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  • Writer's pictureJack Collicutt

Bringing Britain’s Waterways Back

COVID-19 restrictions are not all that is moving forward in the policy world. To keep you informed, The Peterloo Institute has launched a mini-series about transport policy. Here, we discuss how changes at a local and regional level reflect the transforming ways we interact with the infrastructure which facilitates travel, trade, and ultimately brings us all together.

Canals and inland shipping played a central role in the growth of Manchester and other northern cities into key industrial centres throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. However, in recent decades they have been on the whole neglected in favour of road and rail trade. But with recent projects at the local scale signalling a re-evaluation of this historic trade infrastructure’s value, could inland freight play a role in rectifying substantial regional inequalities in trade and infrastructure?

There are some exciting developments in the city of Salford. Drawing explicitly from the highly regarded ‘Preston Model’ of local development, which harnesses local investment through ‘anchor institutions’ (universities, the council, large local employers) rather than attempting to attract outside investment, the city’s council has achieved above average growth at a time of national stagnation, a flourishing creative sector and an impressive social housing programme.

An interesting facet of this ambitious approach has been the delivery of ‘Port Salford’, a project intended to reopen the Manchester-Liverpool ship canal to freight. With links to motorways and rail networks, the project aims to make Salford a “gateway for industrial and manufacturing growth across the Northwest” according to Mayor Paul Dennett. Whilst impressive itself, Salford’s harnessing of its local waterways prompts a broader question: could refocusing on historical water freight infrastructure provide an opportunity to tackle regional inequalities in trade access at a national scale?

The use of waterways for freight has a rich history across the UK, and especially Manchester. With the Bridgewater Canal, arguably the first manufactured canal, completed in 1761 to link coal mines in Worsley directly to the city, the Industrial Revolution saw over two thousand miles of water freight infrastructure constructed to link manufacturing hubs with markets.

Building on this historical importance, there have been suggestions that canals and rivers should again be considered valuable alternatives to road and rail freight. The Canal & River Trust highlights how switching freight to water can compete on cost and cut emissions, making them an “integral component of a multi-modal logistics strategy”. Programmes similar to Salford’s include the impending development of an inland port at Stourton, on the outskirts of Leeds, which will initially be able to process around 200,000 tons of freight annually. Building on these exciting projects and expanding trade nodes across the North could be a vital tool in helping make places “sticky”, which is a way of saying they retain investment and employment, something which has been sorely lacking in areas whose freight infrastructure has been neglected in recent decades.

With substantial existing regional disparities in infrastructure investment - the combined £34 billion cost of three major projects in London (Cross, Thameslink and London Underground) outstrips total investment in the whole of the North - the concentration of new water-focused projects around the Northwest and Northeast is even more salient.

The extent of political interest is questionable, with recent substantial investments in road infrastructure potentially evidencing less regard for greener alternatives such as water freight. Many of the recent projects testing water freight’s feasibility have been funded by the EU, and so the Department for Transport will have to build on existing schemes such as the ‘Waterborne Freight Grant’ in the post-Brexit era. Investment in improvements such as seamless links between inland waterways and the sea, new specialised vessels and improved ICT, will require intervention from national government, but would intertwine with national scale green aspirations and ‘levelling-up’ ambitions to enhance trade infrastructure beyond the confines of London and the Southeast.

Regardless of this initiative’s take-up at the national scale, the renewed energy with which northern authorities are developing inland ports highlights that historical developments and existing resources can provide inspiration for economically and ecologically valuable future policies.

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