Leeds and Liverpool Canal

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th November 1959.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Finlay.]

4.0 p.m.

Photo of Mr Graham Page Mr Graham Page , Crosby

I desire to raise on this Motion for the Adjournment a matter of very grave importance, a matter not merely of life and death, but of many lives and deaths. Accidental drowning in our canals must be an everyday occurrence. In general, I suppose, the canals are more dangerous than the rivers, because there is the attraction to the public of the towpath along the canals. The tragedy is that it is the young children who are the main victims.

The Leeds and Liverpool Canal runs through my constituency and through the constituency of the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Mahon), whom I see in his place. I trust that the hon. Member's elevation, on which I congratulate him, will not keep his lips sealed today in supporting my plea to my hon. Friend the Minister concerning this canal in particular.

I have with me a report of an occurrence on 18th September last, when a three-year-old boy at Litherland fell into the canal and was drowned. That was the third occasion on which a young child had fallen into the canal at Litherland and drowned in a matter of a fortnight. The other two were boys aged, respectively, six and seven years. We have, therefore, within a matter of a fortnight, three young children, aged three, six and seven years, who fell into the canal and were drowned.

One might say that it is the fault of the parents, that they should look after their children and not let them roam on the towpath of the canal, but that is not being realistic. The realistic view is surely that the canal is constructed for commercial transport and that it is quite unnecessary for the public to have access to the canal. A high degree of safety could be achieved by fencing the canal where it runs through built-up areas.

The House will be aware that Section 4 of the Transport Act, 1947, empowers the Minister to give directions to the British Transport Commission as to the exercise and performance of its functions. I wish today to ask that the Minister should give directions as to the fencing of canals. Of course, I do not mean the fencing of canals wherever they may run. Through the countryside, the problem is quite different. I am speaking of where a canal runs through a built-up area with small streets abutting on it, streets in which children play and have access to the canal.

I support my request for these directions from the Minister by instancing these tragedies which have occurred in my constituency and which are continually and frequently occurring there. The problem is general in character for built-up areas abutting on canals. I do not mind how general the Minister's directions may be as long as the result is that the canal in Litherland is fenced.

As Section 4 of the Transport Act, 1947, requires it to be, if there is to be a direction from the Minister, this is a matter affecting the national interest. It would be such a matter if only one death had occurred, but deaths have resulted over and over again.

The Leeds and Liverpool Canal was constructed under a private Act as long ago as 1770. There have been amending Acts, but none of them has altered the liability, originally of the company and now of the British Transport Commission, to fence the canal, but only against sheep and cattle. One might ask cynically whether it is more important to save sheep and cattle from being drowned than to prevent children being drowned.

The B.T.C. took over the canal, but has not even carried out that duty as it could by post and wire fencing. The excuse might be that there are no sheep and cattle in the area. To give the Commission its due, however, it has offered to contribute £5,000 towards fencing the canal in the two areas, Litherland Urban District Council area and the Bootle Borough Council area, but that is £5,000 out of a total cost of £25,000 for safety precautions.

I want to examine the Commission's offer of a contribution. First the local authorities concerned estimate that post and wire fencing, for which the Commission is statutorily liable, would cost about £3,000, and that is undoubtedly a contribution which should come from the Commission. Secondly, the £25,000 includes work relating to the safety of and at the bridges. Those items amount to £8,235. In Litherland there is an antiquated lift bridge, which still carries or endeavours to carry a trunk road, and there are two wooden bridges. Both wooden bridges can be worked by children. They are a positive enticement to death. The Commission's obligation is to maintain the bridges and, I contend, to keep the bridges and their approaches safe.

Thirdly, I have a report of another accident in which it was found that the children who had been drowned had got to the canal through a hole in a wall along the bank of the canal. A representative of the Commission said at the inquest that the wall on the canal bank belonged to British Transport Waterways. Incidentally, he said that it was last surveyed in February, 1958. That accident occurred in September, 1959. The Commission undoubtedly has a liability to keep in repair walls along the canal bank which belong to it.

Fourthly, in London the Commission is under a statutory liability to fence wherever a canal adjoins a highway. I am not asking for any statutory liability to be created outside London. That is unnecessary, for the matter can be dealt with by directions from the Minister. Even taking into account the liabilities which the Commission must accept, there is well over £11,000 which it ought to contribute to the safety precautions of fencing and improving the bridges along this section of the canal. I think if one took into account the responsibilities which one might expect the Commission to accept one gets nearer a figure of £20,000 out of the total cost of £25,000.

That £25,000 was a careful estimate by technical officers of the local authorities concerned and of the Commission. It came about in this way. The local authorities and representatives of the Commission met in July, 1958, to see how the dangers, particularly to children, could be minimised. As a result of that meeting life-saving equipment was placed at posts along the canal, but unfortunately wanton damage to the life-saving equipment made that precaution practically useless. Police patrols could not prevent this vandalism, and no exhortations given in schools seemed to have any result.

On 25th September last, there was a further meeting. At that meeting various precautions were canvassed, and it was recommended that there should be school lectures in which films of "Dennis the Menace" would be used; there should be motor patrol boats manned by volunteers; and there should be patrolling along the banks by authorised members of the public or by school-crossing wardens. The main recommendation was as follows: That Technical Officers from the British Transport Commission should meet Technical Officers from Bootle and Litherland authorities with a view to inspecting the whole length of the canal in Bootle and Litherland and making recommendations as to the provision of fencing, means of crossing, safety equipment and other action which might help towards the avoidance of further accidents on the canal.That as little time as possible may be lost, the Report of the Technical Officers should be available for consideration by the interested parties at a meeting to be called in a month's time. The technical officers got down to the work at once and reported within that month. The first paragraph of their Report says: It was agreed that to achieve as high a degree of safety as possible it would be necessary to prevent the public from gaining access to the canal throughout the entire length under consideration. To prevent access, the technical officers set out the work which should be done. They recommended a considerable amount of fencing, the provision of certain gates and improvements, and the replacement of bridges. The type of fencing which they recommended was 5ft. 6in. wrought iron railings or concrete posts and panel fencing.

With that report before them, the representative meeting met again on 23rd October last, but the Commission still would not increase its offer of contributing towards this work above the figure of £5,000. That is the position at the moment.

I beg my hon. Friend to persuade his right hon. Friend the Minister to step in at this stage with some firm direction to the Commission that it really must accept its proper responsibilities in this matter; that it must get this fencing and this bridge protection done quickly to save lives, particularly those of young children, and to prevent further tragedies on this section of the canal.

4.15 p.m.

Photo of Mr Simon Mahon Mr Simon Mahon , Bootle

I rise to support the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) in his plea for Government assistance in this matter. The canal of which he has been speaking runs through the whole length of my constituency, leaves Bootle for a while and passes through Litherland, then comes back into the added area of Netherton, which can be called the "new town" of Bootle. The canal has always been a very grave menace to the lives of children in that great industrial area. There is a high birth rate in Bootle, and it is just sorting out some of its grave problems of housing and slum clearance. We have a heavy density of child population.

There has been a series of accidents at the canal. I do not want to make a long speech, but I want to impress upon the Joint Parliamentary Secretary and the House the importance of the matter. I will give the House particulars of cases from 1951 to 1959, of small children being drowned. I am excluding nine cases where the persons concerned could be assumed to be over the age of childhood. On 23rd February, 1951, two boys, Joseph McHugh and Peter McHugh, aged 6 and 4 years respectively, were drowned at Coffee House Bridge; on 1st August, 1952, Peter Gavin, aged 7 years, was drowned at Bedford Place; on 14th August, 1953, Alan Smith, aged 7 years, was drowned at Chapel Lane Bridge; and on 21st May of the same year, Paul Campbell, aged 3 years, was drowned near Gorsey Lane Bridge. On 20th November, 1954, Thomas Hickey, aged 7 years, was drowned at Bedford Place; on 18th April, 1955, Philip Hague, aged 2¾ years, was drowned at Gorsey Lane Bridge; on 13th May, 1956, Gerald Crawford, aged 3½ years, was drowned on the Litherland side of Cookson's Bridge; on 7th August, 1957, David King, aged 6 years, was drowned near St. Oswald's Lane, and on 2nd June, 1959, Alan Dorian, aged 7 years, was drowned at Dunnings Bridge, Netherton.

The problem is very serious. We have been chided by coroners on many occasions and asked to do more to obviate the dangers to child life in these areas. Bootle has already spent £20,000 of the ratepayers money in this connection. When I was chairman of the Housing Committee in Bootle we had a great population coming in, and in the absence of any action by the Ministry of Transport I had to assume responsibility for protecting children from the canal. We are asking today for a relatively small sum, but I want the Parliamentary Secretary to remember that we have spent £20,000 already.

I have spent a great deal of time in studying this problem in the last year or two, in company with the hon. Member for Crosby. If the Parliamentary Secretary cannot assure us that a further capital grant will be made, I hope that he will at least leave the door of negotiation open, because we have already had two valuable meetings with his Department, and we would like the relations which have been established to be maintained.

4.18 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Hay Mr John Hay , Henley

Tragedies of the kind mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) and the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Mahon) are extremely distressing to us all, and I can assure both hon. Members that in what I have to say there is certainly no lack of sympathy on the part of my right hon. Friend or myself, or the British Transport Commission.

I want to divide what I have to say to the House into two parts. First, I wish to say something about the Minister's responsibility in this matter and, secondly, to give the House what information I can about the position of the Commission. The House probably knows that the Minister is responsible to Parliament only for certain matters in connection with the Commission, and that in respect of other questions he must rely upon the information which he is given.

As my hon. Friend has said, the Minister's responsibility stems largely from Section 4 of the Transport Act, 1947. The Minister has power to give the Commission directions of a general character as to the exercise and performance of its functions in relation to matters which appear to him to affect the national interests.

My hon. Friend has not asked that the Minister should give a direction that the Commission should fence all the canals in its ownership, but that it should be directed to fence sections of the canals which run through very populated areas where there is a risk of children and others falling into the canals. I have to tell him at once that I am advised that the Minister's power to give directions would not extend to giving that kind of direction to fence certain areas. It would have to be a direction to fence all the Commission's canals or none. Frankly, I am afraid that I can hold out little hope that the Minister could give a direction to the Commision to fence all its canals.

This is not the first time that this matter has been raised. In 1954, it was raised in Parliamentary Questions, and again by the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd) in 1957. On both occasions, the then Ministers had to say that they could give no such directions, and I must spend a moment in giving the reasons why that is so.

First of all, although the British Transport Commisson owns the majority of the canals in this country, there are other canal owners, and, in the Minister's view, it would be anomalous to give the British Transport Commission directions of this kind, whereas other canal owners would not be under the same obligation.

Secondly, it is important to recognise that the Commission owns the canal and, usually, the towpath side of the canal only. There is the other side which is not covered by a towpath, and frequently it is the case that the Commission does not own that side at all.

Thirdly, any directions of this kind requiring the Commision to fence canals would involve the rights of other riparian owners. I think it is important for the House to appreciate what is in some ways the most difficult problem that we shall have to face if such directions were given; namely, that the towpaths in the great majority of cases are subject to public rights of way, and if directions as to fencing were given, it would inevitably lead to disturbance of those rights, and we should then have to consider the necessity for legislation. I am afraid that we could not, or should not, in my opinion, embark on that.

The situation has not changed since those Answers were given, and I am very sorry indeed that I must give my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Bootle the same answer, that the Minister is not prepared to give a direction of this kind, for these reasons in particular. However, there axe two other considerations which I should like to put to the House, which I think buttress and support my right hon. Friend's refusal. First of all, would a fence of the kind suggested here provide a solution to this difficulty? It is a fact that open water is always an attraction to children, and we know that. It is extremely difficult to keep children away from something which has an allure. We all know that really determined children will always, somehow, find a way round, through, over or even under, I suppose, even the most elaborate type of fencing. The railways in particular have had a lot of experience of this problem, particularly in the North, where the most involved system of fencing often proves little hindrance at all to children who want to get access to the railway line.

The second consideration is this. Would a greater degree of parental control and better educational measures serve us, rather than the provision of fencing? There is a very strong body of opinion in favour of action of this kind, and I am delighted to know that in Bootle in particular this is being done. The Royal Humane Society, for example, in its Report for 1957, speaking of these dangers of inland waterways, said: These are numerous, despite all the efforts of the devoted staffs of British Transport Waterways. The society feels that the method of averting these lies in the realm of education. It is impossible to fence in all canals or even, it seems, to make trespass on their banks a statutory offence as with railways. That is a pretty strong expression of opinion by this very influential body.

Photo of Mr Simon Mahon Mr Simon Mahon , Bootle

Mr. Mahon rose

Photo of Mr John Hay Mr John Hay , Henley

I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but he himself said he wanted to give me as much time as he could.

If we are to keep the matter in perspective, we should remember that generations of children in this country have been brought up beside rivers, and if we were obliged to fence the canals, I think there would inevitably be a cry for all the rivers to be fenced, and we cannot really see where the whole thing would lead us. Therefore, in the light of all this I cannot accede to the request which my hon. Friend made for a general directive to be given to the British Transport Commission.

I now turn to the position of the Commission itself, according to the information I have received from it. As my hon. Friend says, this is the Leeds and Liverpool Canal which is some 127 miles long, and no one should imagine that it is a derelict or disused canal. It was put into class B by the Bowes Committee, which reported some time ago, as being a canal which should be retained by the Commission and developed, if possible. It is quite an active canal. There is a good deal of traffic on it from time to time at the Liverpool end.

The obligation of the British Transport Commission is to fence against cattle—that is in the Statute—but only upon the towpath side. In the case of this canal, the towpath is a public right of way, so we shall be straight up against the difficulty to which I have already referred. The estimate which the Commission obtained for fencing against cattle only, by putting up a post and wire fence over a distance of some 4,000 yards, showed that it would cost at least £1,000.

However, as my hon. Friend said, the Commission's liability does not stop there. There is the question of the two wooden swing bridges open to pedestrians and cyclists only at Pauldings Lane and Ford. Those bridges are not yet in need of replacement, however unsatisfactory they may be. They have, I understand, still some four or five years of life. But if they had to be replaced today they would cost some £2,000 each.

As I understand it, in the conference between the Commission and the local authorities, and so on, to which reference has already been made, the Commission offered to undertake the replacement of these unsatisfactory bridges now instead of in some years' time and to build in their place overhead foot bridges. The cost of these would be some £2,000 each. Therefore, the Commission said, in effect, to the conference, "We will spend £4,000 more now than we would normally do on these bridges, but in the light of that we cannot agree to spend more than £1,000 on fencing which is the limit of our statutory obligation." That brings up the total, of course, to the £5,000 which my hon. Friend mentioned.

The House may or may not think that this was a generous offer. I do not know. I must not express an opinion, because, frankly, it is not for me to argue about the allocation of the cost of these works as between the Commission and the local authorities. It might even be improper for me to do so. But T honestly think it is clearly a matter which ought to be settled by the parties concerned. In answer to the hon. Member for Bootle, I would say that, so far as the Ministry is concerned, we will do all we can to help to get a settlement amicably so far as we have power to help.

Perhaps I may make an observation. I think it might well turn out to be the case that some of the other measures discussed by the conference, and to which my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby quite briefly referred—the idea of having lectures in schools, a patrol boat along the canal possibly, the introduction of the school-crossing patrols and other authorised persons acting as canal wardens during the holidays—would, perhaps, have more effect in dealing with the problem, if they were concerted as a policy and pushed through, than would fencing.

Above all, it seems to me that a much greater emphasis on parental responsibilities and the task of the teachers in the schools would have an even greater effect. I think it would be more effective in ensuring that young children did not get into danger, and thereby we could avoid some of these further tragedies.

Finally, I would simply say that in the light of all this, all I can promise is to bring to the notice of the British Transport Commission what has been said in this debate and to use whatever good offices we have at our disposal in the Ministry in an endeavour to bring about a settlement of the matter. I feel sure that my hon. Friend has certainly not wasted the time of the House in raising the subject this afternoon. I am grateful to him for having given me notice in advance of some of the points which he proposed to raise, and I will certainly do what I can in a limited way to help.

The Question having been proposed at Four o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Four o'clock.