 1947 Transport Act had nationalised most of the waterways - much of it as a side effect of the nationalisation of the railway companies, which by then actually owned and had shut down most canal carrying.

So the more than 3,000 miles of canals, rivers and other inland waterways nationalised in 1948 stayed unsold, underfunded and pretty unloved under the British Waterways Board.

Over the next decades the canals, surely the greenest of our transport infrastructure arms, lost virtually all commercial carrying business to the voracious road transport lobby.

Finally our present coalition government came up with a new scheme. If it couldn't find anyone to buy the canals it would privatise them anyway and run them as a charity a bit like the National Trust.

So it was that the Canal and Rivers Trust (CRT) was born, with the government rubbing its hands in glee at the thought of another step towards the perfect capitalist market economy where volunteers will work for nothing and take the place of redundant paid workers.

Anyone with any feelings at all for the future of the waterways could see that David Cameron and his Defra Waterways Minister Richard Benyon were trying to make the transition on the cheap.

A long hard political battle finally achieved something like realistic funding, but it was clear that much of what the new CRT had to do was to get out and about with the begging bowl.

Whether this new charitable structure will guarantee the future of our waterways is still a matter of debate.

Enthusiastic volunteers are certainly doing all they can to make it happen. Their efforts are certainly praiseworthy.

However major works like landslips and major tunnel repairs will really challenge the financial viability of the new charity status.

All charities are finding it hard in the present economic situation and CRT is no exception.

The long-term future of Britain's unique canal system is by no means certain. It has already lasted for several centuries - let's hope it can survive a few more.

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