• Ministerial support for B&MK Waterway Park - praise for volunteers.
• Rebranding of waterway/canal into a waterway park for all.
• Local mayors and council’s four-square behind the project.
• Huge social, environmental, and economic benefits of waterways.
• John Bunyan community boat a big tourist boost for Bedford.
• Next major project for the B&MK Trust?
Dan Rogerson MP, Waterways Minister
Dan Rogerson MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for water, forestry, rural affairs and resource management, returned to Bedford this week (Tuesday, 25 November), where he used to be a borough councillor, to pledge his support to the B&MK project and praise the efforts of its members and volunteers.
Speaking at the B&MK annual partnership conference attended by nearly 100 delegates at the Harpur Suite, Bedford, Mr Rogerson hailed the “transformational” project and praised the dedication and efforts of volunteers who had taken the project forward.
One of the Government’s main objectives for waterways was to empower communities and users to take ownership of them to demonstrate what communities could achieve. The B&MK waterway, linking the Grand Union Canal at Milton Keynes with the River Great Ouse at Bedford, would be one of the first since the decline of freight traffic on canals.
Mr Rogerson highlighted the diversity of such “green corridors” and havens for wildlife. Waterways offered the best chance to see a range of species and represented heritage and engineering marvels – some of them featuring potent iconic structures such as the Falkirk Wheel boat lift in Scotland. He looked forward to seeing a similar iconic structure on the B&MK waterway.
Waterways benefitted health, tourism and local economies. Investment in them created a return of £4 for every £1 invested, though on the Great Ouse this amounted to £7 for every £1 invested, he said.
Through the work of the Canal & River Trust waterways were empowering users and opening up new streams of income. More people than ever were accessing waterways and trusts such as the B&MK were playing an extremely important role in bringing more people to the water. The Minister looked forward to a trip on the B&MK in future years and wished the Trust more success in the future.
Introducing the Minister, Dave Hodgson, Mayor of Bedford, congratulated the Trust on its progress and sustaining momentum. The B&MK waterway consortium, of which he is chairman, and represents a grouping of local councils and agencies, would be the delivery board for the project – a combination of Waterway Park and green infrastructure.
He highlighted the success of the Trust’s John Bunyan community boat. Its launch had been an ambitious project. The Trust had been fully aware of the difficulties yet the boat had become a tourist attraction in its own right. He praised its professional operation resulting in more people enjoying the river and contributing to making Bedford an attractive place to visit, live and work.
Earlier Councillor Derek Eastman, Mayor of Milton Keynes, said the waterway project represented a fantastic opportunity – a superb idea. Milton Keynes had cross-party acceptance and agreement on it. He hoped the first dig would be in Milton Keynes, but it was more relevant that “the spade goes in somewhere as soon as possible.”
Councillor Caroline Maudlin, Chairman of Central Bedfordshire Council, hailed the “fantastic project” which the council was committed to supporting.
“There are growth, tourism and economic opportunities. I am very excited about it. We are right behind the scheme,” she said.
Water adds value – social impact
Meanu Bajwa-Patel, a researcher working for the Social Enterprise Research Group on a number of national and European projects at the University of Northampton, presented a video featuring projects where waterways and canal restorations added value and made a significant social, environmental impact on communities, bringing jobs and prosperity to areas that were once struggling.
She highlighted the waterside benefits to public health, savings to local health services brought about by improved wellbeing as well as uplift to property values.
Funders of such schemes needed to know the measure of social impact – the bigger picture, which was not just about money but the effect on communities, individuals and wider society.
This theme was continued by Alex Rowbotham, a final-year PhD student at the Open University, who has focused on the B&MK – “a unique project” for his thesis. He suggested that the emphasis now should be on designing a waterway park which would have multiple societal benefits by introducing green infrastructure.
Earlier, Jane Hamilton, joint chair of the B&MK Waterway Trust with Graham Mabbutt, had signalled this new approach. She said: “We will be giving much stronger emphasis to the trans regional benefits that our project can deliver, particularly as a waterway park. We want to see it widely recognised as a significant piece of green infrastructure which will not only link into the existing canal and river network, but also bring with it trans regional economic, health and social benefits.
The Trust board would be working to find funding for a new project manager to give greater impetus to its delivery and implementation programme.
John Bunyan Community Boat
Jane Wolfson, a founding member of the Trust, now its vice president and Chair of B&MK Waterway Enterprises Ltd – the company set up to run the community boat – reported on the enormous success of its first full season on the River Great Ouse.
She paid tribute to the 104 volunteers who run the boat for their time and energy, and for the support of Bedford BID. Links had been created with students from the University of Bedfordshire and Bedford College, and new links were being forged with Heritage Bedford.
The boat had carried 5955 passengers this year and, with a better understanding of what customers wanted, the operation had catapulted itself into a medium sized business. It was tapping into people’s wishes to volunteer and for “relaxing on the river”.
The John Bunyan will be looking for 25 per cent growth in the boat business next year.
“Working in partnership with others we are contributing to the visitor business in Bedford. We can be a big part of that because Bedford has a lot to offer,” she said.
What next for the Trust?
With the John Bunyan up and running what would be the next big Trust project, Jane asked. “With the vision, passion and enthusiasm of volunteers the Trust has the ability to be inventive, never say we are not going to do it. Over to you to decide what is next?”
Joint chair of the Trust, Graham Mabbutt, closed the conference emphasising that the waterway park would revitalise Marston Vale, Bedford and Milton Keynes. Meanwhile the John Bunyan was helping to raise the profile of the wider project as well as raising funds to progress it.