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British Waterways plays a crucial role in the nation’s flood defence systems. That role was critical during our dreadfully wet summer, but it is not widely acknowledged or rewarded. My constituents are grateful for it, but are the Government? There is a limit to the number of cuts that British Waterways can take and continue to perform that role. Part of its water control efforts includes ensuring protection of some of its principal assets and structures that it knows are in poor condition. We have heard that 28 per cent. of those structures are in poor condition. One such structure with the potential to fail is a large weir at Horsebridge above the hamlet of Denford, not far beyond where the water is released from the main reservoir at Rudyard. That weir cannot be used at time of high water volumes because its poor condition puts neighbouring properties at risk. That is a tiny but critical example, and British Waterways still has massive maintenance arrears.

My constituents cite many examples, and are concerned about the listed Hazelhurst aqueduct, as well as bridges, weirs, and many sections of towpaths and collapsed banks. Last weekend, torrential rain and flooding, worsened by a silted and blocked culvert, has destroyed some of the thousands of hours of work put in by volunteers and British Waterways at Froghall to restore the first lock and basin of the Uttoxeter canal where it joins the Caldon canal. Such damage will have been repeated throughout the country, and there is no end in sight because more such weather is to come.

Directly or indirectly, waterways are an intrinsic part of the business economy, not just of tourism. The Caldon canal plays a vital land drainage role locally. Local businesses have been given permission to expand on the flood plain because the threat of flooding has fallen due to the Caldon canal acting as a great drain. British Waterways has a vital role, and it has suffered considerable cuts this summer. It also has tremendous costs following the summer flooding. Where is the contingency reserve to assist it?

We heard from the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee about the projected £35 million underspend on major works. British Waterways should be a recipient of extra Government funding, not a focus for yet more cuts. Where is the long-term funding contract between the Government and British Waterways to provide wider stability to the waterways network? It has long been promised, but is yet to be delivered.

I welcome the new, cross-departmental committee for inland waterways, but has it yet met, and will it help the waterways to tap into funds from other Departments? Has the Minister calculated the tremendous, positive impact of British Waterways during the summer floods, and their economic impact? I hope that he, unlike his predecessor, will be a champion for inland waterways. Much good will has been created over the past 10 years among canal users. Let us not destroy that now.

10.24 am

David Heyes (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on securing this debate. He has a proud record as a champion of waterways.

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I share his concerns and those of other hon. Members about the impact that another round of funding cuts will have on our inland waterways. My constituency has a rich canal history. In the centre of Ashton-under-Lyne, the Portland basin is a vital hub in the national canal network at the confluence of the Ashton, Peak Forest and Huddersfield narrow canals. The Ashton canal runs through Droylsden to Manchester to meet the Rochdale and Bridgewater canals, forming part of the Cheshire ring. In recent years, we have seen the successful refurbishment or restoration of all those canals and, most recently, millennium funding has enabled the restoration of the Rochdale canal through Failsworth in the Oldham part of my constituency. That investment has been a key driver in the regeneration of urban spaces alongside those canals throughout my constituency. I am still optimistic that the long-derelict Hollinwood branch canal will be reopened, but I should declare an interest as a member of the Hollinwood canal society.

These debates are becoming too frequent, and this is yet another to deplore the level of cuts imposed on British Waterways because of events and issues elsewhere in the portfolio of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We had similar debates in December last year and, as the hon. Member for Lichfield reminded us, in April this year.

This year, the pressures came from foot and mouth disease, bird flu, bluetongue and, of course, the dreadful flooding in so many parts of the United Kingdom. Those were serious matters and, unfortunately, they may be repeated. The waterways were also affected by the floods, sustaining damage and incurring costs running into millions of pounds.

Surely, there is a limit to how much planned and unplanned budget-cutting the waterways can absorb without reversing the significant progress made between 1999 and 2004. The hon. Member for Lichfield was right to acknowledge that the Government were making good progress until recent times. A DEFRA review published in 2005 highlighted much improvement by British Waterways and referred to

It also referred to the following:

That progress and investment is now at risk.

Even with all that investment, some maintenance and repair work never reaches the top of the priority list. Some six or seven years ago, a retaining wall beside the Ashton canal near Ashton-under-Lyne town centre was in danger of collapse. British Waterways made a temporary repair with a large volume of stone chippings piled against the wall. Unfortunately, those stone chippings completely blocked the towpath and part of the waterway. My earliest correspondence with the Ashton-under-Lyne Civic Society and British Waterways on this matter dates back to July 2002. A letter from British Waterways to the civic society dated 17 August 2002 states:

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However, a rider states:

The pile of stone chippings is still there, and the temporary repair is still blocking the towpath, just a short distance from the splendidly restored Portland basin. During my most recent correspondence with British Waterways in October this year, it stated:

It continued:

It must surely be clear that while funding for British Waterways remains solely with DEFRA, it will always be the poor relation in the Department with its funding pot being reduced year on year and, even worse, being reduced in-year when events such as flooding and bird or animal diseases impact on DEFRA.

We have heard that there is a strong case for other Departments to make a direct contribution to British Waterways’ funding to reflect the contribution that it makes to those Departments’ agendas. I thought that that was an eminently sensible suggestion, but the Government’s response was lukewarm. They said:

If this remains the position, more must be done to protect and to increase DEFRA’s funding for British Waterways. Much of the inland waterways network is more than 200 years old, and if funding continues to fall the significant progress earlier in this decade will be undone, the money spent on it will have been wasted, maintenance will fall behind, and it will not be long before there is a safety backlog on the waterways. The pile of stone chippings in Ashton looks set to remain, blocking the towpath for the foreseeable future. I am confident that that testament to the short-sighted view that accords our waterways such low priority will not characterise our new Minister’s approach.

10.30 am

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): This has been a serious debate, although it has been couched in entertaining terms. I am conscious of the fact that we have a lot of questions for the Minister, however, so I will try to keep my remarks brief.

Several Members have discussed the way in which canals will continue to contribute to the regeneration of some of our most deprived areas, as well as the opportunities that they offer for leisure and tourism and for underpinning the economies of areas with otherwise quite limited sources of income. I want, however, to make a couple of additional comments.

At a time when we need to tackle climate change, we sometimes underestimate the value of canals. Waterborne transport is among the most efficient forms of transport from an emissions perspective, and Tesco became the first major retailer to start transporting freight by canal earlier this year. Canals and waterways can also make a significant contribution to ensuring that the construction
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work carried out as part of the Olympics in London is greener and more efficient. In addition, the waterways are vital for transporting rubbish in the London area, and I am sure that we all think that such activities should be expanded.

Underpinning the debate have been the ongoing tensions between the Government and British Waterways, and between the Government and Members who are aware of the issues associated with canals. There remains great frustration about DEFRA’s disruptive cuts in mid-year last year, and although I congratulate the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on calling for this debate, he surely should not have needed to do so, because the concern about the cuts must have been evident to the Government. The resulting fear, uncertainty and ambiguity—the sense that there is no clear direction regarding where investment will come from in the upcoming years or how much it will be—surely puts the Department under pressure to make things clear as early as possible, so that the industry has a framework and understands the circumstances that it faces. We all hope that the waterways will cease to be the Cinderella in the DEFRA budget.

I join others in saying that DEFRA must work in partnership with other Departments not only to discuss the future of canals, but to fund them. We could look at a whole series of budgets, including those of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Transport, to ensure that the waterways have a coherent future. I cannot believe that it is not vital to have in place a long-term funding strategy and some real clarity so that investment is possible, and we expect the Minister to address those issues when he replies.

I also join others in raising concerns about the pattern of cost transfers from the taxpayer to the user, and I hope that the Minister will address the issue. We see that pattern in other parts of the transport industry. One great benefit of the waterways is that they give people on relatively low incomes the opportunity to enjoy a holiday or, indeed, to have a residence. If we allow the waterways to lose that characteristic—if everything is for the rich, not the many—we will destroy an important part of the fabric of the waterborne community.

I will now sit down but before I do, I ask the Minister to give us a full set of responses to the issues that have been raised.

10.34 am

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Martlew; it is a great honour to appear before you. I also give my warmest congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on securing the debate and on speaking so eloquently. I make a plea to the Minister to be gentle with him, because he is also my Whip, and it is in my best interests that we are all terribly nice to him.

Jonathan Shaw: I am nice to everyone.

Miss McIntosh: I know. I also warmly welcome the Minister.

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I do not want to repeat all the points that have been made. The debate has been not only informative but entertaining, and it has been in the best spirit of the House. I should record, however, that we are probably discussing the future funding of canals because DEFRA seems to be reeling from one disaster to the next. In that respect, we are grateful to the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) for securing a parliamentary answer from the Minister’s predecessor on 6 February 2007. That answer showed just how many British Waterways programmes of planned winter maintenance and repair work had to be cancelled or postponed in the winter of 2006-07. We all felt for the boaters who took to the River Thames in great numbers earlier this year to protest at the cuts.

Susan Kramer: I thank the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to say something that I forgot to say earlier. I am sure that she will join me in congratulating the “Save our Waterways” campaign on the work that it has done and on the petition that it brought to Parliament to underscore these issues.

Miss McIntosh: I will join the hon. Lady in congratulating the campaign in just one moment. Let me say, however, that 18 projects were cancelled or postponed last winter, and it would be helpful to hear when the Minister expects that planned maintenance and repair work, which is very necessary, to be conducted.

Many hon. Members, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield, have spoken about the leisure and recreation role of canals. Had the debate taken place in Holland, France or Germany, however, even greater numbers of parliamentary colleagues would have been present. The role of inland and coastal waterways in recreation and particularly in transporting goods in an environmentally friendly way is much better recognised on continental Europe than it is here.

I pay great tribute to all those who work on and support the canals system, including those involved in boating and recreational activities. As my hon. Friend said, however, the canals took on a particularly vital role following this year’s floods. May I therefore add to the list of invitations to the Minister? I recently visited the Bentley Ings and the adjoining canal, in south Yorkshire, and I should impress on him the fact that British Waterways and the Environment Agency have not carried out regular maintenance work, which has left the Bentley Ings, in particular, in severe danger of bursting its banks. The Environment Agency and the insurance industry have concluded that the failure to dredge the waterways contributed in no insignificant way to the summer floods disaster.

Let us accept that the waterways have an environmental role to play. It is perhaps appropriate to recognise that the environmentally friendly work done by British Waterways, the Inland Waterways Association and others has led to the return of that most beautiful bird, the kingfisher, among others, to our rivers, which is no mean achievement. That was due to the role played by our waterways and canals, and that should be recognised.

Several people who wished to be heard contacted me before the debate earlier today. One was the honourable secretary of the west riding branch of the Inland Waterways
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Association, who talked about the role that the waterways play. The association, which is a registered charity founded in 1946, advocates conservation, maintenance, restoration and development. It has 17,500 members worldwide, but they are deeply worried by the cuts. I was also contacted by the commodore of the Bray Cruiser Club, who talked about the work done by boaters on the Thames, particularly through the association’s Bray marina in Berkshire.

I want to dwell briefly on the question, asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield, of whether it is morally right that, through no fault of their own, British Waterways, the Inland Waterways Association and other agencies funded by the Department should have their budgets cut. To take one figure from the five-year summary of the British Waterways accounts, the most given in Government grant in recent years—£94.8 million—was given in 2003-04. That was reduced in the most recent year for which figures are available, 2006-07, to a mere £72 million. That was before the most recently announced Government cuts. I hope that the Minister will adopt an open and transparent approach and share with the House his knowledge of what order of cuts is envisaged. We understand that the Department has overspent by £115 million this year in the light of animal health crises such as foot and mouth and bird flu, and that there was an overspend on day-to-day administration relating to flooding that ran to £30 million.

I ask the Minister to be open about the matter because it is a source of some concern to all those taking part in the debate and those listening to it that the permanent secretary at the Department is publicly calling for it to play down the scope of emergency cuts of £300 million, which will hit environmentally sensitive projects and will not allow British Waterways and the Inland Waterways Association to make the contribution to the waterways and canals that is needed. The debate has been open and honest, and we need the Minister to respond as forcefully as he can.

I shall conclude now because I want to allow the Minister the maximum time to respond. I believe that the waterways fall firmly within the remit of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Government have probably put the greatest emphasis on the environment. Those hon. Members, like me, who represent deeply rural farming communities feel that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food concentrated more forcefully on farming and food production, which may be why we are no longer self-sufficient in food and depend increasingly on imports. However, I believe that DEFRA is the right Department to deal with waterways. I pay tribute to its role in keeping our waterways environmentally friendly. I urge the Government to return to the maintenance programme of previous years, and to the contribution that was made through Government grant and the Environment Agency. I recognise the role of waterways in tourism and recreation, as well as in transport and boating.

I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield was quite harsh in some of his comments, but I support what he and other hon. Members have said. The Department seems to reel from one episode of incompetence and disaster to the next. Our plea is for it
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to restore funding to canals, to restore the maintenance and dredging programme, and to put an end to the gross mismanagement and dereliction of duty that has come about. We ask the Minister to maintain our waterways as the pride and joy of the country.

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