Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Fourth Special Report


Letter from the Minister for Marine, Landscape and Rural Affairs to the Chairman of the Committee, 17 July 2008

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Report—'British Waterways: Follow-up'

I am grateful for the EFRA Committee Report 'British Waterways: Follow-up'.

We will be providing the Committee with a formal Government response to the Report but in the meantime I welcome the acknowledgement of progress, notably in the work we have done with British Waterways to improve relationships, the benefit of having set out policy guidance to BW through the Strategic Steer and the allocation to BW following the CSR settlement which was seen as acceptable in the present financial climate.

This letter addresses the request in the Report for a note before the summer recess on the work and achievements of the Inter-Departmental Working Group on Inland Waterways (IDG) which the department set up last year.

The membership of the IDG comprises senior representatives from the Department for Communities and Local Government, Department for Transport, Department for Children, Schools and Families, Department of Health, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, Wales Assembly Government, British Waterways, the Environment Agency, the Association of Inland Navigation Authorities and the Inland Waterways Advisory Council. (The Local Government Association has also been invited to be a member.)

As the Committee Report notes, the IDG met for the first time on 7 December 2007. It was a productive meeting under the Chairmanship of Robin Mortimer, a Director in this Department. The IDG agreed its Terms of Reference; namely

To provide a focal point for

  • More effective cross government co-ordination on inland waterways matters.
  • A fuller understanding and recognition of the contribution that the inland waterways can make to government policies for climate change, environmental improvement, public health, recreation, regeneration, heritage, planning, transport and community cohesion.
  • Discussion on proposed research into the social and economic value of the waterways and undertake a refresh of government policy for the waterways.
  • Discussion on key strategic issues.

Agreement was reached that the IDG should meet 3-4 times a year.

The initial meeting provided an opportunity for Departments and navigation authorities to discuss the potential contribution of inland waterways to achieving cross Government objectives within PSA targets. There was discussion about the scope of a proposed research project into the social and economic benefits of inland waterways. The IDG meeting prompted the setting up of a Programme Board and Project Team to manage the project which has new Defra funding for 2008/09 and 2009/10. Finally, the IDG discussed how the review of Waterways for Tomorrow, recommended by the EFRA Committee, should be taken forward. Some IDG members subsequently helped to develop draft Terms of Reference for the review for agreement at the Working Group's next meeting.

The IDG met for a second time on 18 June 2008 under my Chairmanship (and given the importance the Government attaches to it, I intend to Chair further meetings). This was again a productive meeting. There was detailed discussion about the planning system and inland waterways and this provided an opportunity for British Waterways to discuss with DCLG elements of proposed changes including a new Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) and revisions to a number of Planning Policy Statements. CLG reported that they were examining responses to their consultation on new Planning Policy Statement 4 on economic development, and that they would aim to take into account British Waterways' views in preparing a final document. In relation to the CIL, CLG advised that the Planning Bill contained provision to allow CIL proceeds to be spent on recreational and transport facilities to support the development of a local area. While it would be for local authorities to decide how to spend CIL funds, this did hold out the possibility that waterways would be a beneficiary.

The IDG agreed that it would be useful for the navigation bodies to engage more effectively with Chief Executives and other senior staff in the RDAs on the contribution inland waterways can and do make to regional economic policies. My officials will consider how central Government can best help secure effective engagement with RDAs and this will be on the agenda of the next meeting, possibly with RDA and/or Government Office presence.

The IDG then considered a report from DfT about the freight potential of inland waterways. DfT Ministers had decided that given the role of the IDG it was appropriate to allow it the chance to discuss the report and to make comments prior to its publication. The report mapped waterways with the greatest potential for freight use, either in their current condition or with minor infrastructure improvements. DfT explained that inland waterways with the greatest potential were generally those related to the larger estuaries. There were other inland waterways with local more specialised potential and these were generally those with longer lock free sections. While the IDG welcomed the report, the meeting provided the opportunity for DfT to address concerns from navigation authorities that they might be placed under undue pressure by private sector operators to make infrastructure improvements and provide additional expenditure to maintain waterways for freight use where this could not be justified. DfT explained that developing opportunities for freight was a matter for the commercial market, though facilities grants were available to support the development of freight infrastructure on inland waterways where a promoter can prove there is a financial need and a quantifiable environmental benefit. The DfT report has now been published.

There was a very useful discussion about proposed Terms of Reference for the review of Waterways for Tomorrow. The IDG agreed that the outcome of the review had to be realistic in acknowledging what was possible within the constraints of current policy priorities and funding availability centrally and locally. As a result of comments from the IDG I agreed that an updated document should be produced if possible rather than just a supplement to WfT as originally envisaged. This will mean a more thorough review but I remain hopeful that it can be concluded early in the new year. Members of the IDG will continue to be closely involved as work on the review goes forward and the IDG will consider the outcome in due course.

Finally, the IDG considered the detailed project specification for the research project on the social and economic benefits of inland waterways. A number of useful comments were made which will be used to refine the specification before it is put out to tender shortly.

We are planning for the next meeting to take place in early/mid November. Agenda items are likely to include engagement with RDAs, given the benefits of the waterways are felt most regionally and locally; the waterways aspects of heritage; and the opportunities inland waterways can offer in helping to achieve sustainable recreation and improved public health.

In conclusion, I believe that the IDG will make a strong contribution to cross Government understanding of the benefits inland waterways can bring in helping achieve public service agreement objectives. Ensuring the IDG delivers tangible gain for the waterways will of course be challenging given Departments' need to focus resources on their specific policy objectives. But I have been impressed with the constructive approach they have demonstrated so far and the commitment to delivering a refreshed and realistic Waterways for Tomorrow that will again raise the profile of the waterways and demonstrate the cross Government value of continuing to ensure they thrive.

Jonathan Shaw MP, Minister for Marine, Landscape and Rural Affairs

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

17 July 2008

previous page contents

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 14 October 2008