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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 25 April 2007

[Frank Cook in the Chair]

British Waterways

[Relevant documents: The oral evidence taken before the British Waterways Sub-Committee of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on 12th March, HC 345-iii, and on 23rd April, HC 345-v, together with an appendix to that evidence, Session 2006-07.]

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

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. I should perhaps announce at the outset that quite a number of hon. Members have written to seek permission to speak in the debate. Quite a few more have arrived who did not take the trouble to write; I do not know whether they will take the trouble to speak. For the moment, the debate is the property of the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), but I appeal to everybody to keep their remarks pertinent and brief. Interventions and responses to interventions should be as concise as possible; otherwise some hon. Members might not get their turn.

9.30 am

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): I am grateful for this opportunity to debate the effect of the cuts in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs grant to British Waterways.

Canals play an important part in the life of my constituency. I have enjoyed taking part in activities and events on them, and I am a very keen narrow boater. Last Sunday, on dry land, I walked part of the route of the Lichfield canal with fellow keen supporters of the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust. I ought also to declare an interest in that I am a proud member of the Lichfield branch of the Inland Waterways Association.

To get back to the cuts, however, the background to this sorry story goes back to last summer. After British Waterways had set its annual budget for the year—a budget already diminished by more than £1 million—the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs discovered a large hole in her Department’s budgets. It was a £200 million hole, which no one—including DEFRA—has been able to explain properly. It is clear that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was equally unimpressed with DEFRA, because he refused to bail it out using the Treasury's contingency reserve.

The various lamentable ministerial explanations of how the funding gap arose could be the subject of an entirely different debate—a point that my hon. Friends have frequently made. Suffice it to say that the gap has had an enormous impact on everyone but the very people who created it, one of whom, to her immense surprise, was not sacked by the Prime Minister for incompetence when she was suddenly called to see him, but was instead promoted to Foreign Secretary.

British Waterways woke up last summer to discover that, as a result of the hole in DEFRA’s budget, it had
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to make cuts year in, year out, in a totally unplanned manner. It is not good enough for the Minister to say, as I am sure he will later in the debate, that British Waterways was already restructuring. All bodies are always looking at ways to save money. Yes, British Waterways would certainly have made some changes and probably some redundancies. The difference is that they would have been planned and properly constructed, not handed down from on high to be delivered within the same financial year. They would certainly not have been worked out on the back of an envelope, as these cuts apparently have been.

The exact size of the cut that was imposed has been much disputed. The Minister’s oft-repeated line implies that it is just a few million pounds. Only last Monday, the Minister gave evidence to a Sub-Committee of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on that very subject. I shall return to that topic, but it is worth noting that he made an extraordinary announcement, which implied that the British Waterways board was deliberately misleading the Government. I know that British Waterways was told to make the cuts and to plan to spend up to 95 per cent. of its revised budget. It is a sign of the success of the anti-DEFRA cuts campaign that that particular cut was quietly forgotten.

Whatever the exact figure, the impact has been massive. There were 180 job losses this month; millions of pounds of maintenance have been put back; the freight division of British Waterways has been completely dissolved, and, in the centre of canal country, two units have been merged into one, thereby taking British Waterways further away from the very people it serves in running our waterways.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is now a question mark over some very worthy causes in the waterways network, such as the reconnection of the Montgomery canal to the rest of the network? In the long term, canals pay for themselves many times over, so in macro terms the economy is a false one.

Michael Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Not only is there a question mark over the future of some projects, but a project has actually been stopped, as I shall explain. Incidentally, I have been on the Montgomery canal and it is a beautiful route. Actual cuts have now taken place because of the incompetence of DEFRA.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the manifestations of sheer incompetence has been the increase in mooring fees on the Kennet and Avon canal? One of my constituents wrote to me to say that there has been an increase of 44 per cent. in the mooring fee for their narrow boat. Many people using the canals are not people of massive means; very often they are pensioners. What does my hon. Friend think of that? Is not the problem attributable directly to DEFRA’s incompetence?

Michael Fabricant: My hon. Friend makes his point well. DEFRA’s incompetence is depriving ordinary people such as pensioners and people with restricted incomes of their use of canals, and that incompetence has been repeated year after year. It is quite extraordinary.

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On the few occasions on which he has met with organisations involved with the waterways, and notably on Radio 5 Live, the Minister has said that the cuts were just for the one year. They were a disaster, but at least a one-off disaster. Now, however, we know that that is not the case. Indeed, the Minister is now making it clear that the likely budget increase for British Waterways will be based on the retail prices index minus 5 per cent., year after year, and might be even worse. That is my concern, because most organisations can take a one-off hit on their budgets, but the problem for British Waterways is that we now learn that the cuts will be year on year.

No similar organisation is treated in that way: financially crippled through the mistakes of others. I argue that British Waterways, the guardian and steward of 2,500 miles of linear park up and down the country—I use the word “park” advisedly—and custodian of hundreds of listed structures, several ancient monuments and 65 sites of special scientific interest, is a national institution that should be cherished.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Ongoing cuts will have a terrible effect on maintenance of existing canals. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee was told only recently that certain businesses will not operate in future. On the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal there have already been two breaches that have put the canal out of action for a few months.

Michael Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and he must have read my speech, because I shall come to that subject.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): The Bridgwater and Taunton canal has enormous problems because the lock gates that would connect it with the sea cannot be used, and the status of the maintenance programme has completely removed any chance of it ever being opened up. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister is now likely to cut such canals on the basis that they have no practical use and exist only for aesthetic reasons? Does he agree that that is utterly wrong?

Michael Fabricant: It is indeed wrong, and I hope that the Minister feels ashamed of himself. He has spent most of the debate grinning from ear to ear, but he has nothing to grin about.

More than 200 million visits are made to the waterways each year, and that number is growing. The waterways constitute a national linear park and some might say that they should be treated as such. Some argue that they should be a national park, while others argue that they should receive UNESCO world heritage site status. When in Washington DC recently on a private visit, I went on the Georgetown canal. Members of the excellent US National Park Service, a part of the US Government's Department of the Interior, told me how much they envy our canal system and how they had themselves been on narrow boat holidays in the UK.

When I have been on canals up and down England and Wales—I have yet to visit Scotland’s canals—I have
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met Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and Israelis, all of whom had come to Britain for a canal holiday. That generates useful foreign currency earnings and benefits the United Kingdom economy, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) rightly pointed out.

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Britain was a world leader in developing the canal system and that there are canals that are world heritage sites, such as Marple locks, an aqueduct on the Cheshire ring in my constituency?

Michael Fabricant: I absolutely agree and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I have been through those locks as well—hard work it was, too.

Our inland waterways hit all the Government’s buttons in encouraging outdoor activities and, in particular, encouraging young and old to take part in sport. They are a catalyst of inner-city and rural regeneration up and down the country. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has been taking evidence to that effect and did so as recently as last Monday; I look forward to its conclusions. I know that for every £1 spent in regeneration around our canals, there is a payback far beyond the usual returns. I think that everyone here will agree with that—perhaps even the Minister, who has finally stopped grinning.

That effect can be seen in my own area. I am proud to say that we have the hidden jewels of the midlands canals: the disused Lichfield and Hatherton canals, abandoned by Acts of Parliament in the mid-1950s, severing the northern access to 42 miles of the Birmingham canal navigations, from which British Waterways could usefully increase its income. Closure of the Lichfield canal as a through route has put increasing pressure on passage through Fradley junction, just north of Lichfield, and also in my beautiful constituency. It has been the centre of the grand cross of England’s canal system for more than 200 years. Visiting boaters in the busy tourist season can wait for many hours to go through the locks, when a short distance to the south there is a viable alternative route that is under restoration, but only through piecemeal efforts by hard-working volunteers.

I pay tribute this day to those volunteers from the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust and from the Inland Waterways Association. I am a member of both organisations. I also praise Lichfield city council, which has granted a lease of land in the centre of Lichfield to enable the restoration work to continue, and Lichfield district council. There can be no doubt that opening the Lichfield and Hatherton canals would solve some of the network’s acute bottlenecks and open up a whole new area for boaters and everyone else to enjoy, yet all that is now being put in jeopardy.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): My hon. Friend is right to say that one of the most important things that is put at risk because of the cuts is the links between existing canals, such as the link between the Kennet and Avon canal and the Cotswold canals, just outside my constituency, through the vital Wilts and
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Berks canal. Does he agree that those links have to be put in place if boating is to carry on developing as it has done in recent years?

Michael Fabricant: We are having quite a tour of the English and Welsh canal system, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that point.

British Waterways itself, in evidence to the Select Committee this year, spoke of the potential of the Hatherton canal, which is the canal that links to the Lichfield canal. The route of the Lichfield canal passes close to the centre of the cathedral city of Lichfield. The canal’s restoration would not only bring colourful narrow boats, but provide a leisure amenity for residents and visitors who enjoy the relaxing waterway ambience away from unhealthy and noisy roads. Evidence of that can be seen in Daventry’s decision to have a new canal cut into the very heart of the town to create a focal point for the area. Towns do not make such a decision lightly. They do so because they understand the attraction and potential of both new and old canals.

Early research to justify restoration of the Lichfield and Hatherton canals shows that there could be a boost of £6 million a year for the midlands economy. I urge British Waterways to recalculate the cost of reopening the 7-mile Lichfield canal to the extensive midlands canal network. Once complete, the restoration will deliver huge benefits to British Waterways’ northern Birmingham canals by facilitating access via the Staffordshire and Worcestershire and the Coventry canals. Spin-off benefits from sympathetic modern waterway management as seen elsewhere in the country would enhance the poor post-industrial image still lingering in the midlands. We have only to look at the improved economy along the route of the restored Edinburgh to Glasgow canal system to see just that.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the loss of the public money that has gone into these canals in recent years is also a problem? The Kennet and Avon canal had more than £20 million of lottery money, and public money has been spent through organisations such as British Waterways. A further issue is the hours and hours of volunteer time that have gone into the work. That will all go to waste if the canal has to close, as the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust is saying, because some of the lock gates are unsafe. The situation will be disastrous for so much of the economy in so many constituencies in this country.

Michael Fabricant: My hon. Friend is right. A golden opportunity is waiting to be maximised with that canal and many others, but I fear that all that is in jeopardy because of the incompetence of DEFRA Ministers, who have caused the cuts. Already, the Grantham canal is to be closed as a direct consequence of the cuts. Which canal will be next?

The ineptitude displayed by Ministers and in particular by the Minister present here today, who is responsible for waterways, is mind numbing. Our canals need proper stewardship and interest from Government. Until recently, that has been the case and the Government have invested in our canals. That is to their credit. However, the events of the past few months are swiftly unravelling that previous good work.

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I am well aware that the Minister will seek to demonstrate, as he tried to do last Monday to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, that thanks to the efficient work of British Waterways the net effects of the cuts are minimal, but that simply will not wash. A 200-year-old structure is not something that can be left to its own devices. It needs constant care and maintenance and we currently have a multi-million pound backlog requiring attention. The safety backlog has been dealt with for the time being, but there comes a time when poor maintenance leads to safety issues. We heard earlier in an intervention of a canal’s banks being broken and water ingress, which, if a narrow boat had been passing through at the time, could have caused great loss of life.

Last winter saw unexpected breaches and failures leading to bills running into millions of pounds. British Waterways is expected somehow to absorb those unexpected costs, plan for the future and engage in expanding the system, yet there is no clarity from DEFRA about what the grant in aid will be in future years. That will not do.

It is time that Ministers woke up to the responsibility and reality of caring for our national treasure. If DEFRA is not prepared or able to take on that responsibility, it should be handed to a more competent Department that can provide that care—perhaps the Department for Transport. Originally, of course, canals and inland waterways were part of our transport system, and in some ways they still are. Or waterways could go to the Department for Education and Skills, as they are an invaluable tool for telling the story of our nation’s history and development. Or they could go to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, with its responsibility for tourism, sport and the heritage of our nation. Or we could even move waterways to the Department for Communities and Local Government, with its important role of regeneration. As it is, waterways are stuck with the leaden hand of DEFRA.

I hope that in his reply the Minister will dispense with the usual excuses and not bother to repeat what he said to the Sub-Committee and blame British Waterways, and that instead he will clearly state what funding will be available for British Waterways over the next five years from the Government. I and others await his reply with interest. I hope that it will be a serious reply, delivered seriously. The Minister’s excuse that the success of British Waterways in its commercial ventures somehow absolves the Minister and his Department of gross incompetence will be believed by no one.

The editor of “Canal & Riverboat” magazine, in an editorial this year, said to the Minister: “For God’s sake go”. Today, I provide an opportunity for the Minister to redeem himself, but I am not optimistic.

Several hon. Members rose

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. I remind hon. Members that we have 41 minutes to accommodate five Members who are seeking to catch my eye. Hon. Members should bear that in mind when making contributions and particularly, given the number of Members present, when accepting and responding to interventions.

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