25 June 2024

The popular Ware Boat Festival, run by IWA Lee & Stort Branch every year to coincide with the Ware Festival, organised by Ware Town Council, due to take place on the 5th to the 7th of July, has had to be cancelled at the last minute. Hertfordshire County Council has issued a closure order for a large section of the towpath on the River Lee through Ware, including the entire site on which the Festival was to be held.

The closure is on the grounds that the state of the towpath is now so dangerous as to constitute a danger to the public. Hertfordshire County Council has erected barriers at either end and entrances to the towpath to prevent public access, and anyone setting foot on the towpath could be liable to prosecution and a substantial fine.  The towpath has been in a poor state for many years, deteriorating each year, and usually volunteers from IWA Lee & Stort Branch undertake a few days’ work to make things safe for the festival.  The towpath, which is a public right of way, was assessed by Hertfordshire County Council’s contractors, Ringway, who identified 40 serious and dangerous issues, each of which could have been enough on their own to issue the closure order.  Hertfordshire County Council say that the issues are so serious that they have no choice but to maintain the closure until substantial works are undertaken, as a matter of public safety. 

The cost of the works is estimated at £100,000s, which Hertfordshire County Council will fund, as highways authority, but only when they have the budget as it has been classified as a ‘complex’ issue for a specialist team.  There is no timescale for the work; IWA has asked for assurance the work would be complete before the 2025 festival, but this has not been forthcoming so far. The decision demonstrates a lack of multiagency partnership working, as no consultation with the town council, Canal & River Trust or IWA took place.

Craig Haslam of IWA Lee and Stort Branch said “This is a sad and disappointing day for our local boaters and the wider community of Ware after 20 years of staging this incredibly popular festival.  We do not question the need for significant improvements. However, we feel this could have been achieved through a planned closure when footfall and river traffic is quieter, rather than electing for the blunt instrument of a full an immediate closure via a prohibition order which we believe is a disproportionate approach and was done with no consultation.”

The situation highlights the fragility of Britain’s inland waterways, and that it is not just boaters who are affected when the waterways are not funded and maintained adequately. The Fund Britain’s Waterways group has come together to campaign to persuade national and local government to ensure that the benefits provided to the public by the waterways do not continue to be eroded.