Previous Section Index Home Page

27 Mar 2007 : Column 372WH—continued

27 Mar 2007 : Column 373WH

In conclusion, I ask the Minister what progress is being made on developing the long-term contractual agreement between British Waterways and the Government that was flagged up way back in 2004? Even if the Minister cannot say now that funding will increase over the long term, a contract would at least ensure that British Waterways did not face the in-year cuts that so devastated it in 2006. Given that the contract was flagged up as an issue way back in 2004, I should like to ensure that there is progress towards achieving an agreement.

What discussions has the Minister had with British Waterways on the forthcoming comprehensive spending review and on British Waterways’ future funding level, given that the present lower level of funding will not sustain the organisation’s vital role in clearing its backlog of statutory maintenance work and in helping to expand the canal network? Any organisation can sustain a year of cuts, but if the year of cuts leads to lower funding over time, that will be completely devastating. Those of my hon. Friends who have spoken have already indicated where the cuts are having an impact and the desperate effect that is being seen in their own areas.

Will the Minister make urgent representations to the Treasury to ensure that the canals are seen not just as the responsibility of DEFRA but as the responsibility of a wide range of Departments? So vital are canals to the Government’s agenda on healthy living, regeneration, biodiversity and climate change that they must be prioritised in the comprehensive spending review. The British Waterways budget should be restored and sustained over a long period. There has been a renaissance in inland waterways due to Government investment, and recent years have been a marvellous period for them. It would be very short-sighted of the Government to turn back the clock.

9.59 am

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Martlew. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on bringing this important matter to the attention of the House and I endorse much of what she said.

On your way north, Mr Martlew, you might one day turn left and visit my area. You would find a lot of canals there, and it is poignant that we are discussing this subject in the bicentenary year of Thomas Telford. The Llangollen canal has a spectacular viaduct at Chirk Bank, which has attracted international names such as Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart. A little further on beyond my patch there is the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, which is a world heritage site.

The Montgomery canal in my constituency is a spectacular example of what Governments of both parties have done. The Minister last time made some rather tiresome party political comments, but I would like to stress that this development has been supported by Governments of both parties. Aston lock was restored in 1994. There is a site of special scientific interest beside the canal. I entirely endorse the comments by the hon. Lady that the vast majority of people who visit canals are not boaters; they are pedestrians—people who go to walk beside the canals.

27 Mar 2007 : Column 374WH

We have seen a tremendous voluntary effort in the area. There is national Government money and local government money and there has been a tremendous effort by volunteers, with people coming up from Birmingham for weekends. As a result, a large section of the Montgomery canal has been reopened and there is more to come. New businesses, such as Barry Tuffin’s boatyard, have been created. Such businesses simply would not have existed when there was only bog and mud.

At the other end of my constituency, the Shropshire Union canal is extremely busy, taking traffic up towards the Mersey, going through Market Drayton. The size of that network is significant. The Shropshire Union covers 66 miles within my area—that is, it goes outside my constituency but is reachable from my constituency. Similarly, the Llangollen is 46 miles long and the Montgomery is 33 miles long. Another waterway is 10 miles long. That is 155 miles in total. The group of canals in that geographical area attracts a significant number of visits: 8.3 million a year. Gross direct and indirect spending arising from canal visitors is £54 million, and up to 1,500 direct and indirect permanent full-time equivalent jobs are supported.

As the hon. Lady clearly explained, much of that could be put in jeopardy. Great work has been done over the past 20 years through state action and voluntary action, but due to the cataclysmic incompetence of DEFRA in handling single farm payments, the Government are liable to be fined £130 million and pay £40 million in compensation. It is utterly disgraceful that an area of activity that is completely separate from single farm payments will be penalised.

The sums are pretty simple. The income of British Waterways is £100 million. The subsidy is £60 million, and there is £30 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund and local authorities. If that subsidy is changed radically without planning and at very short notice, it is very hard for British Waterways, which is working its way towards making itself self-sufficient, suddenly to have that reverse dumped on it without being able to plan ahead.

My constituents are very angry. Michael Limbrey, the chairman of the Montgomery Waterway Restoration Trust, who has done a huge amount of work on the issue, reckons that phase 1 restoration of the Montgomery would bring in 100 to 120 long-term jobs, but that that

He says of the cuts:

Ken and Lindsay Green of Whitchurch said that

Mr. Green says:

Similarly, Mr. Alan Wisener from Market Drayton said:

in other words, because of farming subsidies.

27 Mar 2007 : Column 375WH

Let me explain what this amounts to. As the hon. Lady said, there will first be a degradation of the network, which in the long term will lead to more expensive costs. I have been told that, at Calveley, just outside my patch, in the seat of my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O’Brien), the towpath is falling into the canal. At Audlem bridge, again just outside my area, £90,000 is needed. In my area, there is Greaves bridge at Ellesmere, which is a listed 18th-century structure. It will need £150,000 to repair, because the foundations are falling in. If the foundations do fall in, the long-term bill, and the disruption, will be immensely greater.

I raised the question of breaches with the Minister in our last debate, initiated by the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby), and I have raised it in questions, but I had a wholly unacceptable reply. There were two breaches on the Llangollen, in December 2005 and June 2006. That is the busiest waterway in the country. It is also one of the main means of feeding water to Hurleston reservoir, feeding large numbers of homes and businesses in the Cheshire area. Let us imagine what will happen if there is a significant breach. There are 16,000 boat movements on the Llangollen a year, which could be jeopardised, along with that water supply.

I would like the Minister to give us a very clear answer, because the last time we debated this, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), who had previously been a junior Minister in the Department of the Environment, said that there was a contingency fund. No Opposition Member is asking for a penny more money from the Treasury. We are just asking that, if there is a breach, which would cause serious damage to the network, the Minister considers using contingency money, which every Government have done for many years.

I would like a clear commitment about what will happen if there is a major breach on the network. The most recent breach was in January on the Brecon and Monmouth canal, which cost £300,000. Luckily, the water just emptied out into a field, but one of these breaches could pose a danger to human and animal life and cause massive disruption to legitimate businesses and jobs. Will the Minister state categorically whether he would be prepared to use contingency funds? They do exist. They have all been allocated; they have all been voted through. It is not new money. If the Minister will not do that, why not?

As for the safety backlog, if British Waterways had continued on the course on which it had been led to believe it was set, it would have eliminated the statutory arrears by 2012. Given that there has now been this complete hiccup, when does the Minister consider that the arrears will be eliminated?

On the British Waterways website, there is an interesting comment at paragraph 5.3.6:

It seems extraordinary that an organisation with great expertise in managing waterways can operate only on stretches of water contiguous to its existing network.

Sir Peter Soulsby: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the most significant areas of waterway on which
27 Mar 2007 : Column 376WH
British Waterways is not able to operate are those that are managed by the Environment Agency? I understand that it would be a comparatively straightforward matter for those areas to be brought within the area in which British Waterways can use its very considerable experience and expertise to invest.

Mr. Paterson: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman pressed that point, because I was about to make it. I wanted to draw the Minister’s attention to our rivers. The Severn is currently navigable only as far as Bewdley; in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was navigable right up through Shropshire. In towns such as Bridgnorth, one can still see the remnants of the island that divided the main river from a weir, which generated power, and the channel through which boats travelled.

There is a triple hit on this. If we made our rivers navigable again, we would have a very significant source of renewable clean energy. Unlike ridiculous wind farms, which demand vast amounts of public subsidy and do not work, water has been a source of power in this country for centuries. I have been told that the Rhone supplies 10 per cent. of France’s energy. If we made the Severn navigable, we could use the power from the weir for green energy. We would then get much more activity through the river, by using the lock system. That would have a further impact on general employment outside matters directly related to boating.

I entirely endorse what the hon. Gemtleman said. We have an organisation, British Waterways, which has great expertise in managing waterways. Why on earth can it not get involved in other projects on stretches of water not contiguous to its own network? Everyone would like British Waterways to stand on its own two feet. Everyone would like it to escape from the clutches of DEFRA and the requirement for subsidies. It seems extraordinary that British Waterways is precluded by statute from taking advantage of our natural river system, which could be a tremendous source of energy and of employment and prosperity.

10.9 am

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on instigating the debate. It is very important that we debate canals in the west midlands. It forms part of what is happening to British waterways altogether and to canals throughout the country. The fact that so many west midlands Members are here to support her sends the Minister the powerful message that we want to find a way to work with him to resolve the problems facing our canal structure.

Let me briefly set out my concerns. For some of my first 10 years in Parliament I shadowed the then Transport Minister, and one issue that was constantly raised was what we could do about inland waterways and how we could ensure that we got the investment that we needed. As my hon. Friend made clear, the Labour Government brought about a real renaissance in investment in the canal structure and built on much of the preparatory work that went on before 1997. I was proud of the fact that what had begun as a transport policy ended up as a far-reaching policy that made it clear that canals were important and that we needed to invest in them. The
27 Mar 2007 : Column 377WH
money that the Government allocated to canals meant that we started to deal with some of the huge backlogs.

The Government therefore have a strong and proud record on this issue, but we now face another problem, as we have heard. Problems with single-pot payments and farm subsidies, as well as the mistakes that have been made, mean that the canal structure has become a scapegoat as we try to find the money that we need for other purposes. I understand the problem that the Minister has to solve and I sympathise with him, but I hope that the debate will allow him to draw on the help of those of us who are present and include us in a partnership, because we can ill afford to lose this money and we need to make good the losses. He has been spectacularly successful at encouraging investment in canals, and that has made it all the more clear to people across the country that we cannot afford to lose what is there now. Given that we have seen local canal partnerships with local authorities, with British Waterways taking the lead, and that we have introduced other regeneration initiatives, I hope that the Minister can introduce similar measures now.

Most hon. Members present have met representatives of British Waterways and will know that there is a need for a new mechanism that will work across Departments and through the upcoming comprehensive spending review process, as my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands suggested. We need a pooled budget so that we can make good the current shortfall at DEFRA using money from transport, regeneration and other budgets. Such a measure is urgently needed because, without it, we will lose momentum on important initiatives. We cannot wait for repairs and we cannot have years of indecision only for projects not to go ahead—such urgent decisions must be made now. I want the Government, the Minister and the Treasury to be committed to finding a way of working towards all that.

Let me briefly flag up a couple of other issues. I am grateful for the work that the British Waterways Board has done in my constituency, particularly under the inspiring leadership of Derek Cochrane. I am sad that he is one of the casualties of the cutbacks and is taking early retirement. Of course, he will do great work elsewhere, but he will not oversee the initiatives that are ready to proceed in my constituency. Much of the local knowledge that British Waterways Board staff have built up will be lost once they leave, having become casualties of the cutbacks of which we are afraid. When that happens, who will lead the continuing renaissance that our canal structure needs? It is incumbent on the Minister to tell us what he can do with British Waterways to have those posts reinstated.

When I first came to the House, several hon. Members—you might well have been one of them, Mr. Martlew—told me, “Joan, I’ve recently been to your constituency.” When I expressed surprise and asked why they had been there, they said that they had gone through the canal structure—along the Trent and Mersey—to visit the wonderful tourist attractions in my area, including the potteries and the magnificent Staffordshire moorlands. Many people go to the hidden jewel in our area—the spur of the Caldon canal, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands referred, which
27 Mar 2007 : Column 378WH
starts just by the Trent and Mersey and goes through both our constituencies. Many stop off at the improved towpath by the Middle Port pottery, from which, I am pleased to say, the “Antiques Roadshow” will be broadcast in May. Such people come to the area to celebrate the renaissance and regeneration that we have seen, and there have been improvements to the towpath across my constituency, from Burslem right the way up to the Harecastle tunnel. It is essential that those repairs to the tunnel continue, because, without them, Stoke-on-Trent will be completely cut off from a major thoroughfare.

I know many of the volunteers who worked so hard all those years ago to dig and reinstate the Caldon canal, and we will not sit back and see it taken away—no way. We are working with the Inland Waterways Association and everybody who values the canal. We cannot afford to lose parts of the infrastructure that provide the canal with water, such as Stanley reservoir in my constituency and Knypersley pool, to which my hon. Friend referred. At Westport lake, Brownhills high school is building an eco-school as part of a regeneration initiative, but such projects will be under threat if we do not move ahead.

Regeneration is not the responsibility only of DEFRA and British Waterways. There is a great deal of commitment on this issue, and we must find a way not only of reinstating the money and getting the continuing commercial agreement and contracts to which my hon. Friend referred, but of getting funding from other Departments to ensure that we build on what we have. Above all, I want the big Burslem port regeneration project in my constituency to go ahead, and we need the British Waterways Board to help with that. Hundreds of years ago, people met in the The Leopard in Burslem to plan the canal system, and I do not want to have meetings there so that people can complain about the system’s demise. We must find a way around this problem and we are here to work with the Minister to do that.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order. Three Back-Bench Members wish to speak, but I want to start the winding-up speeches shortly after 10.30 am. Hon. Members can figure that out for themselves.

10.17 am

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): My constituency has quite a network of canals running through it. The Uttoxeter canal has been mentioned, and I pay tribute to Mr. Mike Maryon, who is a county councillor and the chairman of the Uttoxeter restoration committee of the Caldon and Uttoxeter Canals Trust, which is a registered charity. In the past few days, he has held a meeting about the improvement and restoration of the canal, and the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) rightly referred to the need for a feasibility study to help that work get off the ground. Staffordshire county council, Staffordshire Moorlands district council and East Staffordshire borough council have offered their support, but they are, of course, looking for grants, and I look to the Minister in the hope that we may make some progress on the issue. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley) said, Derek Cochrane is enthusiastic about the proposals for improving the Uttoxeter canal.

Next Section Index Home Page