Our channels of regeneration

Our channels of regeneration

Peter Mathews wants to bring canals back into the everyday lives of West Midlanders, helping us all to lead healthier lives. John Lamb reports.

As chairman of the Canal & River Trust’s West Midlands Partnership, Peter Mathews dedicates a great deal of time promoting the cause of Birmingham’s canals. And he believes that these 200-year-old waterways, once the lifeblood of the city’s prosperity, still have a big contribution to make to its future success and wellbeing.

“In the early 1980s, when someone famously pointed out that Birmingham had more canals than Venice [35 miles to Venice’s 26], it was a joke,” Peter says. “At that time Birmingham’s canals were badly polluted, dangerous and fenced off from the rest of the city. Traditional freight carrying had collapsed and the authorities didn’t know what to do with what was left.  

“Wind the clock forward three decades and just look at the difference. The city’s canals have become the focus for major regeneration activity, with new homes, attractions, offices and restaurants around places like Gas Street Basin, Brindleyplace and the Mailbox.  

“Towpaths have been reopened for walkers and cyclists, and the locks and channels have been repaired so that narrowboats can return safely to the city. We even have otters using Birmingham’s canals – that’s how much they have improved.

“Today when local people say we have more canals than Venice, it’s increasingly a badge of pride – but we have only scratched the surface of what we can do.”

As owner of Black Country Metals, a committed champion for the region and a globally-recognised expert on exports, Peter Mathews knows what he’s talking about. Three years ago he established the West Midlands Waterways Partnership for the Canal & River Trust, the charity set up to care for England and Wales’ historic inland waterways.  

Canal01

Made up entirely of volunteers and working alongside the Trust’s local management, the Partnership brings together a team of specialists from the private, public and voluntary sector, all committed to unlocking the potential of the West Midlands’ 218 miles of canals.   

Peter explains: “The West Midlands’ waterways have enormous untapped potential to make an even greater contribution to the local economy, improving the environment and the health and wellbeing of local people.  

“But the Canal & River Trust is a charity and cannot do everything.  That’s why we have put in place an ambitious three-year plan aimed at engaging with local people, communities, businesses and local authorities.

“We all benefit from having vibrant, safe and attractive waterways on our doorsteps and we all suffer when they’re not cared for.  

“We need more people to get involved – either by donating money to help fund the Trust’s vital work, or by rolling up their sleeves and joining us as volunteer lock keepers, on regular towpath clean-ups, or by adopting a local stretch of canal.

“We’ve already had a brilliant response from community groups wanting to make a difference and we really need to harness that goodwill and enthusiasm to get more people involved.  It helps the canals and is tremendous fun for everyone involved.  

“The more people who take an interest in our canals, the more it will become unacceptable for the minority who dump rubbish in the water, or tag our historic bridges.  These waterways belong to all of us and no-one has the right to ruin them for the rest of us.”

Originally built as arteries for commerce, and the nation’s first industrial transport network, for many people the waterways are now precious green spaces and places to escape the stress of modern lives – an analogue antidote to a digital world. Peter is keen to explore with health professionals and NHS Trusts the potential for the waterways to contribute more to people’s physical and mental wellbeing.

“We’ve already received investment of £6m into improving towpath access for cyclists and walkers across the city, and we’re looking at ways to improve access to canoeing and paddle sports across the region.”

Peter also points towards further opportunity for regeneration along the canals, using historic buildings and redundant land to create new homes, work opportunities and healthy communities.

“With imagination, HS2 could be the catalyst to create a new canal quarter around Curzon Street, and there are tremendously exciting opportunities to redevelop the land around Eastside, Digbeth and Icknield Port Loop.

“There is also, of course, an enormous amount of work going on in the Black Country. These include final preparations to improve the towpath and accesses to the Stourbridge ‘arm’.

“Other sustainable transport projects are being developed across the Black Country with the ambition of improving the whole network across the Midlands to help the hard-working people of the region to get around.

“We need businesses and local authorities to work with us to get more investment into our canals, protecting their vital heritage while being bold and imaginative in their aspirations for them.”

Thirty years after they were seen as a disgrace, the West Midlands’ canals are increasingly seen as a source of pride as the region wakes up to what a precious asset it has. So Venice can keep its gondolas and palazzi. Birmingham is steering its own path.

To find out more about the work of the Canal & River Trust visit canalrivertrust.org.uk

Man of many parts

Peter Mathews

Peter Mathews’ chairmanship of the West Midlands Partnership of the Canal and River Trust is just one of myriad duties and interests he undertakes. Awarded the CMG in 2002 for his work on boosting the UK’s exports, Peter’s company Black Country Metals Trading (BCM), trades metals internationally and he’s a world-renowned expert on recycling.

Peter’s a former member of UK Trade and Investment board (UKTI) and was directly involved in its conception and launch. After his stint on the board, he was asked to chair the engineering sector and then combined it with automotive and aerospace to create the Advanced Engineering Sector Group, which he also chaired. He is still involved with the organisation as their International Trade Ambassador for the West Midlands, and is a past member of the judging panel for the Queen’s Awards for Export.

Peter also chaired the World Recycling Convention and was a board member of the Bureau of International Recycling based in Brussels. He’s also a past board member of the International Re-bar Association in Istanbul, and Honorary life member of the Ulster Metals Association. He’s the official representative of the city of Wei Hai in China, and has represented the UK at the European Commission for Multilingualism His company, BCM, trades metals globally and he speaks widely on international trade.

Peter’s also a member of MRAI (Metal Recycling Association of India). He trades with his Indian colleagues and travels there regularly, and so was personally involved in bringing back Air India flights from Birmingham Airport in 2013. Peter’s married to Elizabeth, a lawyer, and has two grown up children.

A past chair of the Black Country Consortium, in his spare time he’s now the County President for the County of Staffordshire Royal British Legion, and an honorary life member of the Black Country Chamber of Commerce.