The born-again waterway rescued from decay at enormous expense is claimed to be sliding into a new “dereliction” that will hit Falkirk jobs and damage the local economy.
The hard-hitting message from Ronnie Rusack MBE, chairman of the Lowland Canals Volunteer Group, follows weeks of mounting concern about the future of a project said to have made a dramatic impact on the area.
Speaking on behalf of pressure group Keep Canals Alive!, Mr Rusack accuses Scottish Canals of failing to meet its statutory obligations, failure to maintain canals adequately and allowing key stretches to become choked with weeds.
Scottish Canals says it doesn’t have the funds to tackle the huge repairs backlog, and that it must prioritise resources to ensure public safety.
It argues its investments are needed in order to deliver long term financial sustainability, and that meanwhile the canals are “busier than ever”.
Mr Rusack says flatly that canalside property development is being pursued at the expense of keeping the canals open for navigation, and that this risks a critical loss of faith by local people that could in any case undermine the viability of these developments.
In what amounts to a damning indictment of Scottish Canals’ recent handling of the canals network he argues the £79million millennium investment in the system is going to waste - threatening jobs in Falkirk and elsewhere, and compromising tourism.
Mr Rusack, whose achievements include the showpiece canal-side Bridge Inn at Ratho, Midlothian, said: “After 47 years of campaigning for the Lowland canals I’m not prepared to allow them to deteriorate any further and slip back to becoming remainder waterways.
“The Scottish Lowland Canals are not only part of our heritage but play a vital role in tourism, health and the well-being of the Scottish people, and have something for everyone as proved by their usage”.
In his letter to the chief executive of Falkirk Council and six other authorities Mr Rusack says: “The Forth & Clyde Canal is presently closed to through traffic due to mechanical failures, with no date proposed for re-opening.
“As the Union Canal has fewer locks and opening bridges it remains largely open – but access into the Edinburgh terminus is now restricted to just four periods each week.
“Long-term implications locally include a threat to the 19 jobs in the hire boat fleet at Falkirk, loss of income to canalside pubs in West Lothian, North Lanarkshire and East Dunbartonshire, and a cessation of weed cutting and floating litter clearance, especially in urban areas”.
He adds: “Of the £79 million raised on the initial Millennium Link project, £7.2 million was contributed directly from council funds and the political support from councils was instrumental in unlocking additional funds from Scottish Enterprise and the European Regional Development Fund”.
He asserts: “Scottish Canals have not maintained the canals adequately.
“Analysis of their annual reports shows that the proportion of their total budgets spent on their core statutory maintenance obligation has fallen steadily from near 60 per cent to less than 40 per cent over the last ten years.
“The result is that new opening road bridges, built for the Millennium, have now failed.
“Numerous closures have been caused whilst locks have failed – including one failure that prevented most boats attending the Royal opening of the new canal extension at the Kelpies - and rubbish and weed growth have discouraged sea-going boats from attempting to venture through.
“The lack of maintenance has driven away existing users.
“Canal staffing has been reduced so that availability of the canal system has been restricted to as little as one day a week in places.
“As a result, for 2018/19 the canal between Bowling and Glasgow and between Kirkintilloch and Bonnybridge will appear virtually disused again”.
In a particularly sharp criticism of Scottish Canals he says that “none” of an additional £6 million per year the organisation receives from canalside property is yet being used to maintain the canals themselves.
He argues: “The enhanced value of canalside property depends on the canal being used by boats.
“The basic concept of the Millennium Link was that by making the canals useable again, they become interesting and desirable place to live, work and play beside.
“Once large boats stop moving the waterway silts up, weed growth accelerates and rubbish accumulates”.
Mr Rusack says that if the canals fall into the weed-choked decay witnessed just a decade after the Forth and Clyde Canal was closed in the 60’s the council will bear the brunt of complaints from homes and businesses “built along the banks of an increasingly derelict and dangerous water hazard”.
Keep Canals Alive!, which has 11 member organisations, is asking Falkirk Council and other local authorities affected to put pressure on Scottish Canals to adjust its budget priorities “to meet their statutory responsibilities”.
Mr Rusack said: “We are not asking for investment in canalside developments to stop – just a re-alignment of their priorities to ensure that the canals themselves do not return to the dreadful state that they were in before the Millennium.
“Their existing property earnings should be helping to maintain the canals for use.
“We are asking for a review of new canal developments – some of which include new opening bridges – until Scottish Canals are able to maintain the bridges that they already have”.
A spokesperson for Scottish Canals said: “The safety of the public, our customers and staff is our primary concern and therefore it was only right that we temporarily suspended Bonnybridge, Twechar and a bascule bridge at Kinghtswood in Glasgow following recent inspections.
“That said, detailed investigations were carried out last week and I’m pleased to be able to report that we will be carrying out a one-off operation of Bonnybridge and Twechar on May 6 to enable those boaters who have been affected to get where they need to go to.
“We have also reduced the cost of the navigation licence on the Forth & Clyde Canal to £1 per month and by 10 per cent on the Union Canal until both bridges are operational.
“By generating our own income to reinvest in the canals, we are working towards a long term financially sustainable future.
“However the fact remains that with ageing assets, the impact of climate change and the increasing popularity of Scotland’s canals, we don’t have the money to do all we need to do.
“With a £70 million backlog of repairs and maintenance, we have to prioritise our spend according to public safety as well ensuring these publicly owned assets deliver for the many as well as the few.
“It is important to note that the Lowland canals attract an average of 80 sea to sea transits per year, with 50 last year, and yet the canals are busier than ever with walkers, cyclists, paddlers and commuters continuing to enjoy all these fantastic linear parks have to offer.
“We will continue working with partners, local communities, communities of interest and local authorities to safeguard these valuable heritage assets for everyone to enjoy.”