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George Rogers, Development Manager with Chesterfield Canal Trust and WRG director, reports on the Joint IWA / Canal & River Trust Restoration Conference, held in Chesterfield in March 2023.

The annual Restoration Conference, jointly organised and funded by Canal & River Trust and IWA, this year took place at the Winding Wheel, Chesterfield – just a short walk from the terminus of the Chesterfield Canal. Approximately 100 delegates from lots of different waterway restoration groups, CRT and IWA attended to hear from three keynote speakers along with a choice of breakout sessions, networking and the opportunity for guided and self-guided walks along the canal.

Julie Sharman, Chief Operating Officer for CRT, opened the day with a reminder of why this year’s theme, Creating a Sustainable Waterway, is so important. Sustainability is often misinterpreted as meaning only environmental sustainability – but restoration also needs to consider social and economic sustainability. The latter is particularly relevant to CRT at the moment, with the recent announcement of reduced central government funding. To anybody restoring and using the canal network, the positive impact they have is undeniable and obvious – but it is an unfortunate reality that this isn’t always the case for those holding the purse strings.

However a partially or fully restored canal is looked after (and whoever by), the current reality is that it needs to plan on generating sufficient income to pay for its upkeep. The keynote speakers for the day therefore focussed on the journey from restoration to future custodianship with lessons from smaller waterways.

[All photos by George Rogers]

The first keynote was yours truly, with probably the easiest talk of the three, as I got to talk about restoration itself. As you may be aware, the Chesterfield Canal Trust was granted £5.3m in 2022 through the Staveley Towns Fund, part of the Government’s Levelling Up agenda. This will deliver the next half-mile of canal from Staveley to the river Doe Lea, stopping just before a very expensive aqueduct is required! The scheme is a departure from the historic norm in restoring the canal, as for the first time it will be the Chesterfield Canal Trust leading the project, not relying on other partners.

I therefore talked about some of the lessons learned in transitioning to a delivery organisation – some of the key processes and governance arrangements that we’ve had to develop, the importance of a very clear understanding of scope and budget, and the changing attitude and understanding around risk management. All of these lessons can be applied on any scale of project.

Up second was Gemma Gregory, Countryside Service Manager at Derbyshire County Council, who manages the length of restored Chesterfield Canal in Derbyshire. Gemma has been a stalwart of the restoration and management of the Chesterfield Canal for the last 17 years and was therefore able to share some of the key challenges in transitioning from restoration to operation and then operating a canal on a steadily reducing budget and workforce.

In this, a clearly defined handover process is really important, as is a well-designed, well-constructed and well-documented canal that properly considers the future maintenance requirements. Identifying the future operator, consulting with them and developing a funding plan are essential. Working with strong partnerships and developing key relationships is really important – Gemma and I were able to talk about the strong working relationship we have, where we don’t always agree but we can work through everything professionally and with the necessary understanding of each other’s organisations.

A welcome tea break followed and a chance for further networking. Several of the local waterway societies had brought publicity stands, and these were popular at this time.

[The photo shows George Rogers delivering his talk]

After tea, the conference split into two breakout sessions. The first, led by Evie Challinor and Richard Harrison from CRT, looked at some of the Environmental challenges in restoring a canal, focussing on lessons being learned on the Montgomery Canal – particularly relevant at the moment as there had been some local objection to the restored canal being used for boating, because it is now a really vibrant ecological corridor. That it is only that way because of it being a canal, and that without boating it would only degrade back to a dry ditch, is often lost in the discussion – but I digress!

The other breakout session focussed, as compere Paul Rodgers so eloquently put it, on ‘Terry’s piles’. Terry Cavender, from the Buckingham Canal Society, ran a session on temporary works – including the design and installation of the large stock of steel piles that many of you will have seen photographs of on social media. A particularly huge thanks is due to Terry, as he stepped in to deliver this session only a couple of days before the conference when the original speaker unavoidably had to withdraw.

After the breakout sessions came the all-important lunch break with much more networking. These periods are really important for informal discussions, answering further questions and just catching up with people you haven’t seen – in many cases for four years (since although the conference did take place in 2022, a lot of people were still suffering the after-effects of Covid and couldn’t be there).

Following lunch, Roger Clay, Engineering Director at the Avon Navigation Trust, talked about the challenges of operating a canal post restoration. This was a fascinating insight into some of the work and equipment required. Lots of people assume that all the income for maintaining a canal comes from boats, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Roger talked about the fleet of work boats and engineering facilities – and how the Trust derives a lot of income from also carrying out contract work for the likes of the Environment Agency and others. Volunteers also still play an integral part in being the eyes and ears, with Reach Masters looking after specific lengths.

[The photo shows Gemma Gregory, Countryside Service Manager at Derbyshire County Council, delivering her talk]

Wrapping up the inside portion of the day, Les Etheridge, IWA National Chair, summarised some of the key points learned and brought it back to the theme of sustainability and the stark reminder from Julie Sharman that funding to maintain canals is not guaranteed. Les talked of some of the campaigning work that IWA will be leading to promote maintaining and increasing funding to canals and encouraged everyone to get involved – otherwise the canals we’re restoring may not have anything to connect to or survive in the long-term. With this rallying call, the formal part of the day drew to a close.

Afterwards, there was an opportunity for delegates to go and see some of the past work done to restore the Chesterfield Canal and some of the work yet to come. Self-guided walks looked at the Chesterfield end, with a walk from the conference venue to Tapton Lock, where restoration efforts really kicked off, as well as a walk at Renishaw, where works are about to start again. A guided walk went from Staveley Town Basin and explored the works to be completed in the Towns Fund project.

Overall, the event was a great success and much positive feedback was received. A huge thanks to the organisers at IWA and CRT, particularly Jenny, Verena and Emma, as well as to those who started the organising but weren’t there for the event – Jenny Morris and Jodie Weathers. Thanks to all of the other volunteers who supported, particularly the Chesterfield Canal Trust volunteers who assisted with sign-in and led the walks. Finally thanks to my fellow speakers and our compere for keeping us punctual (almost).

[The photo shows the front entrance to the conference venue]

Download Presentations

The following presentations from the event have been made available:

Chesterfield Canal Trust – Towns Fund Bid – Lessons Learned

Challenges of Operating a Canal – Derbyshire County Council

Environmental Sustainability – Montgomery Canal

Montgomery Canal Funding

CDM Buckingham Canal Society

Profiles of the speakers

[The photo shows Chesterfield Canal Trusts stand at the event – Volunteers from the Trust helped manage the event throughout the day]