England & Wales, Ireland, Scotland

In Conversation with… Josie Saunders, Head of Corporate Affairs, Scottish Canals


LGIU Scotland’s Kim Fellows is in conversation with Josie Saunders from Scottish Canals to talk about recent research by Glasgow Caledonian University which, in a global first, shows the extent of the positive impact canal investment has on the local community around it.

Kim: Please introduce yourself and your organisation.

Josie: Scottish Canals is a non-departmental public body that looks after 137 miles of inland waterways in Scotland. We’ve got five canals, two in the highlands, the Caledonian and the Crinan, and three in the Lowlands running across the country east to west, the Forth & Clyde Canal and the Union and Monkland Canals. We welcome about three and a half thousand transit boats to Scotland’s canals every year, apart from 2020 which has been an exception to the rule. We also have 104 properties, including residential and commercial properties as well as a portfolio of holiday accommodation and 19 reservoirs dotted around the country that we use to make sure that we maintain the water level in the canal. We also have a number of tourist destinations in Falkirk, Ardrishaig, Bowling and Fort Augustus, with probably the most notable being The Kelpies and the Falkirk Wheel.

The Falkirk Wheel is the meeting point between the Forth & Clyde and the Union Canals which have a 35 metre height difference between them and is the world’s only rotating boat lift. As well carrying boats and water up through the sky from the Forth & Clyde Canal at the bottom to the Union Canal at the top, it is one of Scotland’s top 10 visitor attractions. Then we have the Kelpies, the world’s largest pair of equine sculptures, so between those two attractions we’re seeing about a million plus visitors per year with a total of about 22 million visits to the canals every year from walkers, cyclists, boaters and residents, dog walkers and anybody else who use the canals as a great place to enjoy leisure and recreation activity.

A huge part of what we do is working with partners and communities to create vibrant, thriving water spaces that not only benefit those who use them but provide a backdrop for significant economic activity. The canal corridors are real ribbons of opportunity that run through rural and urban communities, stimulating business growth and supporting Scotland’s tourism sector, both slow and fast adventure from mountain biking and hiking to kayaking, and providing linear parks for leisure and recreation. This is particularly true in urban areas where socially disadvantaged communities have lower car ownership and less greenspace and canals are important sustainable travel routes as well as spaces for people to be able to relax and have fun.

The canals themselves contribute to Scotland in quite surprising ways; they are an important part of the nation’s tourism sector, they help tackle health inequalities, they support sustainable travel, they facilitate new housing and they help stimulate economic growth. Scottish Canals has a statutory responsibility to look after the canals but we also see it as our responsibility to use these publicly-owned assets in new and innovative ways to benefit everybody in Scotland. As head of Corporate Affairs my role within the organisation is to lead the the marketing and communications department, including stakeholder engagement and managing the reputation of Scottish canals as we deliver against our corporate objectives.

Kim: Building on that introduction, please tell us more about how you’re working on reviewing how canals might benefit local communities.

Josie: Scotland’s canals were, in their heyday, the powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution, transporting cargo and workers backwards and forwards across the country until the advance of the railway marked the beginning of their decline. Communities that had built up along their banks, particularly in Lowlands, were severely impacted during that period, particularly between the 1960s and 2002 when the Lowland canals were closed, with part of the Monkland Canal used to create a pathway for the M80 motorway. And as a result they became places that were unloved, places for dumped cars and spaces local communities wouldn’t use let alone enjoy.

In 2002, following a significant campaign at grassroots level with local community groups and boating organisations working with Scottish Canals, the canals were reopened with the £84.3 million Millennium Link project, which saw the launch of the Falkirk Wheel and a new era for Scotland’s inland waterways. Between 2002 and, and 2018/2019 the canal corridors welcomed £1.53 billion of investment from the Scottish Government, our partners, independent third party organisations in the public, private and third sectors – all of whom have invested in the canals, creating 9000 new homes, 8400 new FTE jobs and simulating business growth. What we’ve seen during that time is a substantial change in the way that the canals have been used; they have become increasingly popular spaces for leisure and recreation, even more so during the pandemic. Over the past seven months we have seen more people getting out and using these publicly-owned assets in ways that they hadn’t ever done before, and recognising their value as unique places of environment and heritage value that can be accessed by all.

While we’ve known for some time that the canals have seen a surge in popularity, we didn’t have the empirical evidence. Our ped counts told us that more walkers and cyclists were using the towpaths and the launch in 2015 of the Glasgow to Edinburgh Canoe Trail and the Crinan Kayak Trail resulted in more people getting out on the water, but we didn’t know if people from wealthier communities were being re-routed to the canals or whether it is people from local communities, particularly those in SIMD areas which are blighted by higher levels of unemployment, social exclusion and health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity.

For example, some of the communities around the canal in North Glasgow have the worst rates in Europe for a number of health conditions and yet until Glasgow Caledonian University carried out this health research, we didn’t know whether the investment in housing, towpaths, skate parks, trim trails, pedestrian bridges and a multitude of other projects over the past 18 years directly benefitted local people or not. With funding from Data Lab Glasgow Caledonian University was able to explore what impact the £1.53 billion of investment in regeneration along the canals has had on three different groups of people; those living 500 metres from the water, those within 500 to 1000 metres, and those living within a 1000-1500 metre radius of the canal.

Glasgow Caledonian University could profile the spend for each project that has been delivered along the canal by digging into the data recorded by our asset management software, AMX, as we know exactly where the physical boundary of that investment is and how much money has been injected at any given time. Glasgow Caledonian University took this information and evaluated it in light of the NHS Safe Haven data to see if there were correlations between investments in the canal and the impact on mortality rates. And what they found was absolutely incredible; that investment in the canals over an 18-year period, stripping out all the other variable factors that could have influenced local mortality rates, such as Glasgow’s wider economic improvement, led to a 3 per cent reduction among people living within a 500 metre radius of a canal.

A 3 per cent reduction is a staggering figure in medical terms and has given us the first evidence of its kind to demonstrates the value of canals to people’s health. But more importantly, it’s not just a first for Scotland but a global first.

Scottish Canals operates in the international arena, working closely with canal and river authorities in Europe, China, across Canada and America, New York and no-one has managed to demonstrate the health impact of regeneration along inland waterways, yet everyone is trying to do so. Some 50 per cent of the world’s population live within 3km of a river or canal, and not only do these people face similar economic challenges to those in North Glasgow but this figure is forecast to grow substantially in the coming years. Given this is the case, the potential for our research to help organisations worldwide accelerate how they tackle health inequalities by changing what and how they spend their regeneration money on, is really quite impressive.

Kim: Josie, to have quantitative evidence of impact on those communities is really interesting and useful for you to put in the international context. Building on that evidence, I think it would be really helpful to hear what you think, from the study and your work more generally, what are the key messages for local government, councils and community planning partners?

Josie: That’s a good question. We presented this research to the Cross Party Group for Recreational Boating and Marine Tourism and discussed the potential for it to shape policy. Scottish Canals can start to direct investment where it has the biggest impact on health but other public sector bodies, as well as the third and private sectors, from local authorities to housing associations, can use it in the same way. Scotland can really lead the way in applying this approach to investment into our planning process and embedding health evaluation into the planning framework.

The potential is significant. Scottish Canals is happy to share the research with other public sector organisations, and if interested, we’d encourage them to get in contact. And this is just the first phase of research. The second phase will look at how the regeneration investment has impacted on the rate of non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes in North Glasgow, and I think we’ll see many more people see a benefit here. The quality of the environment people live in, whether they have access to green and blue spaces and whether they feel confident to use them all have a direct impact on people’s health and by understanding this, we can not only determine the human cost, we can extrapolate the cost savings to Scotland’s health service that regeneration brings.

Kim:: Where would you see this work playing into work on sustainability? Are you thinking about moving the study by bringing health and sustainability together.

Josie: A huge amount of Scottish Canals’ success over the last 18-20 years has come from using the canals to create exciting, engaging places for people to live, play, work and enjoy and working with partners across the public, private third sector, as well as local communities to achieve this. Community engagement and community empowerment ensure change is sustainable too. It means that if you’re investing a million pounds in a building, you’re improving people’s life chances, creating opportunities that are far more wide reaching than just creating the infrastructure because it is part of a wider master planning process, which has local people at its heart. If we can integrate health benefits into that long term, sustainable, place-making agenda it would add even greater value.

Kim: And perhaps we could return to speak to you when the next phase is reported?

Josie: Yes, happy to do that. And thank you for giving me the opportunity to share what Scottish Canals is doing with LGIU.


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