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28 Oct 2008 : Column 189WH—continued

The canals in my constituency in north Staffordshire represent real opportunities for regeneration. We have seen the successful completion of a four-year project,
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costing £6 million, to improve the towpaths and access points on to the canals around Stoke-on-Trent. That huge investment was paid for by the regional development agency and by European money, but, sadly, that positive partnership is not so evident elsewhere.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley) will speak about the Burslem port, but my local Tory council has sat on an in-depth feasibility study to restore, extend and develop the Caldon canal in Leek for more than one and a half years, and nothing has happened. Such restoration work would open up a real opportunity to develop the south side of Leek, especially as the Caldon canal runs side by side with the Churnet Valley heritage steam railway. It could be a real honey pot for visitors and local residents alike, with the towpath used as part of the local “Walking the Way to Health” programme and the Beatrice Charity’s trip boat providing children with special needs and wheelchair users the chance to get out on to the water and into the beautiful Staffordshire, Moorlands countryside.

Leek should learn from the experience of Llangollen in Wales, where the development of a mooring basin has massively boosted visitor numbers to the market town. Sadly, local IWA members are still struggling to get the development of the canal into Leek’s local development framework. Many people in Leek are unaware that the canal comes into the town, because the canal terminus comes out behind a scrap yard on an industrial estate. There is not even a sign to tell visitors about the delights of Leek a few hundred yards away. Yet when my dedicated IWA volunteers have organised local canal festivals, the place is alive with boats, music, activity and history. There are also plans to bring to life the Uttoxeter canal by opening a 13-mile stretch from Froghall in my constituency to the wharf in Uttoxeter.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I felt a real fellow feeling when the hon. Lady talked about the Leek canal terminus behind the gasworks. The Aylesbury canal basin is behind the Inland Revenue offices, which is probably even more of a disincentive to casual visitors. Does the hon. Lady agree that there are real fears in places such as Aylesbury, which are on arms of canals rather than through routes, that they may be the first candidates for reductions in maintenance and renovation expenditure? Often, as in the hon. Lady’s constituency and Aylesbury, the redevelopment of the canal is an integral and key part of wider urban regeneration projects. Without the canal restoration, the viability and the attractiveness of those urban renovation projects is under threat.

Charlotte Atkins: I could not agree more. There are real concerns that cul-de-sac canals, such as the Caldon and the one that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, are second class, because they are not on the main network. In fact, they are delightful and provide a fantastic experience for local people. I am aware of that point, which I have raised on many occasions. That is why we must continue to fight for our own local canals and work alongside the enthusiastic volunteers who have brought many canals back from the dereliction of the 1970s. The extension to the canal in Uttoxeter could be a great gem of a development. Sadly, it has not yet got off the ground, but I hope that it will do so soon.

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I realise that many hon. Members want to speak, and in concluding, I want to ask the Minister about several issues. First, will he seek to do what many Waterways Ministers have failed to do in the past—retrieve money from other Departments to help with the restoration and maintenance of the current network of waterways? We all recognise that many Departments have an interest in the canals, with respect to health, education and regeneration, and that those Departments should make some financial contribution. Will the Minister also commit himself to the expansion of the waterways system, in line with “Waterways for Tomorrow”, which was published in 2000 and which he and his Department are now, I believe, reviewing?

Will the Minister also encourage job creation, during this period of economic turmoil, by helping organisations such as the Inland Waterways Association and local canal trusts, such as the Caldon and Uttoxeter Canals Trust in my constituency, with grants for maintaining and restoring the waterways network? The IWA has recently shown what good use it puts its money to by stepping in with £175,000 to save the Woolsthorpe top lock on the Grantham canal from closure, following the partial collapse of the offside wall to the lock last year. British Waterways considered the matter, but decided that it could not afford to rebuild the wall and proposed that the lock should be filled in. We do not want to go back to the bad old days when local and other authorities left the canals to dereliction. That would be a dreadful backward step, so I ask the Minister to help the waterways network to continue to move forward.

Several hon. Members rose

John Bercow (in the Chair): Order. I remind hon. Members that the Front Benchers who will make the winding-up speeches will be called at or very close to 12 o’clock, and I appeal again to hon. Members to help me to help them.

11.22 am

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I thank the hon. Lady for securing such an important debate, and—on behalf of us all, so that we do not all have to repeat it—I welcome your chairmanship of the debate this morning, Mr. Bercow. I reckon that if we do about four minutes each we should just about all get into the time, so I shall do my best to stick to that.

I have a personal fondness for canals and I am sure that we all share either childhood or, as in my case, more recent memories of family holidays on a canal. My previous involvement was when I was sponsor Minister for Manchester and Salford; part of the great revival of those cities happened through Michael Heseltine’s initiatives in the city centre and the development that was done there. I should like to discuss two issues relating to my constituency—one from each side of it, geographically.

Perhaps I may introduce the new Minister to the excellent work of the Bedford and Milton Keynes Waterway Trust. His predecessor, now the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), paid a visit to it in July to see its work. That work is to enable the
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waterway to extend from the River Great Ouse in Bedford to the junction with the Grand Union canal in Milton Keynes. It will connect the waterways of East Anglia with the main canal network running through the country. It is a key part of the growth area strategy in the region. The Minister will know that Bedfordshire has had to accept a very large number of houses; to make that in any way bearable a leisure and working facility such as the new canal will make a great difference.

I want to pay tribute to the extraordinary coalition that has come together: the county council, with Mid Beds district council and Bedford borough council, Milton Keynes council, the mayor of Bedford and the Members of Parliament in the area—the hon. Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall) has been very supportive of the work that goes through his constituency, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) has also been supportive. It is a tremendous coalition. I pay tribute particularly to Jane Wolfson and David Fowler of the Waterways Trust for everything that they do. I hope that the personal support from the Minister’s predecessor will be reflected in the support that he gives. I invite him on behalf of the trust to visit the area as soon as possible, to see the work that is being done.

The second issue is rather more contentious and concerns the flooding on the other side of the constituency that we experienced in 2003, and the absence of effort by the Environment Agency to deal with it. There is a fundamental issue affecting the agency and the internal drainage boards in the United Kingdom—particularly those in low-lying areas. The agency goes by a mantra that says that dredging is not the answer to flooding. Those who have spent their lives and careers on inland waterways in the east of England would disagree. I am indebted to Barry Easom, Dick Bennett and members of the Bedfordshire and River Ivel internal drainage board for their advice in relation to this matter, and I put it to the Minister that it is time the Environment Agency’s policy was changed. I hope that he will help with the matter.

Watercourses that are naturally slow, which is the case in low-lying areas such as the east of England, do not have the flow of water that moves the silt. Accordingly they need the work to be done. The lack of such work by the Environment Agency in recent years has been very damaging. The agency claims that it spends £34 million a year out of its budget of £600 million on maintenance activities; but only £3 million a year is spent on desilting, and a further £8 million on vegetation clearance. Where does the rest go, and why is more work not done on desilting? My constituents still fear that flooding may result in the future. After the floods of 2003 a study was commissioned—it has still not reported because it has been repeatedly delayed, year after year—to find the answer to flooding in the area. I should like to know when that work will be completed. The catchment flood area management plans were promised in September 2008. The date has now been pushed back to 2009 and still there is no sign of relief for constituents.

I have three requests to put to the Minister. First, I should like him to ensure that the Environment Agency will begin to listen to advice on dredging in areas such as the east of England; to ensure that work on the Ivel
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will be moved forward; and in due course to confirm his personal support for the Bedford and Milton Keynes new canal.

11.27 am

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): Four minutes is indeed a very short time in which to say how much we welcome your being at the helm of our debate, Mr. Bercow, and to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins), who has done so much work to promote inland waterways throughout the country. We owe her a huge debt for obtaining the debate.

I want briefly to pay tribute to the many volunteers who, as my hon. Friend mentioned, have worked tirelessly to bring our waterways to the standard that they are now at. I hope that our debate will be a fitting tribute to two of those volunteers—the late Mr. and Mrs. Osborne, who did a great deal of work to give young and, particularly, disabled people the opportunity to get to know the waterways around our area—and that it will help to bring about the actions they would have wanted. I look for progress on that to the new Minister, who I am sure enjoys the waterways throughout this country, like many hon. Members.

There is a huge number of hon. Members present for the debate, and I hope that they will take time from their busy schedules to enjoy holidays on the canals and bring tourism to those canals, and to the towns and villages of north Staffordshire. I hope that they will help us to get the message across to everyone that the waterways are a vital part of our infrastructure and that today’s debate must bring about a step change towards getting inland waterways at one with regeneration and tourism.

I want briefly to flag up three issues—one is that despite the extra investment given by the Government, there is none the less continuing underfunding of British Waterways. We need to think about that from the point of view of continuing daily maintenance, without which the waterways will start to crumble and will not be the attraction we need them to be. Staffordshire, Moorlands constituency borders Stoke-on-Trent, North, and my hon. Friend and I share the wonderful Caldon canal. The Endon boat club, which we both visited almost two years ago for its 50th anniversary, reports that dredging is getting to be non-existent. Its members fear that the Caldon canal is getting shallower and shallower.

We heard about the extra £1 million that the Government have found, but we need something in the region of £400,000 just to improve the towpath between Stockton Brook and Endon, and other associated towpaths in the area. We must, through whatever budget and despite the difficult economic times, find that money as a means of getting people back into work and improving infrastructure. I would like the Minister to be aware that I have been trying my best for 12 months to liaise between British Waterways and the local authorities in order to get them to recognise that general maintenance needs to be improved. It is still not being done to the satisfaction of the Endon boat club, and I await action on that.

Local residents near the Trent and Mersey canal by Westport lake in my constituency take great pride in their new estate, and local people enjoy the facilities on offer there. British Waterways and Stoke-on-Trent council are making a joint effort to build a tourist centre. I must
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report that despite the fact that it is a state-of-the-art, green tourist centre that will do much to improve facilities for everyone using the area, British Waterways tells me that, due to a long period of non-performance by the contractor,

at Stoke-on-Trent city council

That is exactly the point of this debate. By hook or by crook, one way or another, money must be found to complete the work undertaken.

My last point relates to regeneration and tourism. There is not enough time for me to mention it now, but on previous occasions I have referred to the Burslem port project. In Burslem, another town in the Potteries, there is an opportunity for regeneration. A housing market renewal programme is being planned and there are infrastructure plans that keep alive hope of recreating the former Burslem port, but enough attention has not been given to the regeneration process, to which I have contributed. We have not got the progress that we wanted and that we feel would have been in keeping with the feasibility study done back in 2005 of adopting the scheme within the area development framework.

In addition to the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands, I ask the Minister not only to address the issues of ongoing maintenance but to consider how he can relate to all his regional Ministers. Will he have talks with our regional Minister for the West Midlands to ensure that we can deliver on regeneration and restoration of our inland waterways as part of a wider economic, social, environmental and health agenda?

11.33 am

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I will follow the example of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) by not congratulating you, Mr. Bercow, on chairing this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) for initiating it.

I shall describe, through the canal system in my constituency, where I think the Government need to act and where they do not. I take on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who mentioned canal arms. The Market Harborough arm is a cul-de-sac, but although there have been times when that part of the canal system was in danger of silting or of not being properly maintained, commercial development in the basin at the far end of the cul-de-sac, in the town of Market Harborough, has attracted investment, housing and commercial premises around the basin. That has consequently increased the use of the waterway from the main section of the canal into Market Harborough, a waterway of about five or six miles that is now used fully. However, there is a danger that if the amount of money available directly from the Government, through British Waterways or through private interest groups, is cut back, that section of the canal will fall into disrepair, to the disadvantage of those who live and keep their boats on the canal basin and the general upkeep of the canal as a whole.

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The Harborough arm comes from Foxton, forming one of the great wonders of the modern industrial world. The Foxton steps are a series of about 10 locks that come down from the waterways in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) to run north through Harborough towards Leicester. Next door to the steps is the inclined plane, which for a brief period during the early 20th century enabled boats to be lifted or lowered between the top and bottom of the locks without taking the lengthy time required to go through each of them. That is now a subject for potential redevelopment, but it will be hugely expensive. I hope that the Government will not configure the finances of British Waterways and the waterways system as a whole so as to inhibit those who are interested in the trust behind the redevelopment and restoration of the inclined plane from carrying on their work.

The area around the locks in Foxton has become an important tourist and commercial centre in a way utterly fitting for that part of rural Harborough. I urge the Minister not only to come and look at the site of the Foxton locks but to encourage British Waterways to carry on with the good work that it has been doing over the past few years. There was a time when the buildings around the Foxton locks were falling into disrepair because of a lack of investment and maintenance by British Waterways; I am afraid that at one point I was reduced to describing the state of the buildings as worse than some of the bomb sites that I had seen in Bosnia. That acted as a spur, and I congratulate British Waterways on the tremendously innovative and thoughtful way that it has redeveloped the area around the bottom of the locks, the locks themselves and the lock-keeper’s cottage at the top, which is now part café and part education centre for children. I commend British Waterways for its successful work in the Foxton locks area.

However, British Waterways would not have done it with only Government help. It had the good sense to go into the private sector to find partners. At the bottom of the locks, there is now a highly successful pub called the Foxton Locks Inn, run by two constituents of mine, Bob and Stephanie Hamblin. They took on the lease for the pub, which belongs to British Waterways but has been developed through the assistance of a commercial brewer, Scottish and Newcastle. It was not until British Waterways realised that it did not keep pubs but managed waterways and allowed a commercial enterprise to come in and help that the project got off the ground. Now both the inn and the waterways draw people in. I commend that project to the Minister and ask him to urge British Waterways and all those interested in the preservation of our waterways for tourism and commercial enterprises to consider how Foxton locks has developed.

Another example of public-private partnership involves a couple who live close to Foxton locks, Tony and Mary Matts. They have run a boat hire and maintenance business for years, and they have done tremendous work in keeping boats on the water and attracting people to rent them daily, weekly or longer. It is a yet further example of the sensible way that private and public money can be used to the public benefit.

It is not controversial to say that we are in the middle—perhaps at the beginning—of a difficult financial period. I do not imagine that there is a huge amount of additional Government money to be spent on British
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Waterways or the waterway system as a whole, but I urge the Government not to suppress private interest in that public aspect of rural life. It is vital and it needs encouragement. I urge the Government and the Minister, who is new to his job—I congratulate him on it—to drive private interest into that aspect of the public sector.

Several hon. Members rose

John Bercow (in the Chair): Order. With 20 minutes of Back-Bench time remaining, I note simply that the squeeze is intensifying.

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