Neath & Tennant Canals – Beyond Restoration
Proposals for a
The Neath & Tennant Canals Trust
Introduction & Background
The Neath and Tennant Canals Preservation Society was formed in 1974, later becoming a limited company and charitable trust in 1977. The Society was established in order to take an active role in safeguarding, restoring and promoting the canals.
The Society’s early achievements include the restoration and re-opening of Aberdulais Basin, the clearance of long sections of the abandoned Neath Canal above Resolven and the restoration of Tonna Workshops. It has successfully campaigned to protect the canals from the adverse effects of new road schemes and other developments which might impinge on their restoration, and has actively promoted their use by the public.
The Society has worked in close collaboration with Local Authorities and the canal companies to secure grant aid for restoration. As a consequence, the Neath Canal between Resolven and Ysgwrfa was fully restored to a standard which attracted a number of awards, including the highly acclaimed Civil Trust Award in 1992.
Over the past decade, restoration has focussed on the stretch of canal between Neath town centre and Ynysarwed – with the completion of four locks and the construction of a single span aqueduct over the River Neath at Ynysbwllog. The Society – renamed the Neath and Tennant Canals Trust in 2006 – continues to actively promote the restoration and regeneration of the Neath and Tennant canals.
Much of the charm and attraction of both canals reflects the manner in which their original character and architecture have been retained and restored. Built to accommodate double-ended barges and reliant on horse-power until their demise in the 1930s, their infrastructure did not evolve to accommodate motorised transport and as such the facilities required to support modern pleasure boats are conspicuously absent.
Whilst the Trust recognises and supports the commitment of other stake-holders – notably the canal owners and NPTCBC – to the restoration of the canals, it is concerned at the absence of a regeneration strategy relating to the promotion and development of boating and associated water-based activities.
Feasibility and Economic Appraisal Studies.
Various studies of the feasibility and economic appraisal of restoration and regeneration of the Neath and Tennant Canals have concluded that their development to include water-based recreational activities such as private boating, boat hire and trip boats would have a substantial economic benefit to the local economy. The Feasibility study produced by Atkins Consultants Ltd. in 2002 on behalf of the Vale of Neath and Swansea Valley Integrated Waterway Partnership concluded that the proposed 32 mile cruising waterway involving the Neath, Tennant and Swansea Canals serving a national tourism market would generate an annual benefit of some £4.2 million for the local economy. A partial scheme involving the Neath and Tennant canals was predicted to generate some £1.5 million per annum.
In anticipating boat usage, the Atkins report refers to the presence of an estimated 40 hire boats, some 350 privately owned / moored boats together with a number of trip, restaurant and day-hire boats. Whilst not specifically referred to in the study, it is probable that the canals would also attract a significant number of visiting trailed-boats.
Subsequent reports produced on behalf of, in conjunction with, or in house by NPTCBC – including an economic appraisal study of the restoration of the Neath and Tennant canals commissioned from Bridge Economics and Hyder Consulting and published in 2008 – similarly, have promoted the canals as “important and valued assets”.
“… Neath Canal provides a particular opportunity to assist in distinguishing the Vale of Neath in the tourism marketplace as a visitor destination that complements the current aspirations for the future economic development of the valley”.
“a restored canal network represents a one-off opportunity to ‘pump-prime strategic change …”.
“to increase the potential for realising development-driven benefits ….. we would recommend a review of potential development sites alongside the Neath Canal”.
Further reports were commissioned from consultants Knight Frank, and from the Princes Foundation concerning the development of the Milland Road / Canal Green area.
“ There are few development opportunities that directly abut the canal, other than the Canal Green regeneration area close to Neath Town Centre, but at this location developer interests would be aligned with those seeking to reinstate navigation.”
“ .. a strategy was created to reconnect Neath into the wider landscape and establish the town as a regional centre and gateway to the surrounding Vale of Neath”
Restoration or Regeneration?
Restoration of the Neath Canal began with the dedication and sustained efforts of members of the (then) Preservation Society – at times, despite the negative attitudes of the canal companies and local authorities. Over recent decades, stakeholders have united to achieve considerable success in restoring numerous structures and stretches of the canal to navigation.
The feasibility and economic appraisal studies clearly support the case for continued restoration on the basis that the canals will be utilised for water-based and related activities.
Few who have read the reports can doubt that the canals are perceived as ‘a jewel in the crown’ of the Vale of Neath. Yet the Local Development Plan (LDP) contains no more than a passing reference to the canals – essentially signalling the intention to remove protection for the section of the Neath Canal above Ysgwrfa bridge. In particular, there are no references to development sites along the canals which would promote or be critical to their regeneration.
In the absence of a specific reference in the LDP to the Milland Road / Canal Green development, members of the Trust were advised at a consultation meeting that the proposed development was no longer active.
In the meantime, plans to restore Aberdulais aqueduct and Lock are being pursued. The Trust fully supports the restoration, and has noted the proposal to install a back- pumping scheme to replenish Neath Canal water lost to the Tennant Canal by the passage of a projected number of boats through the lock.
Whilst the Trust has commented upon and suggested alternatives to the back-pumping scheme, it is concerned that the aqueduct and the lock will have little use for the foreseeable future in the absence of boats and associated boating facilities. With the exception of one or more maintenance boats, the Trust’s trip-boat, Thomas Dadford is the only vessel that operates on either canal.
Purpose-built by the Trust over 20 years ago to promote the canals, its crew have become increasingly aware of the concerns and frustrations of local residents, tourists and canal enthusiasts alike regarding the lack of boating activities and facilities on the canal(s).
“ … any plans to attract boaters to the area (?) otherwise a lot of money has been spent to provide a pretty walk”. (letter to the Editor, NTCT Newsletter)
In contrast, the presence of some 30 trailed boats at the IWA Rally/Waterways Festival at Abergarwed on the Neath Canal in May 2011 served to highlight the potential of the canal(s) and generated considerable interest and positive comments from the public. Most of the trail-boaters expressed a desire to return but those who enjoyed cruising the navigable length of the canal into Neath were surprised and disappointed by the absence of boating facilities in the town.
In that regard, whilst the Knight Frank and the Princes Foundation plans “would have been aligned with those seeking to restore navigation”, neither scheme would appear to have provided the facilities required to meet the needs of local and visiting boaters or to create a meaningful visitor attraction.
The canals today.
The Neath and Tennant canals – like numerous others in the mid to late 18th and 19th centuries – were constructed to provide navigable waterways for the transport of commodities between key locations. Unlike the network of canals which evolved in England, however, the canals of South Wales were constructed as isolated linear waterways.
Historically the Neath Canal followed the route of the river, passing through Neath en-route from Glynneath to Briton Ferry. Its northern terminus and two locks at Glynneath have long since been buried under the former A465 by-pass. A further three locks are derelict and the canal currently is un-navigable north of Ysgwyrfa Bridge.
Whilst the Unitary Development Plan of 2008 served to protect the Neath Canal between Ysgwyrfa Bridge and Oddfellows Street (together with the in-filled section at Abergarwed), the LDP proposes to remove the protection north of Ysgwyrfa Bridge. The Trust – together with other stakeholders – has formally objected to the proposal and believes the line of the canal should be protected, at least as far as Manor Road bridge.
Similarly, the former southern terminus at Briton Ferry no longer exists. It is unclear as to whether there is a commitment to restore the canal south of Giant’s Grave.
The Tennant Canal was constructed to provide an alternative route for the transfer of coal and other goods to the Kings Dock in Swansea. Its eastern terminus at Aberdulais Basin was restored by the (then) Canals Preservation Society and this location represents one of the two remaining sites directly related to the working heritage of the canals. The proposed restoration of Aberdulais aqueduct and lock will serve to enhance the area as a visitor destination whilst re-instating navigation between the two canals.
The other site, comprising the former Neath Canal workshops at Tonna is owned by the Trust and has been the focus of restoration. More work requires to be undertaken to restore the carpenters’ workshop and to renovate the nearby Lock House.
With the renovation of four locks, the reconstruction of Ynysbwllog Aqueduct and the extension of navigation of the Neath Canal to Ynysarwed in time for the 2011 Waterways Festival, the canal is navigable between the festival site and Bridge Street. The section above Tonna lock, however, has not been used by boats since the festival with the consequences that adverse effects of disuse are becoming evident.
Following the demise of ‘Enfys’ – the trip boat for the disabled – the Neath Canal between Resolven and Ysgwyrfa which attracted the Civil Trust Award and other accolades is no longer used and in parts is becoming derelict and potentially un-navigable.
With the exception of slipways at Ynysbwllog and Resolven, no other significant boating facilities have been created or are planned.
In the absence of such facilities in Neath, the Thomas Dadford departs from below the footbridge connecting the B&Q and Morrison’s car-parks. There is no dedicated or convenient parking facilities for visitors, and crew-members are allowed to use the B&Q car park by the generosity of the store manager. Given the absence of a focal point / visitor destination it is not surprising that the canal is not sign-posted by road.
“ we travelled from Pembroke to have a trip on the Neath Canal …… one problem, however – finding the canal …… spent time driving around the one-way system looking for sign-posts .. even stopped a few times and asked .. eventually got to Morrison’s car park…. more people would use the canal if they could find it !” (letter to the Editor, NTCT Newsletter)
Proposals for regeneration.
The restoration of waterways across the UK have, and are being undertaken in parallel with the reintroduction of boats and the provision of boating facilities. The unification of the Neath and Tennant canals at Aberdulais will provide a combined navigable length of some 12 miles with four locks and two aqueducts, such that they will prove attractive to resident and visiting boats. Indeed, the Trust is aware of numerous individuals who have expressed interest in having boats moored at secure locations on existing navigable sections of the canals.
Given that restoration alone – in the absence of the provision of boating facilities – will not secure the future prosperity or the infrastructure of the canals, the Trust proposes that issues relating to the (re)introduction of boats need to be addressed with some urgency.
1. The provision of an adequate water supply.
Canals are dependent on an adequate water supply and were designed accordingly. Historically, the Neath Canal drew its water from the River Neath at its northern terminus at Glynneath – the supply being sufficient to sustain the number of lock movements required to transport the tonnages of cargo attributed to it.
Reference has been made earlier to the fact that the northern terminus and locks were buried under the former A465 by-pass. Part of the objection by stake-holders to the proposal in the LDP to remove protection for the line of the canal at Glynneath relates to concerns regarding the (culverted) water-supply from the river to the section of canal above Resolven. It is unclear whether the culvert remains fully patent and capable of delivering the volume of water required to sustain boat movement through locks.
In recent years, the canal has drawn water from the river at Ynysarwed sufficient to meet the requirements of industry at Baglan. The proposed installation of a “back-up” pump at Tonna to meet an increased demand at Baglan at times of drought, together with the possibility that a reduced intake of river water at Ynysarwed may be required by the Environment Agency, raises questions about the availability of an adequate water supply to sustain boat movements above Tonna Lock.
2. Mooring facilities / Marinas.
Boats require to be moored in accessible and secure locations – either “linear” on the canal or else in a marina or basin.
There are few locations on either canal which would provide linear mooring with any degree of security. It is probable, therefore, that most boat owners would seek to moor their vessels in marinas and in their absence it is unlikely that resident boats will be attracted onto the canals.
Whilst the Neath and Tenant canals are largely rural waterways, both canals exist in close proximity to the river, roads, railways and other features of the landscape which serve to significantly reduce the number of locations conducive to the construction of marinas.
In addition to providing essential facilities for resident (permanent) moorers, it is envisaged that the provision of launching ramps within marinas would enable trailed (visiting) boats to be launched and recovered whilst providing accessible & secure storage for trailers and towing vehicles – facilities which are not readily available at Ynysbwllog or Resolven. The design of the ramp at Resolven may also preclude its use.
3. Winding Holes / Turning points.
Locks on the Neath & Tennant canals were constructed to accommodate vessels of 60ft by 9ft. Whilst it is unlikely that private boats of that length will operate in future, commercial vessels, such as restaurant boats (referred to in the Atkins study) are likely to be sizable and all but the shortest vessels will require the provision of dedicated turning points (winding holes) at key locations – particularly the termini, where the absence of marinas or basins do not facilitate such manoeuvres.
4. Canal basins / Visitor Destinations
The Bridge Economics / Hyder report makes reference to four primary locations with respect to the impact of canal regeneration on the expansion of the tourist and leisure economy.
a) Milland Road (Canal Green) Development, Neath
The report – like the earlier Atkins study – recognises that this development area provides an opportunity to integrate Neath town centre with the canal to enhance the overall quality of the town. None of the reports or the subsequent outline development plans, however, appear to promote the area as a visitor destination or to perceive Neath as ‘canal town’.
In that respect, the Canal Green area should be developed around one or more canal basins – with temporary moorings for private boats and departure points for trip / restaurant boats – together with complementary canal-side facilities which would constitute a visitor destination.
Reference is made in the reports to the need to install a lift-bridge to extend navigation beyond Bridge Street and to address the limited headroom of the Canal Road bridge. Whilst the Trust has supported such developments as a means of restoring navigation, it believes the disruption caused to essential services in erecting a lift-bridge at Bridge Street and subsequently upon traffic flow / congestion during its operation would be avoided if a fixed over-bridge was erected to provide vehicle access from Cribbs Row with a foot-bridge at Bridge Street.
b) Glynneath Town Centre
The Bridge Economics / Hyder report concludes that ‘the role of extending the canal to the edge of the town centre combined with a basin would provide a new focus for the town and contribute to its role as a gateway to the Brecon Beacons National Park.’ The report recognises that such a development would need to be part of a wider town regeneration strategy.
Glynneath’s heritage is inextricably linked to the Neath Canal and had the original terminus and locks been preserved, no doubt the town would be promoted as a tourist destination. Much of the evidence of that heritage has been lost or will disappear with the Park Avenue development. The existence and preservation of what remains and the potential for canal-based developments, such as a northern terminus basin or marina in the vicinity of Manor Drive, will only be realised if the line of the canal from this location to Ysgwyrfa remains protected by the LDP.
c) Prince of Wales Dock.
The inclusion in the SA1 development as the southern terminus of the Tennant canal is a vital requirement to secure the proposed 32 mile unified waterway. The re-aligned route of the canal under Fabian Way into the Prince of Wales Dock is protected in the Swansea LDP as is the proposed channel and lock between the P.o.W Dock and the
River Tawe. Boats from SA1 and the existing marina would thus have access to the Tennant and Neath canals and would contribute to their maintenance and viability. Similarly, SA1 would be a destination for both resident canal boats and visiting trailed-boats and potentially a base for commercial canal-based activities such as trip, day or residential hire and restaurant boats.
d) Rheola Estate.
Reference is also made to the proposed development (in 2008) of two sites in Abergarwed owned by the Rheola Estate which would be likely to be directly influenced by investment in the canal or else where the restoration of the canal would be a catalyst.
5. General improvements.
A survey of Locks and Bridges between Neath Town Centre and Ynysarwed, undertaken by members of the Trust ahead of the Waterways Festival in May 2011, highlighted a number of issues relating to the safe navigation of boats – as recommended by the Inland Waterways Association and other bodies. Some related to conflicts of interests between conservation and safety – such as the insistence on the use of lime mortar instead of concrete at the edge of Tonna lock – resulting in ropes being caught between edging-stones.
Others concerned the erection of railings near lock gates such that rapid access to paddle gear in emergencies would be impeded.
Given the historical use of ponies as motive power, it is not surprising that bridge clearances are low and that few locks had, and consequently have, landing stages or designated sections of the towing path to accommodate boats waiting to proceed while the locks are prepared. The IWA Policy Statement on the ‘Operability of Locks and Moveable Bridges’ advises that landing stages conforming to specified criteria should be provided at such locations.
Over recent years, stakeholders have been successful in attracting a substantial amount of grant-aid, such that a significant number of structures and lengths of the of the Neath Canal have been restored and returned to navigation. Whilst there is some debate about the feasibility of restoring the Neath Canal above Ysgwrfa bridge and below Giant’s Grave, the need to complete restoration between these locations to provide a unified navigable waterway via the Tennant canal into SA1 is a shared aspiration.
Restoration alone, however, will not secure the future viability of the canals or ensure that their infrastructure is preserved. Whilst there is an expectation that the restored canals will deliver all that is attributed to them in the feasibility studies and elsewhere, there is a perceived absence of a vision of how the restored canals will support water-related activities, or of a strategy to promote their regeneration.
Boats and boaters need facilities. Visitor destinations need to be accessible and attractive. All need to be canal-side. Suitable locations for developments such as marinas are limited, need to be identified and should be protected. The absence of any such reference or commitment to the canals in the LDP is a matter of concern.
Of the primary locations identified, it is clear that a canal-orientated development of the Milland Road / Canal Green site – with dedicated facilities for both commercial and private boating – is a critical requirement, both for realising the aspirations of Neath as a canal centre and a visitor destination, and to facilitate investment elsewhere on the canals.
The Neath and Tennant Canals Trust, in the 40 or so years since its inception, has campaigned to preserve and restore the canals and to promote the economic regeneration of the Vale of Neath. The awards received for the restoration of the northern section of the Neath Canal formally recognised the close working relationship of the Trust, the Neath Canal Navigation Company, Neath Port Talbot CBC and other agencies involved.
Whilst further restoration of structures and stretches of the canals has continued and is planned, the Trust is concerned by the absence of meaningful dialogue relating to issues of regeneration and in particular the perceived lack of a strategy for the (re) introduction of boats to the waterways.
The Trust has for some time suggested that there should be regular meetings of interested parties, facilitated by NPTCBC as the principal stakeholder, to address the issues and to formulate a strategy for regeneration – to-date with little success.
In the absence of such a strategy, vital opportunities to realise the aspirations will be lost with adverse consequences for both the canals and the Vale of Neath.
GWH – 01/13