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30 Nov 2009 : Column 948

It goes on to propose third sector status, which has the potential to offer many benefits, not least a new model of governance allowing stakeholders a greater participation and more transparent and secure funding arrangements with the Government by means of contracts and the harnessing of the support of volunteers and fundraisers who we have talked about tonight. British Waterways has consulted widely on its form and direction, aiming to respond in December and to feed into DEFRA's "Waterways for Tomorrow" paper, which details the Government's policy for the future of our waterways. To allow any sell-off at this stage would scupper any prospect of a sustainable future or indeed any meaningful future at all. It is therefore imperative that the Government give great attention to this plan or we risk selling off our heritage and mortgaging the future of our waterways.

In conclusion, I can put it no better than Tony Hales, chairman of British Waterways, when he says:

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can convince his colleagues in the Treasury to do just that and give us the future that we deserve.

10.37 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) and the numerous hon. Friends who have turned out to support her and the waterways. This is typical of debates on waterways, which are always well attended. These are truly the constant friends of the waterways.

I know that my hon. Friend, as the treasurer of the all-party parliamentary waterways group, has been a staunch defender, over a long period, of our inland waterways and a supporter of the sterling work of the Stourbridge Navigation Trust, which has worked so hard to preserve the Stourbridge canal. I am sure that she and other Members will wish to join me in congratulating British Waterways on the rapid and professional way in which it dealt with the 2008 breach in, and closure of, a 2-mile stretch of that canal. That action saw the canal reopen after just 100 days. We saw similar decisive action, although not quite as rapid, in the case of the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal, which is also close to hon. Members' hearts.

I shall do my best to deal with all the points that were raised and the many interventions, but I hope that hon. Members will understand it if I am unable to cover all of them in the limited time available. I noted the rare resurrection, in a different context, of the third-way concept by my hon. Friend and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael).

Since I became the Minister with responsibility for the waterways in 2008, I have made a number of ministerial visits to our inland waterways to see for myself the many ways in which this unique national asset-this treasure-can benefit local communities. I therefore welcome this opportunity to restate the Government's commitment to our waterways, which offer so much potential to contribute to our future well-being, and I would like to take this opportunity to inform the House
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that an additional £400,000 is being made available to British Waterways this year from the aggregates levy sustainability fund. Those resources will be used to modernise and automate the Lees and Old Mill locks on the River Lea, thus enabling the waterway to become an economically viable transport route, as well as a recreational route, for moving the large volume of aggregates that will be used during the fit-out period of the Olympic park transformation and the Olympic legacy phases.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I understand how the River Lea will benefit, but does my hon. Friend agree that there is a danger that everything will be about London and the Olympics? Some of us represent areas with canals such as the Leeds and Liverpool canal, which runs through my constituency. I hope that he will ensure that we also get investment, as and when we need it in future.

Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. We want to see investment spread throughout all parts of England and Wales. However, I am sure he would agree that, where we have such a significant opportunity to prove how vital the arteries of the waterways network are for transport as well as recreation, the investment that this Labour Government put in should be shown in a modern idiom such as the Olympic games. What we can see, from the investment at Prescott locks and in the Lea waterway stretch and so on, shows that we see the waterways as having a modern, vibrant and working future.

I do not think that any hon. Member here this evening will doubt that we have seen a quite remarkable improvement in the waterways over the past 10 years, a period in which this Labour Government have invested significantly in the waterways, with some £800 million provided to British Waterways alone. It is worth emphasising that point, because it is not the only investment, but simply the investment in British Waterways. That investment, together with, as has been pointed out, the considerable efforts of waterway enthusiasts, who work so hard to restore and recreate our inland waterway network, has resulted in the waterways being in a better state now than they have been since the second world war.

That is no small tribute to the constant urging and gentle pressure of the many hon. Members who have lobbied incessantly on behalf of the waterways network. Many of them are here this evening. I know that some hon. Members in the Chamber will have heard about the waterways renaissance many times, including from my lips, but it is important to recognise the priority that this Government have given, over a considerable period, to maintaining and enhancing our inland waterways, so that they can be enjoyed as they are today.

I recognise that the level of future Government support for the waterways is a concern, particularly in the face of the current severe pressure on public finances, which we cannot ignore and which will remain for a number of years to come. It is therefore even more important that the waterways can demonstrate what they are delivering for our continued investment and why they should remain a priority. We are already working with our delivery partners, including British Waterways, to address those points. For example, we are gathering further evidence about the wide range of public benefits that
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the waterways already provide, in order better to identify all those who benefit and to be able to quantify this benefit in monetary terms. As just one example, British Waterways estimates that its waterways alone deliver benefits of some £500 million a year.

Let me turn briefly to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge raised about the cut of £9.6 million and why it is not a cut of £9.6 million-this is not a conjurer's trick, but I will explain why it is not. DEFRA's grant in aid to British Waterways in 2010-11 is £52.8 million, which includes an additional £5 million that has been brought forward. The difference between that figure and the figure for 2009-10 is £4.6 million, which I acknowledge. That £4.6 million reduction in grant in aid has been necessary as part of the need to identify savings right across government-we are not immune from that-reflecting the current challenging fiscal environment.

The Government recognise that the waterways are a tremendous asset, and we remain committed to maintaining them. We will continue to ensure that they are given due consideration in future discussions about the allocation of resources. Without the £5 million that was brought forward, British Waterways would not have been able to carry out some of the major works projects in this year's works programme. However, in addition, British Waterways has planned £10 million in efficiency savings, which will also go some way towards reducing the gap in funding from 2011-12. However, we all know that we are indeed entering a very difficult period and we must look at ways in which the waterways can be supported so they can continue to deliver on their very real potential.

There is no easy way to close the gap between what we would like to spend on the waterways and the funding available for maintaining them from both the central Government and from commercial and other user sources. The next few years, let us make no bones about it, will be tough-they will be tough right across government-but that is why it is so important to raise awareness of what the waterways offer so that they gain wider support for delivering local and regional objectives and so that they can participate in third and private sector initiatives to mutual benefit.

I therefore plan to launch a consultation on the Government's new strategy for the inland waterways for England and Wales, called "Waterways for Everyone", before the Christmas recess. This will set out what the waterways deliver now and how we believe this might be built on to help us retain a vibrant and sustainable network into the future.

Mr. Drew: I welcome what the Minister has said, but will he give me an assurance that that will include a moratorium on existing house sales, which seem to be coming forward and causing great consternation among tenants? It is surely right that they have some assurances as well.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I understand that my hon. Friend seeks an assurance, but I must not be premature in any announcement when discussions are taking place. I know my hon. Friend is trying to tempt me, but if he could be a little patient while the useful discussions across Government Departments are continuing, I hope to be able to bring the matter home.

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I am sure that hon. Members are, like me, already aware of the wide range of public benefits that the waterways offer. To provide just a few examples, I would mention their ability to stimulate regeneration in our towns and cities, their ability to be a focus for community activities and to provide open spaces for exercise and public enjoyment, their role in encouraging tourism, as green routes for commuters, as sources of employment and, of course, as a source of enjoyment for boaters together with the ancillary industries and businesses that boating supports.

Our intention with the production of "Waterways for Everyone" is to stimulate and support the coming together of those who might benefit more from our waterways with those charged with managing them, thus enabling the waterways' potential to be realised and their future safeguarded. By working together across government-across national, regional and local government-and with third sector and business partners, we can capture the cross-cutting and multi-functional nature of what waterways contribute to our quality of life. We are committed to making sure that the benefits from public support for the waterways are more widely felt.

Sir Peter Soulsby: Does the Minister accept that if the source of partnerships he mentions are to be meaningful and if British Waterways is to play a full part in leading those partnerships, it needs to be able to bring to the table the property assets that it has at the moment so that those assets can be used as part of the partnerships in the very constructive ways that my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) has described?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I understand why my hon. Friend is tempting me down this path to make a statement, but may I assure my hon. Friends that the Government
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always keep national assets under review, but that no decisions have been made regarding the disposal of assets other than those already announced?

I know that the strategy I referred to will not immediately reduce the anxiety of those who love our waterways and who have contributed to getting them in the condition they are today, but I also know that our waterways can play their part in helping us move out of recession through enhancing the value of development, through encouraging more people to holiday at home and through the creation of green jobs and volunteering activities.

The Government will continue to support the waterway authorities that we grant-aid now, taking into account the need for tough prioritisation of taxpayer-funded resources over the next few years, but we must also look to all those with an interest in the waterways to recognise what they could do themselves, and to consider how their partnership involvement might strengthen the infrastructure on which public benefits depend. The potential is great for the future, but there are also risks if the resources to maintain these benefits are not collectively found.

There are many challenges ahead in these tough and uncertain times, but I remain confident that the waterways have an important role to play for society, for the economy and for our natural and cultural environment, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge and other hon. Friends in their places this evening will continue to argue vehemently that-

10.50 pm

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).

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