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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 27 March 2007

[Mr. Eric Martlew in the Chair]

Inland Waterways (West Midlands)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Alan Campbell .]

9.30 am

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands) (Lab): I am delighted that you will be presiding over this debate, Mr. Martlew. I will start with some of the history of this issue. In 1994, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission produced a report on British Waterways which said that the high costs of meeting its extensive public service obligations meant that there was a need for it to be publicly funded. The report said:

It is not surprising that in 1989 a report of the Environment Committee concluded that

In 1999, two years after a Labour Government were elected, a report entitled “Unlocking the Potential” about plans for the future funding of British Waterways stated:

Based on the funds available to British Waterways, the Government calculated that it would take 15 years to eliminate the backlog. In order to reduce that time frame to seven years, the Government generously allocated an additional £8 million per annum to British Waterways in the 1998 comprehensive spending review. That forward-looking approach led to a renaissance for our inland waterways.

When the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reviewed the performance of British Waterways between 1999 and 2004, it found that it was successful in many areas and had achieved a step change in the condition, management and reliability of the inland waterways infrastructure. The safety backlog had been eliminated—not the whole backlog, but the safety backlog—and six major restoration schemes had been completed, which cost £177 million and created more than 200 miles of new navigation, together with the associated urban and rural regeneration. That included major new developments, such as the Millennium Link and the famous Falkirk Wheel. British Waterways raised the profile and public awareness of waterways and realised the potential for educational, leisure, and
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recreational activities. It fully embraced partnership working and achieved a significant growth in directly earned income—an amazing 30 per cent. in two years—by the market pricing of moorings and licences, and through innovation and the professional management of its property portfolio.

Among the many recommendations of the DEFRA review was the long-term funding of British Waterways on a contractual basis. Yet, just two years later, in 2006, not only was there no visible sign of a contract but British Waterways was subjected to an in-year cut of 12.5 per cent. Most of that was imposed well into the financial year, when a very large part of the budget was already committed, so the effect of such a cut was even deeper.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining this debate and on receiving an award from the Inland Waterways Association for her campaign work in the midlands. Does she agree that the economic case is very strong, particularly when we consider that IWA figures show that as many as 300 million visits a year to the inland waterways network do not contribute to the cost of maintaining the network? Therefore, it is entirely appropriate for the Government to maintain the revenue and capital grant to the IWA at its current level. Any further cuts or a failure to restore those cuts would be myopic and would make Mr. Magoo look like a visionary.

Charlotte Atkins: Absolutely. I am pleased that my hon. Friend mentioned the large numbers of visits to the canals because many people perceive that canals are just for boaters. In fact, only 3 per cent. of visits made to the canal network are by boaters. He makes a valuable point about not being able to charge people who use the towpaths, unless we have turnstiles on the towpath, which, even this Minister must admit, is not a serious possibility. My hon. Friend’s point is important because it is vital that we understand the public role of British Waterways.

As I was saying, because the 2006 cuts were late in the year, the effect was deeper than a 12.5 per cent. cut. In fact, it represented more than 20 per cent. of the available spend for British Waterways. On the last working day before Christmas in 2006, British Waterways heard that its budget for 2007-08 was to be the same as for the previous year, with the same cuts in funding and no allowance for inflation. So, the budget will be even less than the year before. That is a different scenario from the vision outlined in “Waterways for Tomorrow”. DEFRA Ministers have made light of the cuts and have pointed out that British Waterways’ ambition is to be largely self-sufficient by 2012. Clearly, the chief executive, Robin Evans, wants British Waterways to generate its own income and to exploit new income streams, but I do not think that he intended to suggest that British Waterways should itself take on such an extensive and demanding public role.

The Government cannot afford to take a back seat because investment in our waterways generates huge public benefits.

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. She makes a powerful argument for restoring the funding needed to
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maintain and improve our canals, such as the Trent and Mersey canal, which passes through my constituency, and other canals, such as the Uttoxeter canal. The Caldon and Uttoxeter Canals Trust has launched an initiative to try to bring back life to the Uttoxeter canal. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is the potential to link the Uttoxeter canal with the quarry north of the A50 and Uttoxeter? A feasibility study needs to be done on that, but without the return of funding, such initiatives, which have been developed elsewhere in the country, would not be possible.

Charlotte Atkins: Absolutely. The project mentioned by my hon. Friend is close to my heart because it would start at Froghall on the edge of my constituency. I agree that if British Waterways does not have the staff to support such valuable initiatives, which are generated by enthusiastic volunteers, the chances of getting a feasibility study off the ground are slim.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): As the hon. Lady knows, the Uttoxeter canal passes through my constituency; indeed, she mentioned Froghall. On the question of the outline feasibility study, I am sure that she knows that Staffordshire county council, Staffordshire Moorlands district council and East Staffordshire borough council have all endorsed that project, and that the feasibility study is important to see whether the matter can be got under way.

Charlotte Atkins: Absolutely. In fact, we were lucky that a feasibility study was made into the Leek arm of the Caldon canal, which made a valuable case for its development. With those councils and all that political support behind the initiative, it is vital that the expertise of British Waterways is brought to bear in order to ensure that the study and, eventually, the restoration project gets off the ground. Given that British Waterways has sustained a cut of 180 jobs, the chances of its being able to provide such support are much less than before the cuts were implemented.

I was talking about the huge public benefits that investment in British Waterways can deliver—benefits that press all the right buttons in delivering Government targets. They include the healthy living agenda, with walking, cycling and running along the towpaths, regeneration for rural areas and for the inner city, a reduction in carbon emissions, education, biodiversity, and a range of other targets across a range of Departments. There has been much debate about which Department best fits with inland waterways. I do not want to discuss that now, but it behoves the Department with that responsibility to take on board the full range of benefits that inland waterways can deliver—through bilateral and trilateral meetings with other relevant Departments.

I would like the Minister to say what he understands to be the role of inland waterways and British Waterways in delivering Government targets across the board. It would be wrong to take a narrow DEFRA view of what inland waterways can deliver.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend on securing this debate, which is on a vital issue. She says that she does not want to say much today about the question of departmental responsibility, but does
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she not agree that the benefits of the inland waterways network are educational and include heritage issues, and that matters such as freight transport and urban regeneration are at the core of the work done by British Waterways? Does she also agree that the fact that none of those are the core responsibility of DEFRA is a fundamental part of the problem and that, far too often, British Waterways and our waterways network are peripheral to the Department’s and the Minister’s responsibilities?

Charlotte Atkins: I could not agree more. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That may be one of the problems, because our inland waterways deliver so much; yet DEFRA does not seem to consider them to be a priority.

The Minister may have thought that I was exaggerating when I said that the cuts in British Waterways budgets threaten the survival of the smaller, vulnerable canals such as the Caldon in my constituency. However, I am sure that he will say that my constituency has seen tremendous investment in the canals; we certainly have seen the successful restoration of the first lock and basin of the Uttoxeter canal at Froghall, which is now an enhanced visitor destination with access to all walking paths. We have also seen work done on the Harecastle tunnel on the Trent and Mersey canal.

In reality, however, the future of the Caldon canal is far more dismal. As a cul-de-sac, it does not have the same status as the canals on the north-south through route on the national waterways network. Many of the structures on the Caldon have been awaiting maintenance for years. In the light of current funding cuts, those works are likely to be postponed for even more years. For instance, piecemeal repairs have been made to the Hazelhurst aqueduct and embankment over the last few years rather than the necessary major work that was planned. Its structural failure could easily cause the Caldon to be closed, which would have far-reaching effects for the local economy and the entire canal network.

We should remember that the Caldon was reopened by a dedicated band of volunteers back in 1974, and there is a real risk that, within living memory, whose who reopened the canal could see it close again. The water supply from the Rudyard, Knypersley and Stanley reservoirs is vital to the local canal network, yet some of the valve mechanisms are now on the list of structures at risk. The maintenance of the 200-year-old network has to be kept up, because failures of small elements such as sluices and culverts can have a catastrophic effect. For instance, we have already seen the closure of the Long Butts bridge on the Caldon between Baddeley Green and Norton Green. It would cost £130,000 to replace, so when it closed for two months a sticking-plaster job was done. It is therefore fragile and can no longer be used by vehicles but only by pedestrians.

The staff cuts and reorganisations are already having an impact. It is not possible to get rid of 180 jobs and not have an impact on the canal network. British Waterways has always played a vital role in leading and underwriting the construction risk of regeneration projects. It can no longer be assumed that it will continue to do so, which puts the Burslem port and Leek basin developments on hold.

In Leek, the Caldon canal corridor study to investigate the potential for the restoration, extension and development
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of the canal in the town is ready to go to the council, but without British Waterways’ expert assistance—the result of the staff cuts—it is likely to be put on the back burner. There are plans to bring the Uttoxeter canal back to life, as my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) said, by opening a 13-mile stretch from Froghall in my constituency to the wharf in Uttoxeter. That has the potential to be a real gem of a development.

As the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) indicated, local councils are already on board, but a full feasibility study needs to be undertaken. That is less likely to happen given the impact of the funding cuts.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I declare an interest in that I chair the Select Committee investigation into British Waterways, but I do not want to say anything about that now.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems with the reopening of canals is that a partnership between a range of bodies is required? Although it may not always be appropriate for British Waterways to be the lead body, it will nevertheless play an important part, and that needs to be brought to the surface because it faces financial changes.

Charlotte Atkins: Absolutely. British Waterways plays a vital role in underpinning all those restoration projects. It will not always be possible for bands of volunteers to bring the whole team together, right across the voluntary and political sectors. British Waterways always plays a vital role. Indeed, the chief executive of British Waterways, Robin Evans, has always believed the organisation’s vision to be one of expanding the network. Will that change under the new regime? I hope not, and I hope that the Minister will comment on network expansion.

Another victim of the cuts has been British Waterways’ central freight unit. The unit has been disbanded, and responsibility for freight has passed to already hard-pressed regional offices. That is likely further to deprioritise freight and reduce the degree to which water freight can help the Government achieve their key environmental objectives by cutting carbon emissions. Coastal and inland shipping emits 80 per cent. less carbon dioxide per tonne per kilometre than road haulage. It also helps relieve congestion by taking lorries off the roads.

There is an extensive network of inland waterways in the west midlands, but it is hugely underused by freight. Nevertheless, the potential is there. The west midlands freight quality partnership is conducting a feasibility study of two waterways—the Wolverhampton level and the Birmingham level—which together provide 87 miles of lock-free transport into the centre of Birmingham, including from the M6.

The Severn-Trent canal proves that things can be made to work. In 2005, a brand new water transport service began on the river Severn, and that was the first time in 10 years that the river had been used for freight transport. Locally quarried aggregates are extracted from a quarry near Ripple and transported 2 miles north by barge to the Cemex plant at Ryall near Upton-upon-Severn in Worcestershire. On average, that happens four to seven times a day.

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It is intended that there will also be a twice-weekly service whereby some 65,000 tonnes a year of newly-processed material will be loaded back on barges. Material will be transported down the river Severn, via the Sharpness canal and the Gloucester docks, to the Cemex ready-mixed concrete plant 2 miles south of Gloucester.

When did the Minister last meet his transport colleagues to discuss the carriage of water-borne freight, and what conclusions did they reach? For the Department for Transport to be awarding funds to transfer freight from road to water under the freight facilities grant scheme while DEFRA forces British Waterways to close its central freight unit does not seem to me to be joined-up government.

In case the Minister considers that the issue of British Waterways cuts is not urgent, I should like him to consider just two examples in which urgent action is demanded but money may not be forthcoming due to funding cuts. Those cases have already been covered in the press.

The first is that of Netherton tunnel, near Dudley, which is more than 3,000 yd long. It was the last major canal tunnel to be built in Britain, in 1858, but it could be the first to close, because it has begun to sink as a result of mining subsidence. The bottom of the tunnel is getting closer and closer to the top of the water, making it more difficult for boats to pass. At the same time, the two towpaths have been disturbed by subsidence and were closed to the public before Christmas. I understand that one towpath may be reopened, but no one can say when the works will begin.

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): The Netherton tunnel will determine whether the Stourbridge arm of the canal stays open. I visited the canal yesterday and the two towpaths are still closed, although the tunnel has been reopened to boats. There is a real fear among boaters and other users of the paths that the whole thing will be closed down, which would cut off Stourbridge from the rest of the network. That would be sad, given that in May the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal society will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Stourbridge arm’s reopening.

Charlotte Atkins: That is devastating news. I picked up the Netherton tunnel issue from the press and I had assumed that my information was pretty up-to-date, but my hon. Friend has updated us further by telling us that the towpaths are still closed. It appears that there will not be any opportunity to open them in the near future. Will the Minister say what is happening in the case of Netherton tunnel? It would be appalling if the 40th anniversary celebrations were put off because of the effect of these short-sighted cuts.

As I am sure my hon. Friend is also aware, a stone’s throw from Netherton tunnel is Tividale aqueduct, which is a grade II listed, double-span aqueduct. Its stone-arch parapets are falling down. If British Waterways does not receive the £150,000 that is needed to repair it right now, it will get worse. In the meantime it is an eyesore that is also being vandalised—it is getting worse day by day. Those are just two examples, picked from the press, of places where the cuts are biting on canal infrastructure and where urgent action is needed if things are not going to get worse and more expensive to repair.

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