Written by: Ronni Payne RCTA Volunteer Chair
I recently attended the Canal & River Trust West Midland Regional Annual Public Meeting & Showcase on Thursday 10th January 2019. I found it most illuminating.
I have summarised the meeting as I saw it and found it very helpful to get an insight into what the aims are for the canals in the future and I think you will too.
Before the meeting started, we had time to have a look at all the exhibits around the room. I saw stands for many organisations including IWA, NABO, RBOA, LHCRT and of course CRT and spent apx half an hour taking in the displays and having a cup of tea that was thoughtfully provided by the hosts.
Here are my notes on the meeting.
We had a short welcome speech from John Hudson (OBE DL & Chair of West Midlands Advisory Board) followed by a short film by Canal & River Trust called Making Life Better by Water.
The first person to speak was Councillor Waseem Zaffar – (Cabinet Member for transport and environment, Birmingham City Council). He described how the relationship between communities and CRT has evolved in a positive way and how the use of the canals has evolved over the years. He spoke about how to use the BCN to contribute to tourism and was most proud of the fact Birmingham will be hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2022. He went on to say that £12 million had been spent on improving the canals towpaths which had resulted in a 43% increase on cycle use on the network. He said that canals are vital to the Birmingham story and that the connection of communities to the canal network was very important.
Next to speak was Andy Street – (Mayor of the West Midlands). He explained about the West Midlands Combined Authority and how they were working together enabling the Regional Rennaissance and how their work is helping boost the tourist economy in the area.
Then it was Councillor Abi Brown (Deputy Leader of the Stoke-on-Trent City Council). Again, working with communities was mentioned. We were also advised that it is the 260th Anniversary of the Wedgewood Brand this year and it was acknowledged that Etruria was the area’s largest canal attraction.
Ewan Hamnett (West Midlands Regional Advisory Board member) was next. he explained that 60% of our wildlife on this planet has disappeared in the last 45 years. He explained how health behaviours are influenced by our environment and how improving towpaths and access points to the canals can help the local communities to get the health benefits that the canal side can provide.
Adnan Saif (Regional Director) was next to speak, he waxed lyrical about his experience on the CRT Boating Buddies Scheme that he had recently taken part in. He really enjoyed it and said it really gave him a feel of what it was like to travel along the canals by boat and how different it was to walking alongside. He gave a heartfelt thankyou to all of the volunteers who fought to keep the canals alive back in the 50’s as well as all the charities and volunteers who work to restore and keep the canals we have now going today. (He got a round of applause for that).
Then followed a presentation on Waterways & Welbeing (the link isn’t the presentation, it is more info on the strategy). He said we all needed to raise our game and be more visible and work together to create a great day to day experience on the network for everyone.
He also launched this year as the 250th Anniversary of the creation of the BCN and was very excited about all the events that were planned during the celebration year. He made a point of wanting to make them all a success and was very energetic in his presentation.
Finally, Richard Parry (CEO) spoke about how CRT and the canals have a renewed purpose. He illustrated how our canals are a rich source of infrastructure, history and heritage and how he wanted to increase the involvement of local communities by teaching them about all the canals have to offer. He gave a nod to how boaters have kept the canals alive over the years. He also underlined how he thought our canals would be secured by reaching out and educating local communities.
Well, that’s all pretty much what I had been expecting. We know that CRT launched themselves as the ‘Natural Health Service’ recently and this is the direction they want to go in and at this point I still didn’t really fully understand the importance of it until we came to the Q&A section of the meeting.
Here is a section of the questions asked at the meeting.
1) CRT were given a challenge to use the canals to cultivate food. CRT replied that they already have some areas doing this, growing fruit trees in some of the regeneration areas. But they did say they would take up the challenge.
2) A caution was offered, not to solely concentrate on the urban areas and neglect the more rural areas.
3) A lady from NHS said she had attended a brainstorming session on ways to benefit those with mental health issues that was held onboard a narrowboat. She suggested that things like staycations or narrowboat taster sessions for local communities would be beneficial to all and she was keen to work on a health and wellbeing initiative with CRT.
4) What is happening to get government involvement on a national level? The answer was that CRT need to grow support and get local communities behind them to help gain support at a national level.
5) The issue of safety along the canal was raised. How families were reluctant to visit some places due to ‘undesirables’ who hang around in the area taking drugs and leaving paraphernalia behind them. He said the solution that has been used in other areas was simply to encourage more people to visit the area. It had the effect of cleaning the area, as more people visited, the less the undesirable behaviours were a problem.
6) Alvechurch Moorings were mentioned. The fact there were no facilities and that the questioner didn’t feel safe mooring there. CRT replied that 2 areas were currently in the pipeline for improvements one was Digbeth, and they were working with other councils to improve the facilities.