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25 Apr 2007 : Column 282WH—continued

In the debate on inland waterways in the west midlands that I secured last month, I pointed out what a success story the Government’s policy towards British Waterways has been. In my constituency, I have seen regeneration funding and the matching volunteer input directed at a
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project called “Destination Froghall”, through which the first lock and basin of the Uttoxeter canal at Froghall have been restored. That area is now an enhanced visitor destination with access for all and walking paths, which are particularly popular because the Caldon canal runs side-by-side with the heritage steam railway through the Churnet valley. The Churnet valley railway is not only a tourist attraction—only last Saturday, I enjoyed a leisurely meal on the train with friends. The canal and the railway enhance the life of the community and the local economy.

A unique feature of the Caldon canal is the Beatrice Charity’s trip boat, which takes children with special needs and wheelchair users into the Staffordshire moorlands countryside to places that they would never otherwise have the opportunity to experience. It is a wonderful charity that widens the horizons of our most vulnerable children, and it would be devastating if it had to close because of problems on the canal.

The British Waterways’ funding cuts are short-sighted given that there is still so much more potential for investment in our canal network. British Waterways already has a much expanded network to look after because of the excellent restoration work. In Leek, the Caldon canal corridor feasibility study has set out the potential for the restoration, extension and development of the Leek arm of the canal into the edge of the town. There are also plans to bring the Uttoxeter canal back to life by opening a 13-mile stretch from Froghall in my constituency to the wharf in Uttoxeter. Leek, Froghall and Uttoxeter would all benefit hugely from such a development, as would the whole of the moorlands.

Rural areas, like urban areas, need such regeneration to boost their local economies. However, all that requires real partnership, which the Government wholly support, involving heritage organisations, councils, British Waterways, the Environment Agency and bands of enthusiastic local volunteers. Such volunteers kept the canals alive during the dark days before the Government’s generous funding. The Caldon was reopened in 1974 only because of the dedication and hard work of local volunteers. We do not want to go back to those days of dereliction—I am sure that we will not do so—but it is vital that the Minister is not complacent about the current situation.

Last month, I gave just two examples of where urgent action is required to maintain waterways structures where money has not been forthcoming, and we have heard more on that today. The examples that I gave were the Netherton tunnel near Dudley, where two towpaths were closed, and the Tividale aqueduct, which is a grade II listed, double-span aqueduct whose stone arch parapets are falling down. Those examples are in addition to the essential, but delayed, local repairs on the Hazelhurst aqueduct and its embankment, and on the Long Butts bridge on the Caldon between Baddeley Green and Norton Green. Will the Minister give me an update on all that? I raised those issues last month, but, sadly, although the Minister sensibly diverted from his prepared speech, he did not have time to address them. I hope that he will do so today. I also raised some more general and fundamental points, and I hope that he is now, nearly one month on, in a position to answer them.

The 2004 DEFRA review of British Waterways recommended a contract between the Government and British Waterways to ensure that it would be able to
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predict its funding and therefore to plan the efficient—I emphasise the word “efficient”—use of its money. A contract would ensure that in-year cuts were not imposed and would allow British Waterways to plan with certainty. Surely that should be a basic requirement of any proper partnership between the Government and British Waterways if we are to get the best possible outcome for our local communities. What has happened to that contract? Will the Government be making a contract in the near future?

I am very concerned that British Waterways’ central freight unit has been disbanded, given that water freight could help the Government to achieve their key environmental objectives by cutting carbon emissions. With the responsibility for freight now passing to hard-pressed British Waterways regional offices, it will not be as high a priority. When did the Minister last meet his Department of Trade and Industry colleagues to discuss the carriage of water-borne freight, what conclusions did they reach and what action will they now take?

With the comprehensive spending review coming in the autumn, has the Minister had the opportunity to talk to the Treasury about waterways funding? We have heard that no application was made to the Treasury for additional funding. Has he discussed British Waterways’ long-term funding with it? I was disturbed to hear that the Minister said on Monday that British Waterways had not been entirely transparent about its funding. If that is the case, will the Minister assure me that he will do all in his power to provide the EFRA Committee with all the information that it needs to get to the bottom of the figures? Will he fully co-operate with the Committee and provide a full audit trail of all the available information on British Waterways’ funding and the projections for the future?

I have full confidence in the Select Committee inquiry into waterways that is being chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). I am sure that the Committee will get to the bottom of the issues that have been raised in the debate, if all parties are fully involved and transparent in their evidence. I urge the Minister and British Waterways to do all they can to assist the Committee.

Frank Cook (in the Chair): There are 11 minutes remaining and two bidders left. I call James Gray.

10.19 am

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Cook. I shall speak very briefly, given the short time that is left. I am glad to have the opportunity to take part in what has been a good cross-party debate. It is interesting that not one Labour Member so far has spoken in favour of what the Government have done. We are all in opposition today with the single exception of the Minister.

Charlotte Atkins: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gray: If I have wrongly quoted the hon. Lady, she will forgive me, I know.

Charlotte Atkins: I praised the Government for their extensive investment in British Waterways, which has created a renaissance of a whole network.

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Mr. Gray: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for having told me the interesting fact that she is strongly in favour of what the Government are doing. They are making cuts of about £60 million in DEFRA’s funding for the waterways, which will result in the closure of canals.

Charlotte Atkins: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gray: No, I am afraid that I shall not.

I do not speak as a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, but I shall carefully examine what the Minister said to its Sub-Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), when matters return to the main Committee, as the debate will be interesting. Nor do I necessarily speak in favour of the Wilts and Berks canal, although it is close to my heart as it runs through my constituency. We seek matching funding with regard to the Cricklade country park, which is a vital constituency issue that will come up shortly.

I am more concerned about a general policy matter that has been brought to my attention; is British Waterways or are the Government to blame for this situation? I again draw the attention of hon. Members to a matter that I raised in an intervention. It has been reported to me that last October, at the British Waterways board’s annual general meeting, Robert Lowson, who I understand was representing DEFRA at the meeting, said:

He was talking about the shortfall that came about as a result of the downfall of the Rural Payments Agency.

If the Minister is to answer this debate properly, rather than giving us a lot of stuff about how marvellous the Government have been in respect of the waterways, he must answer the central charge: did DEFRA ask the Treasury for special funding to cover the shortfall in the RPA? That is what we did at the time of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis—we got contingency funding from the Treasury, which paid extra money because of the cost of BSE. We need to know just one thing from the Minister—he may want to reply to this in a moment, because I am keen to let others take part in the debate. Did the £62.5 million shortfall in waterways funding and the catastrophic results that we face, which we have all discussed, come about because the Secretary of State took the political decision—the DEFRA spokesman whom I mentioned used the expression “political decision”—not to ask the Treasury for extra funding?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Barry Gardiner): I am happy to try to answer the hon. Gentleman—I have given this answer in previous debates, as he would have known had he cared to read the record. Of the total of £200 million in-year pressures that DEFRA was facing, the amount relating to the RPA was £23 million, which represents slightly more than 11 per cent. of the total. The comparison that he just made about calling on the Treasury reserve was inappropriate. Ministers in the Department rightly took the decision that the situation should be managed within the Department’s own budget and that an approach to the Treasury should not be
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made. I stress to the hon. Gentleman that of the £200 million pressure on the Department, only 11 per cent. related to the RPA.

Mr. Gray: I am most grateful to the Minister for his clarification, because we now have it in straightforward Hansard terms: DEFRA and its Secretary of State took the view that they would not ask the Treasury for emergency funding. The Secretary of State decided to take the hit himself within DEFRA. That is now plain, so we know that the cuts in British Waterways’ funding do not result from action taken by Her Majesty’s Government, the Prime Minister or the Chancellor; they result from a particular personal decision taken by the Secretary of State, who is represented in this Chamber by his Minister.

When the Minister stands up, he must answer the accusation that he and his Department, rather than the Government, British Waterways or anyone else, took the decisions that will lead to the terrible cuts that we have been hearing about this morning. I look forward to hearing him try to defend his position.

Frank Cook (in the Chair): There are now seven minutes remaining.

10.23 am

Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on raising this subject, because many of my constituents are concerned about it. The Llangollen canal runs through my constituency, and I suspect that he might have been on it—I am sure that he has been over the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, which is like flying over the Dee valley.

I want to make two points. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, the aqueduct is up for UNESCO consideration for world heritage status. I am concerned that cuts in the funding of British Waterways will have an effect on the bid, because it might appear as if the Government are not concerned about it. That would be a grave mistake.

Secondly, and possibly more importantly for the tourism potential in my area and for the tourism revenue that we are obtaining at the moment, should two breaches in the canals in Wales occur within a short time of each other, miles of canals might be put out of commission for a long time. That is a grave concern for the users of the canal in my area. I hope that the Minister takes both those points on board.

10.25 am

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on securing the debate. As fellow west midlands Members of Parliament, we share an admiration for the way in which enthusiasts have played such a vital part in regenerating our inland waterways and in all the regeneration and tourism benefits that that has produced. That is particularly true in the west midlands. Today feels like groundhog day because on 27 March the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) rightly secured a similar debate. I am delighted that we again have the opportunity to discuss this important
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issue. The hon. Member for Lichfield has brought out some salient points, to which I hope to make reference.

The exact size of the cuts has been debated. I understand that they are in the region of £7.5 million this year, and up to £60 million over the next five years. Hon. Members have also discussed the incompetence of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the £200 million fine resulting from the mishandling of grants to farmers. That has been attributed to overspend on preparations for avian flu and to Treasury changes to the accounting rules, although I do not think that it matters what caused the problems. We must work together to ensure that the impact is kept to a minimum.

It is important to pay tribute to other organisations. Several hon. Members have referred to British Waterways, heritage funds and lottery funds. In the west midlands, Advantage West Midlands has rowed in—I hope that I may use that expression—with a £400,000 grant to increase access to and awareness of the waterways, and to enhance visitor moorings and amenities.

Everyone is working together to try to minimise the blow, but the situation is worrying because the Environment Agency has lost £25 million this year alone and the jobs of 180 British Waterways workers have been lost. All that pales into insignificance when one considers the effect that the situation will have had on all the volunteers. The staff are vital, but they could never begin to cover the amount of work that needs to be done to maintain our waterways were it not for the wonderful and sterling work done by enthusiasts. They do the less exciting jobs day in, day out and year in, year out.

The effects of the cuts are disproportionate to the amount involved. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) remarked that the cuts are a false economy because rubbish and weeds are clogging up the canals, making them not only less attractive but less popular and, most importantly, less safe. There is a £119 million maintenance backlog, and many fear that a number of canals are in danger of closing.

Our waterways are such an important asset. People can use them for green holidays—that at a time when we are being encouraged to reduce our carbon footprint. I cannot think of a greener way to spend a holiday other than to take a cycling holiday, and even cycling holidays can be carried out using our waterways. Three hundred million people a year visit our waterways, not only boaters, but people who like to walk and cyclists, and that gives rise to regeneration in pubs, hotels and so on.

We should not forget that canals also carry water. In fact, half of Bristol’s water supply is carried along the canal network, so it is important. In addition, an important meeting was held recently on the opportunities of exploiting freight.

The Minister will probably quote the document, “Unlocking the Potential—a New Future for British Waterways”, which the Government published in 1999 and which refers to £70 million of investment in waterways. It would be churlish not to acknowledge that the Government have poured a large amount of investment into the waterways. However, there is an
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underspend. Arguments about whether that is due to Government incompetence, changes to Treasury accounting rules or other factors are irrelevant. We need to work out how to deal with the problem now.

Will the Minister comment on something that I read when preparing for this debate: that DEFRA has underspent its budget by £747 million since it was formed five years ago? I quote that figure because it puts the cuts into perspective. In a spirit of helpfulness, I suggest that it would be possible to fund the immediate shortfall out of a contingencies budget and allow British Waterways to plan for future cuts. The hon. Members for Staffordshire, Moorlands and for Lichfield alluded to in-year cuts, and that is perhaps the unkindest cut of all because British Waterways has not been given the opportunity to plan for it. Will the Minister discuss with his colleagues a way to row back on the decision and give British Waterways and the canal trusts, which care so much about our inland waterways, the chance to minimise the blow and to plan for the future?

10.33 am

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): It is a pleasure to have you counting us down this morning, Mr. Cook.

This is the third debate on British Waterways in Westminster Hall since the in-year cuts were announced last autumn, and I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on securing it. He is a member of the Inland Waterways Association and has a long track record of supporting canals in his constituency and beyond. Like many hon. Members, he has been out there campaigning to save the waterways and their user value, which the Minister has left in jeopardy. My hon. Friend has been especially active in campaigning along the Lichfield canal and at Fradley junction.

Yet again, the strength of feeling among hon. Members today is of concern for the future of our waterways, and we have heard excellent speeches from both sides of the House, particularly from my hon. Friends. In the last debate, the Minister displayed a reluctance to deal with some of the important points that were raised and focused instead on British Waterways’ projected income and how it might have been more than it expected in 2002. His performance on Monday in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Sub-Committee on British Waterways was something else. The Minister claimed that he had been given a series of important figures relating to British Waterways’ finances only on Friday night, and had been applying “greater and greater stridency” in his approach to obtain them. If it turns out that his Department had previously been made aware of the figures by British Waterways, will he apologise?

The Minister has known about the problems facing British Waterways for many months, especially as they have been highlighted by hon. Members so prominently in debates here in Westminster Hall since the in-year cut was announced. It seems to be a rather convenient coincidence that one working day before he had to give evidence to the Sub-Committee the figures magically appeared, especially when British Waterways had been in close contact with the Minister and his officials for many months. In fact, the Minister did not
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confirm that the organisation had been in daily contact by telephone, but we know that he has met British Waterways representatives once a month for the past six months—six times in the past six months. It is extraordinary that the figures could be produced only the day before he was due to appear before the Sub-Committee.

The Minister made it clear in the Sub-Committee that he thought that there were problems with the current long-term plans and financial arrangements. In the 27 March debate, he said that DEFRA was awaiting proposals from British Waterways for a regulatory reform order to this effect. Can he provide a progress report on that reform order?

To the Sub-Committee the Minister stated that he was now aware that British Waterways has altered its arrears elimination target, but on 16 April he made no mention of the change from the December 2012 target. Why did that information come to light only last week? What is the correct figure for British Waterways’ maintenance backlog? Is it the £97 million claimed by the chief executive, or the £107 million claimed by the chairman, or does the Minister have a different figure now that he has studied the figures? He told the Sub-Committee,

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