Registered Charity No. 702429

Private Members' Debate, 11th December 2007
Westminster Hall, Houses of Parliament

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): I am grateful for this second opportunity to debate the future of our canals. As you may know, Mr. Martlew, I was fortunate to win an Adjournment debate on this very subject in April. Now, as then, I declare an interest; I am a member of the Lichfield branch of the Inland Waterways Association—and, as of a few months ago, patron of the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust.

I am a keen narrow-boater and I have travelled much of the system. Should there have been any doubt about that, last summer I was running down a towpath in dirty shorts and a sweatshirt and holding a windlass, when I literally bumped into one of the directors of British Waterways. If there was any doubt about my narrow-boating credentials, there is none now.

At this point, I welcome the Minister to his first debate on canals and waterways. It is to be hoped that he will be more supportive of the waterways than his predecessor, who was a nincompoop of the first order, and whose departure was marked by the popping of celebratory champagne corks up and down the canals; having followed that marvellous series “Monarchy”, I believe that it is called a feu de joie—a fire of joy. That hon. Gentleman has already gone down in history as being the worst waterways Minister in living memory, and the new Minister, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), has been warmly welcomed by waterways societies and individuals keen to see a new approach.

The Minister has made at least two visits to canals—indeed, I believe that he may have made four—and he has met many organisations and individuals and received a glowing welcome in the boating press. He told me last night that he is seeing another delegation this afternoon.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw) indicated assent.

Michael Fabricant: The Minister confirms that that is the case. I very much hope that he will be able to continue that record by solving the funding issues that canals face. If he is as constructive a Minister as I found him to be as Communities and Local Government Whip, he will do just fine. It demonstrates that there is honour among thieves and Whips.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman’s contribution to this issue is second to none among midlands Members, although I do not share his views about the previous Minister. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is so concerned with farming, flooding and fishing that British Waterways’ concerns are like a minnow swimming in a sea of whales. Is the location of the responsibility for British Waterways correctly placed with DEFRA, or should it be with a Department that has a greater resonance regarding the concerns that it is trying to deliver on?

Michael Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In April’s debate, I said just that. To my mind, although inland waterways carry freight—it could be argued that such responsibility should therefore lie with the Department for Transport—they attract so much tourism that I believe that such responsibility should be an important part of the work of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Sadly, we are left with what we have; at the moment, it is with DEFRA, and any change would be a decision for the Prime Minister.

The April debate focused on the debacle within DEFRA that created the need for in-year cuts—cuts, we were told, that were a one off and not to be repeated. That has a somewhat hollow ring today. We also heard reports from hon. Members from around the country of their and their constituents’ concerns about the effects of further funding cuts. I spoke—with passion, I hope—saying that our canals are a national treasure not to be cast aside, but to be nurtured by the Government.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD) rose—

Michael Fabricant: I give way to the hon. Gentleman, who intervened on me in the last debate.

Lembit Öpik: And it was on the very same subject—the Montgomery canal. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that for many years I and others have been campaigning to have the Montgomery canal reconnected to the rest of the canal network. The cuts, which the hon. Gentleman rightly highlights, could jeopardise the entire project. Does he agree that this Minister can earn great honour by reinstating the funding for that and similar projects, to ensure that such canals are reconnected to what is a vital lifeline for our leisure and tourist industries?

Michael Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman is right. I have been on that canal, but I could not use the same narrow-boat that I use in England because the Montgomery canal is a disconnected system. I had to hire a narrow-boat, but the canal is worth visiting as the area is very beautiful. Not only would there be a certain logic in reconnecting it to the rest of the system; it would generate valuable income for that part of Wales. As some hon. Members will know, my mother was Welsh and I have certain connections with the area.

People come from around the world to marvel at our network of 2,500 miles of canals, and millions of people in this country use them daily for recreation, sport and travelling to work—and for a breath of fresh air. The canals play a key role in regenerating our towns and cities, providing a heart—a lung—around which regeneration can start.

The Minister need only to go to Manchester or Birmingham to see for himself how the canals are central to millions of pounds-worth of regeneration. Indeed, until recently the Government had a reasonable track record in supporting our canals. Over the last few years, they played a crucial role in developing our canal system along with local councils, organisations such as the Inland Waterways Association, canal trusts and others. However, that good will has been lost in the last few years.

Last summer the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee held an inquiry into British Waterways. Among its conclusions, it called for British Waterways and the Government to work together to solve a projected £35 million under-spend on major works. British Waterways told the Committee that if it received the anticipated comprehensive spending review settlement of RPI minus 5 per cent., the network would not be fit for purpose by the end of the review period.

It would be fair to say there has been some debate about figures, and I understand that the National Audit Office is shortly to report on the matter. Will the Minister enlighten us as to the conclusions? Whatever figure is finally decided on, how will the shortfall be met?

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on returning to the subject. I have some knowledge of the report that he mentioned because I chaired the investigation. The figures were somewhat opaque, and before we cast aspersions, we need complete clarity. The Committee asked British Waterways for such information on a number of occasions, and to be fair, it has been more open. However, part of the problem is that we do not know what the figures really mean.

Michael Fabricant: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention. I hope that British Waterways will pay attention to our debate and that it will shortly provide the figures that the Committee has called for; then I and others attending this debate will table parliamentary questions to ask precisely what the Minister and his Department will do. However, I am not going to let the Minister off the hook. I hope that he can give us some indication as to what the Government think the shortfall is and how they intend to fill the gap.

The Select Committee also called for better communication between British Waterways and the Government. It has been reported that a status review is currently considering ways to allow British Waterways more financial flexibility. Has the review been completed, and if so what were its conclusions? Those are some of the questions I would like the Minister to answer in his response to the debate.

That is all to be welcomed, but sadly the Select Committee’s main concerns about the effects of cuts and the need for sustained and planned funding for British Waterways and for the Environment Agency have not been addressed. British Waterways is consulting users on how to make up the current deficit. That is even after 180 job cuts, which have included some of the country’s most noted experts on waterways maintenance and restoration and on the carriage of freight by water.

I understand that it costs £125 million annually to maintain our canals. Even after the cuts that I outlined, British Waterways has only 85 per cent. of the money needed to fulfil that obligation. It is seeking ideas from users on how it might bridge the gap—ranging from increasing licences, which is controversial for all boat owners, to increasing income from its property portfolio. However, boaters seem set to shoulder much of the burden. Mooring fees are set to rise dramatically and annual licence fees will rise by a third.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if British Waterways sought to meet the deficit through a massive increase in licence fees, it would be a major deterrent to people who use the waterways—people who are often on comparatively low incomes—and who ought to be encouraged further to do so, in order to make them the lively and thriving places that they deserve to be?

Michael Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman is correct. Our waterways are not there just for regeneration and property values, or for people who can afford to hire boats and enjoy expensive holidays for two or three weeks when they fly over from California or Israel, which I have seen boaters do. They are there also for those who live on our canals and make them such an interesting and thriving part of our nation’s life. He is correct to highlight that point, because if we drive those people away from our canals, we will lose the atmosphere that so many people enjoy observing.

As the hon. Gentleman said, increasing the licence fees would be an unfair burden, given that boaters constitute a tiny percentage of users who enjoy our canals. A recent survey found that just 3 per cent. of canal users were waterborne, while the other 97 per cent. enjoyed the spectacle, colour and movement that the boaters brought to the scene. I believe that the value that we all gain from our waterways should be a shared cost and should not fall on just a few, which means that DERFRA must contribute and raise money from taxation.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Does he agree that we should sometimes look to investment in canals? My constituency covers Kirkintilloch, which is the canal capital of Scotland and has been used as a redevelopment mechanism to stimulate regeneration in the economy; indeed, we have a new mariner centre and an arts and culture centre. That has knock-on benefits for everybody in the community. It is an investment from which to reap benefits in future.

Michael Fabricant: The hon. Lady is quite right. As I said, we need only look at the centres of Birmingham and Manchester, which have been revitalised from being, frankly, rather run-down slums that nobody wanted to visit to being gorgeous areas that everybody wants to visit. I have some friends who often visit the canal district of Manchester, but the least said about that the better.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): My hon. Friend has spoken before about the regeneration that can follow from investment in canals and about the multiplier effect. He said that for every pound spent, a much greater sum is received from tourism, regeneration, flood management and so on. Has he sought to quantify that sum? Can he tell us what that multiplier is?

Michael Fabricant: I am a great believer in passing the buck on occasions. I did an economics degree and I know that cost-benefit analyses and multiplier effects need to be calculated by many people, so I shall throw that over to the Minister. My hon. Friend could table a parliamentary question to that effect, and the Minister could get his Department to analyse the multiplier effect. It would be wrong for me to guess, but I know that it is many times the actual investment, as so many hon. Members have pointed out already.

The effect of this year’s canal cuts can be seen across the network already and on the linking rivers run by the Environment Agency. The Secretary of State admitted as much in his answer to my question on DEFRA cuts last Thursday. Freight businesses are feeling the effects of a lack of dredging by British Waterways. Boat owners associations tell me that British Waterways is not keeping the navigation to the required depth, as laid down by Parliament. One operator in south Yorkshire informed me that the depth in Doncaster has been reduced—hopefully temporarily—from 8 ft 3 in to 7 ft 2 in, resulting in its barges being forced to carry less tonnage. That is at a time when DEFRA is supposed to be leading the charge to tackle climate change and reduce emissions—something that waterborne freight achieves.

A freedom of information answer requested by the Inland Waterways Association last week produced a list from British Waterways of £3.8 million of deferred maintenance in this year alone. British Waterways pointed out that those were not due to DEFRA cuts, but to floods, to property portfolios failing to deliver on time, to rising construction inflation and to a major canal breach on the Brecon and Abergavenny canal at Gilwern. That breach occurred in October when the canal burst its banks in, I am told, a most dramatic fashion. So violent was the torrent that swept through the area that eight people had to be rescued and a major A road was closed for several days. The canal may remain closed for a couple of years, which will seriously affect local businesses.

David Taylor: I was on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee whose report was referred to earlier in this debate. It is a question of “once more unto the breach”, in the sense that in the last 12 months we have seen a number of unexpected and expensive breaches that have required major capital expenditure to head them off or to repair them. Regardless of what the Minister says when he winds up, will he explain how a saner, more rational and more effective system for handling major capital projects on the waterway network can be introduced, irrespective of other considerations? It is that crucial.

Michael Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that that is crucial, but I must remind him that, sadly, my party is not in government—his party is. It is up to the Minister to answer his question. I think, however, that he directed it at him, and he might like to address it.

The cost to British Waterways of those breaches and flooding is about £1.4 million. British Waterways cancelled major works on the River Weaver to pay for those costs. This is a short-term robbing of Peter to pay Paul. What will happen if there is a major catastrophe costing many lives and millions of pounds as a consequence of that lack of maintenance? The Government will have blood on their hands. They will not be able to claim that they did not anticipate such a thing happening, because I and other hon. Members are telling the Minister now that it can.

Other maintenance work listed as “deferred” included culvert inspections. That might seem harmless enough, but failure to inspect culverts can lead to massive structural failure similar to that experienced at Gilwern. British Waterways rates its key structures like bridges and aqueducts from A to E—A is very good, E is bad. Each year more of its structures slip to D and E. Gilwern was a D, and today nearly 28 per cent. of British Waterways’ structures are D and E. They need urgent maintenance.

The situation on the Thames, which is run by the Environment Agency, is no better—in fact it is possibly worse, as navigation took a bigger cut in the agency’s budget this year. Some 16 lock-keepers have lost their posts from a total of 76. Many locks will, therefore, be unmanned as lock-keepers will have more than one lock or weir to maintain. At the same time, boat licence fees rose 12 per cent. this year and will rise a further 11.5 per cent. next year. Boating numbers have dropped by 8 per cent. as a direct consequence.

The other effect of the cuts is on the expansion of the network. Throughout the country, teams of volunteers from canal trusts and societies, supported by local councils, the lottery and even the Government, are working away to restore and reopen waterways that were neglected and left to decline following the second world war. They have been very successful. New business opportunities are created, as the hon. Members for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) and for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said. The system can take more boats, and neglected parts of town and country are regenerated. Ministers are delighted to go along and open those new developments, but unfortunately they will have a few more free dates in their diaries if the cuts continue.

British Waterways has been critical in bringing canals back to life, but I fear for my local trust, the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust. It was founded in 1988 to restore its two canals, with the wider purpose of pushing forward the regeneration of the underused and decaying canals north of Birmingham. They are classed as “remainder” canals, and they therefore receive only basic maintenance. By restoring those two canals, each about 7 miles long and abandoned in the 1960s, the trust could bring great benefits to Lichfield and other towns, and provide appealing connections to the main canal network. Nearby canals are almost too popular at peak times. There is a clear need to reopen those that are closed and to regenerate those that are underused and neglected—as any narrow-boater in peak season, queuing up to go through a lock, can testify.

It has fallen to the volunteers to initiate and carry forward that work, raising the funds themselves with very little support from official bodies. British Waterways has been supportive in times of difficulty, but it has neither the funds nor the resources following the recent funding cutbacks. During the past 10 years, the trust has brought £3 million of inward investment to southern Staffordshire, which was a huge task. In the past year, it has raised a further £240,000 to fund a crossing of the new Lichfield bypass. Such projects were forced on the trust by the imminent construction of new roads and the unwillingness of motorway builders and local authorities to bear the cost. It was a very heavy burden for a trust with 1,500 members and no access to major funding.

It is generally accepted that the restored canals will bring great benefits to the area and to the national economy, but there is no national political will even to assist with the costs. The Minister may be unaware of this fact, but volunteer work goes on every weekend to rebuild locks and to reconstruct the infrastructure that was lost almost half a century ago. Impressive progress has been made and more will follow, but it is clear that unless major cash injections can be found, neither the Lichfield nor the Hatherton canals will be open to traffic within the lifetime of many of those people who have already dedicated almost 20 years to the work. A whole generation of walkers, anglers, boaters and others will have missed out on an invaluable experience.

Will the Minister accept my invitation to come up to Lichfield and see some of the restoration work that has been undertaken, including the provision of attractive adjoining parkland? He is not nodding now, but I hope that he will nod in agreement when he responds.

Sir Peter Soulsby: May I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the excellent work of the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust, and to its endeavour to create a link with the top end of the Birmingham canal navigations, which, as he rightly says, is so underused? Indeed, many similar trusts do similar work throughout the network. Does he agree that the potential for further cuts in the funding of British Waterways is, as much as anything, a major threat to its capacity to respond to such trusts, to help them with their regeneration work and to provide, where necessary, leadership and support for that work? That threat is at least as, if not more, important than the threat to capital expenditure directly. The support for those trusts is so valuable and it could be lost.

Michael Fabricant: That is a very valid point. I should not underestimate, however, the capital works to maintain the existing canal network. As good as the existing network is, it is a terrible shame that so many canals were filled in 50 or 60 years ago, because they now have to be reopened in order to complete the network and make it a living, interconnected whole, and the cuts will jeopardise that work.

The major restoration schemes that came to fruition in the previous decade, notably the Huddersfield narrow canal and the Rochdale canal, did so only when local authorities—supported by British Waterways, which is the very point that the hon. Gentleman made—finally saw that the volunteers needed serious backing. Partnerships were then constructed which were able to drive the schemes forward. It seems that in the current climate, much more is expected of the volunteers. What is needed is local council willingness to adopt restoration schemes and push them forward, instead of just cheering on the dedicated amateurs. However, the local government settlement, which the Government have just announced, means that councils are even more starved of cash.

Major national projects need major national funding. Canals are for everybody, not just for people lucky enough to have a boat. Restoring the Lichfield and Hatherton canals will bring enormous regeneration potential to the west midlands conurbation, as well as major benefits to much of Staffordshire. If reports prove to be true, the task may be even more difficult, as British Waterways’ shortfall has grown even bigger. Over the weekend of 17 to 18 November, we learned from the press that there were to be further cuts throughout DEFRA. Ministers are to be presented with £130 million of immediate cuts to DEFRA’s budget, with radical options for another £140 million of savings. Those cuts would affect all the Department-funded bodies, including British Waterways and the Environment Agency, and they would be an addition to the 5 per cent. year-on-year cuts that have already been mentioned.

British Waterways is allegedly at the top of the list for further cuts to funding. Although the comprehensive spending review settlement for the Department appeared to present a real increase to the Department’s budget, it emerged only later, during evidence to the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that a number of new priorities from Downing street had been added to the Department’s funding obligations and that their cost would have to be taken from existing budgets because no additional funds had been allocated. One must assume that DEFRA Ministers are shuddering at the thought that they may face further commitments after the Bali conference on climate change. On top of all that, the effects of this summer’s flooding and the breach in the Brecon and Abergavenny canal will create further demands.

During the floods, British Waterways played a largely unsung role in removing hundreds of millions of gallons of water from canals and rivers throughout the country—water that would otherwise have significantly increased the number of towns and villages affected and the depth of the flooding. The programme cost more than £10 million. Is that not an obvious case in which the Treasury should allocate additional funds to waterways managers to cope with such disasters? It was outside the managers’ control. That was the very point that the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) made.

I have several additional questions for the Minister to address. I have given him notice of them, so I hope that he will be able to give full answers. Is it morally right that those people who had no involvement in the outbreaks of foot and mouth disease, bluetongue and bird flu should pay the costs? Have Ministers managed to bridge the departmental funding gap without resorting to raiding other agencies’ budgets? Have they made an application to the Treasury for increased funding to cover the unexpected costs incurred because of flooding this summer? If they have made such representations, what were the results of their efforts?

Does the Minister agree that our canals are a shared resource that we all enjoy, and that costs should not fall disproportionately on the few—the boaters, who are just 3 per cent. of people who actually enjoy the canals? Has the new cross-departmental committee met, and if so has the Minister been successful in obtaining financial support from other Departments that benefit from our waterways? Has the status report on British Waterways been delivered to Ministers, and if so, what were its conclusions? How is the financial shortfall that I mentioned going to be met? Is the Minister hopeful for the future of our canals, and will he be the champion, who is so desperately needed, in the Government?

I hope that the Minister will answer my questions positively. Our inland waterways are too important to be treated in that cavalier manner. The two previous Secretaries of State have both gone on to become Foreign Secretary, leaving a trail of trouble behind them. The first of the two, in particular, deserved to be sacked, not promoted. However, that pattern of career progression should not be relied on; certainly the Minister’s direct predecessor did not enjoy that perverse reward.

I hope that the new waterways Minister will stand up for our canals and inland waterways and leave them in a better state than he found them in. He can do that only if DEFRA owns up to its responsibilities instead of lurching from one disaster to another. Rather like the Prime Minister, the Minister will find that his good press and goodwill will rapidly evaporate otherwise.

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): I intend to call the winding-up speeches at about 10.30 am, so I ask hon. Members to make short speeches.

After speeches from other Members of Parliament…..

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on securing the debate. He described to us his long association with waterways, mentioning the fact that he is the patron of the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust in his constituency. I understand that he is also the secretary of the all-party group on waterways, which he seems almost to have forgotten, such is the number of titles and responsibilities that he has, and his passion and commitment to the waterways. It is understandable, given his busy agenda. He described travelling the towpath, and also talked about his credentials and honour as a Whip, welcoming me as the Minister responding to the debate, as we worked closely together in our respective Whips Offices. I thank him for that. I did not like what he said about my predecessor, who is a fine man, and an excellent Member of Parliament, and was a good Minister.I intend to concentrate on the main body of my speech, which I hope will respond to the central concern raised. In any remaining time I shall respond specifically to some of the more general points. This is an opportunity for me to reaffirm the Government’s commitment to inland waterways and report that considerable progress has been made since the report on British Waterways by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I am proud to be the Minister for inland waterways and I have been fortunate to see at first hand some of the tremendous benefits that waterways bring to communities. Many of those were articulated by hon. Members. In 1966, when Bobby Moore was taking England to World cup glory, and Harold Wilson was taking the Labour party to success in the elections, I had my first holiday on a canal boat, in my mother’s arms, on the Oxford canal, so from the earliest age I have had an affinity with the waterways.

Since I have become Minister with responsibility for waterways, my visits have included key regeneration projects such as Wood wharf. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) mentioned the opportunity presented by the Olympics, and I have visited Prescott lock, which will play a vital role, facilitating waterborne freight and contributing to a sustainable, environmentally friendly Olympics. I have also been to the Loughborough canal basin and Birmingham, one of the first large-scale inner city regeneration projects, which is a testament to what waterways can do for our industrial cities.

I have also met a wide range of stakeholders in past months, and have been struck by their enthusiasm, knowledge and passion for waterways. New Ministers are always put at a disadvantage when they meet stakeholder groups, who know their subject inside out and upside down. I am grateful for their enthusiasm and desire to engage in discussion about how to take things forward. To that end I am today meeting representatives of more than 30 interest groups—people who use the waterways—to hear their concerns at first hand. I want to improve relationships and do everything possible to facilitate constructive dialogue. However, hon. Members should remember that British Waterways is a public corporation, at arm’s length from Government, and it is for the board and executive to comment on operational matters.

Miss McIntosh: Will the Minister give way?

Jonathan Shaw: I would, but I should not be able to respond to all the points raised.

We need to maximise the public benefits of waterways while delivering an affordable, sustainable network within the total funding available. We are working closely with both British Waterways and the Environment Agency on developing long-term strategies to achieve that aim. Much has been said about ensuring that adequate funding is available for the waterways, and hon. Members have rightly expressed their communities’ aspirations to extend and restore the canals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) said, each restoration or new canal brings further revenue pressures on British Waterways, and we must recognise that. Given the fact that more people than ever before use the waterways, and that there is more enthusiasm for them, so that there are more people involved in the relevant projects, we must wrestle with the issues of competing demands on the public budget.

Miss McIntosh rose—

Jonathan Shaw: I have a huge amount to get through; I ask the hon. Lady to be quick.

Miss McIntosh: We hear what the Minister says, but does he accept that British Waterways, which is an agency at one remove, is limited in the amount that it can raise? We must recognise that the cost of fuel has put boating out of the reach of many people who would otherwise have taken great pleasure from those craft.

Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful for that comment. On sustainable funding, British Waterways is not at the moment allowed to borrow. BW has assets on which it could be allowed to borrow, and the Government are working hard with the organisation, as part of its review, to ensure that it can come to a position in which it will be allowed to borrow. That is part of the sustainable funding footing that we want to see the organisation on in order that it can meet hon. Members’ aspirations.

Many comments were directed at me and the Department’s funding. Following the Department’s allocation, it is, as hon. Members would expect, going through a business planning prioritisation process to decide how we divvy up the money. We must do that, and hon. Members referred to a number of the Department’s many competing priorities. The Department is actively engaging with delivery partners in that process with an expectation that final allocations, including those for BW and the Environment Agency, will be known at the end of February. The role of DEFRA as custodian of the canal network on behalf of the Government has been recognised by Ministers and, at this stage, I am hopeful that the budget for BW will be broadly around flat cash for a three-year period. The Government are in discussions with BW on what that means for its business planning, and it is considering whether a further injection of capital from its commercial business into the network in the next three years is desirable. Hon. Members have asked me to be as clear as I possibly can, and I have set out for the House the position that the Government want to get to.

I welcome the conclusion of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report that we have seen a remarkable renaissance in the fortunes of Britain’s historical inland waterways in the past decade, as was mentioned by many of my hon. Friends, and—sort of—by the hon. Member for Lichfield. It would not do his career any good to say, “It’s the best ever!”, but that is the case—our waterways are in a better state today than they have been since the second world war, and they are used and enjoyed by more people than at any other time in their history. I urge hon. Members to judge the Government over a period on what we have done for British waterways.

The Committee made a number of recommendations, including improving relationships, setting up an interdepartmental working group and carrying out research into the benefits of the waterways. I am pleased to confirm that we are making progress on those recommendations. First, I am committed to developing and strengthening our partnership with BW to ensure the continued and sustainable revival of our waterways, and I have frequently met its chair and chief executive. From my perspective, communications are good.

Secondly, as promised, we have set up an interdepartmental working group. The Departments to which I have written—Transport, Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, Health, Communities and Local Government, Culture, Media and Sport, and the Treasury—have given the support that I asked for and are committed it. The first meeting of the group will take place on 17 December.

Thirdly, the Committee recommended that we undertake a study to determine the social benefit of the waterways network. Many hon. Members mentioned the additional benefits that the waterways network brings to the communities who live in and around it. A steering group has been set up, and the interdepartmental working group will consider those benefits at its first meeting.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) made an important point about the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal. On the detail of that, he was right to say that the canal suffered a major breach in October which caused considerable distress to the local community. I am pleased at what he said about BW’s communication with local people and community leaders. Such communication is important for confidence. Often, when people complain, they do not know what the situation is, and if there is uncertainty, people become concerned. There will be a meeting on 19 December at which BW will set out what it intends to do. We know that the canal is hugely important for tourism in that area. It has a long history of instability, which the hon. Gentleman will know about only too well. There are plans to restore the abandoned section between Cwmbran and Newport, and the Crumlin arm, to promote further tourism, and he knows of those aspirations. I hope that we will see that restoration, but it will be enormously expensive, which has to be taken account of in relation to the other demands and aspirations that hon. Members have for their areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) is chairman of the all-party group and suggested that he is hard-up; I am sure that he will get a lot of sympathy in the House and in the wider community for that. The issue of licences relates to the issue of boat owners paying the costs. It is important to get the matter in perspective. Boat owners pay around 10 per cent. of the costs. The rest is paid for by all of us—by the taxpayer.

On a serious note, my hon. Friend talked about regeneration opportunities. There has been £7 billion-worth of waterside regeneration in recent years—I stress £7 billion. I have seen it at first hand, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (David Heyes) mentioned his area. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North mentioned industrial heritage, and was right to point out that the wonderful roof at St. Pancras was made by a former constituent of his.

When hon. Members get involved in local projects, I urge them to ensure that the projects offer opportunities for skills training. It is vital that the opportunity to pass skills down is taken, so I encourage engagement with learning and skills partners.

My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins), who has a proud track record of championing the waterways, mentioned funding, and talked about opportunities for regeneration projects and the impact of the floods. Many hon. Members mentioned the unsung heroes, and I am sure that BW staff will be grateful for their comments. It has made representations to the Pitt review, which is designed to learn lessons from the floods. It will look at how the Government dealt with floods across the board, and BW is a central part of it. On funding, as I said, we need to put BW on a sustainable footing. There is a review group with which we are working closely to ensure that that happens, so that we can meet more of the aspirations that we and our constituents have for the waterways.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) mentioned the need for long-term funding, the opportunities presented by the Olympics and for taking freight on our waterways. She said that it is a Cinderella service, but I do not accept that. DEFRA has many delivery bodies, but BW does not receive the smallest amount. It might interest her to know that it gets more than some of the national parks, which have enjoyed and welcomed a considerable increase in funding in this year’s budget. Like the national parks, waterways have a contribution to make in delivering on sustainability. She also referred to the fact that Tesco and Sainsbury’s put freight on canals.

The hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) asked me to be open and honest about funding. I hope that I have done so and that I have provided some insight into the difficult discussions that all Departments have at this time of year. The Department is committed to British Waterways, to establishing better relations, and to ensuring that stakeholders have a say on how the network is developed. We want to meet the aspirations of the thousands of people who enjoy the waterways and the rich heritage that they bring to communities up and down the country.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lichfield for initiating the debate. I am proud to be the Minister with responsibility for waterways, and I look forward to working with hon. Members in the months to come.

Click on this link to Hansard for more of this debate.

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