PETER FROST loves the English canals but is worried about adding an single extra mile at a cost of £8.7 million.
TOMORROW Daventry District Council (DDC) will vote to spend almost £9 million pounds on building less than a mile of canal that, like many Tory projects, doesn’t go anywhere.
If you want to move or moor a boat on this short stretch of canal, you will have to load the boat on a low-loader and have it craned off into this new canal-shaped pond in the middle of Daventry town.
Perhaps I need to declare an interest. I pay my council tax to that council in Northamptonshire. I am a member of the Daventry Labour Party. Indeed, I have chaired the party in the past. The local council has 30 councillors who are Tories and just six who aren’t. Three are Labour, two Ukip, one Liberal Democrat.
I don’t like our local Tories. I’d like to see them swept from office but strangely they still retain the power to shock and horrify me with their short-sighted policies and stupid decisions.
To find the real origins of this crazy canal scheme you will need to travel back in history. The Romans built Britain’s very first canals. Much later Dutch engineers built canalised rivers to drain our fens.
The first true canal for carrying goods was built in 1761 by engineer James Brindley. A transport revolution followed with many miles of canals being built as part of the rapid industrialisation of England.
At the height of canal use there were nearly 3,000 miles of these arteries of the industrial revolution carrying all sorts of cargo to all sorts of destinations.
The Oxford Canal, completed in 1790, was difficult to navigate. The need for a quicker, more direct waterway to link the capital with the Midlands led to the construction of the Grand Junction Canal.
The Grand Junction joins with the Oxford at Braunston just a couple of miles from Daventry. The canal bypassed Daventry but, even when the canal was built in 1793, the company planned a three-mile arm from the mainline to Daventry town centre. But that arm was never built.
More than two centuries later, in austerity Britain, for reasons not clear to anyone, the Tory Daventry council thought it would be a good idea to finally build that canal arm.
Initial costing was £10m but as the project grew in size and complication that more than doubled.
No problem, cried the council. It won’t be local people who pay the bill but investors who will be desperate to put money into the new Daventry canal arm. No local or community money would be spent on the harebrained scheme they promised.
Tory MP Chris Heaton-Harris promised local people “that this should never be paid for by taxpayers.”
Despite its own MP’s advice, DDC is now proposing to build a new canal link from the existing Grand Union Canal to the town centre, terminating in a series of mooring basins with shops, housing, restaurants and perhaps even a pub.
From the initial concept, dreamed up in 2002, the dream got bigger, more expensive and even more unbelievable.
The scheme proposed up to seven canal locks and perhaps a canal boat lift replacing four of the locks. The total bill reached £24m.
Boat lifts are impressive, and unbelievably expensive. Restored historic boat lifts and a new lift built in Falkirk have proved real tourist attractions.
This is the restored Anderton Boat Lift near Nantwich.
The logic was that what’s good enough for Falkirk could do miracles for Daventry’s tourism.
Not only did most local people oppose the plan but nobody seemed to want to invest in it; most people thought that without local public support or any private investment that the scheme would simply be forgotten, but no.
The council decided, despite all its previous assurances, that it would use council money to fund the plan.
The council realised it could not afford the entire £24m but declared it would spend £8.7m on a three-quarter of a mile length from the town centre and not actually joining the original mainline of the canal.
The new tiny length of canal would have moorings but to reach them you would need to crane your boat onto a low-loader and drive to the canal.
No wonder popular Daventry Labour Councillor Wendy Randall (below) branded the scheme a “ludicrous idea” at a recent council strategy meeting.
Funding for the long-standing project was backed by the Tory majority of strategy group members on July 6, despite much noisy opposition from a picket outside the meeting and from the public gallery.
Randall didn’t just call the canal arm a ludicrous idea, she also expressed her concerns over broken assurances that the project would never be funded with public money.
She said: “Every time we have discussed this it’s always been about investors coming on board.
“Never have I heard it mentioned about us using any of our budget. Our local MP, Chris Heaton-Harris, is president of the Canal Trust. He has always maintained that this canal would never, ever be funded by public money.”
At the meeting Tory Colin Poole opened the discussion listing the potential benefits to the town.
He was about as convincing to local people as his council had been attracting private investor money to the hare-brained scheme.
- You can join the protest outside the council offices tomorrow evening at 5.45pm The meeting is open to public from 6.15pm onwards. You can email your views to the chief executive email@example.com.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 26 July 2017.