The Big Society cruises up Yorkshire's canals

Volunteers painting a lock on the Leeds Liverpool canal near Bingley Image copyright (C) British Broadcasting Corporation
Image caption Volunteers adopting a section of canal could cut costs say the scheme's supporters

It might come as a surprise that one of the first chunks of "big government" being taken over by the Big Society will be our 200 year old canal network.

The entire state owned and operated network is to be handed over to a charity that is being specially set up to run what has now become a vast part of our leisure and tourism industry.

The charity - closely modelled on the National Trust - is expected to take control next spring amidst concerns from influential voices in Yorkshire that the government will cast off the canals without enough cash to ensure they keep afloat.

That is denied by Richard Benyon, the junior environment minister, who has piloted the changes through the consultation period which ended in June.

Bequeathed millions

"Firstly we are gifting to the new charity £400m worth of property," he told me when I interviewed him for the Politics Show for Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

"It's always been there subject to any government having a dawn raid to grab those assets and sell them for other purposes.

"Now they are going to the charity and no government in the future will be able to touch them.

"The charity will be able to gear up against that and increase their income from that property portfolio."

In fact, rental income from the huge amount of canalside property will be a major part of the future income of the new charity. More will come from existing licences and fees paid by canal users.

Funding fears

That still leaves a funding gap that in the past has been met by an annually agreed subsidy from the government.

That tax payers' cash will not disappear immediately. The government has offered an annual flat-rate subsidy of £39m for the first 15 years of the charity.

After that it will probably be on its own.

The influential Huddersfield Canal Society says that is not good enough. It fears that routine maintenance and future development of the network will suffer.

Alan Stopher from the canal met me at the entrance to the amazing Standedge tunnel which was built 200 years ago to take the Huddersfield narrow canal under the Pennines to Lancashire.

'National Trust' of canals

"That is the big issue for us," he told me.

"Of course we are concerned about governance of the new body and whether it can take on board the work of enthusiasts in the same way as the National Trust."

Image copyright (C) British Broadcasting Corporation
Image caption Alan Stopher of Huddersfield Canal Society with Len Tingle at Standedge Tunnel end

Volunteers are the key to the canals future financial success.

They will be asked to help cut costs by "adopting" sections of canal and carrying out routine maintenance such as weeding banks and re-painting locks.

British Waterways, the government organisation which has run the canals since the 1960s, will be transformed into the independent charity.

Its director of enterprise in the North, Julia Sharman, is confident the new charity will be a success. She believes the financial settlement is adequate.

"We need to put the waterways on a secure financial footing and we need to be able to plan for the future.

"From day one of the new charity we will have a funding arrangement that will last for 15 years minimum. That in itself will give us a far better position."

Too important to ignore

Nigel Stevens, who runs the holiday barges company Shire Cruisers, from a marina at Sowerby Bridge near Halifax, has a different view.

He says successive governments have already squeezed its subsidy - down from £70m a few years ago to around £40m now.

He rejects suggestions that in times of economic hardship canals are unlikely to be given much priority for government funding.

"The government is playing games, but nobody else is. I feel a better agreement will eventually be achieved because the canals are too important to ignore," he told me.

"Most canal users already pay fees and licences so the tax payer should chip in for those that receive a benefit from them being well maintained but are unable to contribute anything - tourists, walkers and cyclists use the towpaths and visit the marinas but there's no way to charge them."

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