Championing the Union Canal

Gavin Corbett reflects on his first year as Edinburgh’s canal champion.

At this week’s meeting of all of Edinburgh’s councillors (23 August) there is a written question from one of the Conservative councillors on the activity of the various “champions” in the city. My understanding is that a full report will be going to all councillors in September so a holding answer will be provided this week. Nevertheless, as the appointed city canal champion (as of 24 August 2017) I had already drafted a feedback report in July which I have now adapted below.

I should add that, since the Conservative councillor question asks about costs and expenses, there is no payment for the canal champion role, and I have travelled the canal by foot, by bike, by narrow boat and kayak, none of which has led to any expenses.

The role of the canal champion is formally “to champion the development, maintenance and repair of canals throughout the city and region”. In practice, it is to oversee the delivery of the Union Canal strategy and action plan which was agreed in 2011.

I have the advantage of having lived within 300m of the Union Canal for more than 27 years and I am on the towpath every day. I have also been up and down various parts by kayak over the last year to make sure I see it from all angles. I’ve made a point of getting out frequently by bike beyond the core city to the city council boundary at the Almond Aqueduct; meeting people at the Ratho hub; and carrying out a litter pick from the International Climbing Centre out to the Almond Aqueduct.

Strategy

The 2011 strategy has, in my view, stood the test of time well. In the first half of 2018, we carried out a stocktake of all the actions agreed in 2011 which has given a clearer focus on priorities on the immediate horizon and also highlighted, inevitably, that all strategies have a finite shelf-life. The Canal Delivery Board, which I chair, has recommended that a refresh of the strategy is undertaken by the 10th anniversary in 2021, which would also lead well into the bicentenary of the Union Canal opening in 2022. In order to support that refreshed strategy, the aim would be to develop a community engagement programme in 2019 to be delivered in 2020.  I’ll be seeking that mandate from the council.

One of the balls I have started rolling is potential legacy projects in 2022. Are there improvements in infrastructure that could be timed to co-incide with that landmark year to take the canal into its third century?  Some ideas are already emerging.

Governance

I have sought to declutter the various groups associated with the canal in order to reduce unnecessary duplication of membership and discussion:

– The Canal Delivery Board has been streamlined and refocused on canal strategy delivery.

– The Canal Community Action Group has broadened its membership and focused on those events and activities which are particularly designed to engage canalside communities (see further below)

– All matters relating to development on the former brewery site are now brought to the Fountainbridge Sounding Board for discussion (although decision-making, of course, remains with Housing and Economy Committee)

Asset condition and use

A major and recurring theme of the last year has been core canal condition. This has loomed larger for the Forth-Clyde and Caledonian Canals. The Union Canal, as a contour canal, with no locks, has had less immediate concern. However, there has been an indirect impact on the Union Canal, as regards through traffic from Glasgow to Edinburgh and, within the capital, there are definite concerns about key assets like the Leamington Lift Bridge at Edinburgh Quay and more generally about 200 year-old embankments. Very recently, the closure of the steps from the Prince Charlie Aqueduct at Slateford has heightened concerns about the conditions of access points along the canal.

While some additional resources have been made available by the Scottish Government, in its 2018-30 Asset Management Strategy, published on 31 May this year, Scottish Canals has identified an annual shortfall in funding of £6-9 million needed for maintenance, cumulatively put at £130m by 2030. In order to better understand the specific impact on the Edinburgh part of the Union Canal. I met with the Keep Canals Alive campaign and also with the former chief executive and director of infrastructure of Scottish Canals. One of the big challenges, and also significant opportunities, is exploring ways in which canals can capture some of the fairly hefty uplift in land value that comes from canalside development.

Scottish Canals will appoint a new chief executive in early autumn and I predict that the new chief executive will make the asset funding gap her or his top priority.

Meanwhile, conflicts in use of an increasingly busy but narrow towpath continue to be the single most frequent issue raised. Over the last year we have sought to distil a Sustrans-funded Scottish Canals report from September 2017 on potential design changes into a series of early actions, with a focus on improving sightlines at bridge-holes. The report also sets out a series of medium-long term changes which, coupled with an amplification of messaging about behaviour change, are necessary to cope with an inevitable growth in pressure on the towpath.

More locally, I facilitated a meeting between Scottish Canals and residents at Allan Park by the canal about solutions to long term problems of flooding of basements and gardens.

Finally, I had a very useful session with Scottish Canals staff and council staff on protecting and enhancing biodiversity and the canal’s role as a green corridor into the heart of the city. Relevant staff will be taking that forward with other interested groups in autumn 2018.

Promotion

A key role of the champion is to promote the canal which I have done almost daily through social media channels and specifically:

  • Setting up a feature in the Edinburgh Evening News to co-incide with the Canal Festival.
  • Launching specific projects such as Canal Shed at Polwarth and the Union Canal Unlocked App.
  • Meeting regularly with a range of community groups, social enterprises and local businesses.
  • Hosting a tour by Scottish Government officials on canalside planning.

Community engagement

The Union Canal is very much a “used” canal, for sport (especially kayaking and rowing, clustered at Meggetland), for businesses like social enterprises Reunion and Bridge8 located at the Calders, and for leisure. The Canal Community Action Group has been the focal point for community engagement.

The CCAG set up a sub-group to deliver the annual canal festival on 16 June and with huge thanks to social enterprise Reunion for continuing to act as a hub for canal festival organisation. The festival also welcomed newly opened Boroughmuir High School head boy and girl to open proceedings and, for the first time, secured significant funding from commercial partners in the shape of Vastint and Moda.

The CCAG has also agreed to co-ordinate dates for community activities like litter-picks. This has been a real focus for me since the start of 2018 with a number of organised litter picks taking place, led by Scottish Canals in some instances, drawing in community groups, residents, canal user groups, corporates and even other elected members!

Separately from this, I initiated a meeting to bring together council, residents, school, Napier University and Scottish Canals to develop shared management arrangements for the new canalside park, Fountainbridge Green. There may be lessons that can be drawn out for other canalside spaces like Hailes Quarry Park or Meggetland.

Thanks

Huge thanks to all the canalside community groups, canal user groups and staff at Scottish Canals and Scottish Waterways Trust. Particular thanks to Andrew Caldwell in the council staff team for support and commitment.