§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Carrington.]8.36 pm
§ Mr. Warren Hawksley (Halesowen and Stourbridge)
Mr. Deputy Speaker, I thank you for the opportunity of raising a very important issue: the future of British canals. My interest in canals developed when I was a young boy in Shropshire. I suppose that my parents took me along most of the towpaths around the Shropshire Union canal while exercising our dog. I also admit that I fished in the canals on several occasions. I rarely boated on them, although it must be a wonderfully relaxing past time. Canals are a great leisure facility. I would prefer a better climate for regular boating, but those who do indulge thoroughly enjoy themselves.
As a member of the Shropshire county council in the 1970s, I was involved in supporting the restoration of the Montgomery canal. Later, as Member for The Wrekin, I persuaded the Department of Transport to route the Oswestry bypass at a higher level to allow the restoration work to continue underneath it. One of my constituents, Mr. Bob Clarke, is the news editor of Canal and Riverboat magazine, and he keeps me fully briefed about developments on our waterways. I pay tribute to him for his dedication and to my other constituents who are also canal users and who have expressed their enthusiasm for canals and devote much effort and resources to preserving them.
About 2,500 miles of navigable waterways in England, Wales and Scotland are owned by the British Waterways Board and the Environment Agency. Some 2,000 miles of canals are the responsibility of British Waterways, of which the vast majority are man made. They have existed for some 225 years and remain a working example of the waterways that fuelled the industrial revolution, particularly in the west midlands. The expansion of manufacturing industry in the midlands led to the black country, of which my constituency is part, becoming known as the workshop of the world and to Birmingham becoming known as the "city of a thousand trades".
The advent of railways, the takeover of many canals by railway companies to kill off competition by allowing canals slowly to deteriorate, along with the arrival of road transport, led to almost 1,500 miles of that connected network facing closure by the British Transport Commission in the 1950s and the early 1960s. The commission publicly said that there was no future for these waterways even as outlets for leisure and recreation.
It is worth reminding the House that it was only active campaigning by enthusiasts, including the Inland Waterways Association, with protest cruises and do-it-yourself canal restorations—once in 1962, in my constituency of Stourbridge, even under the threat of prosecution by the British Transport Commission for those who led a particular protest—that led to change.
The arrival of the British Waterways Board in 1963 saw a significant change and shift in policy. The dogma that had been shown by the British Transport Commission was gone and the new incoming British Waterways acknowledged the future of our canals for leisure and recreation.
699 Even in those early days, as custodians of what, in effect, is a living museum of the contribution that the United Kingdom had made to industrial development and manufacturing skills, British Waterways was constantly hamstrung by a lack of funding to enable it to wipe out the decay of more than a century and restore all the nation's waterways to a standard capable of withstanding the increasing growth that we are seeing in leisure pursuits.
Much the same has befallen those navigations that are the responsibility of the Environment Agency. It is ironic that the United Kingdom, which over the past 200 years has given the world so much in advancing engineering technology on land, in the air and on the sea has seen its river navigations, which linked canals with seaports, fall into a similar state of disrepair. In Europe, however, our competitors have developed many of their waterways to the bulk carriage of raw materials and finished goods. What can be greener than a navigation where one boat or large barge carries up to 20 lorry loads of what would otherwise have gone on the road?
Only last week, as a Member of this place, I went as a guest of the Port of London Authority with the parliamentary waterways group down the Thames from Westminster to Gravesend. We as members of the group saw the improved use of the riverside, with development, and the return of the river as a means of removing gravel and waste.
United Kingdom waterways, whether independent of the canal system or part of the integrated network, bring greenery, peace and tranquillity even into our city centres. Leisure and recreation facilities attract 160 million visits a year, either by boaters, anglers, cyclists, towpath walkers, naturalists, wildlife photographers or artists. So large has been the expansion of canal and river-related activities that a huge industry has developed round them.
Hundreds of people are gainfully employed in boatbuilding, servicing and hire-cruiser bases. There are about 26,000 boat owners on British Waterways waters and thousands more on the Environment Agency's navigations. Scores of tourists use industries that are connected to canal sides, including hotels, restaurants, marinas and retail premises, the construction of which has employed thousands of craftsmen.
I suppose that I should declare an interest. If the Montgomery canal were ever to open, I think that my wife's hotel could benefit, as many other businesses would in the Welshpool area.
Also to be considered are the midlands and the investment that has been attracted by waterside locations. The examples are numerous. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has seen the multi-million pound regeneration projects on the canal sides of Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield. There have been equally prestigious developments in the west midlands, at Walsall, Coventry and Brierley Hill. The waterfront at Brierley Hill in the evenings is a hive of activity attracting many of my constituents, who thoroughly enjoy the facilities that it provides.
The British Marine Industries Federation has kindly provided me with statistics, which show that capital investment within the system runs at about £500 million. Hire and charter on inland waterways amounts to about £29 million. Repairs and mooring account for a further £30 million. I suggest that that is a considerable investment in our economy.
700 I know that it cannot have escaped the notice of my hon. Friend the Minister that millions of pounds of millennium and lottery moneys are providing for the restoration of the two canals across the Pennines in the form of the Huddersfield and Rochdale canals. There has been the reopening of the Kennet and Avon canal by Her Majesty the Queen. In addition, there has been the recent announcement of the Forth and Clyde and Union canals, which will give Scotland a second coast-to-coast waterway as well as restoring a waterway link between Edinburgh and Glasgow.
We must not forget the restoration work that is now proceeding on the link between the Thames and Severn rivers by the hoped-for reopening of the Thames and Severn canal and the Stroudwater navigations. The latter project is still operating very much as a voluntary scheme.
There also is the Stourbridge navigation trust in my constituency, which is hoping soon to receive lottery money of about £750,000 for the scheme that it has proposed. It is to be hoped that approval will be given in the next few months to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the reopening of the Stourbridge arm of the canal. That would be appropriate as the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal Society saved the mile-long arm of the Stourbridge canal and allowed the development of the bonded warehouse and canal company offices that provide tourist attractions, moorings and public meeting places.
Work starts this spring on the eventual restoration of the Dudley No. 2 canal. The work is being helped by European aid, which is being prepared by the Halesowen Lapal canal trust. Another scheme worthy of mention, which is now almost at a standstill until more funding becomes available—the Montgomery canal, which I have mentioned already—involves English Partnerships, which appears to have withdrawn its support. That is tragic because the scheme would help to relieve the pressures on the Llangollen canal. I believe that the canal and the associated project are examples of the far-sighted visions of canal enthusiasts, who persuaded English and Welsh local authorities of the tremendous tourism potential that such a restored waterway would have. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will assure us that he will do what he can to ensure that the turn of the century will still stand for the restoration of this waterway.
I acknowledge the demands upon the Exchequer, but I feel that there is a lack of detailed understanding of the infrastructure that is now an integral part of the waterways network which is of importance to an area of activity that even in the depths of the recent recession still shows some growth.
Our nation still has at least 2,500 miles of waterway that need vast sums spent upon them if they are to survive another 25 years, let alone another century. Within the system a multitude of skilled jobs is required, including construction plant operation, bricklaying, carpentry, metal working, flood control, property restoration and skills in architecture and the environment. In other words, we have a 2,500-mile training ground for the long-term and young unemployed. At the end of such training those involved would be in possession of proof of having been trained and having proficiency in a skill. I urge the Government to examine inland navigations in the long term. It would be a tragedy if all recent developments became worthless 701 because of a failure to maintain the main canal structure, which now needs about £100 million spent on it if it is to be safeguarded.
British Waterways has played its part by doubling its self-generating income. I believe, however, that users should pay. Canals have withstood the ravages of time and deliberate vandalism by previous owners. They still function but their stability, function and safety—indeed their very existence—can no longer be guaranteed by either British Waterways or the Environment Agency. What better place in which to train the unemployed in new skills or to engage craftsmen? It is an area in which skills are badly needed in the restoration of an integral part of the nation's unique heritage.
It would not be the first time that the nation's inland waterways have been used for getting people back to work, retraining or for finding work for the longer-term unemployed. An example is the Caledonian canal in Scotland, which was built by such people. Other examples are the Grand Union canal between Braunston and Birmingham—the waterway that linked London docks with midland industry, which was widened in the 1930s in the depths of a great depression. The project was used as a method of putting people back to work.
The Department of Employment and Education is expanding its workfare ideas towards a project works scheme. There are helpful ideas that could give the unemployed skills. These skills are to be obtained through schemes that involve the canal system.
Only a few who use the waterways—boaters and anglers—pay any appreciable amount for using them. Cyclists and walkers cause considerable erosion to towpaths yet they do not have to pay. Outside the areas that qualify for various types of Government or European aid, British Waterways is faced with having to repair that damage as well as trying to hold together a 200-year-old system, parts of which are literally falling to pieces.
Will the Government try to show vision in planning the important future of our canals? I accept that the Government tried to protect British Waterways in the Budget by giving it an extra £5 million for three years, which is 11 per cent. over the original provision, but I hope that more can be done. I realise the pressures that the Treasury is under and I am aware of its restrictive attitude on many occasions.
Why do the Government not free British Waterways from many of its restrictions and bureaucratic controls? Our hospitals are now trusts which can raise money in the marketplace. Why cannot British Waterways be similarly treated so that it can raise money, so that its long-term borrowing can be spread out over many years and so that a rollover of expenditure can take place to safeguard the basic canal structure? The canals have 12 million visitors a year and provide 35,000 jobs in the private, public and voluntary sectors. Only with such freedom will the massive and welcome schemes being funded by Europe, by the millennium fund and by lottery resources be justified, as well as keeping safe our old canals.
§ The Minister for Construction, Planning and Energy Efficiency (Mr. Robert B. Jones)
I welcome the opportunity to discuss on the Floor of the House the 702 future of Britain's canals. This is the first Adjournment debate on waterways matters since 1988 when the Manchester ship canal was discussed, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Hawksley) on securing the time to discuss this important matter. He has a long history of commitment to the canal network of the United Kingdom and it is good to see that he is able to bring that to our debate tonight. I am also delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Carrington) in his place, because he has taken a close interest in the waterways network as it affects London. What a pity it is, however, that this important debate has not been graced by a Labour Member. Labour has demonstrated all too clearly tonight that it simply does not care about the waterways.
Many people have a strong affinity for the waterways, and I count myself among them. I have been closely involved in the examination of waterway issues in this House, both as a former chairman of the all-party waterways group and as a member of the Environment Committee which examined British Waterways a few years ago. Indeed, after my wedding reception in the House, I and my bride were taken down the Thames by my very good friends Chris and Val Coburn in their narrowboat Progress. I have a strong commitment to canals, and it was a pleasure to me to become the Minister responsible for inland navigation because I have been able to see a good deal more of the canal network, including the Caledonian canal, the Brindley Place and Gas Street basin in Birmingham, the Huddersfield narrow canal and the Sheffield and Tinsley canal.
I was delighted to visit the inland waterways display just a couple of weeks ago in the Upper Waiting Hall organised by the Association of Waterway Cruising Clubs, the Inland Waterways Association, the Royal Yachting Association and the British Marine Industry Federation. I also met recently a delegation led by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant) and the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) to discuss a range of canal issues. As my hon. Friend is retiring from the House at the forthcoming election, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to him for all his work both as my predecessor as chairman of the all-party waterways group and as my successor in the same role. I have little doubt that he will continue his interest even though he will not be a Member of this House.
There has recently been a rise in public interest in funding for the waterways. My postbag, prompted by the various waterway organisations, has had a significant increase in the number of canal-related letters. It seems, therefore, timely to set out the Government's role.
There are about 3,100 miles of operational canals and navigable rivers in the UK. The majority are managed by public organisations—British Waterways with 2,000 miles, the Environment Agency with 500 miles and the Broads Authority with 125 miles. That leaves around 475 miles which are managed by various other bodies such as local authorities, private bodies and charitable trusts. The Government sponsor directly BW, the Environment Agency and the Broads Authority. In view of the points made by my hon. Friend, much of what I say will be in relation to British Waterways.
It is often said that cities such as Birmingham, and perhaps parts of London, were built on the back of the canal system. They made use of the canals not only as a transport link, but as a means of drainage, waste disposal and water supply. It is fair to say that canals continue to 703 play an important part in many aspects of modern life. In particular, they are important to leisure and recreation, heritage, tourism and the environment. They have provided the focus for a range of urban and rural regeneration schemes.
Waterways provide an important catalyst for urban and rural regeneration. One of BW's aims is to promote and accommodate conservation and regeneration. In doing so, it works with a range of partners in the private, public and voluntary sectors. An excellent example of the role of canals in regeneration is the Birmingham waterfront, where more than £300 million of private sector finance has been attracted to developments alongside BW's canals. Another success story is the joint investment of £7 million by BW and Gloucester city council in Gloucester docks, which has attracted more than £30 million in private finance. The shift in the city's focus to the docks has seen the number employed there rise from 100 to 2,000 and tourism visits rise from a few thousand to more than 1 million. In Scotland, the millennium link, aided by £32 million from the Millennium Commission, will create 4,200 permanent jobs and attract £400 million of private investment along the 70 mile waterway corridor.
One of the most important areas of regeneration involves trying to cope with our housing needs. We are all familiar with the forecasts of an extra 4.4 million households; it will be much better if some of that housing can be provided alongside canals, regenerating disused sites and former industrial sites, rather than going into our green belt. It is a great pity that people such as the mayor of Berkhamsted, Mr. Peter Such, seem to think that it is not Government policy to build alongside the canals, when it clearly is. That policy can do a lot to regenerate our urban areas.
The profile of inland waterways has also been raised by the publication last April of the Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council's consultative report, "Britain's Inland Waterway: An Undervalued Asset". As a former member of IWAAC, I take great pride in the fact that it has produced a report which has provoked an interesting and lively debate. The Government and British Waterways will be required to respond to its conclusions and recommendations in due course.
The Government's policy is to maximise the benefits of the canals while taking account of the needs of all interests. To be more specific, there are five things I want: first, improved services and amenities for all users and beneficiaries of the canal network; secondly, a more strategic approach to the day-to-day use, planning and future development of navigations; thirdly, the protection and enhancement of the natural environment and the man-made heritage of buildings and structures; fourthly, a balanced approach so as to avoid conflicts between different uses; fifthly, a commercial approach, adopting cost-effective solutions and efficiency improvements to ensure good value for money for the taxpayer and payers of charges.
I value the considerable commitment and enthusiasm demonstrated by canal restoration societies and others in restoring canals. The Government have provided financial help to a range of projects through the land reclamation programme grant and the environmental action fund. Canal restoration schemes are also eligible for money from the various lottery distribution boards.
704 My hon. Friend is aware that there continues to be pressure on public spending, so all expenditure is carefully scrutinised. In recognition of the importance that the Government attach to the waterways, not only have they been cushioned from that pressure more than other spending programmes, but our contribution to the waterways has increased.
In the last Budget, for example, we announced an extra £5 million for BW in each of the next three years—an increase of almost 11 per cent. above original provision That compares with cuts of 9 per cent., 12 per cent. and 14 per cent. in the DOE's total expenditure over the next three years. In addition, I recently announced an extra £1.233 million for this year to enable BW to carry out additional repairs and maintenance to the network. That will bring the total grant in aid from Government in 1996–97 to more than £51 million. By any standards, that is a significant slice of public money.
I am fully aware of the survey that BW undertook last year, which identified a £100 million backlog of maintenance. As I have said, I have seen a number of the sites where urgent work is required. The Government recognise the seriousness and urgency of the problems, especially on the Caledonian canal, and have responded by providing immediate funding of £2.8 million. Only last Friday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland announced a further £3.2 million for BW over the next four financial years to help with future repairs to the Caledonian canal. Taking into account all the extra Government money and BW's own efforts, that should enable BW to make major progress in dealing with the backlog over a realistic time scale.
As a nationalised industry, BW is responsible for the day-to-day management of its estate. Government objectives for BW require it to act commercially and in a manner which is commensurate with its statutory responsibilities. That includes meeting its costs as far as possible from charges on users and revenue from its property. I recognise that BW licence fee increases have not been well received. Nobody likes paying more, but it was a commercial decision for BW, and one I fully support. If the Government are giving an extra 11 per cent. a year to BW for the next three years, boaters must also play their part in helping BW to continue to invest in the future of the waterways.
It should be remembered that grant in aid and licence fees are not the only sources of funds available to BW; it generates its own income via its property, commercial and leisure interests, and for 1996–97 it expects income of more than £38 million from such sources and forecasts more for 1997–98.
In addition, a range of other funding opportunities is available to BW. This year, for example, BW has benefited from £10 million from the Government's single regeneration budget challenge fund for a London-wide canal regeneration programme and £3.6 million for a project on the Calder and Hebble navigation at Sowerby bridge. BW has also been a partner in lottery awards this year of £25 million for a programme of heritage and environmental conservation and visitor improvements on the Kennet and Avon, £2.7 million for the Ribble link—a new waterway linking the Lancaster canal to the Leeds and Liverpool—and £14.8 million for the Huddersfield canal. Two non-BW canals, the Ashby and the Rochdale, have also received £1 million each from the Government's rural challenge fund. BW also received 705 more than £1 million from local authorities and expects to receive £1.5 million in grants from Europe in the current year.
BW has worked hard to attract funding from a wide range of sources. It is a reflection of its enterprise and commercial ability that, over the past seven years, it has increased self-generated income from £21 million to £43million. It certainly deserves credit for its performance.
My hon. Friend expresses an interest in finding a way to get the whole waterway network designated so that it is eligible for European grant aid. As I have just mentioned, BW already bids for funds from a variety of sources, including Europe. It continues to look at ways in which it might increase revenue, including options that would allow greater flexibility in generating additional income for the canal network.
A new national designation for the waterway system is one of the conclusions the Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council drew from its examination of inland waterways. That is an issue that I will wish to consider as part of the Government's and BW's eventual response to IWAAC's report.
My hon. Friend is keen to extend the use of casual labour and youth training to help with the maintenance and repair of the waterways. I particularly pay tribute to the waterway recovery group, which provides the opportunity for volunteers to work on all aspects of canal restoration. In his 1995 Budget, my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a pilot initiative, project work, to help long-term unemployed people. The project, which has recently been extended due 706 to its success, offers a programme of intensive jobsearch help and practical work experience for people aged between 18 and 50 who have been out of work for at least two years. As my hon. Friend said, there is a history of canal projects being used as opportunities for job creation. People on project work carry out work of value to the local community, which certainly includes work on the waterways.
There is plenty to be positive about. The total amount of money going into the canal network from a wide variety of sources is greater than ever. There is renewed interest in the canal system for a range of different activities—leisure, recreation, tourism, regeneration, conservation, education, and in some areas still for commercial traffic.
Only a few months ago, I agreed to the upgrade of the Sheffield and Tinsley canal—the first upgrade since 1983—following significant public and private investment in the area, including a commitment from Sheffield city council to meet the costs of the additional work required to maintain the canal to cruising standard for 21 years.
Of course BW has a significant backlog of work, but as I said it is taking positive action to tackle the problems and invest in the future of the waterways. With all the activity in the public, private and voluntary sectors, we can look forward with confidence to the future of Britain's canals. I congratulate my hon. Friend on this important debate, and wish him and the canal system well for the future.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at five minutes past Nine o 'clock.