Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Fourth Report



On Monday 23 April I visited the construction site of the Falkirk Millennium Wheel, the most ambitious element in the £78 million Millennium Canal Link project, which the Committee has visited before in other locations. The construction site is vast, and my visit took some two hours. The Millennium Link scheme links the Forth and Clyde Canal, which has not been navigable since the 1960s, and the Union Canal. These at present are separated by one kilometre laterally and 35 metres vertically. The Wheel, which will be 35 metres high and will weigh 1,800 tonnes, will raise and lower craft 35 metres in one movement. It will be the world's first rotating boatlift. Its components are now being completed at Ripley, Derbyshire.

I had discussions with British Waterways officials responsible for the project, including Mr Jim Stirling, the Director of British Waterways in Scotland, together with representatives of Visit Scotland (as the Scottish tourist organisation has now been re-named) and the local authority. I also toured other visitor attractions in the area.

Falkirk itself has not been afflicted by foot and mouth, but the vast construction site has disinfection facilities. Some nearby canal towpaths have been closed to walkers because of foot and mouth, and are now being re-opened. The Visit Scotland representative told me that tourist revenues in Scotland had fallen substantially over the Easter period because of foot and mouth. The Falkirk Wheel represents one of the major opportunities to re-establish and increase visitor numbers. Although it is on time and on budget for completion later this year, it is not planned to be opened formally until next spring, first so that any teething problems can be eliminated and secondly to take advantage of the start of the 2002 tourist season.

The engineering project at the Wheel has included restoring the largely disused canal structures, building an aqueduct, burrowing 150 metres through and under the Roman turf Antonine Wall, and raising a motorway by several feet. The site is also to include a large visitor centre, architecturally adventurous and made of glass, which is now nearing completion and will be able to accommodate 100 visitors at any one time. It will provide merchandising and refreshment, plus a dramatic close-up view of the Wheel. Visitors to the Wheel will be able to take a boat ride along the canal and through the tunnel, finishing at the visitor centre. Family tickets are likely to cost £20. A quarter of a million visitors are expected annually. They will have the opportunity not only of touring the Wheel site but visiting the Antonine Wall, nearby battlefield sites, and the huge Georgian mansion Callander Park, set in a large and attractive park.

The project was far larger in size, area and scope than I had anticipated. Properly exploited, it could be an attraction that would bring visitors both from the United Kingdom and abroad.

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Prepared 8 May 2001