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Delegated Legislation


REgional Select Committee (LONdon)

Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

Sittings of the House

Motion made ,

Hon. Members: Object.

30 Nov 2009 : Column 942


Equitable Life (Mid-Worcestershire)

10.16 pm

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): It is my sad duty to present a petition on behalf of the constituents of Mid-Worcestershire regarding the Government's response to the parliamentary ombudsman's reports on Equitable Life. The petitioners are all directly or indirectly affected by the maladministration relating to the Equitable Life Assurance Society and the regulatory failure on the part of public bodies responsible. They have suffered grave injustice as a result, but have yet to receive any compensation for the resulting losses.

I strongly associate myself with the petitioners, who state:

Following is the full text of the petition:

[The Petition of residents of the constituency of Mid-Worcestershire in the West Midlands region of the UK regarding the Government's response to the Parliamentary Ombudsman's reports on Equitable Life,

Declares that the Petitioners either are or they represent or support members, former members or personal representatives of deceased members of the Equitable Life Assurance Society who have suffered maladministration leading to injustice, as found by the Parliamentary Ombudsman in her report upon Equitable Life, ordered by the House of Commons to be printed on 16 July 2008 and bearing reference number HC 815; and further declares that the Petitioners or those whom they represent or support have suffered regulatory failure on the part of the public bodies responsible from the year 1992 onwards, but have not received compensation for the resulting losses and outrage.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to uphold the constitutional standing of the Parliamentary Ombudsman by complying with the findings and recommendations of her Report upon Equitable Life.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.]


Planning and Development (Essex)

10.17 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): I fight fearlessly for my constituents against inappropriate planning applications, so I am delighted to present this petition on behalf of residents against a tennis club application. Of course, the club has the right to enhance its members' enjoyment of leisure facilities that they may from time to time choose to use. However, that right falls well below the rights of residents to a decent quality of life without disturbance to them and to wildlife, the massive parking and other problems that would be caused and the need to stop bad development alongside the beautiful and sensitive Hadleigh Castle country park green belt. I sincerely congratulate each and every one of the residents who have signed this petition to protect their environment.

30 Nov 2009 : Column 943

The petition states:


30 Nov 2009 : Column 944

British Waterways

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. -(Mr. Frank Roy.)

10.20 pm

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): A national treasure, a thriving 4,500 mile linear national park, a catalyst for regeneration and economic growth, a nature reserve accessible to millions of people and belonging to us all -these are just a few of the descriptions given to our canals and waterways travelling through 250 parliamentary constituencies and past 19 million people every day.

When our navigable canal and river network began to develop in the form we know it today, Napoleon and Josephine were about to be divorced, Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were new-borns, the vacuum, the phone and the car were yet to be invented, and the idea that working men-or any woman-might vote was unthinkable. A lot has changed in 200 years, and the canals and rivers that played a great part in the development of our industrial success are still with us. If they are going to be able to contribute to our next 200 years, they are in great need of development, maintenance and support.

The last decade or so has seen a widely acknowledged renaissance of our waterways and canals, especially as the agents of regeneration of many city centres-such as Gas Street basin in Birmingham-and of rural areas, offering some of the greenest recreational facilities available in the UK. Since 1999, this Government have invested an unprecedented £750 million in the network, ensuring-alongside the work of an army of volunteers-that it is in a much better state now than at any time since world war two.

As we are becoming more aware of the challenge of climate change, we are also seeing the potential of our waterways to alleviate flooding, to provide sanctuary for wildlife and alternative modes of transport, and even to generate clean energy. The most recent figures for visitors to our waterways, from 2008, show that some 3.4 million visits were made, and that the number of boaters on the network was the highest in modern times at 32,500. Of course, many businesses depend on the efficiency and maintenance of our waterways. The British Marine Foundation estimates that some 40 per cent. of its member companies have a direct business interest, including hire fleet companies, marina operators and narrow boat builders, all of which, of course, provide many jobs. Imagine, then, the confusion, fear and anger of so many people when they heard that this fantastic network is threatened once again with break-up, destruction and possible sell-off. Such feelings were so strong that within days, a petition of 9,000 names appeared on the Downing street website.

Many of us thought that the battle for our waterways and the argument for their remaining in the public sector had already been won in 2007-the last time the Treasury turned its hungry eyes our way, especially to the British Waterways property portfolio, the sale of which has been estimated to be worth around £16 billion. It was viewed then not only as a welcome answer to Treasury shortfalls, but as a way of making good the gap in funding from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in making payments to farmers via the Rural Payments Agency.

30 Nov 2009 : Column 945

In answer to this onslaught, a massive coalition of waterways users, businesses and parliamentarians was formed. After some battles, the threat receded, although not without some loss of grant, but at least the argument was won and the waterways were relatively safe once again within the public sector. However, in the wake of the global downturn we find ourselves once more on the defensive, and once more in the sights of those ever-hungry Treasury eyes.

British Waterways is facing a cut in funding of some £10 million in the next financial year, reducing the available grant to £47.8 million. Government funding from DEFRA for England and Wales has been confirmed for the year 2010-11. The base level of grant will be cut from £57 million to £52.8 million, with £5 million already brought forward to 2008-09 as part of the Government's fiscal stimulus plan. This points to an effective year-on-year reduction of £4.6 million plus £5 million, equating to a cut of £9.6 million. The Inland Waterways Association has said that British Waterways' existing grant already fails to address an ongoing deficit of between £20 million and £30 million each year in the amount needed just to maintain the system in a steady state of repair. Any cuts will only exacerbate the situation.

On top of that grant cut, the prospect of the rumoured sell-off of the British Waterways property portfolio has been a bitter blow to confidence. It is difficult to see the economic sense in such a move, as the portfolio provides BW with about £45 million in revenue, which equates to more than a third of the money that it needs to run the waterways properly and almost half the maintenance budget.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands) (Lab): My hon. Friend will know of the serious breach of the Leek arm of the Caldon canal recently. Does she share my concern that if the property portfolio of British Waterways is taken away by the Government, on top of the cuts in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs grant, beautiful canals such as the Caldon will be returned to the dereliction from which they came in the early '70s?

Lynda Waltho: Indeed. I am well aware of the situation on the Caldon, which applies to many canals across the country. Should the maintenance decline, there will inevitably be safety problems and closures, so the situation is awkward across the country. It does not take a mathematician to predict that such a move would be disastrous to British Waterways' finances. It could only lead to waterways falling into dereliction and safety being compromised, and there would inevitably be closures.

Many of us who are involved with the waterways see the move to sell the portfolio as a desperate measure, because as recently as April the operational efficiency review gave British Waterways a clean bill of health. It recognised that it had achieved significant growth in its canal-side portfolio, and there was no suggestion at all that it should be sold off. The only reason why Treasury officials returned to the matter like a dog to its favourite lamp post can be the plight of the public finances, yet the proceeds from the sale would make an insignificant contribution to reducing the national debt.

Mr. Bob Laxton (Derby, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that that dual pincer financial movement on British Waterways-the cut in the DEFRA grant
30 Nov 2009 : Column 946
and the sell-off of the property portfolio-would leave it in an impossible position and make a huge 200-year asset into a liability? Would she, like me, not be surprised if British Waterways were to say to the Government, "We cannot afford to maintain this. This is your problem"? The call upon the taxpayer would then be potentially quite large, and it would far outweigh any money that the Government, the Treasury or DEFRA would save or make from the sell-off.

Lynda Waltho: Absolutely. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that it would represent a very short-term gain and a very long-term loss and problem for our waterways.

Against the possible contribution to paying off the national debt, we must balance the potential losses of such a move, which would be devastating. Lost to us all would be all the public benefits that the Government have hitherto recognised, such as urban and rural regeneration, health and social developments and an expanding leisure facility. We would also lose the £750 million of taxpayers' money invested over the past 10 years, effectively cashing in our public asset-it is the equivalent of selling off a national park.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): On that point, does my hon. Friend agree that the Government can be very proud of the regeneration of the waterways and the investment that they have made in them since 1997? That is particularly characterised by the publication of "Waterways for Tomorrow". Does she agree that the understanding of the matter, which is probably shared by DEFRA Ministers, needs also to be shared by Treasury Ministers?

Lynda Waltho: Absolutely. I am immensely proud of what the Government have done for investment in waterways. Indeed, the volunteers and the people who keep things going in my constituency and on the canals in the black country are aware of what the Government have done. The cut would represent a sell-off of not only the asset but of those volunteers' input and confidence. Furthermore, it represents effectively selling off a national treasure. That is what really hurts people.

Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): As a former Minister with responsibility for waterways, I want to ask whether my hon. Friend agrees that Ministers are too wise to make such a mistake. There is a third way: to put the assets and liabilities into a mutual public interest model, to the benefit of the Government, the public, the users, the economy and the environment. Is not that the right way forward?

Lynda Waltho: Absolutely. My right hon. Friend may have read my speech because I would like to deal with that possibility in a moment. That would be a fantastic way forward; indeed, British Waterways has proposed and consulted on that recently.

Further losses and selling off a national treasure would also represent a sell-off of the volunteer effort, which has been built up over many years, especially in places such as my constituency. A few weeks ago, I celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Stourbridge navigation trust in the company of people such as Graham Debney, Chris Dyche and Graham Fisher,
30 Nov 2009 : Column 947
who work tirelessly to keep the canal and the navigation trust going. I value their input, and a sell-off would represent selling off that input. They are a truly magnificent set of volunteers and an example to us all.

Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): There is a further point to make. The effort and work of many of the volunteers have created the value of the assets. Selling them off would mean selling off something that has been created through the goodwill and dedication of people such as those in my hon. Friend's constituency and, indeed, in Stoke-on-Trent.

Lynda Waltho: I agree entirely. Such people cannot understand why the Government appear to want to throw away all the investment and the work, which they have helped achieve.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she also accept that another group of people feels let down? I have tenants in my constituency who live in BW property. Those properties are being sold from underneath them, and that is unacceptable. That is not something for the future; it is happening now. It is time we did something about it.

Lynda Waltho: Absolutely. There are many stakeholders-not only users and volunteers but people's livelihoods and, as my hon. Friend says, homes are affected.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): May I mention another group? They protect not only what we have, but are such extraordinary enthusiasts-for example, the Friends of Cromford Canal-that they want to extend the current canal network. It would be tragic to lose their enthusiasm and energy.

Lynda Waltho: Again, I can do nothing but agree. Some people in the black country spend whole weeks maintaining parts of the network. For example, they keep tea rooms open, raise funds and so on day in, day out. We cannot let them down.

One of the biggest issues is how we react to BW's aim of becoming self-sufficient. Hitherto, that aim was supported by the Government, but it will become unachievable and the system will be almost entirely dependent on the taxpayer. British Waterways will lose its autonomy and ability to prioritise investment. It is this point that I wish to develop because it is the area in which we have most to lose and most to gain.

British Waterways has a vision, one which many of us share, and that is to become a third sector trust. Over time, this could actually get the cost of running the waterways off the Government's balance sheet. But it simply cannot be done overnight and would need the property portfolio to help support its operation.

In British Waterways' 20:20 vision document, it states that

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