Waterways – a natural choice

Britain’s canals offer huge opportunities to help local councils and their communities on the challenging journey towards achieving the Government’s net-zero carbon targets by 2040.

Originally constructed more than 200 years ago to serve the transport needs of the Industrial Revolution, our inland waterway network is one of the finest examples of living, working industrial heritage in the world.

With its extensive ‘blue/green’ corridors, it’s ideally placed in our towns and cities to be at the forefront of the new ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ too.

More than 8.5 million people (nearly 15 per cent of the population) live within a kilometre of one of our waterways. In urban areas, the percentage is often much higher.

Because of their previous industrial use, many urban waterways run through heavily populated areas of deprivation and diversity, often with higher rates of ill-health and unemployment, so the opportunity to use waterways to support the ‘levelling up’ agenda is immense.

With the right investment, our waterways and towpaths offer a fantastic sustainable transport network and an important ‘natural health service’ right across much of the country.

The trust has worked with many councils in recent years to transform muddy towpaths into all-weather surfaces, providing perfect off-road routes for walking and cycling for both commuting and recreation, and collaborated with developers and councils to provide active travel routes to support sustainable development.

We can also work with councils on a wide variety of carbon-friendly projects, from urban cooling and ‘green’ energy to sustainable urban drainage and development of traffic-free transport routes.

“Together we can unlock the full benefits of our waterways”

For example, our waterways already support hydro schemes generating the equivalent energy for around 10,000 homes, with the potential to create more hydro power for adjacent buildings and developments, particularly those located near weirs and locks.

Water-sourced heat pumps have the potential to save large quantities of harmful CO2 entering the atmosphere, compared with the use of more traditional energy sources.

This new technology is already helping to heat and cool buildings at large commercial sites such as GlaxoSmithKline’s canal-side headquarters in London, The Hepworth Wakefield art gallery, the Mailbox shopping and media centre in Birmingham, York’s Guildhall, and Baltimore Wharf in London’s Docklands. 

Our studies also show that urban areas next to a canal are on average 1o C cooler than neighbouring districts, helping reduce the ‘urban heat island effect’ that threatens to make summers in big cities intolerable in the future.

Finally, our waterways are also great for boats! Thousands of tonnes of freight are moved every year on our canals and rivers. Transporting goods by water can mean lower carbon emissions while also removing hundreds of vehicles from the roads.

The trust can also work with communities and local authorities through community adoptions and other initiatives to improve biodiversity and bring back declining wildlife into the heart of our urban landscapes.

Working together we can ‘unlock’ the full benefits of our waterways – for people and nature.

The Canal & River Trust is a charity looking after 2,000 miles of waterways in England and Wales. For more information, visit www.canalrivertrust.org.uk. This article is an edited version of one of a series of think pieces published by the LGA as part of its ‘Local path to net zero’ programme, flagging the significant role councils can and are playing in tackling the climate emergency, see www.local.gov.uk/net-zero. The LGA is launching a new e-learning module on biodiversity that will provide an introduction to the subject and outline possible council actions. This resource will be available to all council officers and members, and can be found on our climate change hub at www.local.gov.uk/our-support/climate-change.

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