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28 Oct 2008 : Column 202WH—continued

12.3 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Bercow, I shall buy you the champagne myself.

[Ann Winterton in the Chair]

The Montgomery canal restoration is an exemplar project of sustainable waterway restoration and regeneration, stimulating local and regional regeneration through a major contribution to the visitor economy and to the canalside’s economic development. The only problem is that there is a missing link of 13 km, which
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would join Shropshire and Wales. Making that link work requires a strategic partnership, but I am glad to say that we have universal agreement to the Montgomery canal conservation management strategy, whose partnership vision states:

I am sure that the project is achievable. It is one of only 11 that British Waterways has identified as a “priority one” for restoration throughout the UK, and the only one in Shropshire, the west midlands and Wales. As such, I invite the Minister to visit it. It is just around the corner from his constituency and on the way to Rochdale via Ellesmere Port. He will be most welcome, and he will be shown a winning project. So, as he does his round-robin tour of British canals, I hope that he will not only come and learn, but make the sort of commitments that will really make our British waterways thrive.

12.4 pm

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): It is a pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on obtaining it. She, among several other hon. Members, has been a champion of this country’s canal network, and every hon. Member who has the fortune to lead a debate about canals can be assured of the support of many other hon. Members. That shows throughout the United Kingdom, and in England and Wales in particular, not only the importance of the canal network to industry in the past, but its potential in the future, which has been well demonstrated this morning.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) mentioned several inquiries that the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs undertook recently. I shall not go back over the issues that were raised throughout the report and in its conclusions, but I should tell the Minister that if we are to make the most of the resources that the Government can put into British Waterways, there must be a good relationship between British Waterways and the sponsoring Department. It has improved over the past few years, but it is something that I am sure the Minister will want to work hard at, because the waterways will benefit when the relationship is going well.

The key theme of the debate has been the difficulty in prioritising maintenance or restoration when the amount of money available to the canal network is limited. Several Members have pointed out the importance of ensuring that silt is removed from the waterways, otherwise they become unavailable to, and unsuitable for, boats. Somebody said that only 3 per cent. of canal visitors visit on boats, but they add to the liveliness of the canals, and canals without boats would be only half the facility that they currently are, and present only half the attraction that they currently present.

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Another issue that the Minister, whom I welcome to his new post, will take on board is the vast amount of volunteering that goes on for British Waterways. Much of the progress that has been made would not have been made without volunteering, so he must take it on board and ensure that it has the encouragement that it has had in the past and will need to have in the future. One strength of British Waterways has been its ability to bring together partnerships to achieve its objectives. It has worked with public bodies, such as local councils, and with the private sector. Often, when a canal is improved, the value and importance of the land on either side increases, but one problem that has not been properly addressed is how British Waterways can take advantage of the increase in value of the land that borders the canals. The private sector benefits in many instances, but British Waterways has not yet found a way to ensure that at least some of the value of its investment is returned.

Several Members have taken advantage of this opportunity to speak about their local canals, and I must say something about the Mon and Brec canal. The Minister will know that just recently, it suffered a massive breach, and it has taken more than £1 million just to mend it, but a health and safety examination of the canal has shown that other work needs to take place, so we are putting together partnerships to do that. I know that some funds for other developments have been lost to the Mon and Brec canal, but the Minister has been invited to visit many canals, and I guess that it is the nearest one. His predecessor indicated that he was willing to go along, but I should much prefer the present Minister to do so when there is water in the canal, rather than when there is not, so perhaps we can find a time when he might do so.

There are a number of issues that hon. Members have indicated the Minister should look at. One is whether, at a time when funding will be tight, funds could be made available by other Departments that might have an interest in canals. The Department of Health has been mentioned, but the Departments for Transport and for Culture, Media and Sport also have a real interest in the network, and some money could be found within those Departments and allocated to the canals.

Ongoing maintenance has been mentioned, but I was particularly taken by the reference to involvement in local government planning as regards safeguarding the routes of canals. Many canals are now cut across by developments, which could have been avoided so that those canals could be opened in their fullness. Both rural and urban areas are connected by canals, and the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands made a powerful point about restoration of that part of the waterway network that is still derelict. At worst, a derelict canal is a dirty ditch, but it can be a high quality piece of water that can provide many facilities by promoting biodiversity, stimulating the property market alongside waterways, boosting local tourism industries and making this country a better place to live. The hon. Lady has made a good case for restoration, which will take a relic of the industrial past and turn it into a sustainable feature for the future.

12.12 pm

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): May I welcome you, Lady Winterton, and say how fortunate we are to have been so splendidly served by two excellent
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Chairmen this morning? I welcome the Minister to his new position. Perhaps he will say why it is that after the last reshuffle, apart from the Secretary of State, every single one of the ministerial team for his Department was replaced. I wish him well, and I hope that he will stay a while longer than his predecessor.

I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing the debate. She spoke with great authority, knowledge and eloquence, and identified a number of issues that other hon. Members also rowed into. In particular, she mentioned the multiple roles that British Waterways is expected to play. It is the UK’s largest navigation authority, and I think that we forget that it cares for about 3,540 km of historic canals and navigable rivers—a tall order indeed. It is responsible for navigation, recreation, fundraising, and, in answer to what my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) said, I believe that British Waterways has an adaptation role to play in preventing and alleviating flooding, and in adapting to climate change generally. I wonder whether the Minister will respond to my hon. Friend’s point about the work of the internal drainage boards. Bedfordshire is exemplary in that regard. Why have the Government cut the Environment Agency’s budget for maintenance? That is causing great concern up and down the country.

The hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands and other hon. Members drew attention to the fact that British Waterways is markedly supported by volunteers. We have heard that demonstrated today, in what has been an interesting Cook’s tour of English canals—we will all be looking to our diaries to see when we should visit. Reference has also been made to the co-operation of district and borough councils, county councils, the Mayor, the Environment Agency and the Inland Waterways Association. In addition, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) said, there is a role for the private sector—notably, in running the local pub. Indeed, British Waterways will increasingly have to rely on the private sector for future financing.

Having come from the European Parliament, one thing that has always struck me is that the inland waterway network of this country is a jewel, but together with coastal shipping, it is frequently overlooked and under-utilised in many ways. If one considers the political lobby of inland waterways in other European countries such as Holland, France and Germany, one realises that our inland waterway network could have a much greater role to play.

The underlying thrust of the debate has been the amount of funding that navigation bodies such as British Waterways have, and how they manage the inland waterways with those limited funds. Will the Minister respond to the fact that in the most recent comprehensive spending review, navigation bodies have been given flat cash for the next three years, and will therefore come under increasing pressure? I would like to quote his predecessor, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), in the excellent Select Committee report that a number of hon. Members have referred to this morning. He said that

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I shall restrict my remarks to three questions, and ask the Minister whether he will re-visit the Government response to that report.

How do the Government intend to implement the recommendations of the report, particularly the fifth and sixth recommendations? The Committee called for

The Government were dismissive and said that they did not agree with that recommendation. The Select Committee went on to say:

The Government responded negatively, stating:

In summing up, will the Minister answer the conundrum that lies at the heart of the debate called today and previous debates? The conundrum is this: restoring a canal creates spending on restoration in a particular instance, but it creates increased maintenance costs for the future. Maintenance of a newly restored waterway therefore implies increased expenditure, which perhaps the Government or British Waterways do not have access to. If he responds to that point, in what has been one of the best attended debates in my parliamentary career, he will have served the House extremely well this morning.

I would also ask the Minister to say what lessons have been learned from the fact that British Waterways had to withdraw from the Cotswold canals partnership, without consultation. Clearly, as was reflected throughout the debate, where we are so heavily reliant on a public-private partnership for investment, British Waterways needs to work more with voluntary and local bodies.

May I end on a positive note? I commend British Waterways in particular for its work on and financing of Prescott lock, which I had occasion to visit recently. I think that it will do a huge amount to prepare London for the Olympics in the construction phase. We all wait with bated breath to hear the Minister respond to those points.

12.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): I thank you, Lady Winterton, and your predecessor, Mr. Bercow, for being excellent stewards of this debate. It is one of the best attended sessions that I have seen in Westminster Hall for quite some time, and that reflects the passion, commitment and knowledge that people have displayed in their contributions.

I shall do my best to deal with as many points as I can, but Members will understand if I do not address them all in the limited time available. I have noted the concerns and will try to return to them, not least the dozen or so invitations that I have had to tour the country and visit all the canals. We have had 12 speeches plus the contributions from the Front-Bench spokesmen. There have been at least half a dozen interventions, and all the concerns have been noted.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing this excellent and well-timed debate. It is good that I am able, early in my ministerial career and new responsibilities, to address some of these issues. I am aware of her long-standing interest in the subject and that she was named parliamentarian of the year by the Inland Waterways Association earlier this year. Members are sometimes shy when we remind them of such things, but the honour is well deserved in this case. She has brought knowledge and insight to the issue.

I briefly turn to my hon. Friend’s contribution. She mentioned nationalisation in 1947, and the pivotal role of collaboration. Regional development agencies, local authorities and others must come together to drive forward investment in waterways, whether for restoration or new developments and so on. That is pivotal, and I shall return to it in a moment.

Many Members picked up on the role of volunteers, and the fact that if we did not have them at the instigation of nationalisation many decades ago and also now, we would be in a far worse position. That is worth recording.

I welcome this opportunity to reconfirm the Government’s commitment to the inland waterways. It is a commitment that I believe was recognised in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s report on British Waterways, which was published in July this year. I do not think that anyone can doubt that we have seen a remarkable renaissance in the fortunes of Britain’s waterways over the past decade. My hon. Friend referred to the second canal age. The waterways are in a better state today than they have been since before the second world war.

Government investment in inland waterways has been considerable. Over the past decade, we have invested some £750 million in British Waterways, and the Environment Agency has spent more than £42 million over the past three years in maintenance and capital repairs to the waterways infrastructure. As has been mentioned, the waterways, which include the canals, navigable rivers and the broads, provide a range of economic, social and health benefits and so on. They have a vital role in supporting cross-Government agendas for social inclusion, conservation of heritage, the environment and regeneration. Many excellent examples have been given today of how that is done.

Restoring our canal network enables us to enhance those public benefits in new areas around the country, including, as has been mentioned, adding connectivity in some cases. Let me make it clear that I therefore fully support the concept of further restoration. However—this is a big “however”—when it comes to priorities for my Department’s funding, we must ensure that the waterways maximise public benefits while delivering an affordable, sustainable network within the total funding available. That involves difficult decisions by the Government and British Waterways on the strategic approach to getting the best benefits from our waterways. Our commitment is clear, but it does not mean that we can avoid difficult decisions.

The recent Select Committee report acknowledged the usefulness of the strategic steer that was agreed with British Waterways to provide it with greater clarity
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about the Government’s priorities for the network. We can divide the priorities for the waterways in England and Wales into three areas. The first is maintaining the existing network in satisfactory order to deliver the range of public benefits. The second is achieving the longer-term vision shared by the Government and British Waterways of moving towards greater self-sufficiency. Members will agree on the need to put the network on a long-term, sustainable footing. The third is delivering the range of additional public benefits, which are not divisible from maintaining the network—they go hand in hand. The Government place great importance on all those areas, but the first one—maintaining the existing network in satisfactory order to deliver the range of public benefits associated with it—must be paramount, not least as we consider the current economic climate.

We are concerned with all three areas, but we have to maintain and drive forward the existing network. That is reflected in the approach that we take with the Environment Agency, which itself needs to implement a sustainable and affordable strategy for waterways management. In the strategic steer to British Waterways, we also made it clear that the Government remain supportive of its ambition to expand the network. That would make an additional contribution to achieving the public benefits that I have already mentioned.

The strategic steer reflects the fact that there is a gap between what British Waterways needs to maintain a steady state, and current income from all sources; hence the need for it to concentrate its resources on the existing network. That includes, as has been mentioned, the need quickly to repair breaches such as the one at Stourbridge, where British Waterways will need to spend an additional £1 million on repairs. It must be right that British Waterways prioritise its resources to deal with unpredictable events that can have a significant impact on people’s enjoyment of the existing network and on all those whose livelihoods depend on it.

The EFRA Committee recommended that the Government should develop a mechanism to score and prioritise public investment in canal restoration, taking into account the benefits created and the agreed principles on how financial risks should be borne, and the Government noted that. The Select Committee also raised concerns about British Waterways bearing most of the financial risk for the restoration of canals. It rightly commented that canal restoration can directly bring all the benefits that we have described, and its view was that the risks should be spread more widely among the public sector.

The Government agree with part of that recommendation but not the first part. As we said in our response, decisions on restoration projects are best taken at a local or regional level, not least because funding has to be raised at the local or regional level.

Miss McIntosh: Without imparting any criticism of British Waterways, my concern is that its pulling out of the Cotswold canal project led to a loss of trust in the future. How would the Minister respond to that?

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