Commercial Activities

When they were built the inland waterways were a revolutionary new transport system that led to wealth creation on an unprecedented scale. After a prolonged period of decline, the UK’s canal and river network has once again begun to expand. Old and new businesses are combining to unlock the potential of this unique network and have begun to fuel a remarkable waterway renaissance.


British Waterways is the UK’s leading navigation authority, with responsibility for 2,000 miles (3,219km) of canals, rivers and docks, hosting 25,000 licensed boats. Most of the boats on the waterways today are leisure craft (private boats, hire boats, trip boats, restaurant boats, rowing boats, canoes etc). However cargo carrying boats still move 1% (3½ million tonnes) of all freight carried in the UK.

British Waterways is today involved in a number of initiatives to increase visitor moorings, promote local and national freight-carrying schemes and support the hire-boat industry. Where appropriate, British Waterways also works to stimulate waterway business (e.g. directly managing marinas).


Each year British Waterways’ canals and rivers attract 10 million visitors, together making more than 160 million visits and spending over £1½billion. More people use the waterways than ever before, including walkers, naturalists, anglers, cyclists, joggers and pub-goers using the towpaths, watching the boats or just enjoying the waterside environment.

British Waterways has been at the forefront of promoting public rights of way and has provided free public access to its towpaths since 1978. Today it is developing major new visitor attractions – such as the Falkirk Wheel in Scotland, Anderton Boat Lift in Cheshire and Standedge Tunnel in the Pennines – to attract new audiences to the waterways.

In July 2003 British Waterways launched a marketing initiative and information resource designed to increase consumer interest in a wide range of holiday and leisure activities for all of the UK’s inland waterways.


One of British Waterways’ most precious assets is its water and it holds an estimated 200,000 megalitres of water. British Waterways has always transferred water between waterways and has sold water to canalside industries for over 100 years, and even supplies half of Bristol’s drinking water via the waterway network.

Watergrid is a British Waterways’ joint venture. It provides industry and developers with the highest quality water management service, ranging from supply right through to waste disposal. But, unlike traditional suppliers, it uses alternative water supplies such as the country’s network of inland waterways to provide a national water service. The potential for significant savings for commercial customers is achieved by providing bespoke water quality services from sustainable sources.


British Waterways is a shareholder in Easynet, a leading independent telecommunications service operator. Easynet has built a fibre-optic network stretching to 3,550km (2,205 miles), with a significant part laid under British Waterways’ towpaths and reaching all of Britain’s major cities.

The network is made up of over 2,000 optical fibres – providing enough capacity for the entire population of the UK to make a simultaneous telephone call. As both shareholder and landowner, British Waterways earns income from this partnership to reinvest in the waterways.


British Waterways manages a property estate valued in excess of £300million – comprising operational boatyards, docks, historic warehouses, lock cottages, marinas, industrial estates and ‘brownfield’ development land. Joint ventures with private partners have, over the last 10 years, produced some striking success stories – most notably the regenerated waterfronts of Birmingham, Gloucester, Sheffield and Leeds.

The transformation of once neglected, run-down backwaters, into vibrant, mixed-use developments has been the most visible sign of ‘the new canal age’ and proved how waterways can act as catalysts for wider regeneration. With the support of Government, British Waterways set-up a property public private partnership in October 2002 to further unlock the regeneration potential of its 2,000 mile waterway network.  Fifty percent owned by British Waterways, ISIS Waterside Regeneration, is a partnership with AMEC and Igloo Regeneration Fund that is delivering sustainable property regeneration schemes that combine public sector ethos and assets with private sector capital and expertise..


Over recent years, British Waterways has established itself – at a local, regional, national and international level – as an expert in waterway regeneration and management. Employing a growing number of specialists in the environment, technical services, architecture, landscape archaeology, fundraising and hydrology. British Waterways has pioneered holistic ‘corridor studies’ and now provides a professional waterway consultancy in places as far away as India, Italy, Thailand, Ireland and Spain – as well as waterways in the UK.