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The charity making life better by water

Looking forward, reporting back

Our charity has just released our 2022/23 Annual Report and Accounts reviewing a year of progress and challenges on our canals.

Group of volunteers walk passed a boat along the towpath in life jackets carrying painting equipment

We continue to deliver an incredible service to society with a record-breaking number of visits to our waterways. Yet our canals and rivers also face uncertainty due to climate change, ageing infrastructure and recent government announcements about future funding cuts. Now more than ever, we need your help to #KeepCanalsAlive.

This year’s Annual Report & Accounts shows the huge breadth and complexity of the work we do to keep canals open and accessible to all. Here’s a selection of highlights from our year.

Looking after canals and rivers

Our charity delivered one of our largest programmes of repairs and maintenance to date, with 83 large-scale works and a further 325 in-house construction projects undertaken, focusing on the most critical and urgent issues on the network.

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£54 million spent on large maintenance and repair projects

Major works were seen at Toddbrook, Harthill and Barrowford reservoirs in the North of England to secure their futures. Further south, at Crofton on the Kennet & Avon Canal, and at Gloucester Docks, we also updated pumping systems to keep their waters flowing smoothly.

Last summer, we took advantage of drought conditions to bring forward works to repair the flight of 12 locks at Bosley on the Macclesfield Canal. During winter, we replaced 112 lock gates and delivered gate and chamber repairs at dozens of sites across our network to prevent leakage.

Providing places for people

People continued to flock to our canals and rivers with an impressive 4% increase in regular visits by people who live nearby, giving us hope that more people are discovering the joys of life by water. The number of people enjoying time afloat also rose with nearly a 2% increase in boat numbers since 2022.

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888 million unique visits to our waterways. A new record to mark our 10th anniversary year
Two volunteers in high vis jackets gardening on the canal towpath

The Green Flag Awards, an international benchmark for well-managed green spaces, are another measure of how much our canal spaces are improving. Last year, we secured a further 118 miles of Green Flag status waterways. We’re proud that almost a third of our network now meets this highest of standards. We also welcomed almost 200,000 visitors to our canal banks by holding over 1,700 events across our network. Hundreds of thousands more visitors enjoyed days out at our museums and visitor centres.

The canal network needs many hands to look after it, so we’re delighted that volunteer numbers are also bouncing back after the pandemic. Our amazing volunteers have now given canals over five million hours of their time since our launch just over a decade ago.

Keeping history alive

We’re proud to care for the third largest collection of listed buildings and structures in the UK and our work to give our past a future never stops. In 2022/23, we repaired 32 bridges across the network, including the Grade II Listed Dead Dog Basin Bridge on the Regent’s Canal in Camden. Built in 1846, it is the busiest canal footbridge in the country, with over one million people crossing it each year.

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£450,000 of vital ongoing repairs to Anderton Boat Lift prior to a major refurbishment in 2024/25

Your gifts also helped support a £450,000 repair programme to Anderton Boat Lift in 2022. These repairs were just the first step in an urgently needed major refurbishment programme over the next few years, aiming to keep this wonder of the waterways open and working.

Helping nature thrive

Work to restore natural habitats by water continued apace this year, helping to improve biodiversity across our network. New floating habitats for water voles were established in the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal. We also planted over 1,300 aquatic plants including yellow flag irises to five floating reed beds on the Kennet & Avon Canal in Reading to attract birds, insects and fish.

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Award-winning project to remove invasive plants from our canals and rivers

Meanwhile, a grant from Chester Zoo helped to create stepping-stone habitats along the Shropshire Union Canal so animals and plants can move between the Zoo and Countess of Chester Country Park more easily. And along Birmingham’s canals our 50-mile-long Great Canal Orchard project continued to grow with over 500 trees being planted.

Our vital Invasive Species Eradication Project, funded by Severn Trent Water, tackled four invasive plant species including Japanese Knotweed, Giant Hogweed, Floating Pennywort and Water Fern, helping us to win the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM’s) 2022 NGO Impact Award.

Anderton Boat Lift

Delivering through partnerships

As a charity, we can’t do all the work to improve our canals and rivers alone. In light of our funding challenges, it’s important to work with partners to deliver vital programmes.

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37km of towpaths improved with help from our partners

This is especially true for towpath improvements, where with support from organisations like Sustrans, our canals can help to encourage active travel, reduce congestion, noise and emissions. Across England and Wales, we improved 37 kilometres of canals last year with support and funding from local councils.

Meanwhile, thanks to players of People’s Postcode Lottery, nearly 30,000 people had the chance to enjoy over 1,200 Let’s events. From fishing to walking, paddling to painting and even yoga, we all came together to help make life better by water. The kind support of People’s Postcode Lottery also kept our Community Roots programme going in nine areas of our network most in need. It helped over 32,000 people to volunteer their time, and local communities adopted 49 stretches of canal and collected more than 2,500 bags of plastic waste.

We even have a national partnership with HM Prison & Probation Service to help rehabilitate offenders. 21 probation teams are already working to help improve canals and rivers and will deliver 300,000 hours of community payback action every year by 2025/26.

Threats to canals and rivers

In their introductions to our Annual Report & Accounts, our chair, David Orr and chief executive Richard Parry, spell out three serious threats facing our canals and rivers.

  1. Climate change
  2. Fragile, ageing network
  3. Funding gaps
Mother and two daughters dressed for summer standing next to a canal

The first is the sheer age and fragility of a vast 2,000 miles long, 250-years-old network of canals and rivers. Wood rots, iron corrodes, and the brick, timber and moving parts that make up our network are being used more than ever before.

At the same time, the effects of rapid climate change are being felt along our canals and rivers. Storms and flooding damage historic structures, breach canals and put pressure on our network. In contrast, droughts have led to low water levels causing canals to temporarily close. Biodiversity along our canals is suffering as habitat loss, invasive species and extreme weather events disrupt natural life cycles.

Both these factors are adding to the cost of maintaining and keeping safe our canals, at a time when inflation is biting hard, and our government grant payments are reducing in real terms year on year. Future funding cuts recently announced mean a real terms cut of £300 million compared to recent levels.

Richard Parry comments: “The government’s announcement means a perilous future for the much-loved waterways. So we have launched our Keep Canals Alive campaign to raise awareness of what’s at stake. We believe there is a strong case for greater ongoing public funding, alongside the much larger amount raised from other sources, to help prevent our canals going back into decline.”

Although our canals and rivers face many challenges, we hope you’ll see how much progress your support as a Friend is helping us to make. If you’d like to find out more please read our full report.

Last Edited: 29 September 2023

photo of a location on the canals
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