Rough sleepers, syringes, oil slicks and dumped rubbish are blighting parts of Birmingham’s famous canal network as the city pushes to turn them into a haven for cyclists, it has been claimed.
The city’s towpaths are at the heart of plans for a transformed cycle network, but 20-year-old James Leyshon said the scenes he saw as he took in the area recently would put anyone off.
His pictures on a short walk along the towpath from Small Heath bridge, to Aston University showed the darker side of the network. Mr Leyshon also encountered a burnt-out building looming over the route, litter, graffiti, human faeces and drinkers.
Birmingham has won a £17 million Department for Transport Cycle City Ambition Grant which the council has agreed to top up to £24.3 million and a host of improvements are planned to make it easier and safer for people to travel by bicycle in the city.
These include upgrading the miles of towpaths, providing a safer and more pleasant environment for commuters and pleasure bikers than the city’s busy roads.
Officials hope the improvements will be completed by this summer.
Mr Leyson said: “Going back only a few years ago the canals were how I always remembered them, with long gravely footpaths, grass growing just fine, geese all along the canals in and out. People in canal boats always saying hello as you walked past.
“It was just so peaceful and to me back then it was a hidden gem of Birmingham. But when I went down recently it was completely different, there were no boats. Litter covering parts of the canal, and parts where people just dumped stuff from their back gardens.
“There were parts underneath bridges and walkways where people had been doing drugs, with needles everywhere, having sex, with condoms everywhere. It’s completely disgusting down there.
“There’s construction workers putting down new footpaths, which is great, but I feel like Birmingham City Council will ignore the problems going on down there and just say how they’ve put down new footpaths.”
Below the water’s surface there is also plenty of work to do. More than 100 volunteers from Waterway Recovery Group, The Inland Waterways Association, Birmingham Canal Navigations Society, Dudley Canal Trust and Canal & River Trust last summer dredged some of the city’s routes, clearing 40 tonnes of rubbish, including motorbikes, cycles, shopping trolleys and tyres.
But Birmingham’s biking groups said they were optimistic the city’s canals were heading in the right direction.
David Cox, chair of cycling charity CTC said: “The improvements from the first stage of Birmingham Cycle Revolution are game changing with a safe all-weather surface. I’ve had very little trouble from drinkers but, yes, they gather in some inner city nooks. Some parts are grotty because of neglect but, overall, in 30 years I’ve seen constant improvement to surfaces and frontages. Where the canal is well used it feels pretty safe.
“My experience has been positive and over the years there has been considerable improvement.”
Roy Watson, who set up the Greenways of Birmingham website, has explored the whole network in detail for a map he is preparing.
He said “It will cover from the Black Country Museum to the NEC and from Kings Norton to Sutton Park, showing 150 miles of interconnected green routes aimed at families and boosting cycling tourism. There are the occasional down and outs, mainly around the Salvation Army Hostel in the gun quarter, and there has been some historic drug peddling around the Curzon Street Tunnel.
“However, the idea that the canals are some sort of no go area is completely erroneous.”