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Waterways Museums

11 am

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): We now move on to an earlier form of transport, which the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) missed out of his list of the things that are happening today.

I welcome the opportunity to have this debate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) for his interest in it. With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall allow him a couple of minutes to make points about the Gloucester museum; he has spoken to the Minister about that. I also thank the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) for his support today. He represents a constituency that is the home not only of Formula 1, but of the Stoke Bruerne museum. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff), my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) have also indicated their support.

The Boat museum, the National Water Maze museum and the Canal museum hold the UK's inland waterways collection, which includes the world's largest collection of historic inland waterway craft. That historic fleet is the greatest conservation liability: in a recent condition survey, more than half the boats were reported as being in a poor or very poor condition, and many more need restoration to bring them back to conservation condition. The broad beam barges are the rarest and at greatest risk, as they are much less common than narrow boats. The collection represents about 90 per cent. of the UK inland waterways collection—some 14,500 objects, including 80 historic inland waterways craft. It is the largest such collection in the world.

The Waterways Trust manages and co-ordinates the waterways archive, which holds 80,000 records at Gloucester docks, Ellesmere Port and 13 local authority public records offices. Together, the collections and archive records provide the most comprehensive and complete record of the social, economic, technological and cultural story of inland waterways from the 18th to the 21st century. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister agrees that the collection is of national importance and that, whoever picks up the bill, it must be preserved and available to the public. It represents an important part of our national heritage.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): May I emphasise how widespread the interest is in this debate? I have had correspondence from people in Birkenhead who, although they do not have an immediate relationship to such a site, are passionately interested in the issue and the outcome of the debate.

Mr. Miller : The canal network provides not only an important piece of Britain's heritage, but a superb leisure resource, and the museums that I am talking about today provide a very important educational resource. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: there is interest right across the country, including from you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, although I know you have to be neutral today.
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The museums attract about 100,000 visitors per annum, generating £1 million in gross income from admissions and trading—retail, catering, boat trips and so on. However, that is not enough to cover the responsibility, which I touched on earlier, to conserve and interpret the collections. The museums do not receive core funding from the Government, but receive generous support, worth about £4.50 per visitor, from British Waterways.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will correct the comments made by Lord McIntosh of Haringey, who said:

As my right hon. Friend the Minister knows, British Waterways provides the trust with £890,000 a year, of which £450,000—not £750,000—is for the museums. That funding is not really from DEFRA, but is sourced from British Waterways' commercial income. British Waterways also provides premises free of charge at Gloucester and Stoke Bruerne. At Ellesmere Port, the local authority provides the site without charge.

The Waterways Trust has financed the annual deficit of more than £60,000 a year for the past four years. Sponsorship from British Waterways is topped up by revenue earned from admissions—some £350,000 a year—and secondary business in catering, retail and boat trips, which is worth about £100,000 a year. In addition, one-off discretionary grants are received from regional development agencies and local authorities. My very small local authority of Ellesmere Port and Neston gives a grant of £7,000 a year and Cheshire county council gives £3,000 a year. Small grants such as that are also important. However, despite being designated as nationally and internationally important, the inland waterways collection receives no direct Government funding, in contrast with the National Railway museum, the National Maritime museum and the National Coal Mining museum, all of which receive Government subsidies worth between £8 and £19 per visitor and offer free admission.

In the past three years, changes in Government policy have worked against the financial stability of the waterways museums, which has resulted in the loss of about £200,000 a year in income. That is the focus of our case. The impact on the market of free entry, which is very much welcomed by visitors to museums and a great credit to the Government, must be addressed.

Competition from the free-entry museums was paralleled by a serious decline in visitor numbers at the three sites of 11 per cent. overall and 19 per cent. at Ellesmere Port in the year after free entry was implemented. Numbers have drifted lower in subsequent years and have just dipped below 100,000 visitors a year. That has had a major impact. Designation challenge funding, which provided the waterways museums with £100,000 a year for three years, although not dead, does not provide core funding and I understand that there has been recent correspondence about that.

The waterways museums have been successful in raising capital grants—nearly £4 million since 1999—and generating their own income of about £ 1 million a
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year gross. They make a significant contribution to the local economy. Spend per visit is about £9 to the museum and about as much again to the local area. More than 10 per cent. of visits are education based and, having looked carefully at the quality of the material and its historical importance, I am convinced that that number could grow and that the relationship between our museums and the education sector could be strengthened.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I find myself entirely in sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's comments. Does he agree that the particular and almost unique character of the waterways museums is that they provide a fascinating insight to our economic and social history, which includes some quite under-privileged people, and the wider environmental impact of the canals?

Mr. Miller : I could not agree more. Not only have the museums had an enormous impact on the development of our industrial heritage, but they have left a legacy that has an impact on society today to a degree that we take for granted. It is extraordinary that we have this fantastic resource in the United Kingdom, but allow it to go into decline. British Waterways has done some fantastic work, with Government support, to help to restore some canals, particularly for leisure purposes. A lot more can be done that will be beneficial to communities throughout the country—not just in the three locations where the museums are. There is a huge job to be done by my right hon. Friend's Department, in liaison with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Education and Skills, to ensure that society gets the best from this fantastic resource.

The museums cannot sustain their position with the loss of income that I have mentioned and a critical point has been reached. Some £1.1 million per annum is needed for the next 10 years for the maintenance of the collection, to address conservation arrears and to enable the museums to offer free entry to all. Free entry sounds like a decline in income, but in my judgment and that of the experts on the trust it will generate a stimulus to visitor numbers. The nationally and internationally important designated inland waterways collection should by funded by the Government in the same way as other national collections, such as the railway, maritime and coal museums.

New investment in the waterways museums can do much to help them to develop as centres of excellence for education, cultural tourism and public enjoyment. The museums have the capacity to double their visitor numbers and an economic value of about £1.8 million could become as much as £3.6 million, split roughly 40–40–20 between Ellesmere Port, Gloucester and the Daventry, Northamptonshire, location. Without action, these museums and the many treasures that they hold could be lost, which would be a huge tragedy.

The museums have the capacity to increase their secondary income from catering, retail and boat trips, but real growth will come once they have secured the future of the collections, which are the basis of their future attractions, and become centres of excellence for
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conservation and learning. It is calculated that free entry alone will increase visitor numbers by as much as 50 per cent. We know that people will naturally and more readily go through the door if somewhere is free of charge than if there is a barrier of a charge on entry. The evidence is reasonably clear that where that approach is adopted, revenue generation can be increased substantially.

During the years in which I have represented my constituency, which you know better than most people in the Chamber, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have been arguing passionately for stronger cultural and tourism links between the museum and the fantastic city of Chester. I firmly believe that there is a real commercial market out there for getting our American cousins and Japanese visitors, who come in their tens of thousands to the great city of Chester, to come and enjoy the boat museum. If any commercial tour operators are listening to the debate, I commend that idea to them, because there is the basis for a commercial operation.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): This is not tangential, but vital. Will my hon. Friend also pay due regard to the Waterways Trust for the campaigns it has run, which are all to do with seeing the heritage and wanting canals to be reopened so that people can continue to live the life of the canals?

Mr. Miller : I agree with that sentiment entirely. Some restoration work on the canals that I have seen throughout the country—for example, in my hon. Friend's area, in Wiltshire and in Northamptonshire—is splendid and has undoubtedly raised public awareness of the subject. In itself, that can act as a magnet to encourage people to dig a bit further. Properly structured museums that are tailored around that important educational niche can provide potential income for those museums and do a service to our young people. As I suggested, some imaginative tourism enterprises could be developed around the museums and the surrounding waterways.

My right hon. Friend the Minister may not be in a position to say yes—which is the word we are looking for—to all the demands being placed on her today, but in introducing the debate and before, with your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, allowing my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester to speak, I must say that I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister agrees to work with colleagues in the Chamber, and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead said, with the many other colleagues from throughout the country who are interested in this aspect of heritage, to find a practical way forward in the interests of our national heritage.

The nation's industrial heritage—built as it is on sea-going vessels, coal and the railways—has another important strand, which is that of the canals. We should never forget the importance of the canal network in the development of this nation. It would be a tragedy if those collections were broken up or allowed to deteriorate, and I urge my right hon. Friend to do her best to help to deliver what we seek.
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Mr. Deputy Speaker : The hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) has rightly sought the approval of the Member who introduced the debate, the Minister and the Chair to participate briefly in this half-hour debate. I call Mr. Dhanda.

11.18 am

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall try to keep my contribution to no more than about 60 seconds, because I want to give the Minister time to reply. I concur with everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) said. We have been working on the issue for some time and I am pleased that the debate is taking place.

I also wish to thank some people, not least Roger Hanbury of the National Waterways museum, for everything that we have tried to do together on the issue. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) will join me in thanking the docks historian and secretary of Friends of the National Waterways Museum, Hugh Conway-Jones, for the work that he has done with us, as well as volunteers such as Audrey Fielding and many other constituents. The key thing for us in Gloucester, in Daventry and in Ellesmere Port is to ensure that the National Waterways museum can continue and can compete.

We welcome the Government's decision to introduce free entry to museums. At the same time, we are concerned about the difference in subsidy between our National Waterways museum and the national railway, maritime and mining museums. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will consider seriously this request for an additional £1.1 million. In Gloucester, that money is important not only for our heritage. More than £1 billion is flowing into Gloucester docks for regeneration and we want to be able to remind the next generation—because of tourism and education and because of their history—why Gloucester docks are so important. A waterways museum is a key part of achieving that.

11.20 am

The Minister for the Arts (Estelle Morris) : First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), who have spoken in the debate. I acknowledge the importance of the issue, the huge campaign that has taken place during the past 12 months and the support for what is being asked of the Government today.

In some ways, the description that my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston gave of the significance of the waterways museums is a timely reminder of the importance of museums to our national life. They have an ability to contribute to education, remind us about our past, enable us to understand our present and shape our future, and take a key role in regeneration. All museums across the nation play that role in the life of the nation and communities, although that sometimes goes unrecognised. To some extent, the work that hon. Members and others have done in bringing the needs of the waterways museums to the nation's attention is a timely reminder of the significance of those museums.
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I am not here to argue against the needs of the waterways museums, to take away from the work that they have done or to fail to acknowledge their determination, effort and achievements to date. That goes without saying; I know that they are important. It is imperative that the collections that they hold are preserved, conserved and improved to ensure that not only our constituents, but their children and grandchildren, can understand the importance of waterways and the museums to our nation's development. For the sake of putting it on the record, I want to confirm the special place that they have in our nation. They provide the most comprehensive and complete record of the social, economic, technological and cultural story of inland waterways from the 18th century until now. As we have regenerated canals and waterways, the story is not yet finished; there is another story to be told.

That is the good news. I have no difference of opinion over the importance of waterways museums, but let me be honest about the dilemma in which the Government find themselves. We are talking about a strange sector, in that it is not a planned sector. The Government have no control over how many museums are started. Every year, there are people who feel that they have a collection that they want to show to others and preserve for posterity, and they start a museum in their own home—such museums exist. People might hire a small shop front and they have their museum. However, the Government can never respond to that haphazard growth in the number of museums by funding every one of them. I do not think anyone would expect us to do so.

Other things that are important to the nation, such as schools or hospitals, involve planned growth and planned arrival of resources—revenue and capital—to support them. The dilemma in which I find myself, as the Minister who is meant to be supporting the museums, is that they grow haphazardly and our budget does not grow to meet those needs. The result is that our funding structure, in which we give money to the museums, is sometimes not rational.

This is a matter not of choosing the museums that are the most beneficial or most important to the nation and deciding to fund them, but of doing what we can, taking into account custom and history, and making the best of a museum sector that is both nationally funded and funded by local authorities, as well as by industry and trusts, but funded by no one independent museum itself.

As hon. Members know, the Government have a direct responsibility to fund and care for a number of national museums. They are all set up in statute; there is a law of this land, passed by these Houses of Parliament, that gives them the status of national museum. This is not rational, however. They are the big museums that we all know about and they are often in London. The story of how they got to be national museums is also one of this nation's history and of the things that it valued in the past.

We inherit an obligation to fund those national museums, but it is very expensive to do so. We take on our obligations, however, and £284 million a year goes into funding those museums. The extra money that we have been able to put in has ensured that the collections are looked after and are world beaters. We should be immensely proud of them.
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The bottom line, however, is that the Government are not in a position to add to the list year in, year out. We simply do not have the money to do that. If we were to do it, we would be splitting the money—that increased amount that the Government receive from the Treasury for national museums—among more museums, and the consequence would be less money for each museum and poorer collections. I would then have to reply to lots of Adjournment debates on why national museums were getting less than before.

I do not use that as an excuse; it is the truth. That is the dilemma that we face all the time. Therefore, I cannot say that we hope to take the museums on as a national museum. That is not to say that they do not have an important national collection, but having an important national collection is not the same as being a national museum. These are not the only museums that claim to have an important national collection and that want to join the national museums list. Without thinking very hard, I could name three other museums that believe they have national collections and that want to be added to the list in the run-up to the spending review. The Government have not embarked on inviting applications to the list.

Mr. Miller rose—

Estelle Morris : I will give way, but let me say a few more things. I am afraid I shall run out of time and not be able to put them on the record.

The Government acknowledge that to set things in stone—to say that the list of museums that get all the money is closed for ever and a day—is not helpful to the good work that museums do. Hon. Members will be aware of two things that have happened. First, the Government are putting money into regional museums through the renaissance in the regions programme— £45 million by 2007–08. There will be opportunities for museums, including the waterways museums, to join the clusters of museums that are included in that programme—perhaps not now, but the Government hope that that funding stream will increase as the years go by.
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As my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said, the waterways museums have had designated funding of £300,000 over three years. Bidding will open again for such funding in 2006, and the waterways museums will be able to take part. I acknowledge that that does not come anywhere near meeting the £1.1 million revenue costs that the museums need—not to survive, but to improve.

My hon. Friend will know that we have asked the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council to work with the Museums Association to see what can be done. We have taken that approach in a few other examples. In the north-west, it has already brought in—not a lot—£50,000 from an overseas organisation.

Hon. Members are bound to ask that certain museums be allowed to join the list of national museums, as achieving that is a copper-bottomed guarantee that revenue and capital will be provided. They should continue to make such requests, but should not expect that to happen in the next few years. I invite them to continue to work with us so that we are aware of wishes to join the list, but they should not turn their back on other innovative ways of funding museums. To some extent, we are in this together, and we will do as much as we can to work with the waterways museums through the MLAC.

Mr. Miller : I accept what my right hon. Friend says, but I ask her to consider the time scale and conservation needs.

Estelle Morris : I will do that. In fact, I hope that that will form part of the conversations with the MLAC and that, as designation challenge funding comes up again, we can ensure that the collections are preserved. That is what I want and what the nation is entitled to expect.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : That was an excellent short debate.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.
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