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11 Dec 2007 : Column 7WH—continued

The major restoration schemes that came to fruition in the previous decade, notably the Huddersfield narrow canal and the Rochdale canal, did so only when local authorities—supported by British Waterways, which is the very point that the hon. Gentleman made—finally saw that the volunteers needed serious
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backing. Partnerships were then constructed which were able to drive the schemes forward. It seems that in the current climate, much more is expected of the volunteers. What is needed is local council willingness to adopt restoration schemes and push them forward, instead of just cheering on the dedicated amateurs. However, the local government settlement, which the Government have just announced, means that councils are even more starved of cash.

Major national projects need major national funding. Canals are for everybody, not just for people lucky enough to have a boat. Restoring the Lichfield and Hatherton canals will bring enormous regeneration potential to the west midlands conurbation, as well as major benefits to much of Staffordshire. If reports prove to be true, the task may be even more difficult, as British Waterways’ shortfall has grown even bigger. Over the weekend of 17 to 18 November, we learned from the press that there were to be further cuts throughout DEFRA. Ministers are to be presented with £130 million of immediate cuts to DEFRA’s budget, with radical options for another £140 million of savings. Those cuts would affect all the Department-funded bodies, including British Waterways and the Environment Agency, and they would be an addition to the 5 per cent. year-on-year cuts that have already been mentioned.

British Waterways is allegedly at the top of the list for further cuts to funding. Although the comprehensive spending review settlement for the Department appeared to present a real increase to the Department’s budget, it emerged only later, during evidence to the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that a number of new priorities from Downing street had been added to the Department’s funding obligations and that their cost would have to be taken from existing budgets because no additional funds had been allocated. One must assume that DEFRA Ministers are shuddering at the thought that they may face further commitments after the Bali conference on climate change. On top of all that, the effects of this summer’s flooding and the breach in the Brecon and Abergavenny canal will create further demands.

During the floods, British Waterways played a largely unsung role in removing hundreds of millions of gallons of water from canals and rivers throughout the country—water that would otherwise have significantly increased the number of towns and villages affected and the depth of the flooding. The programme cost more than £10 million. Is that not an obvious case in which the Treasury should allocate additional funds to waterways managers to cope with such disasters? It was outside the managers’ control. That was the very point that the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) made.

I have several additional questions for the Minister to address. I have given him notice of them, so I hope that he will be able to give full answers. Is it morally right that those people who had no involvement in the outbreaks of foot and mouth disease, bluetongue and bird flu should pay the costs? Have Ministers managed to bridge the departmental funding gap without resorting to raiding other agencies’ budgets? Have they made an application to the Treasury for increased funding to cover the unexpected costs incurred because of flooding this summer? If they have made such representations, what were the results of their efforts?

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Does the Minister agree that our canals are a shared resource that we all enjoy, and that costs should not fall disproportionately on the few—the boaters, who are just 3 per cent. of people who actually enjoy the canals? Has the new cross-departmental committee met, and if so has the Minister been successful in obtaining financial support from other Departments that benefit from our waterways? Has the status report on British Waterways been delivered to Ministers, and if so, what were its conclusions? How is the financial shortfall that I mentioned going to be met? Is the Minister hopeful for the future of our canals, and will he be the champion, who is so desperately needed, in the Government?

I hope that the Minister will answer my questions positively. Our inland waterways are too important to be treated in that cavalier manner. The two previous Secretaries of State have both gone on to become Foreign Secretary, leaving a trail of trouble behind them. The first of the two, in particular, deserved to be sacked, not promoted. However, that pattern of career progression should not be relied on; certainly the Minister’s direct predecessor did not enjoy that perverse reward.

I hope that the new waterways Minister will stand up for our canals and inland waterways and leave them in a better state than he found them. He can do that only if DEFRA owns up to its responsibilities instead of lurching from one disaster to another. Rather like the Prime Minister, the Minister will find that his good press and good will will rapidly evaporate otherwise.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order I intend to call the winding-up speeches at about 10.30 am, so I ask hon. Members to make short speeches.

10 am

Mr. Bob Laxton (Derby, North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on obtaining this Adjournment debate. Like him, I welcome the new waterways Minister, but I shall not go so far as to endorse the hon. Gentleman’s comments and the rather unparliamentary language, I suspect, that he used about the previous Minister.

Michael Fabricant: On a point of order, Mr. Martlew. I am sure that, if “nincompoop” were unparliamentary, you would have called me to order.

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): That is true.

Mr. Laxton: That is as may be.

I wish to refer to the exceptional usage that the canal system gets. I have a cutting from a Birmingham newspaper, headed “Noddy floats in to walk with the stars”. It states:

The event was watched by more than 25,000 people, who flocked to the city centre’s waterways for the procession. The article continues:

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I raise that point only because—[Laughter.] I apologise for the poor imitation of the Brummie accent. What is interesting here is the potential to attract additional income to the canal network, which is much needed.

Last year, the in-year cuts that were imposed upon the grant in aid given by DEFRA to British Waterways caused ructions. The cuts came rapidly, were not programmed in and came mid-financial year, which caused huge problems. Equally, I share the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Lichfield during the later comments in his long contribution. He asked the Minister what will happen in the next year. I hope that the Minister can say what cuts, if any, will be imposed on British Waterways in the next financial year and the one following.

Perhaps I should have said that I have a few interests to declare. I am perhaps one of the people who are described as being on comparatively low income—all these things are comparative, I guess. I hold a licence from British Waterways, and this year the cost of my licence has gone up considerably. It is well over £600 a year, and that will rise next year. I am also chair of the all-party waterways group and president of the Derby and Sandiacre Canal Trust.

In Derbyshire, we have a couple of canals that we hope will be restored. One is the Cromford canal, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), which is interesting in the light of what is happening in the rail industry. I remember 30 years ago—I must have been insane at the time—wading through a tunnel that was like a rabbit hole for probably close to half a mile, the Butterley tunnel.

What is interesting about Butterley is that it was the major ironworks that produced the huge beams that still hold up the roof of the tremendous new St. Pancras railway station. I could not get any further down the tunnel, because the roof had collapsed and claustrophobia was starting to take its toll, so I waded out pretty quickly. There is a wish to restore that canal.

The other canal is the one in respect of which I am president of the trust. It will bring the canal network right into Derby city centre, with a link up the River Derwent, and provide a unique feature: the Derby arm, a 300-ft structure that will swing boats across the River Derwent, instead of an aqueduct being put in. It will be a huge feature.

Interestingly, the Derby and Sandiacre Canal Trust has just received a £150,000 contribution towards employing a project manager for the next couple of years or so to seek and press forward the development of the canals in Derbyshire—the Cromford canal and the Derby and Sandiacre canal. I share the concern that has been mentioned by a couple of hon. Members that an additional liability will be placed upon British Waterways if those canals are restored. Even if its funding remains as it is, new sections of canal opening up will impose even greater maintenance costs upon it. Worries are emanating from some canal trusts and societies that wish to open new lengths of canal.

Sir Peter Soulsby: On that point, does my hon. Friend agree that it is perverse that the opening of new canals produces liability for British Waterways, even
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though they are of enormous benefit to the communities that they serve and those who navigate them? Events such as the worthwhile one in the centre of Birmingham, with which he began his speech, can produce a cost to British Waterways rather than an income.

Mr. Laxton: They can, and I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that the costs of opening locks, perhaps having temporary lock-keepers and clearing up after such events fall on British Waterways. It should say, “Here is an opportunity to generate income.” I know that it can lock off sections of the Birmingham canal navigation, which I have fallen into on a number of occasions over the years—I can tell the House that it is not a nice place to fall into. That would provide it with an opportunity to put some people on the gates, charge people to come in, perhaps have a few hot dog stalls or whatever, and generate some money. Perhaps British Waterways ought to consider that. My concern is about the impact of canals that are about to be reopened, or will be in the future.

May I pick up on a point that the hon. Member for Lichfield made? He said—I believe that I quote him correctly—that the Government had played a reasonable role in funding the canal network. That is a little disingenuous. To be absolutely blunt, huge sums of money have gone into the canal network over the past 10 years. I can remember the condition of the network 40 years ago, and it bore no resemblance to what it is like now. Up and down the country, anywhere and everywhere, it is so much better. A lot of money has been pumped in by this Government, and we should give credit where credit is due.

I hope that the Minister can give a clear indication of what cuts, if any, are likely to be imposed. I know that other bodies such as English Nature, the Environment Agency and other DEFRA-funded organisations are involved, but I hope that if cuts have to be imposed, they do not fall disproportionately on British Waterways for the very reasons that I have alluded to.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order Again, I ask for short speeches.

10.11 am

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on securing the debate and on his continuing interest in the canals and British Waterways. He mentioned the issue to which I wish to refer briefly: the breach in the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal. It is more accurately called that rather than the Abergavenny-Brecon canal.

Yesterday, I visited the breach, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies). The canal runs from Brecon to Pontypool; it used to run to Newport. Its purpose originally was to take limestone to the steelworks and bring back slag and other materials for agricultural use in the more agricultural areas. It had fallen into disrepair by the 1930s, and only through the intervention of British Waterways and the Brecon Beacons national park was it brought back into
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use. That is an example of the partnerships that British Waterways makes use of so well.

Unfortunately, the breach is a catastrophe for the tourism of the area. A huge amount of material came down the hillside and, as the hon. Member for Lichfield said, it blocked the road and caused great distress to local people. The net result is that the canal has been dewatered from the Ashford tunnel to Pontypool, although water remains in it from the Ashford tunnel up to Brecon. The lack of water obviously affects private boat owners, but it also affects commercial operators such as Dragonfly Cruises and Cambrian Cruisers. In particular, I would like to mention Mr. Lewis of Llangattock, who invested a considerable amount of his own money to construct a marina that now sits on a canal that, as far as he is concerned, has no water. That has a major impact on his income.

When I met British Waterways officials yesterday, I was impressed with their reaction to the situation. To deal with the emergency, the organisation is putting in resources that normally would be used in other parts of its operation. An engineer from Birmingham showed me around. I believe that the hon. Member for Lichfield said that dealing with the breach would probably cost £1.5 million, which is a huge sum, given the annual budget of British Waterways. Far more important is the fact that British Waterways believes that the whole of the section from the breach to Pontypool needs to be improved to ensure that it will be fit for purpose, and the cost of that could be between £10 million and £20 million. One can see what a huge dent that would make in the budget of about £50 million that British Waterways has at its disposal.

British Waterways has done a grand job in keeping everybody informed as to the development of its understanding of the situation. On 19 December, it will convene a meeting in Crickhowell where the major stakeholders will come together, and it will set out its plan to deal with the situation. It anticipates that the canal will be shut along the major part of its length for between a year and 18 months. The effect on the local economy will be serious indeed. Not only commercial boat owners, but the pubs and hotels that benefit from usage of the canal will be affected. Therefore, I ask the Minister to visit the canal. I know that he will receive many invitations to visit canals, but I believe that this case is important.

For some reason that I do not really understand, but which became apparent to me when I was a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee when it carried out the inquiry on British Waterways, the Welsh Assembly Government do not fund British Waterways at all, as opposed to the Scottish Parliament, which does. However, I can tell the Minister that the Assembly Member who represents my constituency has made a request to the Welsh Assembly for funds to try to deal with the problem, and none of us will be backward in trying to find other funding from the national park, local authorities and whatever sources are available.

I impress it on the Minister that the situation is serious for the local economy and the tourist season that will begin in the spring. I ask him to visit the canal. Such a visit would indicate the seriousness with which the Government take the situation and be greatly appreciated by local people.

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10.16 am

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on securing this important debate at this crucial time for inland waterways. I hope that the Minister’s experience of waterways will have convinced him already that our canals are not just part of our precious national heritage but also an important part of our future. They play an important role in regenerating our towns, cities and countryside.

The canals have enjoyed a renaissance under this Government. Unprecedented funding has brought real benefits to places such as Birmingham, Manchester and even Stoke-on-Trent, but the renaissance is fragile because canals, like roads, fall into disrepair without adequate funding. They cannot survive on past glories. Vital expertise built up by British Waterways’ teams is quickly lost if staff are laid off, as occurred in the past year when 180 posts were lost.

But not just jobs are at stake. There is an impact on the wider canal community, which includes local canal trust volunteers who constantly look to develop facilities and come up with ideas about how the canals can be used to attract maximum local interest. The community also includes councils, village publicans, local action groups, wildlife enthusiasts and children’s organisations. In the past, British Waterways has been a willing participant and has offered advice on investigating and developing ideas. Often, it took the lead on joint projects that were of benefit to everybody, but now it has insufficient resources to develop and support imaginative schemes. It has fewer staff and there are more demands on those who remain, so opportunities to regenerate, revitalise and underpin the waterway infrastructure are lost.

It is not just the expertise of British Waterways that is unavailable but its presence at the table to convince local partners such as councils, wildlife trusts and businesses that they can have confidence in investing in new projects. Not having the capacity to pursue opportunities with willing participants who are now all convinced of the value of the waterway to their community, British Waterways is missing out on the tide of enthusiasm and risks demoralising it.

Local Caldon and Uttoxeter Canals Trust enthusiasts are trying to drive forward the exciting development of a new canal basin at Leek. It would be a potential catalyst for the improvement and development of a significant part of the market town of Leek and could result in diversification of the economy, which has suffered from the decline of textile and manufacturing industries. A feasibility study was presented to the council, but progress is slow despite considerable public support for enhancing the canal terminus at Leek, which currently comes out at the back of an uninspiring industrial estate. We do not do enough for visitors. The Caldon canal is delightful. Its changing seasonal character is renowned, and attracts visitors in its own right, but the absence of even basic facilities, such as good visitor moorings, interpretation boards and signage, leaves visitors unaware of the local attractions such as the heritage steam railways, and the local pubs, restaurants and shops.

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