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6 Dec 2006 : Column 124WH—continued

Secondly, if there are breaches, will the Minister also pay attention to the water supply? The Llangollen takes water from the River Dee to Hurleston for Chester. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for
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Devizes said, in future we shall need that network to transfer water from the west to the south-east of the country.

3.28 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I shall be brief. Clearly, my constituency has more to lose than many other parts of the country, given that the Stroudwater canal is being reopened. Stage 1B has already taken about £20 million, which has come largely from the lottery. There is another bid to the Big Lottery Fund for more than £20 million for stage 1A. There are also all the opportunities in Gloucester around the docks themselves.

I shall concentrate on two important issues that have not been dwelt on. The first is the loss of jobs. The Gloucester-Sharpness canal reorganisation, which pre-empted this issue, will involve the loss of a number of bridge keepers. That has brought a lot of heartache, and although it has been possible to get redundancies and people taking early retirement, the process is not easy and we are losing an awful lot of expertise. Although it seems the easiest way—even, in a sense, although it sounds bizarre, the least painful—it is counter-productive. I put it on the record that we ignore it at all our perils.

The other issue has already been mentioned but I want to emphasise it: the role of volunteer back-up to the canal network. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) does not mind my mentioning Steve Davis and Paul Woollams, who gave him information. They are complete volunteers and spent hours putting things together. I am not saying that they wrote my hon. Friend’s speech, but such people put in an enormous effort as volunteers. It is matched by the physical effort that is put in on weekends and every day by the people who keep the waterways alive. I hope that the Minister understands that there is a wealth of good will out there but that if people are upset and good will is thrown away, it will not be replaced. I hope that that message will encourage the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to reconsider the cuts and work with everybody to restore the figures.

3.30 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I can say what I have to say about the wonderful Wilts and Berks canal in my constituency in a minute or thereabouts if I cast away the substantial amount of information that I had planned to place before the House this afternoon.

There is an important point to be made about a potential canal such as the Wilts and Berks. It does not apply to mighty canals such as the Kennet and Avon in the constituency of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram). That canal is a fantastic asset that can be used in all sorts of ways, and people can be charged to use it. What I have in my constituency is a muddy ditch that needs to be made into a canal and which requires substantial investment.

The difficulty with the announcement that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs made, particularly the method used to make the announcement, is that it puts at risk the funding that we need from all sorts of bodies to restore the canal.
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Recently, an enormous amount of money was spent to open the gateway between the Kennet and Avon and the Thames. It was raised by private funding and by government funding of one sort or another. Those funders are now saying, “Hang on a minute; the whole thing is at risk.”

I would ask the Minister, irrespective of what he might think about existing canals, to spare a thought for the Kennet and Avon and the many other potential canals in England that need the support and confidence of the Government and of independent funders if they are to achieve the fantastic vision of linking the Kennet and Avon with the Cotswold canal system.

3.31 pm

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) on securing the debate.

The canal network in the black country is a proud link to our industrial heritage, a vital part of our contemporary lifestyle and an essential resource for our future. The canals south of the Rowley-Dudley chain of hills are connected to the waterways north of the hills by a series of tunnels. That is the vital link that I want to ensure is kept open.

Only the Netherton tunnel is well used. It is of recent construction—in terms of canals, that is. The canal from Netherton tunnel runs through Dudley, North and Dudley, South, through the Delph and Stourbridge flights, and eventually joins the Staffordshire and Worcester canal at Stourton, where there is an arm that links Stourbridge to the canal network at the foot of the lock flight.

Like many canals in the industrial black country, the Stourbridge fell into disuse at the end of commercial carrying and became derelict, although it was never formally closed. At that time, various campaigners tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to get boats through, but eventually the locks fell into dereliction. Feelings about that ran so high that it was agreed to hold the annual national rally in Stourbridge to bring the canal’s plight to a wider audience. As a result, there was a campaign in the early 1960s to restore the canal to navigation, primarily the Stourbridge lock flight. Using volunteer labour—it was one of the first cases of volunteers turning out in their masses—the locks were restored, albeit with a few political confrontations along the way, and the rally was a great success.

Since then, the canal has been gradually upgraded and has become a joy and a benefit to the local community. It has been key to much of the regeneration in the past few years, and there is currently a scheme to use the canal as a basis of regeneration for a new development on the former Stuart Crystal site at Amblecote.

During the early part of that period, British Waterways was strapped for cash. Netherton tunnel was closed, as it was in a dangerous condition because the bottom was moving as a result of subsidence, which causes difficulties across my area. It was closed for more than five years. When it finally reopened, the whole of the canal was overgrown. It was not navigable, and the whole of Stourbridge was cut off. I am here today to ask the Minister to revisit the funding
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issue and to ensure that Stourbridge is not cut off from the rest of the navigable network.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): I call Lynne Jones next. If you are very quick, we will be able to get everyone in.

3.34 pm

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Birmingham is said to have more canals than Venice, and very proud of them we are. I regularly cycle across my constituency along the Worcester and Birmingham canal out to Wast Hills tunnel, one of the longest and most ancient tunnels in the country, and from the other end into the city centre at Gas Street basin. My constituency also has the Stratford-on-Avon canal, which is a spur from the Worcester canal, and the Lapal canal, which, unfortunately, was filled in in the 1960s. There has been a campaign for several years to get it reopened, and the first phase of that work at Selly Oak is supposed to take place as part of the regeneration around a retail development.

Campaigners were very disappointed by the cuts in the budget—our hopes were immediately dashed. I believe that three people have mentioned Birmingham and the regeneration of the city centre, which has been a great success. Its renaissance is down in no small part to the restoration of the canals there. One can go there any day, seven days a week, and see lots of Brummies. It is a great visitor attraction.

The vibrancy and colour around Brindley Place and the Mailbox are determined by the number of narrow boats that are there. Very little waterway traffic originates in the Birmingham navigations. We depend on access from other parts of the network. My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) mentioned the Netherton tunnel. I understand that it recently was closed for investigation of the brickwork in the base of the canal, and we do not know whether there will be funding for it to be reopened. Both sides of the towpath have been closed.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. May I ask the hon. Lady to wind up?

Lynne Jones: The Rowington embankment and the Wast Hills tunnel are other access points. What would happen if major investment were needed there?

We in Birmingham are very concerned about the cuts. If we cannot restore the funding this year, I hope that at least there will not be declining budgets in the future but that we can go back to the good days when the Government saw the canal network as something in which to put more, not less, investment.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): I call David Heyes. You must be brief.

3.37 pm

David Heyes (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab): I shall not abuse your generosity, Mr. Hancock. I have thrown away three of my four pages of notes.

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Throughout the urban centres in my constituency—Ashton-under-Lyne, Droylsden and Failsworth—the waterways have been at the heart of regeneration activity and have been a key driver in making a success of such projects. I want to get on record the irony that it is urban regeneration work such as I have described in my constituency that should be put at risk because of the failure of the Rural Payments Agency. It is desperately unfair that the agreed funding to British Waterways is being retrospectively clawed back, through no fault of British Waterways, to be used to pay for failings elsewhere in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

I can only add to the urgings of so many Members to the Minister to do all that he can to ensure that British Waterways funding is restored to former levels, and to change the agenda so that its pot of money is not seen in the future as the one that can be regularly raided if difficulties arise elsewhere in DEFRA budgets. That is vital if the Government’s commitment to the benefits of inland waterways in terms of leisure, recreation, heritage, environment and the regeneration that is of such importance in my constituency is to be honoured.

3.38 pm

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby), not only on securing this debate but on the constructive manner in which he made his contribution. He set out the productive way in which British Waterways has used the public money that has been put at its disposal and also the fact that the benefits that come from canals and other waterways cross many Government Departments. I encourage the Minister to respond to his challenge to find a method of funding British Waterways, because it has a lot going for it.

The other advantage of such a debate is that it gives the opportunity for hon. Members, and the public, to demonstrate the huge support for canals and waterways. Sometimes we need such a challenge to do that. Indeed, the number of hon. Members that have turned up would almost have done justice to a debate on the Floor of the House. They would have given us a huge description of the beautiful countryside and towns that canals go through.

DEFRA is a serial offender in terms of budget mismanagement. Recently, it has been an under-spending Department and it has now run into terrible trouble with the single farm payment. However, I do not want to dwell on that.

Canals and waterways have a number of benefits that are valued by the public, first in terms of tourism and the local economy. There are 300 million visits to 2,000 miles of inland waterways. Not only that, but they encourage people in this country to take their holidays in this country, boosting the local economy and cutting back on carbon emissions. Regeneration has been dealt with, as well as conservation, biodiversity and heritage.

British Waterways is not a passive recipient of Government largesse, but generates increasing income. It has been said that 180 jobs will be lost, and that is a huge blow to those individuals, as the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said. Their expertise in building
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partnerships and getting match funding will be sorely missed by British Waterways. Although the cuts on the canal bank are not that great, the expertise is fundamental in maintaining the work done by British Waterways. It is not only about ensuring that the maintenance of canals is carried out but about encouraging tourism with new attractions, new developments and a sense of adventure when people go on the canals—they need to see something different and to have a new experience.

The cuts penalise a successful and well-run organisation. They are a setback to our tourist industry and put back progress on regeneration and extending biodiversity. Indeed, what is probably more worrying to the Minister is that they will probably affect those who, as Ratty said in “The Wind in the Willows”, like

They are an increasing constituency in this country. I urge the Minister to take on board the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Leicester, South and to investigate among his fellow Ministers to see whether support can come from other Departments for this worthwhile cause.

3.42 pm

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) on securing the debate and you, Mr. Hancock, on enabling everyone to speak on this important subject. I am sure that everybody agrees that British Waterways has done a tremendous job in regenerating our canal network and reinvigorating the surrounding economies. Along its 2,200 miles of canals and rivers, there are now a record 29,000 boats—more than during the height of the industrial revolution. I hope that all hon. Members have signed early-day motion 50, which my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) tabled and I co-sponsored. For the record, it has so far attracted the support of 110 hon. Members.

We are here today because British Waterways has to save £7.2 million, although it could be as much as £9.1 million, in net expenditure from its budget this year to rebalance its books. In his response, I hope that the Minister will provide a thorough explanation, especially considering the very short notice that has been given of those budget cuts. Users of British waterways recognise the unfairness of the cuts and many have been driven to protest and demonstrate. On the weekend of 25 and 26 November, thousands came out in their boats across the country to show DEFRA their disappointment. The “Save our Waterways” campaign organised blockades and demonstrations in Banbury, London, Gloucester and Northampton to name but a few, and more are planned. Those waterways mean so much to them, but sadly so much less to DEFRA.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): The Kennet and Avon Canal Trust has predicted that the canal will have to close because of the parlous state of lock gates and the impact that the cuts will have on their replacement. Does my hon. Friend agree that that will have an enormous impact not only on small businesses and users of the canal but on other businesses, such as
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pubs and village shops, that benefit from the burgeoning tourist trade on the canal?

Bill Wiggin: I think that my hon. Friend would be very surprised if I did not agree with him. He is absolutely right and makes an important point.

If the Government still doubt the strong feeling against the cuts, I hope that they will pay particular attention to the flotilla that is planned to pass by Parliament in January. It is easy to think that the Government are completely out of touch with the public and canal users on this matter. While the Government seem to want to claim that the cuts will be harmless and will not have any dramatic or noticeable impacts, the truth seems somewhat different. When questioned about the cuts, Lord Rooker claimed:

However, a briefing note on the cuts provided by British Waterways states:

So, who told Lord Rooker that the programme of work would be unaffected?

Furthermore, Tony Hales, the chairman of British Waterways, has stated:

What strong action is being taken? We have the Under-Secretary of State bravely stepping up to the plate and stating:

Perhaps when the Minister responds to the debate, he will be able to elaborate on what has been discussed and planned in the new budget that, as Lord Rooker claimed, will not lead to a cutting of British Waterway’s programme of work. The Under-Secretary has also claimed that one of the reasons for the cuts at British Waterways was that it was “good financial management.” He stated:

I am sure that hon. Members will disagree with him; good financial management does not involve cutting millions from budgets at short notice and creating difficult financial challenges for others to respond to. That is challenging, yes, perhaps testing, but hardly good financial management.

Moreover, a substantial proportion of DEFRA’s financial problems are the result of its incompetent handling of the Rural Payments Agency. That is frustrating for those affected, not least because it could have been avoided. I must draw to the attention of the Chamber that I received £49 in a single farm payment. If the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, now the Foreign Secretary, had bothered to listen to and act on the criticism levelled at
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the RPA and DEFRA by people such as myself, we could have been debating British Waterways’ successes instead of budget cuts.

Sir Peter Soulsby: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the budget problems in DEFRA that have led to the hole in the budget have little or nothing to do with the single farm payment and the Rural Payments Agency? In fact, any disallowance that might result from that will further increase its problems and lead to an exacerbation of the situation.

Bill Wiggin: I am grateful for that intervention, but I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is quite right. We will wait and see what the Minister has to say in his response. According to British Waterways’ spokesman:

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