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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 11 December 2007

[Mr. Eric Martlew in the Chair]


Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Ms Diana R. Johnson.]

9.30 am

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): I am grateful for this second opportunity to debate the future of our canals. As you may know, Mr. Martlew, I was fortunate to win an Adjournment debate on this very subject in April. Now, as then, I declare an interest: I am a member of the Lichfield branch of the Inland Waterways Association—and, as of a few months ago, patron of the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust.

I am a keen narrow-boater and I have travelled much of the system. Should there have been any doubt about that, last summer I was running down a towpath in dirty shorts and a sweatshirt and holding a windlass, when I literally bumped into one of the directors of British Waterways. If there was any doubt about my narrow-boating credentials, there is none now.

At this point, I welcome the Minister to his first debate on canals and waterways. It is to be hoped that he will be more supportive of the waterways than his predecessor, who was a nincompoop of the first order, and whose departure was marked by the popping of celebratory champagne corks up and down the canals; having followed that marvellous series “Monarchy”, I believe that it is called a feu de joie—a fire of joy. That hon. Gentleman has already gone down in history as being the worst waterways Minister in living memory, and the new Minister, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), has been warmly welcomed by waterways societies and individuals keen to see a new approach.

The Minister has made at least two visits to canals—indeed, I believe that he may have made four—and he has met many organisations and individuals and received a glowing welcome in the boating press. He told me last night that he is seeing another delegation this afternoon.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw) indicated assent.

Michael Fabricant: The Minister confirms that that is the case. I very much hope that he will be able to continue that record by solving the funding issues that canals face. If he is as constructive a Minister as I found him to be as Communities and Local Government Whip, he will do just fine. It demonstrates that there is honour among thieves and Whips.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman’s contribution to this issue is second to none among midlands Members, although I do not share his views about the previous Minister.
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The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is so concerned with farming, flooding and fishing that British Waterways’ concerns are like a minnow swimming in a sea of whales. Is the location of the responsibility for British Waterways correctly placed with DEFRA, or should it be with a Department that has a greater resonance regarding the concerns that it is trying to deliver on?

Michael Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In April’s debate, I said just that. To my mind, although inland waterways carry freight—it could be argued that such responsibility should therefore lie with the Department for Transport—they attract so much tourism that I believe that such responsibility should be an important part of the work of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Sadly, we are left with what we have; at the moment, it is with DEFRA, and any change would be a decision for the Prime Minister.

The April debate focused on the debacle within DEFRA that created the need for in-year cuts—cuts, we were told, that were a one-off and not to be repeated. That has a somewhat hollow ring today. We also heard reports from hon. Members from around the country of their and their constituents’ concerns about the effects of further funding cuts. I spoke—with passion, I hope—saying that our canals are a national treasure not to be cast aside, but to be nurtured by the Government.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD) rose—

Michael Fabricant: I give way to the hon. Gentleman, who intervened on me in the last debate.

Lembit Öpik: And it was on the very same subject—the Montgomery canal. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that for many years I and others have been campaigning to have the Montgomery canal reconnected to the rest of the canal network. The cuts, which the hon. Gentleman rightly highlights, could jeopardise the entire project. Does he agree that this Minister can earn great honour by reinstating the funding for that and similar projects, to ensure that such canals are reconnected to what is a vital lifeline for our leisure and tourist industries?

Michael Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman is right. I have been on that canal, but I could not use the same narrow-boat that I use in England because the Montgomery canal is a disconnected system. I had to hire a narrow-boat, but the canal is worth visiting as the area is very beautiful. Not only would there be a certain logic in reconnecting it to the rest of the system; it would generate valuable income for that part of Wales. As some hon. Members will know, my mother was Welsh and I have certain connections with the area.

People come from around the world to marvel at our network of 2,500 miles of canals, and millions of people in this country use them daily for recreation, sport and travelling to work—and for a breath of fresh air. The canals play a key role in regenerating our towns and cities, providing a heart—a lung—around which regeneration can start.

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The Minister need only to go to Manchester or Birmingham to see for himself how the canals are central to millions of pounds-worth of regeneration. Indeed, until recently the Government had a reasonable track record in supporting our canals. Over the last few years, they played a crucial role in developing our canal system along with local councils, organisations such as the Inland Waterways Association, canal trusts and others. However, that good will has been lost in the last few years.

Last summer the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee held an inquiry into British Waterways. Among its conclusions, it called for British Waterways and the Government to work together to solve a projected £35 million under-spend on major works. British Waterways told the Committee that if it received the anticipated comprehensive spending review settlement of RPI minus 5 per cent., the network would not be fit for purpose by the end of the review period.

It would be fair to say there has been some debate about figures, and I understand that the National Audit Office is shortly to report on the matter. Will the Minister enlighten us as to the conclusions? Whatever figure is finally decided on, how will the shortfall be met?

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on returning to the subject. I have some knowledge of the report that he mentioned because I chaired the investigation. The figures were somewhat opaque, and before we cast aspersions, we need complete clarity. The Committee asked British Waterways for such information on a number of occasions, and to be fair, it has been more open. However, part of the problem is that we do not know what the figures really mean.

Michael Fabricant: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention. I hope that British Waterways will pay attention to our debate and that it will shortly provide the figures that the Committee has called for; then I and others attending this debate will table parliamentary questions to ask precisely what the Minister and his Department will do. However, I am not going to let the Minister off the hook. I hope that he can give us some indication as to what the Government think the shortfall is and how they intend to fill the gap.

The Select Committee also called for better communication between British Waterways and the Government. It has been reported that a status review is currently considering ways to allow British Waterways more financial flexibility. Has the review been completed, and if so what were its conclusions? Those are some of the questions I would like the Minister to answer in his response to the debate.

That is all to be welcomed, but sadly the Select Committee’s main concerns about the effects of cuts and the need for sustained and planned funding for British Waterways and for the Environment Agency have not been addressed. British Waterways is consulting users on how to make up the current deficit. That is even after 180 job cuts, which have included
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some of the country’s most noted experts on waterways maintenance and restoration and on the carriage of freight by water.

I understand that it costs £125 million annually to maintain our canals. Even after the cuts that I outlined, British Waterways has only 85 per cent. of the money needed to fulfil that obligation. It is seeking ideas from users on how it might bridge the gap—ranging from increasing licences, which is controversial for all boat owners, to increasing income from its property portfolio. However, boaters seem set to shoulder much of the burden. Mooring fees are set to rise dramatically and annual licence fees will rise by a third.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if British Waterways sought to meet the deficit through a massive increase in licence fees, it would be a major deterrent to people who use the waterways—people who are often on comparatively low incomes—and who ought to be encouraged further to do so, in order to make them the lively and thriving places that they deserve to be?

Michael Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman is correct. Our waterways are not there just for regeneration and property values, or for people who can afford to hire boats and enjoy expensive holidays for two or three weeks when they fly over from California or Israel, which I have seen boaters do. They are there also for those who live on our canals and make them such an interesting and thriving part of our nation’s life. He is correct to highlight that point, because if we drive those people away from our canals, we will lose the atmosphere that so many people enjoy observing.

As the hon. Gentleman said, increasing the licence fees would be an unfair burden, given that boaters constitute a tiny percentage of users who enjoy our canals. A recent survey found that just 3 per cent. of canal users were waterborne, while the other 97 per cent. enjoyed the spectacle, colour and movement that the boaters brought to the scene. I believe that the value that we all gain from our waterways should be a shared cost and should not fall on just a few, which means that DERFRA must contribute and raise money from taxation.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Does he agree that we should sometimes look to investment in canals? My constituency covers Kirkintilloch, which is the canal capital of Scotland and has been used as a redevelopment mechanism to stimulate regeneration in the economy; indeed, we have a new mariner centre and an arts and culture centre. That has knock-on benefits for everybody in the community. It is an investment from which to reap benefits in future.

Michael Fabricant: The hon. Lady is quite right. As I said, we need only look at the centres of Birmingham and Manchester, which have been revitalised from being, frankly, rather run-down slums that nobody wanted to visit to being gorgeous areas that everybody wants to visit. I have some friends who often visit the canal district of Manchester, but the least said about that the better.

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Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): My hon. Friend has spoken before about the regeneration that can follow from investment in canals and about the multiplier effect. He said that for every pound spent, a much greater sum is received from tourism, regeneration, flood management and so on. Has he sought to quantify that sum? Can he tell us what that multiplier is?

Michael Fabricant: As a humble Back Bencher, I am a great believer in passing the buck on occasions. I did an economics degree and I know that cost-benefit analyses and multiplier effects need to be calculated by many people, so I shall throw that over to the Minister. My hon. Friend could table a parliamentary question to that effect, and the Minister could get his Department to analyse the multiplier effect. It would be wrong for me to guess, but I know that it is many times the actual investment, as so many hon. Members have pointed out already.

The effect of this year’s canal cuts can be seen across the network already and on the linking rivers run by the Environment Agency. The Secretary of State admitted as much in his answer to my question on DEFRA cuts last Thursday. Freight businesses are feeling the effects of a lack of dredging by British Waterways. Boat owners associations tell me that British Waterways is not keeping the navigation to the required depth, as laid down by Parliament. One operator in south Yorkshire informed me that the depth in Doncaster has been reduced—hopefully temporarily—from 8 ft 3 in to 7 ft 2 in, resulting in its barges being forced to carry less tonnage. That is at a time when DEFRA is supposed to be leading the charge to tackle climate change and reduce emissions—something that waterborne freight achieves.

A freedom of information answer requested by the Inland Waterways Association last week produced a list from British Waterways of £3.8 million of deferred maintenance in this year alone. British Waterways pointed out that those were not due to DEFRA cuts, but to floods, to property portfolios failing to deliver on time, to rising construction inflation and to a major canal breach on the Brecon and Abergavenny canal at Gilwern. That breach occurred in October when the canal burst its banks in, I am told, a most dramatic fashion. So violent was the torrent that swept through the area that eight people had to be rescued and a major A road was closed for several days. The canal may remain closed for a couple of years, which will seriously affect local businesses.

David Taylor: I was on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee whose report was referred to earlier in this debate. It is a question of “once more unto the breach”, in the sense that in the last 12 months we have seen a number of unexpected and expensive breaches that have required major capital expenditure to head them off or to repair them. Regardless of what the Minister says when he winds up, will he explain how a saner, more rational and more effective system for handling major capital projects on the waterway network can be introduced, irrespective of other considerations? It is that crucial.

Michael Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that that is crucial, but I must remind him that, sadly, my party is not in government—his party is. It is
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up to the Minister to answer his question. I think, however, that he directed it at him, and he might like to address it.

The cost to British Waterways of those breaches and flooding is about £1.4 million. British Waterways cancelled major works on the River Weaver to pay for those costs. This is a short-term robbing of Peter to pay Paul. What will happen if there is a major catastrophe costing many lives and millions of pounds as a consequence of that lack of maintenance? The Government will have blood on their hands. They will not be able to claim that they did not anticipate such a thing happening, because I and other hon. Members are telling the Minister now that it can.

Other maintenance work listed as “deferred” included culvert inspections. That might seem harmless enough, but failure to inspect culverts can lead to massive structural failure similar to that experienced at Gilwern. British Waterways rates its key structures like bridges and aqueducts from A to E—A is very good, E is bad. Each year more of its structures slip to D and E. Gilwern was a D, and today nearly 28 per cent. of British Waterways’ structures are D and E. They need urgent maintenance.

The situation on the Thames, which is run by the Environment Agency, is no better—in fact it is possibly worse, as navigation took a bigger cut in the agency’s budget this year. Some 16 lock-keepers have lost their posts from a total of 76. Many locks will, therefore, be unmanned as lock-keepers will have more than one lock or weir to maintain. At the same time, boat licence fees rose 12 per cent. this year and will rise a further 11.5 per cent. next year. Boating numbers have dropped by 8 per cent. as a direct consequence.

The other effect of the cuts is on the expansion of the network. Throughout the country, teams of volunteers from canal trusts and societies, supported by local councils, the lottery and even the Government, are working away to restore and reopen waterways that were neglected and left to decline following the second world war. They have been very successful. New business opportunities are created, as the hon. Members for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) and for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said. The system can take more boats, and neglected parts of town and country are regenerated. Ministers are delighted to go along and open those new developments, but unfortunately they will have a few more free dates in their diaries if the cuts continue.

British Waterways has been critical in bringing canals back to life, but I fear for my local trust, the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust. It was founded in 1988 to restore its two canals, with the wider purpose of pushing forward the regeneration of the underused and decaying canals north of Birmingham. They are classed as “remainder” canals, and they therefore receive only basic maintenance. By restoring those two canals, each about 7 miles long and abandoned in the 1960s, the trust could bring great benefits to Lichfield and other towns, and provide appealing connections to the main canal network. Nearby canals are almost too popular at peak times. There is a clear need to reopen those that are closed and to regenerate those that are underused and neglected—as any narrow-boater in peak season, queuing up to go through a lock, can testify.

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It has fallen to the volunteers to initiate and carry forward that work, raising the funds themselves with very little support from official bodies. British Waterways has been supportive in times of difficulty, but it has neither the funds nor the resources following the recent funding cutbacks. During the past 10 years, the trust has brought £3 million of inward investment to southern Staffordshire, which was a huge task. In the past year, it has raised a further £240,000 to fund a crossing of the new Lichfield bypass. Such projects were forced on the trust by the imminent construction of new roads and the unwillingness of motorway builders and local authorities to bear the cost. It was a very heavy burden for a trust with 1,500 members and no access to major funding.

It is generally accepted that the restored canals will bring great benefits to the area and to the national economy, but there is no national political will even to assist with the costs. The Minister may be unaware of this fact, but volunteer work goes on every weekend to rebuild locks and to reconstruct the infrastructure that was lost almost half a century ago. Impressive progress has been made and more will follow, but it is clear that unless major cash injections can be found, neither the Lichfield nor the Hatherton canals will be open to traffic within the lifetime of many of those people who have already dedicated almost 20 years to the work. A whole generation of walkers, anglers, boaters and others will have missed out on an invaluable experience.

Will the Minister accept my invitation to come up to Lichfield and see some of the restoration work that has been undertaken, including the provision of attractive adjoining parkland? He is not nodding now, but I hope that he will nod in agreement when he responds.

Sir Peter Soulsby: May I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the excellent work of the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust, and to its endeavour to create a link with the top end of the Birmingham canal navigations, which, as he rightly says, is so underused? Indeed, many similar trusts do similar work throughout the network. Does he agree that the potential for further cuts in the funding of British Waterways is, as much as anything, a major threat to its capacity to respond to such trusts, to help them with their regeneration work and to provide, where necessary, leadership and support for that work? That threat is at least as, if not more, important than the threat to capital expenditure directly. The support for those trusts is so valuable and it could be lost.

Michael Fabricant: That is a very valid point. I should not underestimate, however, the capital works to maintain the existing canal network. As good as the existing network is, it is a terrible shame that so many canals were filled in 50 or 60 years ago, because they now have to be reopened in order to complete the network and make it a living, interconnected whole, and the cuts will jeopardise that work.

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