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27 Mar 2007 : Column 378WH—continued

27 Mar 2007 : Column 379WH

The Uttoxeter canal is a rural canal with an interesting history. It was completed in 1811, but closed in 1849. It did not last that long as a canal, but that it is not to say that it does not have enormous opportunities and could not be a hidden gem in the area that I have the honour to represent.

Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands, have properly referred to the problem of the cuts, which are making life extremely difficult for those with the statutory duty to maintain canal systems. The Minister would do everybody a service by indicating—if not today, certainly in correspondence—just how the statutory duties imposing obligations on canal systems can be fulfilled if money is not made available. A statutory duty can be enforceable against the local authority or, in this case, the inland waterway authority. It is an impossible situation for Parliament to tell such authorities that something must be maintained and, when cuts are imposed, to say, “You’ve got to find the money, but the question remains how you are going to do it.”

I am sure that the Minister will be good enough to respond. I hope that he will forgive me for having to leave. Cheadle fire station has lost one of its appliances, and I have a meeting with the chief fire officer at half-past 10. I hope that he will be kind enough to take that into account.

There is another side of the equation that is a matter of grave concern in the context of cuts. Stone, in my constituency, lies at the heart of the canal system in the midlands. About 7,500 narrow-boats pass through the town every year. That is extremely important to our local economy, resulting in large numbers of visitors. I have a letter from Stone town council to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs drawing attention to the deep concern of Stone town council, and Stafford borough council of which it forms part, about the impact that the cuts will have on the local economy. How and to what extent that can be remedied is a question to which I know hon. Members will be concerned to hear the Minister’s answer.

In conclusion, an important part of our economy is tied up in the canal system, whether in tourism, recreation or walking, along with opportunities for improvements for people who live in the area. I sincerely hope that against the background of DEFRA’s failures in the context of the single farm payment, the Minister will have something constructive to say on the subject. I hope that he will come up with some useful comments and observations and with some money to help with the feasibility study and the improvement and restoration of the canals. I also think that the Public Accounts Committee should take note of the matter, because of the necessity of maintaining the canals and the cuts that are causing so much difficulty in running them.

10.23 am

Mr. Bob Laxton (Derby, North) (Lab): I am conscious of the time, so I shall be speedy. My interest in canals goes back many years. I own a narrow-boat. I am not a Member for the west midlands, but I probe into them—aiming, steering, at the helm or however it is described, through the west midlands toward the BCN. For those who are not aficionados, the BCN is the Birmingham canal navigation, where one can see the huge impact that canals have made. Regeneration in the centres of
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our major cities, such as Manchester and Birmingham, has been immense, and much of it, although not all, built around the revived canal network.

My concern is simply that this debate is a bit of a two-edged sword. On one side, we need to raise the concerns of all users of our inland waterways, whether boaters like myself, cyclists, runners or people who want to go peer at flowers. That is absolutely legitimate. We should do it, we should do more of it and we should do it louder and longer. We should raise that profile. The other side of the sword, though, is that if we are not careful, we will generate in the wider public a view that the canal network is all doom and gloom—that it will all go back to being bogs and infested ditches with trickles of water down the middle, and will all fall apart. If that happened, it would be an absolute tragedy. Why? Because British Waterways, notwithstanding the cuts in grant aid from DEFRA that it has had to endure, has been eminently successful in its redevelopment work and remains so. It is doing tremendous work through joint venture companies such as ISIS and one of its other commercial arms, British Waterways Marinas Ltd, which has generated large profits that have been ploughed back into British Waterways.

The conundrum that we face is that on one hand, we should raise such issues, but on the other, we must consider the view of developers, speculators, homeowners and all those who want to live by water. According to the figures, the values of residential properties by water are 20 per cent. higher than those that are not. Everyone seems to want to live by or on water, and I can readily understand that. I see the look on your face, Mr. Martlew. You may not want to live near water. In fact, at times you have had far too much water, with the floods that your constituency has had to endure. You have suffered personally from too much water, but many people like to live by it.

For that reason, we must ensure that we raise the issues but remain optimistic that the canals will remain and improve, and that opportunities for investment and development along the wonderful network of waterways are enhanced and improved. If that does not happen, British Waterways will find that the income that it is trying to generate to maintain the network falls away. It will not just suffer from the sizeable reduction—although DEFRA may say that it is a minor one—in the money made available to it. It will be unable to generate the sort of funds that enable it to maintain the network, and that will send it into a downward spiral.

I want to hear the Minister’s views about future funding for British Waterways. To my friends and colleagues here, I say that while raising these issues, we need to maintain a buoyant approach, if they will excuse the pun, to the future of British Waterways. We must ensure in managing the system that it remains as financially successful as it has been in the past, if not more so.

10.28 am

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing the debate on this important subject. In the west midlands, we have a proud history of the cut, as it was called in the black country, where I was born and raised. The cuts, bridges and tunnels transformed the west midlands during the industrial revolution, but they are still very much a part of life
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there today. It is therefore extremely concerning to hear of the redundancies that have been announced—80 of the 180 redundancies will fall within the midlands. We are grateful to Advantage West Midlands for the £400,000 boost. It is welcome, but it is hardly likely to soften the current Government cuts.

I was concerned to hear from the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) about the threat to the Netherton tunnel, an intrinsic part of the Black Country living museum, which is probably the biggest tourist attraction in that part of the country. That is extremely concerning. Enthusiasts all over the west midlands are concerned about the state of the canal system, and many of my constituents have written to me about the state of the network generally and in my constituency, because towpaths are overgrown and there is graffiti and other undesirable problems.

The cuts are putting our canals and waterways under threat and are having an impact on a wide range of users—not just boat users but holidaymakers, anglers, ramblers and cyclists. Canals are an important community asset because of their natural environment, and they bring wider benefits to local people than their recreation uses. Clearly, tourism will be the first area to suffer. Local pubs and restaurants on canals will be hit hard, as a number of them make their living out of local people’s delight in enjoying canals. It is not only boaters who enjoy being by canals and locks.

I have mentioned the number of paid staff who will be affected by the cuts, but it is also worth mentioning that the number of volunteers will greatly diminish if staff are not there to organise, help and motivate them.

Lynda Waltho: I am concerned about a particular group of volunteers. The hon. Lady will know the Bonded Warehouse, which is part of the Stourbridge regeneration. It is staffed by volunteers who spend most of their days there and who have helped to regenerate a whole part of Stourbridge and the Stourbridge arm. I am very concerned about the effect that the cuts will have on them, their futures and the future of my constituency. This is at the heart of what they are about, and it looks as though we do not care; that is why I am so concerned.

Lorely Burt: I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention. I know the Bonded Warehouse well and have spent many a happy hour there.

We are talking about cuts of 12.5 per cent., which are largely related to the loss of revenue caused by the Government’s appalling bungling of the single farm payment scheme. We hope that the Contingencies Fund will be used to reverse the short-term cuts that arise from that loss of income. I call on the Minister to give full weight to the social, economic and environmental importance of the waterways network when determining future grant levels for British Waterways.

10.33 am

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): It is a great pleasure to speak in the debate, which I congratulate the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing. She is the primary sponsor of early-day motion 90, which now has more than 200 signatures,
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and she has asked many written questions on this matter. During our Westminster Hall debate of 6 December, she raised concerns about the Leek and Caldon canals, and I believe that earlier this month she campaigned with members of the public beside the Caldon canal at Cheddleton, so no one could doubt her commitment.

Charlotte Atkins: I got very wet.

Bill Wiggin: I could not possibly comment on that.

This is an important subject. British Waterways is involved in £6 billion-worth of waterside regeneration, including at the Olympic site—quoting figures about the Olympic site always makes me nervous. It manages 65 sites of special scientific interest and more than 1,000 locally designated wildlife sites. It also manages 2,200 miles of canals and rivers, to which there are 300 million visitors a year, 5 million visits by coarse anglers and 9 million visits by boaters. There are also 29,000 canal boats on those waterways. About half of this country’s population live within 5 miles of a British Waterways canal or river. British Waterways also manages 11,000 principal assets such as bridges and tunnels, and 12,000 other assets such as embankments, buildings and lock gates. It needs a long-term asset management programme of an estimated £35 million a year—at 2004 prices—to ensure sustainability. That is a significant and important catalogue of what British Waterways does.

We do not want the impact of cuts to be felt either in the west midlands, where waterways have an historic role, or nationwide. Important capital projects have suffered from reduced investment or have been deferred in the hope that funds will become available. The bridge at Trub farm on the Rochdale canal has been able to find an alternative source of money to cope with the £586,000 reduction in British Waterways investment, but others have not been so lucky. There has been a £464,000 reduction in investment in the Ribble link, and there have been deferments of investments of £208,000 for the Coates lane retaining wall on the Leeds and Liverpool canal and £176,000 for the Milton Keynes culvert. There has been a £250,000 reduction in investment in the Rowlington embankment on the Grand Union canal, which has led to a winter stoppage, and there have been deferments of investments of £252,000 for the refurbishment of Aston locks Nos. 9 and 11, of £133,000 for the Tividale aqueduct repairs, and of £592,000 for the refurbishment of the Vale Royal lock at the Weaver navigation. An investment of £485,000 for the refurbishment at Calverley Wood embankment has been deferred, and there are reduced schemes for 2007-08.

There have been further deferments of investments of £540,000 for the piling works at the Shenton embankment and £544,000 for the construction of a new pedestrian bridge at the Long Horse bridge on the River Trent. The maintenance of the Caldon canal has been put back and, as we have heard, towpaths along the Netherton canal and tunnel have been closed. Those are sad statistics to read out, especially given that so many hon. Members care so much about these important assets to our nation.

British Waterways has been told to expect a retail prices index minus 5 per cent. funding formula for the forthcoming comprehensive spending review. It cannot maintain its renovation programme with the current budget plans and probably needs at least £5 million a year more to maintain the network at current levels.
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The Minister in our last debate on this matter said that it was clear that because the Government have funded waterways so generously in the past, they probably need not continue to be so generous. That is similar to the argument that we hear about the NHS, but just because something has been funded generously in the past—the Government wrongly call it investment, although they have been generous to the NHS and, to some extent, British Waterways—does not mean that that funding can stop. That is the fundamental problem, and is a great shame. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what we can expect for British Waterways.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) spoke passionately about the canals in his constituency, with particular reference to Thomas Telford, including the popular Montgomery canal and the Shropshire Union and Llangollen canals. He also touched on a matter of great importance—the breaches, particularly to the Llangollen canal. I would like the Minister to answer his question about contingency funds. I doubt whether the Minister will give a commitment, but this is a good opportunity to find out what is available.

I agreed with my hon. Friend’s comments about what he called the triple hit. If the River Severn were navigable above Bewdley, which is just outside my constituency, there would be a possibility of harnessing green energy from hydro sources. That has been done on the Wye and generates good, clean, sustainable energy. We would also have better transport links, which would move more traffic from the roads on to the waterways. Best of all, more people would be able to take holidays here, which would mean less air travel and would therefore bring a third environmental benefit.

Other hon. Members have made important and passionate speeches about their love of the canal system. The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) created some wonderful images; I could almost see him in his cap at the helm. He was right about the public relations element to this debate, because we must be conscious not to run down the image of British Waterways or the important work that it does. Its efforts are tremendous. I look forward to going on a canalling holiday because it sounds such fun, and because of the environmental benefits that my hon. Friends have mentioned. I am unable to do so in my constituency because the canal there is still full of mud. All credit to the teams of volunteers who are digging it out, because they do a great job and we should be proud of them.

This is a sad debate to be having again. There are a great many questions for the Minister to answer, and I look forward to hearing his responses. We need to know why British Waterways is having its budget cut in this way. We have all assumed that the reason is the Government’s grotesque mishandling of the Rural Payments Agency; that has not been confirmed, so perhaps the Minister will do so.

Lord Rooker has apologised in another place for the initial assertions that cuts will not affect the programme of work. They were clearly not true. Perhaps the Minister will apologise for Lord Rooker’s earlier statements, because cuts of this nature do impact on the programme of work. Ministerial discussions need to take place between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Treasury about the budget for British Waterways. No such discussions had taken place
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by the time that I last asked about that. Given the importance of the work of British Waterways, perhaps they have now taken place. I think we should know whether they have.

The future of British Waterways is of great importance. Considerations for moving responsibility for British Waterways into the Department for Transport or the Department for Communities and Local Government have been mentioned in this debate, because of the cross-departmental remit involved. The area is clearly not a priority for DEFRA, and that is a tragedy. It might have fitted better under the old Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, because the subject does not sit comfortably with the DEFRA brief. We can only assume that that is true because of the nature of the replies that we have received on this important debate.

The reduction in lottery funding could have a disastrous impact because money is now being diverted to the Olympics, and thus other funding sources will have to be found. Such sources may simply not exist. The DEFRA grant is not the only source of revenue for British Waterways, but it is a very important one. It is also one of the keys to unlocking other sources of money and investment opportunities.

The danger of letting the waterways slip into disrepair will affect £6 billion-worth of waterside regeneration, including homes and businesses. I cannot think of anything worse than threatening people’s homes and businesses, which is why I agree when the shadow Chancellor talks about the importance of stability and sharing the proceeds of growth. We understand how important people’s homes and mortgages are, and how important public expenditure is. That is why we want to share the proceeds of growth.

More than 300 million visitors a year could be affected by this situation. I mentioned that there are 29,000 boat owners, but we have also heard about the freight businesses and recreation—people admiring flowers were even cited; all those people have a valid claim on the Government’s ensuring that their beloved canals are maintained. A failure to ensure that inland waterways are maintained will undermine their regeneration and sustainability agendas. We hear all the time about the importance of sustainability, so it is a great shame that we do not see the evidence of that. In fact, we see the opposite—the damage that the cut will do.

There are a lot of unanswered questions. Thanks to the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby), we tried on 6 December to resolve them. We now need to know more specifics from the Minister. We do not want to be fobbed off with the usual, “Oh, we have been generous in the past” or to be told, “This is just a DEFRA budgeting alteration.” We want to know exactly what the Government are doing and why they are doing it, and to be confident and sure that all the good things that we have heard about from hon. Members today will be safe and secure in the Government’s hands. Unfortunately, the evidence shows that that will not be the case.

10.44 am

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