British Waterways

– in the House of Commons at 10:17 pm on 30th November 2009.

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

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Photo of Lynda Waltho Lynda Waltho Labour, Stourbridge 10:20 pm, 30th November 2009

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.

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.

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Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Labour, Staffordshire Moorlands

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?

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Photo of Lynda Waltho Lynda Waltho Labour, Stourbridge

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.

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Photo of Bob Laxton Bob Laxton Labour, Derby North

Does my hon. Friend agree that that dual pincer financial movement on British Waterways-the cut in the DEFRA grant 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.

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Photo of Lynda Waltho Lynda Waltho Labour, Stourbridge

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.

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Photo of Peter Soulsby Peter Soulsby Labour, Leicester South

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?

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Photo of Lynda Waltho Lynda Waltho Labour, Stourbridge

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.

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Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Labour, Cardiff South and Penarth

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?

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Photo of Lynda Waltho Lynda Waltho Labour, Stourbridge

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, 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.

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Photo of Rob Flello Rob Flello Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South

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.

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Of major interest to those constituents that take even the slightest interest in what is happening in Stoke-on-Trent is also the selling off of OUR,that is the constituents who have paid council...

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Photo of Lynda Waltho Lynda Waltho Labour, Stourbridge

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.

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Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

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.

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Photo of Lynda Waltho Lynda Waltho Labour, Stourbridge

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

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Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

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.

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Photo of Lynda Waltho Lynda Waltho Labour, Stourbridge

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

"by 2022 we aim to have a thriving and sustainable waterway network cherished by the public that shares a deep responsibility for its well being".

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:

"The private sector built the canals, the public sector rescued them and I believe the third sector can be their future".

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.

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Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Marine and Natural Environment) 10:37 pm, 30th November 2009

I congratulate my hon. Friend 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 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 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.

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Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Labour, Chorley

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.

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This is an important issue, as the excessive investment in the Olympic Games in London will further widen the inequality gap between the south east and the rest of the UK. This relates not only to sporting facilities but...

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Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Marine and Natural Environment)

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 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.

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Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

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.

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Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Marine and Natural Environment)

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.

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.

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Photo of Peter Soulsby Peter Soulsby Labour, Leicester South

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 Lynda Waltho has described?

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Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Marine and Natural Environment)

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 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-

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

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