Sustrans - The Editor Pontificates

Taken from Winter 1996/7 issue of Towpath Action Group Newsletter

Every issue of the newsletter seems to include various comments on Sustrans, and maybe it is worth pulling all the strands together - such as they are - to try to assess the current position. For those who have been off this planet for the last year or so, Sustrans, a national cycling charity (their words, not mine) were awarded some 42m of Lottery cash for the Millennium Commission for a national cycle network. The total cost of the network would be around 180m and the grant therefore amounts to about 25% of the cost. Sustrans have to persuade other bodies, chiefly local authorities, that the network is such a good thing that it is worth them putting up the other 75% of the cost for those bits of the network in their area. In the current climate, few local authorities have enough money to bite this particular cherry, though it is likely that central government may intervene as they are keen to promote cycling as an alternative to cars.

Included in the network proposals are some 300km of canal towpaths and riverside paths. Most of the canals are owned by British Waterways, who have accepted the general principle so long as they do not have to provide any finance, and conditional on safety considerations and minimising conflict with existing users on the waterways. At the time of the Lottery award there had been minimal consultation with British Waterways, and no consultation with IWA or TAG. This consultation has now started to take place. but as the network is only really a blueprint, the consultation is likely to gather steam only when Sustrans find partners for particular sections.

TAG has always taken the view that cycling on a completely informal basis, as has occurred for time immemorial on the canals is tolerable, where it is safe to do so. The BW cycling policy that was put into place a couple of years ago was in line with this. Sustrans are looking to make cycling on their network much more formal, with cycle hire facilities etc. They are aiming primarily at the family 'market', but commuter routes are going to be necessary to meet government requirements, and the existence of cyclepaths is likely to further encourage the lycra-shorted 'heads-down-and-bomb-it' brigade that have become a fact of life on many of our canals.

TAG does not believe that the vast majority of our towpaths are suitable for such use. The Ramblers seem to take the same view, and so, increasingly. are many canal societies. The IWA has come off the fence. and also come out against 'organised' cycling on the Sustrans scale. At a meeting we called in September between Sustrans, IWA, TAG and the National Federation of Anglers, the anglers also supported the arguments that TAG and IWA put forward. At the Parliamentary Waterways Group meeting in October, TAG and the Trent & Mersey Canal Society reiterated the arguments against Sustrans' proposals again, having also done so at the Northern Canals Association. We have to accept that the general principle behind Sustrans' proposals is wholly commendable and that by resisting their proposals, we are getting a few people's backs up, though not I would hasten to add people who are our natural allies (i.e. the rambling and waterways groups). The argument has to be that canal towpaths are not a safe place to encourage mass cycling - there are already accidents aplenty involving cycles on the towpath and this is before anyone has started to encourage them. We should not try to argue that we (boaters, anglers, walkers) have any greater right to the canal system than cyclists - though frequently we do - as this is just going to smack of 'not in my back yard'.

There are towpaths which are wide enough and level enough to allow cycling at a pretty high level; the Birmingham-Wolverhampton route for one, and we probably need to stop short of resisting the pressure for cycle use in such instances. There are other areas where cycling has been formalised, such as on the Avon around Bath, but it should be borne in mind, that the few schemes already up and running have effectively been 'cherry-picked' as good sites to launch the idea. The National Network involved looking at a map of Britain, using up as many disused railways and minor roads as possible, and then filling in the gaps with footpaths and towpaths. The fact that the network uses a canal towpath doesn't mean that it is suitable for cycling - it means they couldn't find anywhere else to put it.

Sustrans have made it clear that they have no preconceptions about how the cycleway could be accommodated on the towpath. It might be on the other side of a hedgerow or wall, though that could mean compulsory purchase from a third party which would further increase the cost to the local authority. It might involve widening the towpath by building the path out into the canal - such a proposal by Sustrans on the Monmouthshire and Brecon has already met with resistance. What seems to me more likely is that if they can find someone with the cash, and BW (or whoever owns any particular canal) does not consider there to be safety issue, then they wiil 'build' their cycleway with whatever width of towpath they have at their disposal. I am certain that they will compromise their 'ideal' width of 3-4 metres more often than not - how many towpaths do you know that are that wide ?

Maybe I am just paranoid. Just possibly this is a wonderful opportunity to attract a lot of new cash to the canal system, from which we will all benefit. But I doubt it. Sustrans do not value the canals other than as a potential cycle route, and that goes for the vast majority of people who they will be attracting to the towpaths. If we have a 2 metre wide couple of miles of towpath, that are a vital link in a route between two towns or cities, we run the risk of having them dominated by hordes of cyclists, driving away walkers and anglers who have enjoyed the canal for years.

I believe we should continue to argue against Sustrans' proposals except where there is clearly sufficient width for cycles to be accommodated without risking conflict with other users. I have heard too many stories of cyclists falling into the cut; been forced too many times to jump into the hedge to allow a bell-less cycle to shoot past me. I do believe however that other members may take a different view; if you have a view then please let us know.

Andy Screen
Secretary/Newsletter Editor
Towpath Action Group
23 Hague Bar
New Mills
High Peak
Derbyshire SK22 3AT

Campaigning for better access on the towpaths of the country's canals.

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Last amended February 24 1997