Scottish Waterways has form in standing against legitimate and informed objections in rolling out layers of tarmac on sections of the Crinan Canal.
In 2013 and with no apparent public consultation – although the canal is a public and a heritage amenity – Scottish Waterways and Sustrans sheeted and coated with a thick layer of tarmac a section of the Crinan Canal towpath from halfway along the summit stretch between locks 8 and 9, at the westerly row of original Cairnbaan cottages, and on down west to or beyond Lock 11 at Barnakill Farm.
Two other sections were being lined up for the tarmac roll out:
- the section from the Miller’s Bridge [above the roundabout for Ardrishaig and Kintyre at the western edge of Lochgilphead] to Cairnbaan;
- and the section from the Crinan Bridge – the swing bridge once giving access to the old ferry landing – into the Crinan Canal Basin.
Once again there was no public consultation of any kind.
There was a well supported petition at the cafe at the Crinan Basin – and very engaged local public opposition to the tarmacking of the swing bridge section into the Canal Basin. There was general concern about the Miller’s Bridge / Oakfield Bridge to Cairnbaan section – which is a long, in some ways atypical – section and with a particular charm.
Whether or not these public responses had anything to do with it, Scottish Waterways were said to be preparing a sample finished section of the tarmac on a section of the stretch from the Miller’s Bridge / Oakfield Bridge to Cairnbaan – and that this was to become the focus for a measure of belated public consultation.
If true, this could not have been more than a token box-ticking exercise because, should such a consultation have gone resolutely against Scottish Waterways, were they seriously prepared to lift the tarmac and restoring the sheeted substrate?
Now however, we know that whether or not Scottish Waterways had indeed suggested this procedure, in practice they simply went right ahead and tarmacked the full section from Miller’s Bridge / Oakfield Bridge to Cairnbaan – and then moved directly on to start rolling the tarmac down on the most scenic section of the entire canal – between the Crinan Swing Bridge to the Crinan Canal Basin.
The Sustrans Cycleway argument, even if that were agreed to have priority, cannot be advanced to defend the action on this specific section – because that long distance cycle route leaves the canal towpath at the Bellanoch Bridge to run north across Moine Mhor.
One concerned protester asked the national guardian of heritage, Historic Scotland, ironically now called Historic Environment Scotland, why they had permitted this to happen – and was met with the response that they saw ‘no material change’ to the canal in the tarmacking of the towpath.
‘No material change’?
How can the heritage guardian defensibly square its finding that the slapping down of a thick layer of tarmac on a historic canal towpath produces no material change with its response on an occasion where the roof on part of the historic Inveraray jail was leaking – because of the way the historic leadwork had originally been put on.
Regardless of the fact that a significant material change to the historic interior of the building would result from the continued ingress of water from the roof, the then Historic Scotland flatly refused to allow repair of the historic leadwork.
The degree of controversy this caused eventually brought about a change of attitude, but that initial stance was indicative of a less than coherent mindset.
Setting these two contradictory findings alongside each other creates a picture which suggests little logic other than ‘Just do as we say because we’re right.’
Canal towpaths levelled into their own margins and were formed from natural materials which blended into the landscape of canals and their contexts.
Tarmac is not a natural but a manufactured substance and it is not a normal colour of nature. Black is the easiest colour to see against the background of nature – a black cat in a garden or a field is immediately visible as an intruder.
The use of modern sheet tarmacking techniques creates a surface which sits sharply proud of its margins – and presents a real and present physical risk to walkers and cyclists distracted in the moment by the beauty or the surprises of the landscape they are passing through.
Who can now walk along that lovely and remote section from the Crinan swing bridge to the canal basin at Crinan, with the Great Moss and the Add Estuary opposing the landward side of the canal; see the black tarmac rolled out on the towpath like prefabricated icing in use on the Great British Bake Off; and feel that entirely inappropriate surface beneath their feet – and believe that they are anywhere other than in an urbanised environment?
The view of Historic Environment Scotland that tarmacking the Crinan Canal towpath is ‘no material change’ is a literal as well as a judgmental nonsense.
What the tarmac will do is make access to casual tourists easier and more reassuring in its fundamental urbanisation. They may drive their cars along it [with grubby ill-maintained signs prohibiting it offering no obstacle] – and why should they not do so when some sections of the canal towpath appear to have been tarmacked for the greater convenience of vehicle traffic on these sections?
- The Swing Bridge to the Crinan Basin section, enables fishermen to drive to their boat at the jetty near the Basin on the towpath, and causing recurring potholes;
- The first section to be vandalised in this way, at Dunardry, from Lock 9 west to or beyond Lock 11, enables traffic from Barnakill farm to zip smartly along to Cairnbaan and on into Lochgilphead, in the absence of access over the unique [but damaged] sliding bridge at Dunardry .
There is a public safety issue here.
Where specific users like these might have no alternative but to drive on the Crinan Canal towpath, tarmacking it can only seduce them to drive faster than they would otherwise have done. Engineering intelligence indicates that simply adding a subtle camber or cross-fall to the existing towpath would have seen the puddles and potholes substantially less of a maintenance problem.
The towpath is principally for ambulatory boat users, walkers and cyclists.
It can be nothing but a material change to tarmac it in order to facilitate its use by motor vehicles for purposes which have no intrinsic connection with the purpose for which the canal was built – water transport.
The uncharacteristically supine stance of Historic Environment Scotland in this matter has been centrally unfortunate, because they were the sole agency with the authority to prevent what has been done – or to insist upon public consultation.
A reader, angered by the lack of public consultation as well as being disturbed by the aggressive invasion of the towpath environment, was informed by Argyll and Bute Council planners that they have no say in the issue, despite the canal being a designated conservation area and ancient monument of national importance.
Scottish Waterways is the senior authority.
And the raw truth is that Scottish Waterways’ arrogant action proves the saw that it is easier to apologise afterwards than to ask permission first.
Consultation – like democracy – is a pest to those who do not wish to have to stop and think better.
A patronising decoy
It gets worse.
Whatever the reality of the supposed intent of the agency to introduce some measure of meaningless retrospective ‘consultation’ in inviting the pubic to view and respond to a ‘sample’ tarmacked area between the Miller’s Bridge /Oakfield Bridge, they have now surpassed that folly.
On the Scottish Waterways website, in the News Section, is an infuriatingly pretentious piece of dishonesty, announced as : Re-think the link – the Crinan Canal charrette.
The opening paragraphs say:
‘Scottish Canals and Argyll & Bute Council in partnership with local agencies and stakeholders would like to invite you to take part in a ‘charrette’ for the Crinan Canal Corridor.
‘A charrette is a series of design workshops aimed at gathering views of local residents, businesses, landowners, community groups, and other agencies to create a shared vision and plan for the area aimed at maximising tourism and leisure opportunities alongside other business needs of the canal corridor and its communities.’
So now you’ve been told.
The actuality is that this gig – the programme for which is here – is patronising post-event gesture politics, inviting people to spend their own energies helping to appear to accept what has already been done by dictat and which they must now accept.
The ‘charrette’ is essentially no whit different from the ‘placemaking’ exercise for Ardrishaig which was organised some years ago by Ardrishaig Community Council and Stuart Green from Argyll and Bute Council’s planning department.
Such engagements are genuinely great fun, constructive and creative – and this will be too.
But where the Ardrishaig placemaking event had integrity and was essentially a true starting point towards a planned physical development for the village, this programme is a flak jacket for an autocratic agency that has behaved with no care whatsoever for public opinion when it counted – before they started what, on the basis of their own wisdom alone, they were determined to railroad through.
With that goal achieved, this four day event [the first two of which, as a single unit, are the most worthwhile] is a simple pacifier to try to gag those outraged by the affront to democracy Scottish Waterways has delivered in its high-handed vandalism of a natural rural place in a National Nature Reserve that is one of Scotland’s most important Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has, in the current election campaign, just committed unequivocally to championing communities and to putting ‘community’ first at all times.
How would she respond to an appeal from the community of interest that signed the petition designed to protect the Crinan Swing Bridge to Crinan Basin section of the canal towpath?