Interview | Canal & River Trust’s Malcolm Horne on protecting history while planning for the future

Now is the time for the Canal & River Trust to push forward in its quest to safely maintain and preserve its many critical and historic assets. This is the view of Malcolm Horne who became chief infrastructure and programmes officer with the organisation in March this year.

The trust is a charity which owns 1,582 locks, 55 tunnels, 2,970 bridges, 281 aqueducts and 71 reservoirs on the English and Welsh canal networks. It recently awarded £800M worth of civil engineering contracts – its largest ever award for waterway engineering contracts.

Until 2012, the government-funded public body British Waterways was responsible for canals and rivers in England and Wales. Funding for the trust, however, comes from a “diverse range of sources”.

These include Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) grant funding (£52.6M for 2021/22), investment and property income (£51.4M), boat licences and moorings (£44.5M), utilities and water development (£37.7M), third party income from charitable activities (£21.1M), donations (£6.5M) and other trading income (£800,000).

Engineering contracts

The trust’s charitable status has not held it back from investing in the new multi million pound contracts though. The spending spree began in August, when it awarded contracts worth £500M for major restoration and repair projects, including reservoir work and response dynamic situations such as flooding or canal breaches. Kier will deliver works in the South, while JN Bentley will deliver works in the North.

Just a few weeks later the trust awarded £300M of contracts to repair and restore smaller assets including culverts, footpaths and weirs. Amco, Breheny, CPC Civils, Forkers, Jacksons, Land & Water and Onsite have been appointed to deliver the work.

The trust has recently awarded waterway engineering contracts worth £800M

Horne explains that the trust’s “forward workload”, particularly for its reservoir estate, embankments, culverts and other critical infrastructure, means it is important to get the most efficient delivery supply chain and processes in place through these contracts.

Incidents like the partial collapse of the spillway at the Toddbrook Reservoir dam in August 2019 highlight the importance of maintaining key infrastructure and having a clear view of risk. Kier has now begun the £15M permanent repairs and the reservoir is due to reopen in late 2024.

According to Horne there are many other reservoirs getting similar types of upgrades to mitigate against similar incidents. A number of sites will benefit from additional or larger spillways, while work on others will focus on upgrading valves, strengthening inflow and draw-off structures and geotechnical investigations.

Horne adds: “We have a new reservoir asset manager and our in-house team of reservoir experts which has been increased over recent years to manage our reservoir improvement programme,” he says.

Part of my role is to find ways to repurpose our canals to both maintain their heritage but also lean in to help us for the future

“So we have much increased expertise and oversight. We have lots of monitoring of our reservoirs – more remote monitoring as well as people going out and inspecting them.”

Horne joined the trust – just before its 10th anniversary in July. His job is to oversee asset management and engineering delivery, whether done by the trust’s in-house construction teams, supply chain partners and programme management office.

A chartered civil engineer, he brings a strong asset management and engineering background to the role. Before joining the trust he spent 14 years at water utility firm Severn Trent, most recently as head of water quality and environment.

Now he is focused on how to take the trust on “a journey of more innovation and greater efficiency”.

He adds: “Part of my role is to find ways to repurpose our canals to both maintain their heritage but also lean in to help us for the future.”

Challenge of old infrastructure

The age of the trust’s “very old” infrastructure – in some cases around 200 years – provides a challenge. A key balance the charity must strike is how to sensitively upgrade structures to meet modern day safety standards, while protecting their heritage and embracing the roles the canal can play in terms of climate resilience, nature and biodiversity, connecting rural and urban spaces as well as heating and cooling.

Finding that balance, Horne says, is “really exciting and a great puzzle” – but how exactly is it achieved?

“Having experts is key,” he says. “To trade things off you do need expertise and the right environment to do that. So we have heritage experts, design engineer experts, planning experts, landscape architects and surveyors who understand asset by asset or canal section by canal section what is more important.

When it comes to climate change, the canals are exposed to more extreme weather than in the past and improving resilience is important.

“We have extensive modelling, collecting data around the assets, their condition, performance and impact and we use those to target investment,” Horne says. “So we try to look at vulnerable areas and get there first before they have issues and then equally we’re ready to respond quickly if we do have issues.”

The trust is responsible for 281 aqueducts

Moving water

With increased periods of drought, movement of water has an interesting role too. Horne explains: “Canals can play their part, whether it’s about how we use resources or move resources around the country.”

Innovations in pumping are also enabling greater water movement control. “We pump water back up lock flights at the moment,” Horne says.

“That uses power. Renewable ways to return water to the head of lock flights could reduce extractions and use of water and allow us to share water more widely and play our part in the wider transfer of water.

“There are opportunities around sustainable ways to move water on a low energy renewables basis or with remote monitoring and control technology.”

And all of this plays into the wider vision of the role canals, for example, can play in society, with over 10M people using the network last year.

“For a lot of people during Covid we were their back garden,” Horne says. “It was hard for people in urban spaces without gardens to go out and get fresh air and green space. The canal is that for millions of people.

“It’s about making what we have do more things for us and for the communities where we are.”

And so the firms employed under the new contracts have a clear mandate to continue these – and other – positive impacts on the trust’s assets.

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