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9.49 am

Ian Stewart (Eccles) (Lab): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on securing it. I was unable to attend the well attended debate on 6 December, and I should like to talk today about the waterways in the Eccles, Salford and Greater Manchester city region.

I have had dozens of written representations from constituents and friends, as well as face-to-face meetings with them, about the British Waterways budget cuts. I wrote to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to express my opposition to the cuts proposed in October 2006 and my concern about the future of the proposed restoration of the Manchester, Bolton and Bury canal. I also supported and spoke at the “Save our Waterways” campaign protest at Castlefields in Manchester on 25 November, and I was pleased to join constituents and friends who are members of the Worsley and Eccles cruising clubs in Salford.

As hon. Members will know, waterways played a significant role in the development of Greater Manchester in the 19th and early 20th centuries. After decades of decay, the waterways, like other parts of the UK, began to blossom again after Labour came to power in 1997, and we have big plans in my area to develop them. British Waterways originally announced proposals to restore the Manchester, Bolton and Bury canal to navigable status in about 2001. The canal runs through the Salford, Bury and Bolton local authority areas to Manchester. Those three authorities immediately agreed to work in partnership with British Waterways and the Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal Society to help to secure the resources necessary to restore the canal.

Waterside regeneration is seen as a fundamental aspect of the regeneration work in Salford. Salford city council has achieved significant successes in that respect, with the highly acclaimed redevelopment of Salford quays, which is now the home of famous landmark buildings such as the Lowry and the Imperial War museum, together with significant retail, leisure, commercial and residential properties. Planned developments at the quays continue to demonstrate the demand for waterside locations, with major new developments planned on all sites adjacent to the quays and the banks of the Manchester ship canal. Such developments include the relocation of the BBC to the heart of Salford and the visionary Salford MediaCity project.

Salford city council therefore welcomed the restoration plans for the MBB canal as a real opportunity to add several miles of waterside development potential to land in the area. Much of that land is currently scarred by industrial decline and lies derelict, neglected and underused. Restoration of the canal would bring major improvements and much needed social, environmental and economic benefits to some of the poorest wards in the country, stimulating new, redesigned sustainable communities and neighbourhoods.

Aspirations for the MBB canal have been raised in Salford, where the canal is seen as a fundamental asset in a number of existing regeneration projects. It runs through the heart of the new deal for communities area
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and is potentially a key component of the Chapel Street regeneration project, the urban regeneration company’s plans for central Salford, the Newlands programme in the Lower Irwell valley and the regional park proposals for the Croal Irwell valley. Unlocking the canal corridor’s potential is recognised as crucial to major regeneration in the area. It has been estimated that restoring the canal alone would create 6,000 jobs, lever in more than £200 million in additional investment, provide major recreation and tourist opportunities and link the urban core with the rural fringe, securing two-way benefits for all.

Even before the proposed cutbacks, British Waterways had limited funding to contribute to the proposed restoration. The main asset that it brings to the table is a highly skilled staffing resource, which can co-ordinate the programme to restore the canal, bid for match funding, design and implement engineering works and so on. However, the cutbacks could have an immediate impact on that resource. British Waterways announced about 150 job losses. Those posts have now been lost, and there is the prospect of more job losses to follow. Salford city council is very disappointed at that outcome.

There are at least three narrow boat builders in my constituency, who are naturally concerned about the impact on their businesses and employees of a reduction in funding. If people have reduced opportunities to use their boats, they are less likely to buy new or refurbished ones. Some months ago, I wrote to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury on behalf of constituents who were alarmed by the prospect of a significant increase in the cost of fuel for pleasure craft—so-called red diesel—under EU harmonisation plans. The Minister has kept me regularly updated on the Government’s negotiations with the European Commission to renew our derogation from the relevant EU directive so that private pleasure craft can continue to use rebated gas oil. Sadly, the Commission did not see things as clearly as the Government, and although we fought the good fight, we lost the argument.

It has become almost trite to talk about joined-up government, but joined-up government does not always happen. If it does, however, it leads to better decision making. I therefore urge the Minister to recognise the significant role that investment in canals and waterways can play in urban regeneration and to take early action to reverse or to reduce the impact of the cuts. My local boating community has suggested that the Government consider making available to British Waterways over the next three years a small sum of £5 million to £10 million from capital rather than revenue resources to cushion the impact of revenue grant reductions. I urge the Minister to look at all the options, and I hope that British Waterways and the Government will work closely together to address the major challenges facing our waterways and to ensure that Salford’s exciting development proposals can be realised.

Several hon. Members rose

Frank Cook (in the Chair): There are 33 minutes remaining, and four Members bidding.

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9.57 am

Dr. Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest) (Ind): I shall be brief because I have just a few points.

First, I have a good news story. It is appropriate that the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) introduced the debate, because Stourport-on-Severn, which is one of the few dock towns in the country and the place where the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal goes into the huge River Severn, has just received £3.2 million for the rejuvenation and re-flooding of the Lichfield basins. There is now water in the Lichfield basins, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, is a huge catalyst for the regeneration of the town. The money was raised from the Heritage Lottery Fund, British Waterways, Advantage West Midlands and various local, county and district councils. That is a huge benefit. The message, therefore, is that it is relatively easy to raise money for one-off, exciting regenerations.

Of course, funding must be regular because of the maintenance that is needed. A small group of officers from the all-party group on flood prevention went to see a Treasury Minister a few months ago to plead for DEFRA, the Environment Agency and all the bodies that they support to have more money. We met, of course, with completely deaf ears.

Mr. Gray: It is perhaps not surprising that those people met with deaf ears. Did the hon. Gentleman know that, at the British Waterways annual general meeting in October, Robert Lowson, who was representing DEFRA, said:

Given that DEFRA did not ask the Treasury to fund the shortfall, it is hardly surprising that the all-party group was met with deaf ears.

Dr. Taylor: I thank the hon. Gentleman. I find that interesting.

To return to funding, income generation must obviously be maximised, but it is impossible to ask walkers and cyclists to pay. Should a cyclist have a licence clamped on his cycle to allow him to go along the path? We cannot do that. Obviously, any income that can be generated is a plus, but this is—I shall be extremely brief, for your pleasure, Mr. Cook—a major political issue.

Everyone knows that there is not enough money in the system to do everything. I believe that everyone supports money going to the NHS, education and the police. They agree that those are priorities. However, if half the population living within five miles of a canal were to be asked whether they would rather have regular money for its maintenance, or Trident, I think that we know what they would choose.

10 am

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on obtaining the third debate on this issue in Westminster Hall. I suspect that it may not be the last before the campaign is finished, but I congratulate him none the less on bringing us back here to debate this most vital issue. Hon. Members may know that I am probably not the most impartial Member when it comes to discussing
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matters relating to British Waterways, having formerly been its vice-chairman. However, I shall be as impartial as I can in my remarks today.

Earlier in the week, I attended, as a member, the meeting of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Sub-Committee to which the hon. Member for Lichfield referred. I have looked back to refresh my memory at the uncorrected evidence that the Minister gave at that Committee sitting. Of course it is on the record and hon. Members can read it, but I was and am astonished at the Minister’s extraordinary attack on an organisation for which he and his Department are responsible. He slated British Waterways, he said, for not being transparent, and he repeated that accusation several times in his evidence. In effect he was saying that British Waterways had not been open and honest with him or us about its financial situation. When hon. Members examine the evidence they will see that he went into considerable detail, at some length, about the matter and his accusations.

With my background I shall not attempt to defend British Waterways here today. Frankly, I have not got a clue what it was asked for by the Minister, and what it provided him with. I am sure that it can look after itself and adequately defend itself. Nor have I the slightest interest in a spat between the Minister and an organisation for which he is responsible. I want to concentrate on what his attack signifies. From what he said and from the papers that he provided to the Committee, which included letters and notes that British Waterways had provided to other organisations, it seems clear to me—although he can clarify the matter when he replies—that he has the impression that British Waterways is somehow campaigning on the issues in question, and is campaigning on duff information.

I suggest that in attacking British Waterways the Minister appears to fail to understand the issues that we are debating. There is no need for British Waterways to organise a campaign. The reason hon. Members are here today is not that British Waterways has wound us up—it certainly has not in my case, and I am sure that that applies to other hon. Members too. We do not need British Waterways to wind us up on this issue, and nor do the thousands of people who have demonstrated on the issues and expressed their deep concerns about the future of our waterways network. They have demonstrated not because of figures or other information issued by British Waterways, but because of their fear for the future of the network. They have been protesting, as we have, because of the fundamental importance of the waterways network in our history; because the network was saved by campaigning—the work of individuals, groups and the Inland Waterways Association; and because of the importance of the network in our heritage, education and recreation today. They are concerned about its history and its potential for the future.

There is not a lot of point in the Minister’s repeating to us how much money the Government have put into the waterways. He did that in response to the debate in Westminster Hall on 27 March. Focusing on the figures again entirely misses the point. No one, as the hon. Member for Lichfield generously reminded us today, is suggesting that the Government have not been generous in their support to the waterways in the past decade: they have. Nor is anyone suggesting that British Waterways has not been successful with its
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commercial activities: it has. Nor, I respectfully suggest, is anyone saying that British Waterways did not need to revise its plan of five years ago and bring it up to date, in light of the Government’s generous support. The concern is not about the figures, whether they are given by British Waterways or anyone else; the concern is about confidence in the future of the waterways. I hope that the Minister will focus on that in his reply.

We do not need a defence detailing precisely what proportion of the financial problem of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is due to the Rural Payments Agency. We need no further explanation of the proportion that is due to other aspects of DEFRA’s mismanagement of its budget. We need to know from the Minister what he will do to engage with those of us who care about the waterways, and to reassure us that the inland waterways are safe in his and DEFRA’s hands. We need to know from him what he and his ministerial colleagues are doing and how they are working to find solutions and restore confidence in the future, rather than going into the minutiae of the figures that have led to the present situation and the lack of confidence.

Like the hon. Member for Lichfield, I hope that the Minister will avoid the temptation to blame others and to muddy the waters with futile disputes over figures. I hope that this time he will give us a clear indication that he understands the issues and will engage with them, not avoid them; and that he will give us a clear answer about what he is doing to respond to our concerns. We need clear answers from him about how he will restore confidence in the future of the vital inland waterways network.

10.7 am

David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): I am grateful to catch your eye, Mr. Cook, and to have the chance to speak soon after the passionate speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). It is unusual for us to see him here in the Chamber wearing, as it were, a boater—perhaps holding one of those lovely flowered watering cans that they have on narrow boats. We usually think of him as someone who analyses polls—most recently as someone who found that in a Brown-Cameron contest the Conservative majority would be 133 and the Liberal Democrats would be down to 15, but I must not tempt you, Mr. Cook, by straying there. If, of course, we were having this debate 20 years ago, when I had the honour to enter this House, there would have been a few jokes about wets and dries. I cannot really see my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) as anything other than a dry, but she might be described as a wet for speaking in this debate.

I shall take a leaf from the book of the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) and make a few short points. First, DEFRA has become a byword for incompetence. We have been presented with yet another example of money that it has lost—money that has gone down the plughole. We have already had the fiasco of farmers coming to our surgeries and pleading for help with the grant that DEFRA managed to lose, and now we have problems with the canals.

Secondly, this is not all to do with tourism and unnecessary development. Real safety issues are involved.
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I was struck by the remarks about safety of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams). There is a major safety issue in my constituency—the Shenton embankment. Extensive repairs are required on that very important aqueduct, and if they are not done, there could be a breach, in which case the village and surrounding areas would flood. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield referred to the possibility of a narrow boat going over the side. Those are real issues. The people who work the canals know about them, and I ask the Minister please to take note.

My third point is about the importance of the Ashby-de-la-Zouch canal, which runs through my constituency. It runs from Hinckley through Market Bosworth and up as far as Shackerstone, which is a fantastically beautiful village. There has been very important development there. The Trinity marina is a good example of the importance of waterways to tourism and development generally. There are narrow boat companies functioning there. I nearly stayed on a narrow boat for a general election—I told my wife about my idea, but we later decided that we had better stay with the chairman instead. However, opportunities exist to stay on narrow boats.

My final point is that there has been massive investment in Leicestershire, beyond my constituency, in north-west Leicestershire. Obviously, the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) could not attend today, but perhaps I can allow myself to speak for him. Some £3.5 million of county council money has been spent between Donisthorpe and Moira on a very successful development. The next stage is to connect Snarestone to Measham, which is the bit near Shackerstone up to the bit that the county council has developed. Those projects are important, but I fear that the way in which DEFRA has addressed the hole in the funding has very serious implications.

I return to my overriding point: there is a safety issue here. When the Minister rises, will he tell me what I should say to the villagers in my constituency who are looking up at a crumbling aqueduct?

Frank Cook (in the Chair): There are now 19 minutes left, and two new names enter the fray. I call Charlotte Atkins.

10.11 am

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Cook. I congratulate the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on securing the debate, which is timely because the Minister gave some very dramatic evidence to the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on Monday about British Waterways. I hope that the debate will give us all a chance to clarify matters and put the record straight. I assure the Minister that I speak today not as a pawn in British Waterways’ campaign to maintain its funding, but as someone who genuinely fears the impact of the cuts in its funding on my local canals—the Caldon and the Trent and Mersey.

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