Narrowboat enthusiasts are planning a massive blockade of Birmingham's city centre canal system in protest over "devastating" funding cuts to Britain's waterway network.

Organisers of the demonstration claim "hundreds if not thousands" of canal boats could potentially sail to the city next month to voice their anger.

The move comes after British Waterways, which is responsible for managing Britain's canal network, yesterday announced 180 redundancies to save £5 million.

It follows a drying up of funds from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to plug a £200 million shortfall caused by introducing new farm payments.

British Waterways yesterday admitted the cutbacks could affect maintenance of existing waterways and plans to bring others back into use.

Canal users claim the move will turn back the clock on the positive effects of regeneration schemes - such as Brindleyplace - and return parts of the network to decay.

Wil Chapman, an organiser with the newly-formed Save Our Waterways campaign, said: "It is horrific. This is part of our heritage.

"There are 2,200-miles of canals that were built 200 years ago. The locks, which are a fundamental part of it, are old and made of wood and the lock gates quite often need to be repaired.

"It is not just about boaters. People walk along the canals, cyclists use them."

Mr Chapman, who owns a canalboat in the Worcestershire village of Alrewas, near Redditch, warned cyclists would also join the Birmingham protest.

It is due to take place around Gas Street in the last weekend of November.

Mr Chapman warned: "There are loads of canals that come in from different parts of the country to Birmingham.

"So we will have boaters from all over the country coming. There will be hundreds if not thousands of boaters that will be trying to get to Birmingham. My guess is anybody that is not on their death bed will get there."

Much of Birmingham's regeneration in recent years has been sparked by the success of reopening the canal network around Brindleyplace and beyond. Water-facing apartments in the area fetch in the region £200,000.

The success of the scheme has inspired similar projects across the country, including Manchester's canals which Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott last month labelled "major engines of urban regeneration".

It has also helped fuel an increase in people holidaying on canals to about three million a year while spiralling house prices have led to an explosion of people living on narrow boats - about 12,000 currently.

A spokesman for British Waterways yesterday said "the jury was still out" on how badly the network would be affected by the cuts.

But he added: "It requires a change in Government thinking to make sure that funding remains for the future of everyone who enjoys the waterways."

Defra hopes to save about £7 million annually from the cuts which merge British Waterways' West Midlands and "Central Shires" operations. The move will cost 60 jobs across the region.

Robin Evans, chief executive of British Waterways, said: "I accept this is difficult news but we cannot be complacent in our management of the waterways network."

Neil Parish, Conservative agriculture spokesman in the European Parliament, accused the Government of mis-management.

He said: "The effects of this shambles are being felt across the country in job losses, and the loss of a great British tradition.

"A reduction in the canal network would have a knock-on effect on the countryside with fewer people spending money at local pubs and amenities next to the river. We should be opening up more networks, not closing them."

The British Waterways holds its annual conference at the ICC tomorrow.