What are our Waterways Worth?


It’s so easy to take things for granted. We enjoy the benefits of the UK’s 5,000 miles of canals and waterways, but they are only here for us today because they were saved from destruction by the efforts and persistence of volunteers who foresaw their future social and economic value. And unless they are adequately funded today and tomorrow they could rapidly slide back into dereliction again.

Governments need to know what they will get back when they invest. Many of the benefits we get from the waterways are difficult to put into numbers, but a CRT 2022 reportWaterways & Wellbeing: Valuing Our Waterways‘ attempts to identify and put a figure on each of these benefits.

  • The combined annual economic and social value of the waterways amounts to £6.1bn.
  • This includes £1.5bn annual economic value from water-based tourism and jobs, with more than 80,000 jobs being directly or indirectly dependent upon our waterways.
  • An annual social value of £4.6bn, which includes £1.1bn cost-saving to the NHS from active use of the waterways and the towpaths.

An IWA 2022 report Waterways for Today‘ describes what the Inland Waterways Association sees as the most important Economic and Social Benefits of our Canals and Waterways.

Economic Benefits Waterway projects can regenerate both rural and urban areas and improve the lives of millions of people. Boat-based tourism and leisure activities contribute £2.5bn to the economy each year, with people on day trips, boat holidays and taking part in water-based activities spending even more in local pubs, cafés and shops. Waterways are well placed to improve the health, wellbeing and longevity of the many people living near them, through increased physical activities and social prescribing.

Natural and Built Environment Benefits Waterways are bluegreen corridors that allow opportunities for reconnecting disparate habitats, biodiversity net gain and improvements for wildlife. With their historic buildings and structures, they form a vast, open-air heritage network, accessible to everyone and bringing history to life for current and future generations. They face unprecedented challenges from climate change but they can be part of the solution through adaptation, mitigation and enhancing the natural environment.

Local Communities Benefits Access to the paths that run alongside our waterways is free. These inclusive, flat, linear routes can be used as active travel corridors to connect communities and provide passage between urban and rural areas. Waterways offer opportunities for hands-on learning in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects, as well as the humanities and arts, through outdoor classrooms, visits to local waterways and inter-generational learning. Waterways offer many opportunities for employment, training and apprenticeships including in the tourism, leisure, hospitality, engineering and construction sectors.

Improving People’s Lives Benefits Waterways open up multiple opportunities for outdoor activities such as walking, running, cycling, fishing, sailing, canoeing, paddleboarding and volunteering. Waterways can boost wellbeing and improve mental health through physical recreation, shared social experiences and connecting with nature. Waterside locations create a sense of place that can enhance people’s enjoyment of the area they live in. This can encourage greater diversity and inclusivity across local communities.


The IWA is running a Protect our Waterways campaign, ‘… deeply concerned about the threat to our waterways posed by funding cuts, with for example Canal & River Trust and Scottish Canals financial situations being especially critical. Despite being recognised in the government’s Environmental Improvement Plan, the condition of the waterways continues to deteriorate while government funding is decreasing.’

To join the campaign and help to #ProtectOurWaterways, contact protect@waterways.org.uk

All materials and images © Canal Junction Ltd. Dalton House, 35 Chester St, Wrexham LL13 8AH. No unauthorised reproduction.

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