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28 Oct 2008 : Column 196WH—continued

11.39 am

David Heyes (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Bercow. I think that I might pull some time back.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing yet another debate on this issue. I almost get a feeling of déj vu, being here again. My constituency is rich in canals and canal history, with the Ashton, Peak Forest and Huddersfield canals all meeting at the centre of Ashton-under-Lyne, at the Portland basin. In Failsworth, the Rochdale canal has been reopened, thanks to millennium funding.

I should like to mention the ambitious plans of the Hollinwood canal society, which aims to restore the canals through Daisy Nook country park, reconnecting them to the Ashton canal and creating a new link to the Rochdale canal. That has always been an ambitious, but nevertheless worthy, aim. Those of us who have been involved with it have known that we were in for the long haul. Sadly, the uncertain economic future is likely to add to the time scale. Faced with that uncertainty, it becomes all the more important to preserve the lines of disused inland waterways to ensure the possibility of future restoration. The Hollinwood branch is severed in two places by the M60 motorway, but local optimism about the scope to restore it has been given a boost by the new link to the Ashton canal and by the reconstruction of the first short section of the Hollinwood canal to the new Droylsden wharf.

It is nearly three years since I promoted a Bill on this issue, and I want to put in a shout for the restoration of its aims. My Bill would have obliged planning authorities to consult all those concerned with inland waterways when drawing up development plans and when determining planning applications that might have consequences for the line of an abandoned waterway. The problem is that planning policy guidance on waterways is not mandatory. I am thinking in particular of planning policy guidance notes 12 and 13, both of which are loosely worded. Leaving it open to a planning authority to decide to protect the line of a waterway means that it may decide not to. Leaving open the interpretation of what are “viable options” for waterway restoration is similarly subject to variation from one local authority to another. In these more uncertain economic times, I urge the Minister to reconsider tightening up planning laws and guidance, so that we can at least protect the routes of abandoned waterways until resources can be found to enable their restoration.

28 Oct 2008 : Column 197WH
11.42 am

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): I am conscious of time, so I shall cut to the chase. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing the debate. I agree entirely with her analysis of the value of the waterways and about the importance of continuing investment in the maintenance, development and reopening of waterways.

The Chesterfield canal was built between 1771 and 1777. It is important historically, as far as the Houses of Parliament are concerned, because all the stone that was used to build them, in the 1830s, travelled down the Chesterfield canal before being loaded on to coastal ships and carried up the River Thames to this site, where it was unloaded and used to build the magnificent building in which we work every day. In 1906, after a long and active life, the roof of the Norwood tunnel, which is roughly in the middle of the canal, collapsed. Since then, the 26 miles of canal on one side of the tunnel was used as a working canal until 1962 and has been used as a leisure canal since then. However, the 20 miles of canal running from the tunnel into Chesterfield became derelict.

That could have been the end of the matter. Part of the canal at Killamarsh was filled in, and a small housing estate was built across the line of the canal. Derbyshire county council bought a section of the land in 1987, not to restore the canal, but to put it in a culvert, underground, so that it could build a bypass across the site. That bypass has been planned since 1936 and still has not been built, but we live in hope in that part of the constituency. When I moved there in 1979, for my first teaching job in Chesterfield, I bought a house at Tapton, overlooking the canal, and it was a stagnant ditch. As a history teacher, I used to take my pupils through chest-high weeds and grass looking for bits of canal, bridge and other traces that could be seen in the undergrowth.

How different the area is now, 30 years later. In the 1970s, local volunteers decided that it should not stay as it was, and in 1976 they created the Chesterfield canal society, which became the Chesterfield canal trust in 1998. They have renovated whole stretches of the canal, beginning with Tapton lock and visitor centre, just below where I used to live. Over the next 20 or 30 years, they worked through a sequence of sections. Just two weeks ago, JCBs began excavating at the site of a 19th-century canal terminal in Chesterfield that had long since been filled in. The site is being excavated to restore the canal basin so that the canal will have a proper terminal. The private sector is now heavily involved in what used to be solely the activity of a fantastic group of local volunteers. Private developers can see the advantage of having a waterside development along the lines of similar successful developments in Leeds, Birmingham and, to a limited degree, Sheffield.

All the progress on the canal is due to local volunteers who believed in the impossible. Through their realistic plan, they are close to restoring the whole length of the canal and re-linking it to the national network. Derbyshire county council has reversed its original position, and has been an enthusiastic supporter of the canal since the 1990s. Chesterfield borough council, of which I was a member for 12 years, and Brimington parish council, of which I was a member for four years, have also
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helped the canal. Grants have come from various sources, and the private sector is now involved, but none of that would have happened without those fantastic local volunteers. Various hon. Members have paid tribute to similar activities in their areas.

Chesterfield is a narrowboat canal, and will never realistically carry any commercial cargo, so why is all that important? There are two reasons, the first of which is quality of life. The canal is a linear lung out of Chesterfield. On any weekend or summer evening, the towpath is full of people walking, cycling, fishing and watching the birdlife. What was a derelict and abandoned industrial valley has been completely regenerated. The second reason is economic regeneration. A major private company is looking to redevelop the whole area where the original canal basin was, just off Chesterfield centre, with housing, offices and shops, bringing jobs and restoring quality of life.

In conclusion, I should like to echo the points that all hon. Members have made so far, including the hon. Lady in her opening comments. Whatever the economic pressures as we enter a recession, the Government must not take the short-sighted option of reducing funding to the waterways, because they are important for quality of life and for long-term economic regeneration.

11.47 am

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to you for calling me, Mr. Bercow, and I shall keep to my four minutes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing another debate on this issue. She is a true champion of the waterways, and totally deserves the Inland Waterways Association award. I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to his position. No doubt, he realises that his portfolio will be an interesting one.

The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has investigated this issue twice in the past few years. In our first investigation, which I had the opportunity and good fortune to chair, we looked into the role of British Waterways. However, the result was that BW pulled out of the Cotswold canals partnership, so I am not sure whether I would like to repeat that experience. That is history, and I do not want to go back over it, but history carries on in some respects. I should like the Minister to look into a particular issue. A key part of the partnership’s operation was Brimscombe port, and moneys were made available by the South West of England Regional Development Agency and ended up with BW. Given that it has withdrawn from the partnership, I am concerned that it is trying to sell its stake in Brimscombe port. Will the Minister look into that urgently and ensure that it does not happen? The stake should instead be passed to the two remaining key partners, the Cotswold Canals Trust—a wonderful organisation—and Stroud district council, which has taken lead of the partnership.

Will the Minister also look tolerantly on the partnership’s request for money? That need not necessarily be in the form of a grant, but could be in relation to contaminated land. It could also be related to the use of canals as a key part of our climate change strategy. There might be environmental moneys that could be made available. We want to continue to lock in Heritage Lottery Fund moneys of £11.9 million. The parties who remain in the
28 Oct 2008 : Column 199WH
partnership are adamant that they want to see the project through, and they intend to do all they can to ensure that that happens, notwithstanding BW’s decision.

I could go on to discuss many other matters, but instead I shall give the Minister a list. I encourage him to discuss some of those issues—perhaps in private initially—with hon. Members present and with those who belong to the parliamentary waterways group.

The list of issues that I have is rather long, but they are issues that the Minister may wish to dwell on. The issues are in no particular order: employment practices; housing policies; mooring fees; bridge openings and replacement of bridges; executive bonuses; the link with the ports that British Waterways owns; and last but not least is the issue that the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) referred to, which is flooding. I think that our waterways can be part of the solution to our flooding problem, but unless we look at their maintenance, they will be part of the problem.

In conclusion, I would like to think that we have a clear policy and that BW in particular and the other partners will continue with the reopening of our waterways. That is something that BW has stated in its strategy—not just the maintenance of existing waterways, but the reopening of disused waterways. It would be helpful if the Minister was to restate that the aim of reopening waterways was the Government’s intention, because there has been some questioning of whether it is still the policy. I will say nothing more, because I have taken my four minutes already.

11.51 am

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I would also like to congratulate the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on her excellent speech and on the comments that she made.

I intend to be very brief. I wish to talk about the Rochdale canal. It was one of the canals that fell into disuse in the 1940s but it was later restored. A lot of volunteers worked on the canal and fought for its restoration. It secured millennium funding and was reopened in 2000. I would like to pay tribute to Frances Done, the former chief executive of Rochdale council and a member of the Waterways Trust, for the work that she did. Four local authorities are served by the Rochdale canal: Rochdale; Oldham; Manchester, and Calderdale. They have a maintenance programme in place and they contribute to it.

The big issue about the Rochdale canal is that, in order to get it reopened for the millennium, minimum funding of more than £25 million was secured, but it was always understood that there would be additional funding and at least £11 million of additional work was identified as being necessary. The cuts in the British Waterways grant are having an effect on the ability of British Waterways to deliver that restoration work. Therefore, I invite the new Minister to come to the Rochdale canal. If he comes, he will see a vibrant restoration, from the heart of Manchester right into the Pennines. However, it is absolutely vital that the extra £11 million of funding is secured.

The second issue that was not resolved in the rush to get the canal reopened for the millennium was giving the canal a proper water supply. The two reservoirs that
28 Oct 2008 : Column 200WH
used to serve the canal are now owned by United Utilities Water and although they are not used for domestic water supply, United Utilities Water still refuses to relinquish them. I hope that the Minister can put pressure on United Utilities Water, because one of the issues about the canal, when it is open, has been a lack of water supply. It is vital for the future of the canal that it obtains that water supply. I will finish there. I hope that the Minister will look at those points.

11.53 am

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): As we continue this tour of Great British locations, I want to bring the House’s attention to Ellesmere Port. The recovery of the town was centred on the work undertaken in creating what is now a National Waterways museum. If that work had not been carried out, the recovery of the town, including the development of the fantastic retail complex around Cheshire Oaks that brought in 7 million day visitors last year, simply would not have happened.

I know that the Waterways Trust is not immediately part of the direct responsibilities of my hon. Friend the Minister, but it is struggling to maintain its important museum network. The Waterways Trust museums, including the one in Ellesmere Port, are after all centres of national collections that have been described by experts as being important in their locations. It is not just a case of picking up a bunch of exhibits and moving them to another place. They are important locations, because the three Waterways Trust museums are, of course, part of our national heritage. The work that is being undertaken around our waterways by the Waterways Trust and the huge network of volunteers have made a fundamental difference to the community that I represent.

More recently, the junction between the narrow canals and the Manchester ship canal has provided an exciting location that Peel Holdings, which owns the Manchester ship canal, is using as a major focus of regeneration, and it is now one of the approved areas where the Government are allowing the expansion of housing on a waterfront. It is an enormously exciting opportunity. However, what is missing from that development—and my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) touched on this issue in her opening remarks—is the lack of joined-up thinking between Government Departments. The issues that we are talking about today spill over from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to the area of education, involving a range of Government Departments and indeed the private sector too.

As part of the recovery of our economy, we need to look at some of the things that have happened to parts of the waterways network in the past few years and learn lessons. Yes, the waterways can be used as levers for recovery, but they are not just levers for recovery; they can also be levers to encourage new and exciting tourism opportunities and social opportunities for our own communities on the canal network, utilising the canals in a way that simply has not been envisaged before.

This is a huge opportunity and the Government would miss it at their peril. Therefore I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to work very closely with his colleagues in all the other Departments that have related interests
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in the waterways network to come up with a joined-up solution to what is a challenging problem but one that it would be very worth while to tackle.

11.57 am

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): I would like to thank my constituent Mr. Tony Lenten and the Inland Waterways Association for their briefing for me today. I agree with almost everything that has been said in this debate. We are all here because we have a passion for the waterways of this country, which are part of our heritage and our future.

The Grand Union canal flows through my constituency, which is dominated by a new town, and the canal is the link between the rural community and the urban community. For many people, it is the only piece of countryside that they see. The other day, when I was fishing on the canal, it was a pleasure to see a kingfisher fishing smack bang in the middle of the new town. That is a hallmark of the canal’s cleanliness.

However, I have some concerns about the future. Since 1946, some 500 miles of canals have been reopened and I understand, from the briefing that I have had, that another 500 miles are subject to works that may go ahead or that are actually going ahead at the moment. In my constituency, the biggest blight on the Grand Union canal is silt. What worries me is that, as funding gets tighter and tighter for British Waterways, we are not protecting what we already have. If we do not protect the existing canal structure, whatever we do in the future will be cut off by this blight or plague of silt that is going on now.

I have lived in my constituency for seven years and I have fished on the Grand Union canal since I was a young child. In all that time, I have not seen any dredging going on whatsoever. I was fishing on the canal at the weekend and I can tell the Minister that the main Grand Union canal going up through Hertfordshire is only about 18 inches deep. Silt is a major problem. We want more traffic to use the canals and we might want to transport heavy goods to the supermarkets that are situated right by the edge of the canal in my constituency, but the problem is that those goods simply could not get there, because ordinary pleasure craft are bottoming out in the canal on a regular basis. As I say, silt is a major issue.

Therefore, as we look forward and try to keep our canals as part of our heritage, we must be careful. Funding is tight and British Waterways should look after what it already has before it invests too much in something that we may not be able to hold on to.

Several hon. Members rose

John Bercow (in the Chair): Order. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Two more Back Benchers still wish to contribute, and I will crack open a bottle of champagne if I, or my successor, is able to ensure that both are able to do so.

11.59 am

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): Thank you for squeezing me into the debate, Mr. Bercow. I shall make three brief points in support of the main argument that we need to open up more of the network, rather than just maintain what we already have.

28 Oct 2008 : Column 202WH

Many points have been made about the regeneration of our cities as a result of canal investment, and I remember trying to navigate the Birmingham canal in 1980 as part of a family holiday, but giving up on the attempt. Now, of course, the canal is at the heart of Birmingham’s regeneration, as are canals in relation to Salford Quays and Sheffield. Sheffield’s quays have been redeveloped as the canal has been opened up, and the redevelopment is not as limited as was earlier suggested. At most times, the quays in Sheffield are packed with canal boats.

The two other points that I shall make have not been touched on too much in the debate. The first point is about wildlife and wildlife corridors. Canals represent wildlife corridors that reach into the heart of many urban areas, and the concept of the wildlife corridor fits neatly with the living landscapes concept that the Wildlife Trust has developed. We therefore have an opportunity to build the natural environment, to cut carbon emissions and so on if we invest in our canal network. The issue is not just about the environment and carbon emissions, however; it is about enjoying wildlife for its own sake. My brother takes his family on canal holidays two or three times a year, and they enjoyed their first sighting of a kingfisher only last year. It was an amazing experience for them.

The tranquillity of the canals makes them a genuine holiday option, and we should not underestimate the opportunities for tourism that result from our investment in the canal network. It is tranquil, calm and offers unique insights into our countryside. Kevin Spacey recently cited the canal network as one of the top landscapes in the British countryside because of the opportunities that it offers for a unique landscape experience.

My second and final point is about walking opportunities. We are going to open up the coastal network via the draft Marine Bill, which I hope will be in the legislative programme, and we have established the right to roam on our moorlands and in our countryside. So at a time when we are extending access to walking, would it not be ironic if we were to lose some of those opportunities because we failed to invest in our canal network? Some 50 per cent. of the population can access canal towpaths within 10 minutes. The opportunities for access and, on top of that, disabled access are particularly relevant to our canal network. On that point alone, we should invest in our canals.

Let us open up more of the canal network. It would be short-sighted not to do so in terms of regeneration and the health, environment and tourism and economic development agendas. Investment, please. It is not expenditure; it is investment.

John Bercow (in the Chair): I call Lembit Öpik.

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