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Basingstoke Canal (Surrey Section)

Volume 886: debated on Wednesday 12 February 1975

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12.49 a.m.

Even though this is the first time that I have ever found it necessary to press a constituency matter to an Adjournment debate, I hope that I shall not have to detain the House for long because, as the Minister knows, the question of the Surrey section of the Basingstoke Canal has become in one respect less urgent than it was last week.

I am still glad to have had the good fortune to secure this Adjournment debate because the question of a compulsory purchase notice on the Basingstoke section of the Surrey Canal was first raised as long ago as July 1973. An inspector held an inquiry in October 1973 and, with commendable promptness, put in his report in December of that year, on which he is to be congratulated. Unfortunately, despite a certain amount of prompting, we were unable to get an announcement from the Department. In July I was told that there were legal difficulties but that a decision would be forthcoming as soon as possible. In November I was promised a decision "very soon", and in January I was promised one by the end of the month. So by 1st February I thought that I had better try to hot up the pace, hence tonight's debate.

In the interval the Minister announced his decision on 10th February, and that is a welcome development. There seems rather a lot of red ink on the decision by way of amendments and exceptions, but I unreservedly welcome the decision. I would like to be able to derive great encouragement from it, but, unfortunately, there is a complicating factor which I hope the Minister will say something about.

When the old Surrey County Council resolved to proceed to a compulsory purchase of the canal, it made the reservation that no notice to treat or enter should be served until an alternative development certificate had finally established the basis of the valuation. This certificate has proved even harder to obtain than the compulsory purchase notice itself. It was first thought that the New Basingstoke Canal Co., which owned the canal, would make an application for it, but it seemed reluctant to do so. Ultimately the county valuer had to apply for it. In 1972 the county issued a determination, the owners appealed, the hearing for the appeal was fixed and was to have taken place in January last year. Then at the last minute there was a technical difficulty and the whole business was withdrawn. The owners put in an application in April 1974, the county issued a certificate in November 1974, and an appeal was submitted on Christmas Eve.

The situation now is that the issue has come back to the Minister. I understand from the Department that it is not expected that a hearing to determine the appeal can take place before August or September this year, and no one seems to have any idea when a determination might be issued. On past form it is likely to take months rather than weeks. So the unfortunate situation has arisen in which there is uncertainty and it appears impossible to proceed. The compulsory purchase order has been confirmed, but the basis of valuation is not known and the county will not proceed until that valuation is known. Will the Minister therefore give an undertaking that he will do all he can to hurry up the processes if it proves necessary to go to a hearing?

The canal was first authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1758 and it has had 21 owners since then, most of whom have gone broke. We want a new situation where there will be only one more owner, the county council, and we do not want the council to run out of funds or to pay too much.

The business of restoring a derelict canal is bound to be expensive. The rates in Surrey, as elsewhere, have risen to levels which the ratepayers find it incredibly difficult to sustain. I have no wish to seek to increase the burden upon them. Therefore, if the canal is to be restored there will be demands, to which I hope the Minister will turn a sympathetic ear, for grants to be made from such sources as the Sports Council and the Countryside Commission. There is a need to get on with the physical planning and financial restoration of the canal now if the deterioration mentioned more than once in the inspector's report is not to become almost irreversible.

I give the Minister this encouragement. There are volunteers who are willing to put their energy, enthusiasm and expertise to work in Surrey, as they have already done in Hampshire. I am one of the vice-presidents of the Surrey and 'Hampshire Canal Society, the members of which are capable and energetic and determined to do all they can to restore a considerable amenity to the people in this part of England. There is widespread local interest and support forthcoming, and it is important that it should be harnessed.

In all the past history of the canal and during my 10 years' association with it the owners, unfortunately, have not done much to capture public imagination or understanding. I do not wish to dwell on that, but now that the principle of the CPO is established, the owners might see themselves in the capacity of trustees rather than as enjoying a freehold of indefinite duration. That should put a duty on them to allow people who want to work to achieve the restoration of the canal to have the ability and scope to do so.

I hope that the volunteers and the canal society, if necessary, will be able to get permission from the owners to carry out clearing and restoration work ahead of any formal county council agreement. The canal is a historic and environmental asset. It must not be allowed to go beyond the point of no return so that it deteriorates beyond all possibility of restoration. We must make sure that if red tape is in the way it is cut. We must have the vision and determination to ensure that all concerned—the Minister, Surrey County Council, the owners as trustees and the canal society—get together to put their efforts and energies to the most constructive use, so that I do not have to raise the same subject in 10 years' time.

12.57 a.m.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) for allowing me a few moments in his debate to draw attention to one aspect which is of great interest to some of my constituents. About one-and-a-half miles of the Basingstoke Canal flow through my constituency and there are approximately 48 houseboats owners living on that section of it, many of whom were represented and made objections to some of the proposals at the public inquiry.

I wish to refer to paragraph 11 of the decision letter, dated 10th February, in which it is said:
"The Secretary of State has taken special note of the objections made by the owners of houseboats. He has accepted the assurances of the county council that they will honour existing licences, and will do everything possible to prevent hardship to those concerned "
I wish to draw to the Minister's attention the phrase "existing licences". The inference is that the county council is not inclined to allow any new licences to be taken out.

Although the right has existed in the past for the canal-owning company to refuse a licence to an individual owner, virtually all new owners are allowed to take out a licence. If the county council insisted on existing licences only, the people already there would not be able to sell their houseboats and their assets would become worthless.

I hope that the Minister will be able to seek an assurance from the county council that it will honour existing licences and be prepared at least to consider on the present basis new applications for licences, so that houseboat owners will be able to sell their houseboats on the market in the normal way.

1.0 a.m.

I am obliged to the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) for raising this important matter and for enabling me to deal with the subject of canals. I wish to express appreciation to the Surrey local authority as well as to Hampshire and other local authorities which join together with amenity groups and with the British Waterways Board to ensure that canals which a few years ago were going out of use are now places for enjoyment and recreation. It is the Government's view that everything possible should be done to open up and rehabilitate these canals for recreation, fishing, boating and the enjoyment of people who like to take a pleasant walk down the towpath.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned voluntary groups. It has been most encouraging to see how citizens have worked voluntarily to restore canals and towpaths. In some cases pubs have been built along the towpaths so that an enjoyable walk can be combined with a social drink. This is the emerging pattern of canal development and is to be welcomed.

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for the degree of procrastination in this decision. I assure him that we have moved as quickly as we can since we have been axious to make a favourable decision. However, three difficult legal matters have faced us. I will come to them shortly.

I very much welcome the Minister's comments about the fact that canals should be opened up and become lungs for the public. I am glad that he is seeking to do something about the Surrey end of the canal so that there is a continuous amenity right the way through. I was glad to hear him mention voluntary groups which have carried out an enormous amount of work. It is most encouraging—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is making a speech.

I thank the hon. Member for those sentiments. I was about to tell the House of some of the legal complexities facing the Department which have caused some trouble.

The first difficulty relates to the legal definition of the phrase "open country", previously defined in Section 59 of the 1949 Act. There were difficulties with this phrase when canals passed through urban areas. But we in the Department were able to decide that a canal going through an urban area was in open country, and we hope that we have that right.

The second major issue related to excepted land under the 1949 Act. Both Surrey and Hampshire argued at the inquiry that they had power under Section 76 of the 1949 Act to acquire the land in question. But legal advice which we have obtained since the inquiry is that those arguments were unsound, and that advice has been accepted. Although it has not affected the outcome, it was a matter of importance which had to be made clear.

Thirdly, there were the houseboats, to which the hon. Member for Chertsey and Walton (Mr. Pattie) referred. We rely heavily on the word of the county councils, and I am sure that hon. Gentlemen will join me in thinking that there is no question of doubting that that word will be kept and that the existing houseboat owners will be protected. But I take the point about the ongoing licences, and I undertake to raise the matter with the county councils concerned and to use my good offices as best I can to pursue the matter. However, the hon. Gentleman will recognise that it is a matter for the new owners, the local authorities, to decide at the end of the day how they intend to manage the canals which they will own.

Much the most important reason for the delay is that, to our astonishment, when we decided to make this order we had to make 300 modifications to it. Hon. Members representing constituencies in Hampshire will not be surprised to know that that was mainly because of difficulties in Surrey. Where the canal went through parts of residential areas, whereas it was proposed originally to take small bits of the back gardens of 300 residences and other business premises, as a result of our legal advice that was found to be impracticable. In our order we have said that the local authorities have to be satisfied with the towpath, and that has meant amending the order in 300 instances. Since each one has had to be done separately, it has put an enormous administrative burden on my Department. That was why it was held up. It was not until the 300 exemptions had been sorted out that we were able to make progress.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Woking for the spirit in which he raised this matter. He asked me about one or two specific points. One concerned the certificate of alternative use. Until this evening that had not come to my notice in respect of this canal. I undertake to look at it. I am conscious of the fact that we have had to delay this announcement much longer than we intended. If an appeal is necessary, we shall expedite it by every means that we have in the Department and try to give it priority in order to bring the matter to a determination as soon as possible.

As for the costs of restoration, it is true that grants can be obtained from the Countryside Commission. We have already notified the commission of our principal determination, so that it is fully in the picture. I feel sure that a mixture of Government money through the Countryside Commission, local authority money and voluntary endeavour is the right approach to canals of this kind, and I undertake to follow up those sentiments in my future discussions with the commission, but, of course, without commitment because it is an independent body and totally free to determine its own grants. But I shall do my best to support the point of view which has been put forward.

I think that covers all the points raised. It has taken a long time to reach a decision in principle.

The only other point I should raise is on the question of a certificate of alternative use. When the Government's proposals for acquisition of land become law, they will be of considerable help to local authorities. I, as Minister for Sport, attach a good deal of importance to this, because it will mean that in future when land is bought for sport or recreational purposes, such as this canal, the cost will not be arrived at by some hypothetical alternative use but by existing use.

The reason why I attach great importance to it is that we are losing too many sports fields and recreational outlets because the cost to local authorities is not that of existing use but is a much more inflated cost which the present law insists upon. So I hope that when we bring our land proposals before the House hon. Members who have spoken tonight will be found supporting us.

I can never resist provocation. I shall not give the Minister that undertaking, although I am grateful for the hints of support he has given. I shall not go so far as to hold out a hint of a vote in his Lobby, but that is a helpful forecast on his part. I hope that the county council and the owners will bring their discussions to fruition so that we shall not have to trouble him with an appeal. I shall ensure that what he has said is drawn to the attention of those concerned and they will have to form their own judgment as to whether the Minister's forecast is likely to be borne out by events sooner or later.

While the hon. Member for Woking and I like occasionally to venture into the realm of controversy, I hope that the existing owner will understand the position and have more reason to reach an early and sensible agreement with the local authorities concerned.

I have high hopes that this canal will be added to the others that have opened, particularly the Ashton and Lower Peak Forest Canal, operated by the British Waterways Board, from the centre of Manchester to Cheshire, which has added enormously to the recreational potential in that area. I have high hopes that this will prove to be the case for this canal in Hampshire. Great strides have been taken in Hampshire. On behalf of the Government, I will do all I can constructively to encourage the development of these canals.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past One o'clock.