A couple of years ago, a friend of ours set up home on a canal boat in Edinburgh, making us look at Scotland’s canals in a new light. And we’re not the only ones to have done that. After a period of post-industrial decline, these once important shipping routes are now increasingly valued again as places for people to live, work and play, and for their contribution to wider regeneration and placemaking.
So, we were particularly interested in the decision this month on the planning application for boats on the Union Canal in Edinburgh to be used as hotel accommodation; the application was refused by committee, contrary to officer’s recommendation.
On the one hand, it was argued that the proposed development would have provided an opportunity for an increased number of visitors to the area to access and enjoy the canal. On the other hand, there were concerns that this would have been at the expense of the wider use of the canal by restricting both the navigable waterway and the relationship between the canal bank and the water, with the proposed hotel boats being just a few metres from existing residential boats on the opposite bank.
In other words, on our canals, as with everywhere else, there is a balance to be struck between protecting and preserving what exists at present, and looking to enhance and expand on this to make these better places, both in the present and for the future. There are though examples out there of this having been done well, and of policies and strategies to support that process, with a strong emphasis on placemaking throughout.
In Edinburgh for example, a key focus of the Union Canal Strategy is creating a sense of place, with the Canal described as having “come a long way from a derelict backwater to become one of Edinburgh’s most important heritage, recreational and community assets”. This is part of a wider strategy by Scottish Canals to deliver sustainable development and improvements to Scotland’s canals and towpaths.
A key aspect of that strategy is the Living on Water Initiative, which aims to:
- encourage more people to live, work and play on the water;
- provide waterside communities with an enhanced “sense of place”; and
- stimulate “active living” and drive economic growth.
Through the Initiative, new residential berths have been made available in the central belt and Inverness, including starter moorings in Edinburgh to allow people interested in living on a canal boat to “test the water”.
In terms of the role of canals in regeneration and placemaking, one of the new mooring sites that is particularly interesting is the Kelpies Marina, where the proximity of the Kelpies sculptures is advertised as a particular attraction, given the buzz that has been created around these and the Helix project ecopark of which they form part. At the same time, the Kelpies site is also close to a visitor centre and boutique retail development, with both Grangemouth and Edinburgh providing employment opportunities just a short distance away as well. And of course the hugely popular Falkirk Wheel, a landmark project in kickstarting canal renewal, is less than 5 miles away.
In very different settings but with a similar ethos, moorings in both Edinburgh and Inverness are promoted as providing quality accommodation within walking distance of the respective cities’ centres, opening up the potential for the regeneration of our canals to also contribute to the regeneration of our city centres more widely. Indeed, Leamington Warf in Edinburgh is at the heart of the £200m Fountainbridge Masterplan which aims to deliver over 400 new homes and workplace buildings to create a “new canalside neighbourhood”.
In other words, the focus is not just on moorings alone, but on how the combination of residential and other uses along the canal can complement and enhance each other. In this regard, statistics published by Scottish Canals indicate that, between 2010 and 2015, the Lowland Canal Network delivered 3,221 new houses, 71,456m2 of employment floorspace and 1,995 jobs, with £510.6m of investment having been made. This includes the Helix project and the Kelpies, which received over 952,000 visitors between 2014 and 2015, making it one of the most popular visitor attractions in Scotland.
It is though worth noting the investment that has been made to achieve these successes, including significant public funding. The Helix project, for example, has benefited from £48m of public funding, compared to which a recent announcement that Falkirk town centre is to receive a £2m investment boost seems somewhat insignificant (a drop in the water?!). Whilst we do of course recognise the significant ripple effect that the Helix will have in terms of delivering benefits for the wider Falkirk area, including the town centre, ultimately, the best made plans can only do so much for regeneration without the investment to back that up.
As the boat hotel application shows, it’s not necessarily all plain sailing along our canals, but then planning never is! With good planning and vision though, it is clear that Scotland’s canals can contribute significantly to Scotland’s places more widely, and canal boat homes increasingly seem like a good idea.
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Thanks for reading!
Pippa and Maggie