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Testing the waters

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Judith Grice, head of Water Environment Services, takes care of the character as well as the structure of Britain's waterways

If you live in one of the uk's nineteenth-century industrial cities, the work of Judith Grice is likely to have had an effect on you. If, on the other hand, you are a fan of gentle country walks beside water, she is also likely to have touched your life. Grice heads Water Environment Services, the planning and design consultancy of British Waterways which is responsible for the 3200km network of the country's canals and a significant number of navigable rivers.

The work of the consultancy, which has grown to 30 people from just two when Grice joined 20 years ago, ranges from partnerships carrying out multi-million pound developments on prime waterfront sites, to preserving the integrity of rural waterways from the prettifiers. 'You don't need a bench,' she says, responding to those who want to introduce inappropriate street furniture in the depths of the countryside. 'You can perch on a piece of wall or an old tree stump.'

Grice trained as a landscape architect, and in many ways her job is a landscape architect's dream. Too often her profession is relegated to a subsidiary role, almost an afterthought, whereas on the waterways the landscape predominates. 'The spaces for the public come first,' she says. 'We are designing the environment in which the buildings will go.'

Her team does all the initial feasibility work, but often passes on the design of specific buildings to external consultants. In the same way, sometimes it carries out developments on land it owns itself (usually originally freight yards), at others it enters into partnerships with developers on sites, and at yet others it just offers consultancy.

Since July 1997 British Waterways has been a statutory consultee on planning applications. 'We have always had good relationships with local authorities,' says Grice. 'Now it is formal.' But, she adds, 'We avidly seek to become involved in schemes before it comes to that stage.'

The main issue for British Waterways is the safety and integrity of the waterways. Although Grice's enthusiasm for them is unbounded - 'in the future they will be recognised as being as important as Greek and Roman civilisation' - she acknowledges that they were 'built very quickly, and not always in the right place'. It is not infrequent for canals to be perched on the side of a hill with the possible threat of an embankment slipping if the problem is not recognised. And, adds Grice, 'If you were to build next to the waterway and didn't know what you were doing, there is a fair chance you could find 20 miles of canal water in your basement.'

For Grice's team, preserving the essential character of the waterways while grasping new opportunities is as important as maintaining their structural integrity. When she joined British Waterways under architect Peter White, it was 'in an evangelical role, to explain to people the importance of looking at the waterways in a strategic sense'. Major schemes have included the blueprint for the enhancement of the canal environment in the centre of Birmingham which led to the major redevelopment around the International Convention Centre; a study of the Rugby Canal Corridor to encourage the leisure and tourism potential of the Oxford Canal; driving through the regeneration of the Sheffield basin; and a current project for Newark waterfront. There bw owns a fire-damaged Grade II*-listed concrete warehouse (and no more land than the footprint of the building) and is working with Allen Tod architects to find a new use for it. 'We are turning a £1 million liability into an asset,' says Grice.

The linear nature of bw's holdings enables a strategic approach. 'By planning on a large scale,' Grice explains, 'we can say: that is where we can concentrate on people being, but that is somewhere that we should keep quiet.' Sometimes this broad overview can conflict with local requirements, particularly on issues like conservation areas. 'We have a national perspective whereas local people care only about where they are. We may consider that something is not very special, but it is the best that they have.'

Grice's newest enthusiasm is for landscape archaeology, 'the part the waterways play in the wider historic landscape. Many blasted their way through ridge and furrow, and through tumuli'. Grice's team is hoping to do some blasting of its own, albeit in a more sensitive way, with its Millennium scheme to link the Forth and the Clyde at Falkirk, by tunnelling under the Antonine wall to create a link via the Union Canal. Even more exciting is the scheme for the 130km Kennet & Avon canal, the biggest recipient of Heritage lottery funding so far recorded, with a grant of £25 million.

With an annual budget of £48 million from government, and a need to earn £50 million a year to cover costs, Grice has to be financially conscious. Her next big challenge is an expected change in status of British Waterways. Currently it is nationally owned, with the detr as its sponsoring body, but it should soon become a trust, giving it far more financial freedom by releasing it from Treasury rules. 'I have spent my whole career pushing us in this direction,' Grice says.

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