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Queen's Award Press Release
Friday, 08 June 2012 05:58

The Queen's Award for Voluntary Service 2012.

Volunteers working to protect, conserve and improve the route of the Wilts & Berks and North Wilts Canals for the benefit of local communities and the environment were delighted to learn though an announcement in the London Gazette this Diamond Jubilee weekend that 'Her Majesty The Queen has been graciously pleased to confer Her award in 2012 upon The Wilts & Berks Canal Trust in recognition of its outstanding voluntary work in the community.'

Volunteers of the group come from a wide age range and include professional men and women of many disciplines, craftsmen and women in the fields of engineering, building and environmental conservation. Many have been involved for a long period with new people coming on board all the time. The professionalism and care that they bring to a myriad of tasks ensures that the finished excellence of their work brings benefit to the environment and to local communities right across Wiltshire, Swindon and Oxfordshire.

From qualified colleagues, volunteers can learn skills such as hedge laying, the operation of construction plant and the safe use of hand tools. Once trained, nationally recognised certification is awarded. External courses are provided in the use of chain saws, fund raising and in many other required skills. Support and guidance is provided on the ground by appropriately qualified volunteer team leaders and from a backroom group of volunteer professional advisors. Health and safety procedures, overseen by a volunteer H&S Director, are understood and respected by all operational volunteers. Full public liability insurance is carried as is professional indemnity insurance for those professionally qualified volunteers working in design and other fields.

Feedback from individuals is encouraged and good ideas are adopted thus fostering a culture of ownership. Contribution is recognised by appropriate levels of exposure and credit in the Trust magazine and by annual awards to the individual contributing the most volunteer hours and to the team recruiting the most new members.

Communities and wildlife benefit immediately from newly opened lengths of towpath and waterway providing access for all and the creation of much needed [nationally] new standing water habitat. The volunteers, whether in the field or at a desk, benefit from participating in a worthwhile and stimulating project which is widely recognised as positively influencing the social, economic and environmental climate of local communities.

Socially by bringing together the diverse interests of walkers, cyclists, horse riders, canoeists, anglers, groups of school children and boaters. A greater understanding of local history and identity has emerged as research undertaken by some of the volunteers can now explain more clearly the part that rural Wiltshire and Berkshire played in the development of the industrial revolution of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Economic improvements and opportunities that the waterway will bring to communities such as the market town of Melksham and the former railway town of Swindon are being recognised by the Chambers of Commerce in both communities.

By completing the restoration of the waterway from end to end, across Wiltshire, Swindon and Oxfordshire an exciting new wildlife trail will have been created providing linkage between areas of existing habitat and new routes of migration for creatures who might become endangered by the consequences of climate change.

As a lead project towards full restoration it is hoped that within the next five years a continuous footpath and wild flower trail will be opened between Abingdon on the River Thames and Semington on the Kennet & Avon Canal thus creating a new long distance off-road footpath between the cities of Oxford and Bath.

Although the work of the group is widely recognised by its peer organisations across the country as the most ambitious waterway restoration project yet undertaken, time is always made available to consult on issues both large and small. People raising observations are listened to and their comments, where possible, are built into finalised proposals. Illustrated presentations are regularly given to special interest organisations and at public exhibitions. Whilst all of the volunteers may be described as being enthusiasts for what they are striving to achieve, among the leaders are people who have successfully delivered similar projects, and won national prizes in the process.

It is this combination of seeking the wider view, listening to what is being said and the professionalism of those carrying out the task that has earned the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust  a very wide level of good will and respect both from local communities, riparian Members of Parliament, local and national businesses, educational establishments, central government departments, recreational bodies such as Sustrans and the British Canoe Union and all of the local government organisations along the line of the waterway including Parish, Town, District and County Councils.

The Wilts & Berks Canal was formally closed by an Act of Abandonment in 1914 when land over which the waterway was constructed was ceded to riparian owners. Although various lengths are already in the ownership of Partners who actively support the project, the remainder are vested in a wide range of private landowners. Persuading these landowners to join in with this very worthwhile community project is the principal challenge facing the Trust. Landowner views range from “how soon can you make it happen, so that the benefit of diversification might be gained” to “I would rather the canal take a different route and not cross my property”. This apparent obstacle is being tackled by persuasion and the strength of argument of the wider benefits to all of creating a new twenty first century leisure resource and wildlife trail.

John Laverick
CEng. FICE. FCMI. MIStructE.
Wilts & Berks Canal Trust
Registered Charity No 299595