Cotswold Canals

– in the House of Commons at 7:12 pm on 1st November 2001.

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

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud 7:13 pm, 1st November 2001

I am pleased to move this Adjournment debate and I know that others wish to say something about this important canal network, so I shall be precise.

This is an important issue and I immediately declare a non-pecuniary interest as a vice-president of the Cotswold Canals Trust, like Mr. Clifton-Brown. Although we draw no benefit from it, other than of a helpful kind, it is important to put that on the record.

I wish to speak almost exclusively about my part of the Cotswold canal system—Stroudwater—which goes from the Gloucester-Sharpness canal to Stroud and slightly beyond. Obviously, if and when we see the completion of this network it will link the Severn to the Thames, which is an important statement in terms of our ability to see how waterways can be opened up properly.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. There is not time to make a speech and I shall not delay the House. Does he agree that an important part of the network is the Wilts and Berks canal, which will join the two canals together to create a genuine network around the area?

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud

I am more than happy to agree, because we are here in the true spirit of co-operation to ensure that we get the whole canal opened up, although I shall highlight particular problems that make that more difficult.

I am, as always, grateful to several people who helped me to prepare information, particularly those in British Waterways: chief executive David Fletcher and regional officers Chris Mitchell and John Lancaster. I am pleased to have met Roger Hanbury, chief executive of the Waterways Trust, several times recently. He is a good choice to ensure that we get the new organisation up and running so that it is as effective as possible.

Last but not least, I pay tribute to those members of the Cotswold Canals Trust who have, over many decades and through their voluntary and earnest efforts, kept alive the dream of reopening the wider canal network and the Stroudwater canal in particular. I must refer to Bruce Hall, Neville Nelder and Ken Burgin. Many more people are worthy of a mention, but we are short of time.

The debate is opportune, because it comes on the back of two important documents. The first, which is entitled "Waterways for Tomorrow", was released by the Government a couple of years ago. It is a stimulating read. For a long time, people thought that canals came on the back of every other form of transport and were of the past. However, the document proves that canals can make a difference to our overall integrated transport programme and, more particularly, that they have a vital role in tourism, recreation and economic regeneration. I shall say more about that later.

It is important to put it on record that professionalism increased as our effort to open up the canal network gathered pace. I have paid tribute to people, so I must do likewise to organisations. British Waterways has exercised increasing influence and it took the network under its wing. Both it and the Waterways Trust are committed to the attempt to reopen the network.

I must also refer to the recently released report on the feasibility of restoring the Cotswold canals, which was produced by British Waterways and commissioned by the Waterways Trust and which shows that reopening, rather than being a long-held aim, is an eminently deliverable concept over time. The Minister might like to say how we can get funding and help.

I want to go over the key issues, of which there are several, and we cannot but start with technical matters. There is an understanding that the canal is historically important, as it dates back to the end of the 18th century, and we know that there were technical problems, because of water transference and because physical obstacles had to be overcome, not least the Sapperton tunnel, which remains in place and which will no doubt still cause difficulties if and when we get the canal open.

In the meantime, we must discuss the practical problems in my neck of the woods. Unfortunately, the canal system goes under the M5 and the A38. It also merges with the River Frome. None of those problems are insuperable, but in their own right they are a headache and we need to recognise that that is why the £82 million cost suggested by the report commissioned by the Waterways Trust is a fair estimate. I would argue that the goal is achievable. We will create a win-win situation in terms of reopening the canal and the tourism and recreation benefits that come on the back of that. We will also get the benefit of economic regeneration.

There are other issues. Of course, funding is important in its own right. I would like to think that the Minister can give us a steer and tell us how we can raise the money. It will not come from a single sector. A genuine relationship between the public and the private sector is needed, combined with the voluntary endeavours of those who have done so much to keep the spirit of the canal alive.

I would highlight the role that must be played by the south-west regional development agency, which is certainly in favour of reopening. Again, we must consider carefully how it can raise money. Obviously, we would be grateful for any help from central Government. We will also be looking for lottery funding. We understand that the Government cannot influence that, but I want to ensure that the matter is put on the table during this debate.

Planning and land ownership issues are involved and I will not pretend that the reopening of the canal has universal acclaim. Some individuals are disturbed by the thought that it will reopen—I and the other hon. Members present know them well. I understand the problem and that is why, in principle, I am concentrating on the western part of the canal, where there are not the same land ownership issues. We cannot avoid those issues, however, which must be sorted, and we must do so through dialogue. People must feel that they are being taken into the loop of discussion and we must ensure that they are listened to.

There are also planning issues. I will not wax lyrical on those, as I have received various rejections in written answers to parliamentary questions. I have raised the issue of Ebley wharf in my constituency, which is being funded on the back of a private development. I see that the Minister is laughing. He knows that I am slightly at variance with the way in which that matter has been handled.

If we do not get a proper balance between public, private and voluntary sector funding, the danger is that the canal trust must consider potentially conflicting development. That is what people in the area I mentioned feel, which is a shame. Some of the good will that has been built up over generations could evaporate if people see that the canal restoration is being funded through unnecessary and undesirable development. I will pass on quickly from that issue, but we must be aware of it.

On the western side, thankfully, land ownership is concentrated largely in the hands of the Company of Proprietors. I must mention the late Fred Rowbotham, who was the chairman of the company for years and wanted to see the reopening of the canal. Further east, many individual owners are involved, which will make reopening more difficult.

Water management is an important issue and we underestimate it at our cost. One can raise revenue through the movement of water and, if we can reopen the canal, we can move water. The Gloucester-Sharpness canal provides water for the Bristol water service, so the canal could raise revenue as it would allow access to drinking water. It could also act as a means of flood relief. Given the Minister's particular responsibility, he might wish to allude to that.

I touched on the rationale for reopening this canal network. It could be used for leisure-inspired activities and there may be a freight use, which I would not want to underestimate. Waste movement has also been mentioned.

Regeneration is another key argument and it is one of the factors that unites everyone. It is the factor that has driven me to pursue the matter as it is key in my constituency. Reopening the canal could regenerate the areas alongside it. It is not the key reason, perhaps, why Stroud will regenerate as a town, but if the project can be engineered it can only help that regeneration. I want it to happen sooner rather than later and many of my final conclusions will be based on the time scale involved. Fund raising can seem like an endless activity unless we can put a definite time scale on it. More and more people are becoming aware of that and thinking hard how to do it.

I am pleased that the keynote approach is one of partnership. The Conservative Members here tonight, whom I am pleased to see, represent areas that are part of the partnership. The canal system passes through countless local authorities as well as the other organisations to which I have referred. Many individuals also want to play a part.

Realistically, the only way in which we will reopen this canal system is by phasing the funding and engineering. It would help if we could get the project team up and running as soon as possible, and there is the will to do that. This is about maintaining momentum, building partnerships and making sure that the current style of leadership continues.

In conclusion, I have some questions for my hon. Friend. To me, the most important single organisation is the south-west regional development agency. How can we engage with the agency to ensure that it can lever in resources and work with the Waterways Trust? How can we resolve some of the land ownership questions? They are tricky and we will have to face up to them sooner rather than later.

On a more general note, how can British Waterways borrow money? I have seen some material in formal Government publications and elsewhere. I asked a question for written answer about what degree of freedom British Waterways, as a public corporation, has outside Treasury rules. It would be fair to consider that opportunity.

There are the issues about navigability and whether British Waterways subsumes some of the activities currently undertaken by the Environment Agency and other organisations. I should be grateful for anything that my hon. Friend has to say about that.

How can we keep expectations rolling along in terms of deliverability? Finally, restoring the canals and regenerating the land alongside them is a genuine way for rural regeneration to link into transport and the use of brown land. The sooner we can deliver that, the better.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold 7:28 pm, 1st November 2001

I am grateful to Mr. Drew, who procured the debate, for allowing me to participate. I had not been aware that it was to take place until I saw it on the Order Paper, but I am now delighted to be able to participate.

I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Cotswold Canals Trust, in common with the hon. Member for Stroud. I am very pleased to be associated with that organisation. We are talking about restoring the canal link that linked the Severn to the Thames. A Bill was put through Parliament as long ago as 1783 to allow construction to begin to take place. In 1787, a 3,817 yd tunnel was built. To construct such a long tunnel—probably the longest that had ever been built in the world at that time—was no mean engineering feat. It remains the third longest canal tunnel in the United Kingdom today.

The hon. Gentleman told us that the link from the Thames to the Severn is in two parts—the Stroudwater canal, which leads up to the tunnel, with the Thames and Severn canal on the other side. The hon. Gentleman's part of the canal, the Stroudwater canal, is a much smaller project to complete. The feasibility study undertaken by Gloucestershire county council in 1996 estimated that that part of the restoration would cost about £10 million. Apart from the road links—the M5 and the A38 are significant problems that need to be overcome—the hon. Gentleman's part of the canal is largely in the same ownership.

The part that is covered by my constituency represents a much bigger engineering project. I have already mentioned that the tunnel is collapsing in places. The substrata of the canal have been a problem ever since the 1780s when the canal was opened. Cotswold limestone is porous and needs to be lined with clay. There are also altitude problems just at the other side of the tunnel at the Daneway, which is 350 ft above sea level. To give you an idea, Mr. Deputy Speaker, of the engineering feat that was achieved, to get the water up to that level, there were 28 locks, and to get it down again there were another 15. It was a major engineering feat to build the canal in the first place, and it would be a major engineering feat to restore it to its former glory now.

Having said that, if the Government were to give sufficient lead—this is why it is important that the hon. Member for Stroud has secured this debate tonight—the huge amount of voluntary work that has already taken place in my section of the canal could be completed. I went one Sunday afternoon to see 100 volunteers working on the lock gate by the western spine road. That is an example of the enormous amount of voluntary work that is being done for a project that many people would like to see completed.

I am sure that the Minister will not be able to give precise pointers about where the funding might come from, but if he were to give a steer that the restoration was something that the Government would like to see happen, the huge number of volunteers and local people involved in the project would be able to combine their energies to ensure that the project was completed.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. I thank all those people whom the hon. Member for Stroud has thanked, especially the Cotswold Canals Trust and its chairman, Bruce Hall. I also thank the local authorities, which are extremely supportive of the two projects.

Some landowners in my constituency have reservations about the restoration. By and large, the people who use canals are peace loving, quiet and well behaved. The canals give a great deal of opportunity for other leisure pursuits such as fishing. Some 7 million people walk by the canals each year. This is a highly commendable project. It is very environmentally friendly. It would bring great benefits to the whole of Gloucestershire, especially to tourism in this depressed time after the foot and mouth outbreak. It would be a good fillip to the Cotswolds if the Minister said something positive this evening.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 7:33 pm, 1st November 2001

I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr. Drew for his knowledgeable speech and I congratulate him on obtaining this debate. As I told him before the debate, as part of my preparations for it I have been reading extensively about the canal system, which I found absolutely fascinating. I can well understand hon. Members on both sides of the House having such an interest in it; it has enormous potential and its history is interesting. Waterway restoration has been under way since the 1950s, and more than 400 miles of derelict waterways have been restored.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud rightly said, that restoration has brought with it the benefits of revitalising rundown areas, generating new jobs and development and increasing opportunities for leisure, recreation and tourism. I want to make it clear that the Government strongly support waterway restoration, because it acts as a catalyst for social, economic and environmental regeneration. There are currently more than 100 active restoration projects, each of which will make its own contribution.

Restoration of the Cotswold canals is one of the country's leading restoration projects. It is an ambitious project, as my hon. Friend said. Indeed, as Mr. Clifton-Brown rightly stated, it offers the opportunity to re-establish the link between the Thames and the Severn, which would make it of national importance to the waterway system.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Conservative, Witney

Will the Minister take it from me that there will be considerable support in my west Oxfordshire constituency for the reopening of the Cotswold canals? The upper Thames flows through my constituency from Lechlade in one corner towards Oxford in the other, and there is great potential to open up that waterway. Our canals are a great leisure benefit to people, as my hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown said.

In his remarks, will the Minister pay some attention to the call, which has great merit, to transfer leisure and tourism responsibility for our rivers from the Environment Agency to British Waterways? The latter is well placed to take a co-ordinated approach to leisure and tourism, taking in both canals and our rivers.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which was also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, in relation to the current review of the Environment Agency—the quinquennial financial, management and policy review. It covers certain waterways where the Environment Agency currently holds the navigation rights and is considering whether they should be transferred to British Waterways. That decision has not yet been made, and it rests with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I can assure the House that she will take notice of the remarks that have been made and will give careful thought to the issues. Whatever the outcome, in developing the benefits of rivers and canals there are enormous merits in a closer partnership between British Waterways and the Environment Agency.

I am aware that regeneration will bring about restoration and will add impetus to the restoration schemes in the area, including the Wilts and Berks canal, which would reconnect the Thames with the Kennet and Avon canal via Swindon. The restored canals offer a possible route for water transfer from the Severn to the upper Thames, where there are significant water supply problems. The commercial possibilities of water transfer could help to fund restoration—a point made by my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend asked me to give some pointers regarding the finance that would be needed to fund that major restoration project. Obviously, there will be considerable discussion, but the regional development agency is a key player. The agency has joined a partnership to examine the feasibility of restoring the canals, and is considering raising funds for a feasibility and environmental impact study. It expects there to be other contributors, but the matter is under consideration.

There is also the heritage fund, for which landfill credits could be used. There is a great deal of mineral extraction in the area and there is real potential for landfill credit funding for the restoration. There could be partnership approaches involving the local authority, voluntary bodies and other organisations. British Waterways is ready to give technical advice and support. It has raised considerable sums, through water networking and by using canals for such things as cabling. Considerable revenue is raised from that, so it, too, offers possible funding. My hon. Friend referred to the potential of planning gain as a means of funding some of the restoration.

A range of opportunities can be examined, and the benefits are great. The British Waterways study reckoned that about 1.8 million new visitors could be attracted to the area and that they would bring with them spending power of about £8.5 million, creating about 500 new permanent jobs and more than 1,400 temporary construction jobs. That would be a significant boost for the economy of the area, as the hon. Member for Cotswold pointed out.

As an occasional canal user, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that one of the great attractions of inland waterways is the peace and quiet. The restoration would not be a threat to landowners, as the hon. Gentleman suggests; many benefits could be brought to the area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud asked me some questions about land ownership. Clearly, the best way forward is negotiation. We could take powers in relation to the construction of canals and railways, but in a restoration project of this kind it is better to proceed by negotiation. I am sure that that can be achieved.

My hon. Friend asked about the borrowing powers of British Waterways. It has the power to enter into public-private partnerships, and it has done so successfully. It also has the power to borrow according to Treasury rules, but it does not have the power to borrow on the open market at present.

I shall conclude by giving hon. Members the assurance that they seek. Although the Government do not underestimate the magnitude of the task, which may cost more than £80 million, I want to make it clear that we support the principle of such restorations.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud

It would be remiss of me not to invite my hon. Friend and Lord Whitty to visit that wonderful canal. With that in mind, will my hon. Friend perhaps help the various parties by updating himself and Lord Whitty on what they wish to do?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I assure my hon. Friend that I should be only too pleased to update my noble Friend Lord Whitty, who has responsibility for inland waterways in DEFRA, but I also assure him that I found the scheme so interesting that, if I can take the opportunity to visit his constituency, I shall be only too delighted to do so. [Hon. Members: "And ours."] And those of other hon. Members—I seem to be awash with invitations at the moment.

In conclusion, I wish to say on behalf of the Government that we wish the restoration partnership every success. Although there will be many negotiations—we have to recognise that it is a long-term project—if we can play a constructive and positive role, we shall be only too pleased to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Eight o'clock.