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6 Dec 2006 : Column 117WH—continued

I also have, however, another canal in my constituency—the Wilts and Berks canal—which I share with my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). That canal is at a stage in its development at which it needs grant to be able to benefit the local community in the way that we all know canals can. I have in mind not only the people who work on them, but the downstream activities that flow from them. At one part of the canal, in Melksham, there are plans to make the canal a valuable
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local tourist asset, but they will probably have to be put on hold if the cuts go through. In addition, we have problems at the Caen Hill flight on the Kennet and Avon canal, and, again, there is a risk that we will not be able to proceed if the cuts go through.

Mr. Gray: Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?

Mr. Ancram: No. Perhaps my hon. Friend would like to intervene on one of the Front-Bench spokesmen. As I promised, I must be brief.

I want to make three points. One is that the canals are a local as well as a national asset. In my constituency, many people secure their employment one way or another from the canals. If the canals are allowed to decline again, that employment will once again be at risk. The Government must see the canals not only as a tourist question, but as an employment and economic question.

The second point is that the canals—particularly the Kennet and Avon canal—have been the recipients of enormous amounts of public money in one way or another. They received not only the direct grant from British Waterways, but, in the case of the Kennet and Avon canal, a lottery grant for £21 million, which was one of the largest lottery grants ever given. That public money has brought enormous benefit, but if the cuts go through, the Government will undermine the effect of spending that public money. The cuts will mean not only that the canals will not improve further, but that they will decline, and that money will have been wasted. I am sure that the Minister will not want to see the effect of public money undermined in that way.

I have a third and rather esoteric point, and I share an interest in it with the Deputy Prime Minister—he and I are among the few people in the House who occasionally mention it. We live in a time of climate change and global warming and we saw this summer the kind of drought that can occur in this country. At some moment in the future, our canal system may be essential to creating a working water grid throughout the country. If we undermine that system now, we may well live to regret it. Savings today may create unacceptable costs tomorrow, in terms not only of the money that will have to be spent to restore the canals that will have gone downhill, but of the essential assets that will have been lost in all our local communities.

3.3 pm

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) on securing this important and timely debate. I particularly want to draw attention to my local canal—the Caldon canal—which is a small, local canal that feeds into the Trent and Mersey canal. It does not have the same status as canals that create a route through to the national canal network, so it is far more vulnerable. It has already suffered because it has not had the same level of maintenance as other canals. The cuts this year, and, just as importantly, the long-term potential cuts to the funding of British Waterways, create a tremendous threat to the survival of such canals.

In the early 1960s, the canal was in a derelict state. Volunteers from the local Caldon Canal Society put in
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hours of work and lots of fundraising to put it back into operation, and it was reopened in 1974. Within living memory, therefore, we have seen the canal return from dereliction. That has brought huge economic, recreational, sporting and social benefits to my constituency, which has seen the decline of the textile industry, small engineering firms and farming, and where tourism is therefore a vital area of expansion. If more maintenance is denied to the Caldon, key structures, such as dams and embankments, could collapse. As a result, the canal could become derelict, which would have a devastating impact on the local economy.

During the outbreak of foot and mouth, many areas of my constituency were denied to walkers, and that had a real impact on the local economy. Understandably, a lot of people talk about the 29,000 boat owners, but I do not want to make a point about boaters, because, to some extent, they are the tip of the iceberg. Let us talk about the walkers, bird watchers, anglers, canoeists, cyclists and people who just enjoy living by the canal. Let us talk about the impact on local businesses, such as the public houses, restaurants and boating establishments that would be affected.

My local area in Leek does not make enough of the canal. There are no signs from the industrial estate where the canal comes to an end to demonstrate to boaters and others who use the canal that the lovely town of Leek is just down the road, offering supermarkets, pubs and restaurants. The Caldon and Uttoxeter canal group, however, has an ambitious plan to open up the whole Leek arm of the canal, which would bring huge benefits. Sometimes, the towpath can be impassable, because certain areas get very muddy. However, it is still regularly used, and if we want to cut some of the congestion locally around the Britannia building society in Leek—a big national mutual building society that is known to many people—the towpath should be used for cycling; that part of it should be opened up, not closed down.

The Leek canal, however, is now likely to turn into a stagnant, dirty ditch. It will not be something that people want to live beside, but something that they want to avoid. It is important that such canals are regularly dredged; otherwise, a canal as valuable as the Caldon could end up being deprived of traffic. The local Beatrice boat organisation puts on trips for special needs children in a specially adapted boat. Its members fear that if the dredging does not take place, they will no longer be able to operate the boat. That would be not only sad, but criminal, because the children look forward to those trips.

The Government’s agenda is all about regeneration, improving the environment and encouraging healthy lifestyles and exercise, and the waterways press all those buttons. As I said, the local canal society is investigating developing the local canal in Leek to ensure that it will be the sort of recreational hot spot that it should be. The canal runs alongside the local heritage railway through the beautiful Churnet valley.

I therefore want the Minister to tell us today that he will rethink the cuts for this year. Just as importantly, however, we must draw back from the brink of even more damaging cuts in the long term. To some extent,
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the canals could sustain cuts for one year, but a lower level of funding in future years would be absolutely disastrous; it would turn back the clock many decades and, in some cases, more than 50 years. I therefore hope that DEFRA and Ministers in other Departments will come to the aid of our canals.

3.9 pm

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) on securing the debate. The number of hon. Members here today shows how important the issue is felt to be. I want to concentrate on the Rochdale canal. I know that other hon. Members will concentrate on others.

The Rochdale canal was opened on 21 December 1804, and after a century and a half of use was closed to navigation in 1952. After many years’ campaigning, especially by the Rochdale Canal Society, the Millennium Commission agreed to support its recommissioning. The local authorities of Manchester, Oldham, Calderdale and Rochdale put forward a bid for lottery funding, as well as to the Northwest Regional Development Agency and other public bodies. They were successful in bringing the canal back into navigation, at a cost of more than £25 million, in 2002. In December that year, the canal was officially opened by Fred Dibnah. That investment has brought significant regeneration, as the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) described in her speech, along the entire length of the Rochdale canal.

Since it opened, the Rochdale, which is 33 miles long and links the Aire and Calder navigation in Yorkshire with the Bridgwater canal and Huddersfield narrow canal in Manchester city centre, has been enthusiastically used by boaters and been managed and maintained by British Waterways. The four local authorities that I mentioned provide annual revenue funding to British Waterways via the Waterways Trust in excess of £500,000 a year. They are committed to doing so for the next 50 years to support the operation and maintenance of the canal.

All that has now been placed under threat. We have been told this year that £600,000 has been cut from the maintenance budget of the Rochdale canal. Since it opened, in addition to its leisure use, the canal has inspired social, environmental, community and economic regeneration along its length. The authorities have collaborated to produce a widely acclaimed canal strategy, which highlights the benefits and opportunities that the restored canal will bring. However, so that the work completed with lottery funding would be done in time, it was always envisaged that further significant expenditure on the regeneration of the canal would be needed. Indeed, there is still work outstanding, at a cost of more than £10 million; it needs to be done to bring the Rochdale canal back into use fully. Lock gates need to be replaced and embankments strengthened, and other key works are needed. That work has been programmed for the next 10 years.

As other hon. Members have said, a small amount of money is involved in overall Government terms. It is a small amount of money in DEFRA terms, but it is important for what the hon. Member for Leicester,
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South described as one of the jewels in the British crown. I hope that Ministers will reconsider whether they can, if not necessarily restore the grant, at least find other ways to enable British Waterways to fund its expenditure. Unless that happens, the Rochdale canal, like many others, faces an uncertain future.

3.13 pm

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): British Waterways, along with the Government, the Waterways Trust and the other agencies, and a huge number of volunteers, has done a fantastic job in recent years. I am proud to represent a constituency that includes part of the National Waterways Museum, which has been defined as a nationally important collection in its context. Its context is not a sterile atmosphere, but the locks and basin where it belongs, alongside the sister museums mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby). That collection is in jeopardy, for two reasons: first, because of the potential knock-on effects of the decision that we are discussing; secondly, because we are continually battling with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to get the museum included in the list of free-entry museums.

The Prime Minister today responded to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) about how successful free entry has been for museums. It has been enormously beneficial to the museum sector, but it has been detrimental to those smaller museums that have been left outside. Will my hon. Friend the Minister have a word with his friends in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport? There are important messages to get across.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South said, the matter is one that crosses Departments. It concerns education, the economy, tourism, culture and heritage and the environment. Huge benefit spins out from the work that is undertaken on canals. One need only look at the centres of cities such as Birmingham and Manchester to see how urban regeneration has really worked around the canal sector. I was pleased during the summer to host a private visit by the Deputy Prime Minister, who opened one of the new sections of the museum. He, undoubtedly, is on board, and we need to exploit the support that exists in Government to minimise the risk to the archive in Ellesmere Port and to the historic vessels. The Government have done a fantastic job in leading the restoration of the waterways. Let us now make sure that the work carries on.

3.16 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): I agree with all that has been said, and do not intend to repeat any of it. I shall make a few quick points.

I was fortunate in an earlier incarnation to have ministerial responsibility for British Waterways. One thing to be remembered is that of the outgoings of British Waterways—its costs—a small part can be covered by licence fees for users, although that applies only to the boat users. As the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) said, much of the use—80 per cent.—is by walkers, ramblers, canoeists, cyclists and anglers. They cannot be charged, so only a
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very small proportion of canal users are charged for use. Innovative ways of obtaining extra income can be found, such as by laying optical fibres along the route of the canal, as we managed to do, and some money can be raised by development, such as at Paddington basin; but British Waterways’ land bank is by definition finite and much of it has already been used. As has already been said, money for development will be levered in only if developers are confident that the overall environment will continue. Therefore, the cuts will have a real impact, because it simply will not be possible to cross the gap; work will not be done and parts of the canal system will fall into disrepair. There is no other way to deal with it.

DEFRA is in a hole. That is because of the single farm payment. We shall not go into that, because it is for another debate, but there have been all sorts of circumstances in the past that have put Ministers in difficulties. I was the Minister of State at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food during the BSE crisis. No one predicted that crisis, and we were for ever going to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who was then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and asking for contingency payments. We got them. We said that we had not anticipated the situation—how on earth could anyone have anticipated it?—and we got a contingency payment from the Treasury. I urge the Minister, therefore, as well as the Secretary of State, seriously to consider going to the Treasury and saying, “It is ridiculous to have to make across-the-board cuts in all aspects of DEFRA spending, which have nothing to do with single farm payments, and where there will be long-term effects.”

There is also a matter of principle involved. Part of DEFRA’s problem is that it faces a fine from the European Union for failing properly to deliver on the single farm payment scheme. Is it right that a single Department should meet that fine? Is not it a contingency that should be paid by the Government collectively, out of the Contingencies Fund? Otherwise, as a consequence of one part of DEFRA’s budget going awry, all its departmental heads are likely to be put out of kilter for a long time to come. That does not have to be so. If we consider precedent, and if the Treasury is reasonable, it will be possible to get DEFRA out of the situation that it is in. It is a matter for Ministers to have the competence to form up and go to see their Treasury colleagues, and tell them, “These cuts are unsustainable and insupportable and we need Treasury help. This is not going to create some unhallowed precedent; indeed, it has happened within the machinery of government since time began.” By the way, surely it should be a principle of government that fines from the European Union should be paid collectively from Treasury contingency funds, rather than from individual departmental budgets.

3.20 pm

Mr. Bob Laxton (Derby, North) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) and congratulate him on securing this debate. Reference has already been made to the impact that the regeneration of the canals has had on our urban areas. If Birmingham and Manchester are held up as being among the greatest regeneration achievements of the
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21st century, surely the clearest logic tells us that we should protect, maintain and improve our canal system for future generations. That is the crux of my argument.

After 40 years of inaction and abandonment, the canal system was in a dire condition. Yet after only a few years of an organised, well targeted and—crucially—funded approach, the change has been remarkable. Is it common sense to cut funding in spite of such progress? No, it is not. Cuts have already not only threatened but had an impact on the British Waterways winter programme of refurbishment and maintenance on Ashby canal, the Birmingham canal navigations, Birmingham and Fazeley canal, Grand Union canal, Kennet and Avon canal, Leeds and Liverpool canal, Peak Forest canal, Ribble link, Rochdale canal, the River Severn, which is close to my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), the River Trent and the Weaver navigation. About £5.5 million has already been cut from the winter programme, and that will continue.

Is it common sense to cut the budget in the middle of the financial year? I liken that to a football manager being forced by his chairman to play the second half of the season with only seven or eight men. That is not common sense. Reference has been made to the status of British Waterways—whether it should be public or private, and whether it should review its status, which might enable it to borrow against its capital assets. I shall deal with that by referring to the report on British Waterways by what at the time was the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. It stated that British Waterways

I guess that that view and judgment are supported by many hon. Members in this Chamber.

I can only add my views to those already expressed by hon. Members. I ask DEFRA to look again at the issue, please. Perhaps the cuts, having been imposed this year, are not going to be wound back. Some of us might not be happy about that, but we can understand it. But for God’s sake, do not let us get ourselves into a downward spiral in which the new reduced base budget of grant aid to British Waterways becomes the base for further cuts next year and in consecutive years. We would then end up with huge cuts in the totality of the British Waterways budget and that would be extremely detrimental. DEFRA, please think again on this one.

3.24 pm

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir
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Peter Soulsby) on securing this debate, which has attracted huge interest. I shall try not to repeat points that have already been made.

There are three canals in my patch. The Llangollen canal runs across the north and has the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, built by Thomas Telford—a potential world heritage site so attractive that a couple of years ago Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart went across it. It attracts large numbers of international tourists. There is the Ellesmere development around the wharf on the Llangollen canal, and it is very much centred around it.

I stress the economic impact of the canals. If the Llangollen canal could be extended into the centre of Whitchurch and the inclined plane developed, that would echo our success elsewhere. The Montgomery canal, for example, has been developed under Governments of both main parties—I stress that Frankton locks opened in 1997, and the stretch from Frankton to Queen’s Head opened in 1996. That dead end attracts 2,000 boats a year and has since been extended further south. A business such as Barry Tuffin’s at Maesbury exists entirely because what was a dry canal 15 to 20 years ago is now a live canal. Michael Limbrey, who has done such great work on the restoration, reckons that 100 to 120 long-term jobs will derive from phase 1 of the restoration of the Montgomery canal. With associated developments, that could increase to 250 or 300. The Shropshire Union canal runs north up to the Mersey, going through Market Drayton, and is a substantial and lively generator of economic activity there.

All that is at risk. The numbers are simple: last year, British Waterways’ turnover was £190 million—approximately £100 million from its own income, £60 million from subsidy and £30 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other sources.

Some £115 million is needed just to maintain the network and keep it safe. All that has been put in jeopardy. It is not just about the money, which, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) said, has been put through in previous years, but all the future development. Why? It is because of the staggering, cretinous incompetence of DEFRA in handling the single farm payment. I had better not dwell on that, because I shall not be able to keep my language temperate. DEFRA is facing £130 million in fines from the Commission and £40 million in compensation to farmers. Frankly, it is not acceptable that some of my farmers should not yet have been paid; by Christmas, Welsh, Scottish and French farmers will already have been paid for this year. My constituents are furious about that.

I should like the Minister to answer two quick questions. First, if there are breaches—there were two on Llangollen canal last year—will the Minister absolutely guarantee that they will be repaired? As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said, there is a contingency fund. If there are breaches, we risk losing the huge economic activity, as well as suffering the environmental damage. I want a categorical guarantee from the Minister this afternoon that breaches will be repaired.

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