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Inland Waterways

Volume 481: debated on Tuesday 28 October 2008

The next debate, as hon. Members will know, is due to start in just under a minute at 11 o’clock. It might be helpful for Members to know, just before I call the hon. Member whose debate it is, that no fewer than nine Members have indicated to me in writing that they wish to speak from the Back Benches on this very important matter. Hon. Members will know that I am always to keen to include as many Members as possible, but they are perfectly capable of doing the arithmetic for themselves, and a certain self-denying ordinance will be required.

I am very pleased that so many hon. Members have found the time support the debate and grateful for the opportunity to talk about the vital issue of the future restoration of our waterways network. I welcome the Minister to what is his first debate on waterways, and I hope that this is one of many on inland waterways to which he will respond. He has already demonstrated his enthusiasm for canals by booking a holiday in February on the Shropshire Union canal. That shows real enthusiasm, and it should demonstrate to him the work that British Waterways has done on flooding. I hope that his visit is not too interrupted by inclement weather. It is probably just as well that he has recently announced an extra £1 million to help British Waterways, which is welcome.

Britain has a wonderful asset in its inland waterways. Some were built more than 250 years ago, but the canal age was well and truly over by the middle of the last century and the vast majority of freight movements were transferred to rail and road. The network fast became disused and fell into disrepair. However, a small band of dedicated individuals saw a future for our canals and rivers. They formed the Inland Waterways Association. Their drive, vision and enthusiasm ensured a renaissance for the canals and the waterways system. More than 500 miles of waterways have been restored to use, and a further 500 miles are currently under active restoration. Every weekend, groups of volunteers around the country work to restore more of our historic waterways network. IWA volunteers have created a waterway recovery group, which has been actively engaged in restoration since the early 1970s. Indeed, they brought my local canal, the Caldon, back from dereliction in 1974. The IWA provides volunteer working parties and logistical and expert help to waterway societies up and down the country. More than 31,000 boats travelled on the waterways network last year, and 11 million visitors, including anglers, walkers and cyclists, used the towpaths.

The Government have played a key role in the waterways for a long time. I should like to remind the Minister that the waterways were first nationalised in 1947—I can do so now that nationalisation is back in fashion. Unfortunately, those early years of nationalisation did nothing to protect the canals from closure and disrepair. Only in the late 1960s did the Government begin to recognise the recreational value of the waterways. However, the outstanding contribution that waterways can make to both regeneration and the environment was recognised only when the Labour Government launched “Waterways for Tomorrow” in 2000.

We all support the use of public and private money for the renovation of waterways. The hon. Lady refers to the events of eight years ago, but I hope that she recognises that in many of our cities—I speak for London, but the same applies to the centre of cities such as Birmingham and Manchester—there has been a huge amount of renovation, with the public and private sectors working together, much of which predates the important initiatives that I am sure she will address.

The regeneration has been brought about by a huge partnership between the Government, local canal trusts and volunteers, who had the vision to research and create feasibility plans for many of the important developments around the country in the past eight years.

Will my hon. Friend, who is the IWA parliamentarian of the year, confirm that British Waterways has been working steadily towards self-sufficiency and reducing its reliance on grant? Does she agree that the hit that it has taken—a real-terms reduction of 30 per cent.—since the peak funding of the second canal age in 2003-04 is too rapid to absorb with other commercial activity and diversification? Is not that the issue?

Absolutely, and I must say that flattery will get my hon. Friend everywhere. It is true that the Government grant is still 40 per cent. of British Waterways’s income, and it will therefore remain an important part of its income for the medium if not the long term. The huge dive in the grant has had a tremendous impact on its ability to respond to maintenance needs and its aspirations to expand the network.

Waterways produce nearly £500 million-worth of benefit each year to this country. That is a fantastic return for the Government, who put in between £60 million and £70 million a year. The benefits are delivered to local people and communities and make a real difference where local authorities are willing to embrace the opportunities.

I strongly support what the hon. Lady is saying. In my local area, the complete restoration of the Montgomery canal, which is currently separated from the rest of the network, would create 340 new jobs and generate more than 1.5 million visits to the area. That would generate about £20 million in visitor expenditure every year. Does she therefore agree that investment in the canal network pays for itself surprisingly quickly and that it would be an excellent way for the Prime Minister to fulfil his promise of directly reinvigorating the recession-bound economy?

I hope that the Prime Minister listens to the debate, because the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the amount of money that goes into the canal network for restoration pays for itself many times over, not only for a few years, but for decades to come.

Government funding rose steadily from the mid-1990s, creating what has been described as the second canal age. The Government grant to British Waterways, which is the custodian of the largest network of waterways and historic buildings in the UK, peaked in 2003-04 at more than £76 million; but as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) indicated, it then took a dive. When the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reviewed the performance of British Waterways between 1999 and 2004, it found that it had achieved a step change in the condition, management and reliability of the inland waterways infrastructure, that the safety backlog—not the total backlog—had been eliminated and that six major restoration schemes, which created more than 200 miles of new navigation and the associated urban and rural regeneration, had been completed.

The hon. Lady makes a good point on the peak in funding, but is she not concerned that the change in funding that led to many schemes, including the Lancaster canal restoration project, which had got off the ground and was making huge progress and promised to bring vast amounts of investment into south Cumbria, brought an emphasis on maintenance rather than developing and extending schemes? Is that not possibly a waste of the money that has been invested so far? Does she agree that the best thing is for the money to come forward to ensure that the new schemes and the restoration of old canal ways such as the Lancaster northern reaches can be fulfilled?

I should certainly like the money to come forward, but I do not think that the other money that has been invested would be a waste, because local canal trusts and volunteer bodies are so determined to get the projects off the ground that we are talking about a delay rather than an end to the prospects for those developments. The schemes are such good value for money that they should be brought forward.

The money that was invested produced many new developments, such as the Millennium link and the famous Falkirk wheel. Since 2004, grants have been severely reduced. Inevitably, that has impacted on British Waterways’s works programme, and it must also have jeopardised its target of a vibrant expanded network by 2012. From wanting to expand the network, British Waterways is now having to retrench and focus only on maintaining the existing network, as hon. Members have said. Without continued improvement, confidence in the future of the network will leach away, thus damaging prospects for private sector investment, particularly in such difficult economic times.

We have already seen the impact of the credit crunch on British Waterways’s income. The downturn in the property market has made it impossible for the organisation to sell two very big development sites for about £9.5 million. The BBC recently cited the canal centre of Birmingham as an area that has seen the greatest fall in property values. Such falls must also apply to other city-centre developments around canals, and that is bound to hit British Waterways’s income. Even before the credit crunch, British Waterways had pulled out of schemes, such as the Cotswolds canals restoration. Funding is very tight. We risk losing the huge benefits of investment in our canals if maintenance is not sustained.

British Waterways has a long-term aim to become largely self-sufficient. At present, the Government grant still represents some 40 per cent. of BW’s income, and is critical to achieving its works programme. Any year-on-year underspend will lead to increased costs, because any maintenance that is not undertaken now allows minor problems to deteriorate, so that they require major works in the future. Any cutback is counterproductive, putting at risk the tremendous progress made before 2004. There will always be a need for some Government grant to contribute to British Waterways’s income in recognition of the wider public benefits generated by the waterways. In its report in 1989, even the Tory-dominated Environment Committee recognised that that was the case. That is why the extra £1 million that was announced for BW this month is so welcome.

I am listening very carefully to the hon. Lady and believe that she talks a great deal of sense. However, I am disappointed that she occasionally adds a misplaced party political tinge to her remarks. She was wrong to suggest that the revival of the canals has occurred only since 1997. The Kennet and Avon canal, the Wiltshire and Berkshire canal and the Cotswold canal, which the Labour Government have been responsible for pulling the funding on, all started their revivals long before Labour came to power. Therefore, will the hon. Lady acknowledge that this is not a party political but a cross-party issue?

Enthusiasm for canals is a cross-party issue. However, the amount of funding that has gone into British Waterways and other authorities has massively increased since we have had a Labour Government.

The Environment Agency, which operates about 20 per cent. of the network, is in a similar position to British Waterways. It is handicapped by a large maintenance and navigational improvement backlog. The Environment Agency currently receives some £14 million in grant in aid but the estimated cost of completing the backlog of capital work to its waterway structures is said to be £30 million. Therefore, structures, such as locks and moorings, have not received the routine maintenance that they need to ensure that they remain operational.

In the past four years, there has been a 24 per cent. increase in the number of boats on the network and an 18 per cent. increase in visitors. That is a fantastic achievement, but satisfaction with the waterway network is falling. Only 49 per cent. of boaters say that their experience of the waterway and its upkeep is good or excellent. That is a dramatic drop from the previous year, in which 66 per cent. of boaters held that view. However, boaters are not the whole story. They represent only 3 per cent. of the visitors to the waterways. None the less, without the boats, much of the colour and vibrancy of the waterways is lost. Boats are an essential component of a living waterways network.

My local Inland Waterways Association branch has reported to me that real difficulties are beginning to be encountered by boaters who have to operate a large number of gate paddles on the Cheshire locks. Of course, winding lock gear requires a degree of physical effort, but the problems are well beyond the usual. With so many locks causing problems in the same area, it will not be long before boaters learn to avoid that stretch of the canal.

The canals in my constituency in north Staffordshire represent real opportunities for regeneration. We have seen the successful completion of a four-year project, costing £6 million, to improve the towpaths and access points on to the canals around Stoke-on-Trent. That huge investment was paid for by the regional development agency and by European money, but, sadly, that positive partnership is not so evident elsewhere.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley) will speak about the Burslem port, but my local Tory council has sat on an in-depth feasibility study to restore, extend and develop the Caldon canal in Leek for more than one and a half years, and nothing has happened. Such restoration work would open up a real opportunity to develop the south side of Leek, especially as the Caldon canal runs side by side with the Churnet Valley heritage steam railway. It could be a real honey pot for visitors and local residents alike, with the towpath used as part of the local “Walking the Way to Health” programme and the Beatrice Charity’s trip boat providing children with special needs and wheelchair users the chance to get out on to the water and into the beautiful Staffordshire, Moorlands countryside.

Leek should learn from the experience of Llangollen in Wales, where the development of a mooring basin has massively boosted visitor numbers to the market town. Sadly, local IWA members are still struggling to get the development of the canal into Leek’s local development framework. Many people in Leek are unaware that the canal comes into the town, because the canal terminus comes out behind a scrap yard on an industrial estate. There is not even a sign to tell visitors about the delights of Leek a few hundred yards away. Yet when my dedicated IWA volunteers have organised local canal festivals, the place is alive with boats, music, activity and history. There are also plans to bring to life the Uttoxeter canal by opening a 13-mile stretch from Froghall in my constituency to the wharf in Uttoxeter.

I felt a real fellow feeling when the hon. Lady talked about the Leek canal terminus behind the gasworks. The Aylesbury canal basin is behind the Inland Revenue offices, which is probably even more of a disincentive to casual visitors. Does the hon. Lady agree that there are real fears in places such as Aylesbury, which are on arms of canals rather than through routes, that they may be the first candidates for reductions in maintenance and renovation expenditure? Often, as in the hon. Lady’s constituency and Aylesbury, the redevelopment of the canal is an integral and key part of wider urban regeneration projects. Without the canal restoration, the viability and the attractiveness of those urban renovation projects is under threat.

I could not agree more. There are real concerns that cul-de-sac canals, such as the Caldon and the one that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, are second class, because they are not on the main network. In fact, they are delightful and provide a fantastic experience for local people. I am aware of that point, which I have raised on many occasions. That is why we must continue to fight for our own local canals and work alongside the enthusiastic volunteers who have brought many canals back from the dereliction of the 1970s. The extension to the canal in Uttoxeter could be a great gem of a development. Sadly, it has not yet got off the ground, but I hope that it will do so soon.

I realise that many hon. Members want to speak, and in concluding, I want to ask the Minister about several issues. First, will he seek to do what many Waterways Ministers have failed to do in the past—retrieve money from other Departments to help with the restoration and maintenance of the current network of waterways? We all recognise that many Departments have an interest in the canals, with respect to health, education and regeneration, and that those Departments should make some financial contribution. Will the Minister also commit himself to the expansion of the waterways system, in line with “Waterways for Tomorrow”, which was published in 2000 and which he and his Department are now, I believe, reviewing?

Will the Minister also encourage job creation, during this period of economic turmoil, by helping organisations such as the Inland Waterways Association and local canal trusts, such as the Caldon and Uttoxeter Canals Trust in my constituency, with grants for maintaining and restoring the waterways network? The IWA has recently shown what good use it puts its money to by stepping in with £175,000 to save the Woolsthorpe top lock on the Grantham canal from closure, following the partial collapse of the offside wall to the lock last year. British Waterways considered the matter, but decided that it could not afford to rebuild the wall and proposed that the lock should be filled in. We do not want to go back to the bad old days when local and other authorities left the canals to dereliction. That would be a dreadful backward step, so I ask the Minister to help the waterways network to continue to move forward.

Order. I remind hon. Members that the Front Benchers who will make the winding-up speeches will be called at or very close to 12 o’clock, and I appeal again to hon. Members to help me to help them.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing such an important debate, and—on behalf of us all, so that we do not all have to repeat it—I welcome your chairmanship of the debate this morning, Mr. Bercow. I reckon that if we do about four minutes each we should just about all get into the time, so I shall do my best to stick to that.

I have a personal fondness for canals and I am sure that we all share either childhood or, as in my case, more recent memories of family holidays on a canal. My previous involvement was when I was sponsor Minister for Manchester and Salford; part of the great revival of those cities happened through Michael Heseltine’s initiatives in the city centre and the development that was done there. I should like to discuss two issues relating to my constituency—one from each side of it, geographically.

Perhaps I may introduce the new Minister to the excellent work of the Bedford and Milton Keynes Waterway Trust. His predecessor, now the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), paid a visit to it in July to see its work. That work is to enable the waterway to extend from the River Great Ouse in Bedford to the junction with the Grand Union canal in Milton Keynes. It will connect the waterways of East Anglia with the main canal network running through the country. It is a key part of the growth area strategy in the region. The Minister will know that Bedfordshire has had to accept a very large number of houses; to make that in any way bearable a leisure and working facility such as the new canal will make a great difference.

I want to pay tribute to the extraordinary coalition that has come together: the county council, with Mid Beds district council and Bedford borough council, Milton Keynes council, the mayor of Bedford and the Members of Parliament in the area—the hon. Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall) has been very supportive of the work that goes through his constituency, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) has also been supportive. It is a tremendous coalition. I pay tribute particularly to Jane Wolfson and David Fowler of the Waterways Trust for everything that they do. I hope that the personal support from the Minister’s predecessor will be reflected in the support that he gives. I invite him on behalf of the trust to visit the area as soon as possible, to see the work that is being done.

The second issue is rather more contentious and concerns the flooding on the other side of the constituency that we experienced in 2003, and the absence of effort by the Environment Agency to deal with it. There is a fundamental issue affecting the agency and the internal drainage boards in the United Kingdom—particularly those in low-lying areas. The agency goes by a mantra that says that dredging is not the answer to flooding. Those who have spent their lives and careers on inland waterways in the east of England would disagree. I am indebted to Barry Easom, Dick Bennett and members of the Bedfordshire and River Ivel internal drainage board for their advice in relation to this matter, and I put it to the Minister that it is time the Environment Agency’s policy was changed. I hope that he will help with the matter.

Watercourses that are naturally slow, which is the case in low-lying areas such as the east of England, do not have the flow of water that moves the silt. Accordingly they need the work to be done. The lack of such work by the Environment Agency in recent years has been very damaging. The agency claims that it spends £34 million a year out of its budget of £600 million on maintenance activities; but only £3 million a year is spent on desilting, and a further £8 million on vegetation clearance. Where does the rest go, and why is more work not done on desilting? My constituents still fear that flooding may result in the future. After the floods of 2003 a study was commissioned—it has still not reported because it has been repeatedly delayed, year after year—to find the answer to flooding in the area. I should like to know when that work will be completed. The catchment flood area management plans were promised in September 2008. The date has now been pushed back to 2009 and still there is no sign of relief for constituents.

I have three requests to put to the Minister. First, I should like him to ensure that the Environment Agency will begin to listen to advice on dredging in areas such as the east of England; to ensure that work on the Ivel will be moved forward; and in due course to confirm his personal support for the Bedford and Milton Keynes new canal.

Four minutes is indeed a very short time in which to say how much we welcome your being at the helm of our debate, Mr. Bercow, and to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins), who has done so much work to promote inland waterways throughout the country. We owe her a huge debt for obtaining the debate.

I want briefly to pay tribute to the many volunteers who, as my hon. Friend mentioned, have worked tirelessly to bring our waterways to the standard that they are now at. I hope that our debate will be a fitting tribute to two of those volunteers—the late Mr. and Mrs. Osborne, who did a great deal of work to give young and, particularly, disabled people the opportunity to get to know the waterways around our area—and that it will help to bring about the actions they would have wanted. I look for progress on that to the new Minister, who I am sure enjoys the waterways throughout this country, like many hon. Members.

There is a huge number of hon. Members present for the debate, and I hope that they will take time from their busy schedules to enjoy holidays on the canals and bring tourism to those canals, and to the towns and villages of north Staffordshire. I hope that they will help us to get the message across to everyone that the waterways are a vital part of our infrastructure and that today’s debate must bring about a step change towards getting inland waterways at one with regeneration and tourism.

I want briefly to flag up three issues—one is that despite the extra investment given by the Government, there is none the less continuing underfunding of British Waterways. We need to think about that from the point of view of continuing daily maintenance, without which the waterways will start to crumble and will not be the attraction we need them to be. Staffordshire, Moorlands constituency borders Stoke-on-Trent, North, and my hon. Friend and I share the wonderful Caldon canal. The Endon boat club, which we both visited almost two years ago for its 50th anniversary, reports that dredging is getting to be non-existent. Its members fear that the Caldon canal is getting shallower and shallower.

We heard about the extra £1 million that the Government have found, but we need something in the region of £400,000 just to improve the towpath between Stockton Brook and Endon, and other associated towpaths in the area. We must, through whatever budget and despite the difficult economic times, find that money as a means of getting people back into work and improving infrastructure. I would like the Minister to be aware that I have been trying my best for 12 months to liaise between British Waterways and the local authorities in order to get them to recognise that general maintenance needs to be improved. It is still not being done to the satisfaction of the Endon boat club, and I await action on that.

Local residents near the Trent and Mersey canal by Westport lake in my constituency take great pride in their new estate, and local people enjoy the facilities on offer there. British Waterways and Stoke-on-Trent council are making a joint effort to build a tourist centre. I must report that despite the fact that it is a state-of-the-art, green tourist centre that will do much to improve facilities for everyone using the area, British Waterways tells me that, due to a long period of non-performance by the contractor,

“we have had little choice but to terminate the contract. We have kept our colleagues”

at Stoke-on-Trent city council

“(as future owner) informed of the problems as they have arisen. We are now about to retender the remaining work to completion, however due to the poor performance of the contractor there is a shortfall on the remaining available funds and the cost to complete.”

That is exactly the point of this debate. By hook or by crook, one way or another, money must be found to complete the work undertaken.

My last point relates to regeneration and tourism. There is not enough time for me to mention it now, but on previous occasions I have referred to the Burslem port project. In Burslem, another town in the Potteries, there is an opportunity for regeneration. A housing market renewal programme is being planned and there are infrastructure plans that keep alive hope of recreating the former Burslem port, but enough attention has not been given to the regeneration process, to which I have contributed. We have not got the progress that we wanted and that we feel would have been in keeping with the feasibility study done back in 2005 of adopting the scheme within the area development framework.

In addition to the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands, I ask the Minister not only to address the issues of ongoing maintenance but to consider how he can relate to all his regional Ministers. Will he have talks with our regional Minister for the West Midlands to ensure that we can deliver on regeneration and restoration of our inland waterways as part of a wider economic, social, environmental and health agenda?

I will follow the example of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) by not congratulating you, Mr. Bercow, on chairing this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) for initiating it.

I shall describe, through the canal system in my constituency, where I think the Government need to act and where they do not. I take on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who mentioned canal arms. The Market Harborough arm is a cul-de-sac, but although there have been times when that part of the canal system was in danger of silting or of not being properly maintained, commercial development in the basin at the far end of the cul-de-sac, in the town of Market Harborough, has attracted investment, housing and commercial premises around the basin. That has consequently increased the use of the waterway from the main section of the canal into Market Harborough, a waterway of about five or six miles that is now used fully. However, there is a danger that if the amount of money available directly from the Government, through British Waterways or through private interest groups, is cut back, that section of the canal will fall into disrepair, to the disadvantage of those who live and keep their boats on the canal basin and the general upkeep of the canal as a whole.

The Harborough arm comes from Foxton, forming one of the great wonders of the modern industrial world. The Foxton steps are a series of about 10 locks that come down from the waterways in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) to run north through Harborough towards Leicester. Next door to the steps is the inclined plane, which for a brief period during the early 20th century enabled boats to be lifted or lowered between the top and bottom of the locks without taking the lengthy time required to go through each of them. That is now a subject for potential redevelopment, but it will be hugely expensive. I hope that the Government will not configure the finances of British Waterways and the waterways system as a whole so as to inhibit those who are interested in the trust behind the redevelopment and restoration of the inclined plane from carrying on their work.

The area around the locks in Foxton has become an important tourist and commercial centre in a way utterly fitting for that part of rural Harborough. I urge the Minister not only to come and look at the site of the Foxton locks but to encourage British Waterways to carry on with the good work that it has been doing over the past few years. There was a time when the buildings around the Foxton locks were falling into disrepair because of a lack of investment and maintenance by British Waterways; I am afraid that at one point I was reduced to describing the state of the buildings as worse than some of the bomb sites that I had seen in Bosnia. That acted as a spur, and I congratulate British Waterways on the tremendously innovative and thoughtful way that it has redeveloped the area around the bottom of the locks, the locks themselves and the lock-keeper’s cottage at the top, which is now part café and part education centre for children. I commend British Waterways for its successful work in the Foxton locks area.

However, British Waterways would not have done it with only Government help. It had the good sense to go into the private sector to find partners. At the bottom of the locks, there is now a highly successful pub called the Foxton Locks Inn, run by two constituents of mine, Bob and Stephanie Hamblin. They took on the lease for the pub, which belongs to British Waterways but has been developed through the assistance of a commercial brewer, Scottish and Newcastle. It was not until British Waterways realised that it did not keep pubs but managed waterways and allowed a commercial enterprise to come in and help that the project got off the ground. Now both the inn and the waterways draw people in. I commend that project to the Minister and ask him to urge British Waterways and all those interested in the preservation of our waterways for tourism and commercial enterprises to consider how Foxton locks has developed.

Another example of public-private partnership involves a couple who live close to Foxton locks, Tony and Mary Matts. They have run a boat hire and maintenance business for years, and they have done tremendous work in keeping boats on the water and attracting people to rent them daily, weekly or longer. It is a yet further example of the sensible way that private and public money can be used to the public benefit.

It is not controversial to say that we are in the middle—perhaps at the beginning—of a difficult financial period. I do not imagine that there is a huge amount of additional Government money to be spent on British Waterways or the waterway system as a whole, but I urge the Government not to suppress private interest in that public aspect of rural life. It is vital and it needs encouragement. I urge the Government and the Minister, who is new to his job—I congratulate him on it—to drive private interest into that aspect of the public sector.

Thank you, Mr. Bercow. I think that I might pull some time back.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing yet another debate on this issue. I almost get a feeling of déjà vu, being here again. My constituency is rich in canals and canal history, with the Ashton, Peak Forest and Huddersfield canals all meeting at the centre of Ashton-under-Lyne, at the Portland basin. In Failsworth, the Rochdale canal has been reopened, thanks to millennium funding.

I should like to mention the ambitious plans of the Hollinwood canal society, which aims to restore the canals through Daisy Nook country park, reconnecting them to the Ashton canal and creating a new link to the Rochdale canal. That has always been an ambitious, but nevertheless worthy, aim. Those of us who have been involved with it have known that we were in for the long haul. Sadly, the uncertain economic future is likely to add to the time scale. Faced with that uncertainty, it becomes all the more important to preserve the lines of disused inland waterways to ensure the possibility of future restoration. The Hollinwood branch is severed in two places by the M60 motorway, but local optimism about the scope to restore it has been given a boost by the new link to the Ashton canal and by the reconstruction of the first short section of the Hollinwood canal to the new Droylsden wharf.

It is nearly three years since I promoted a Bill on this issue, and I want to put in a shout for the restoration of its aims. My Bill would have obliged planning authorities to consult all those concerned with inland waterways when drawing up development plans and when determining planning applications that might have consequences for the line of an abandoned waterway. The problem is that planning policy guidance on waterways is not mandatory. I am thinking in particular of planning policy guidance notes 12 and 13, both of which are loosely worded. Leaving it open to a planning authority to decide to protect the line of a waterway means that it may decide not to. Leaving open the interpretation of what are “viable options” for waterway restoration is similarly subject to variation from one local authority to another. In these more uncertain economic times, I urge the Minister to reconsider tightening up planning laws and guidance, so that we can at least protect the routes of abandoned waterways until resources can be found to enable their restoration.

I am conscious of time, so I shall cut to the chase. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing the debate. I agree entirely with her analysis of the value of the waterways and about the importance of continuing investment in the maintenance, development and reopening of waterways.

The Chesterfield canal was built between 1771 and 1777. It is important historically, as far as the Houses of Parliament are concerned, because all the stone that was used to build them, in the 1830s, travelled down the Chesterfield canal before being loaded on to coastal ships and carried up the River Thames to this site, where it was unloaded and used to build the magnificent building in which we work every day. In 1906, after a long and active life, the roof of the Norwood tunnel, which is roughly in the middle of the canal, collapsed. Since then, the 26 miles of canal on one side of the tunnel was used as a working canal until 1962 and has been used as a leisure canal since then. However, the 20 miles of canal running from the tunnel into Chesterfield became derelict.

That could have been the end of the matter. Part of the canal at Killamarsh was filled in, and a small housing estate was built across the line of the canal. Derbyshire county council bought a section of the land in 1987, not to restore the canal, but to put it in a culvert, underground, so that it could build a bypass across the site. That bypass has been planned since 1936 and still has not been built, but we live in hope in that part of the constituency. When I moved there in 1979, for my first teaching job in Chesterfield, I bought a house at Tapton, overlooking the canal, and it was a stagnant ditch. As a history teacher, I used to take my pupils through chest-high weeds and grass looking for bits of canal, bridge and other traces that could be seen in the undergrowth.

How different the area is now, 30 years later. In the 1970s, local volunteers decided that it should not stay as it was, and in 1976 they created the Chesterfield canal society, which became the Chesterfield canal trust in 1998. They have renovated whole stretches of the canal, beginning with Tapton lock and visitor centre, just below where I used to live. Over the next 20 or 30 years, they worked through a sequence of sections. Just two weeks ago, JCBs began excavating at the site of a 19th-century canal terminal in Chesterfield that had long since been filled in. The site is being excavated to restore the canal basin so that the canal will have a proper terminal. The private sector is now heavily involved in what used to be solely the activity of a fantastic group of local volunteers. Private developers can see the advantage of having a waterside development along the lines of similar successful developments in Leeds, Birmingham and, to a limited degree, Sheffield.

All the progress on the canal is due to local volunteers who believed in the impossible. Through their realistic plan, they are close to restoring the whole length of the canal and re-linking it to the national network. Derbyshire county council has reversed its original position, and has been an enthusiastic supporter of the canal since the 1990s. Chesterfield borough council, of which I was a member for 12 years, and Brimington parish council, of which I was a member for four years, have also helped the canal. Grants have come from various sources, and the private sector is now involved, but none of that would have happened without those fantastic local volunteers. Various hon. Members have paid tribute to similar activities in their areas.

Chesterfield is a narrowboat canal, and will never realistically carry any commercial cargo, so why is all that important? There are two reasons, the first of which is quality of life. The canal is a linear lung out of Chesterfield. On any weekend or summer evening, the towpath is full of people walking, cycling, fishing and watching the birdlife. What was a derelict and abandoned industrial valley has been completely regenerated. The second reason is economic regeneration. A major private company is looking to redevelop the whole area where the original canal basin was, just off Chesterfield centre, with housing, offices and shops, bringing jobs and restoring quality of life.

In conclusion, I should like to echo the points that all hon. Members have made so far, including the hon. Lady in her opening comments. Whatever the economic pressures as we enter a recession, the Government must not take the short-sighted option of reducing funding to the waterways, because they are important for quality of life and for long-term economic regeneration.

I am grateful to you for calling me, Mr. Bercow, and I shall keep to my four minutes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing another debate on this issue. She is a true champion of the waterways, and totally deserves the Inland Waterways Association award. I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to his position. No doubt, he realises that his portfolio will be an interesting one.

The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has investigated this issue twice in the past few years. In our first investigation, which I had the opportunity and good fortune to chair, we looked into the role of British Waterways. However, the result was that BW pulled out of the Cotswold canals partnership, so I am not sure whether I would like to repeat that experience. That is history, and I do not want to go back over it, but history carries on in some respects. I should like the Minister to look into a particular issue. A key part of the partnership’s operation was Brimscombe port, and moneys were made available by the South West of England Regional Development Agency and ended up with BW. Given that it has withdrawn from the partnership, I am concerned that it is trying to sell its stake in Brimscombe port. Will the Minister look into that urgently and ensure that it does not happen? The stake should instead be passed to the two remaining key partners, the Cotswold Canals Trust—a wonderful organisation—and Stroud district council, which has taken lead of the partnership.

Will the Minister also look tolerantly on the partnership’s request for money? That need not necessarily be in the form of a grant, but could be in relation to contaminated land. It could also be related to the use of canals as a key part of our climate change strategy. There might be environmental moneys that could be made available. We want to continue to lock in Heritage Lottery Fund moneys of £11.9 million. The parties who remain in the partnership are adamant that they want to see the project through, and they intend to do all they can to ensure that that happens, notwithstanding BW’s decision.

I could go on to discuss many other matters, but instead I shall give the Minister a list. I encourage him to discuss some of those issues—perhaps in private initially—with hon. Members present and with those who belong to the parliamentary waterways group.

The list of issues that I have is rather long, but they are issues that the Minister may wish to dwell on. The issues are in no particular order: employment practices; housing policies; mooring fees; bridge openings and replacement of bridges; executive bonuses; the link with the ports that British Waterways owns; and last but not least is the issue that the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) referred to, which is flooding. I think that our waterways can be part of the solution to our flooding problem, but unless we look at their maintenance, they will be part of the problem.

In conclusion, I would like to think that we have a clear policy and that BW in particular and the other partners will continue with the reopening of our waterways. That is something that BW has stated in its strategy—not just the maintenance of existing waterways, but the reopening of disused waterways. It would be helpful if the Minister was to restate that the aim of reopening waterways was the Government’s intention, because there has been some questioning of whether it is still the policy. I will say nothing more, because I have taken my four minutes already.

I would also like to congratulate the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on her excellent speech and on the comments that she made.

I intend to be very brief. I wish to talk about the Rochdale canal. It was one of the canals that fell into disuse in the 1940s but it was later restored. A lot of volunteers worked on the canal and fought for its restoration. It secured millennium funding and was reopened in 2000. I would like to pay tribute to Frances Done, the former chief executive of Rochdale council and a member of the Waterways Trust, for the work that she did. Four local authorities are served by the Rochdale canal: Rochdale; Oldham; Manchester, and Calderdale. They have a maintenance programme in place and they contribute to it.

The big issue about the Rochdale canal is that, in order to get it reopened for the millennium, minimum funding of more than £25 million was secured, but it was always understood that there would be additional funding and at least £11 million of additional work was identified as being necessary. The cuts in the British Waterways grant are having an effect on the ability of British Waterways to deliver that restoration work. Therefore, I invite the new Minister to come to the Rochdale canal. If he comes, he will see a vibrant restoration, from the heart of Manchester right into the Pennines. However, it is absolutely vital that the extra £11 million of funding is secured.

The second issue that was not resolved in the rush to get the canal reopened for the millennium was giving the canal a proper water supply. The two reservoirs that used to serve the canal are now owned by United Utilities Water and although they are not used for domestic water supply, United Utilities Water still refuses to relinquish them. I hope that the Minister can put pressure on United Utilities Water, because one of the issues about the canal, when it is open, has been a lack of water supply. It is vital for the future of the canal that it obtains that water supply. I will finish there. I hope that the Minister will look at those points.

As we continue this tour of Great British locations, I want to bring the House’s attention to Ellesmere Port. The recovery of the town was centred on the work undertaken in creating what is now a National Waterways museum. If that work had not been carried out, the recovery of the town, including the development of the fantastic retail complex around Cheshire Oaks that brought in 7 million day visitors last year, simply would not have happened.

I know that the Waterways Trust is not immediately part of the direct responsibilities of my hon. Friend the Minister, but it is struggling to maintain its important museum network. The Waterways Trust museums, including the one in Ellesmere Port, are after all centres of national collections that have been described by experts as being important in their locations. It is not just a case of picking up a bunch of exhibits and moving them to another place. They are important locations, because the three Waterways Trust museums are, of course, part of our national heritage. The work that is being undertaken around our waterways by the Waterways Trust and the huge network of volunteers have made a fundamental difference to the community that I represent.

More recently, the junction between the narrow canals and the Manchester ship canal has provided an exciting location that Peel Holdings, which owns the Manchester ship canal, is using as a major focus of regeneration, and it is now one of the approved areas where the Government are allowing the expansion of housing on a waterfront. It is an enormously exciting opportunity. However, what is missing from that development—and my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) touched on this issue in her opening remarks—is the lack of joined-up thinking between Government Departments. The issues that we are talking about today spill over from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to the area of education, involving a range of Government Departments and indeed the private sector too.

As part of the recovery of our economy, we need to look at some of the things that have happened to parts of the waterways network in the past few years and learn lessons. Yes, the waterways can be used as levers for recovery, but they are not just levers for recovery; they can also be levers to encourage new and exciting tourism opportunities and social opportunities for our own communities on the canal network, utilising the canals in a way that simply has not been envisaged before.

This is a huge opportunity and the Government would miss it at their peril. Therefore I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to work very closely with his colleagues in all the other Departments that have related interests in the waterways network to come up with a joined-up solution to what is a challenging problem but one that it would be very worth while to tackle.

I would like to thank my constituent Mr. Tony Lenten and the Inland Waterways Association for their briefing for me today. I agree with almost everything that has been said in this debate. We are all here because we have a passion for the waterways of this country, which are part of our heritage and our future.

The Grand Union canal flows through my constituency, which is dominated by a new town, and the canal is the link between the rural community and the urban community. For many people, it is the only piece of countryside that they see. The other day, when I was fishing on the canal, it was a pleasure to see a kingfisher fishing smack bang in the middle of the new town. That is a hallmark of the canal’s cleanliness.

However, I have some concerns about the future. Since 1946, some 500 miles of canals have been reopened and I understand, from the briefing that I have had, that another 500 miles are subject to works that may go ahead or that are actually going ahead at the moment. In my constituency, the biggest blight on the Grand Union canal is silt. What worries me is that, as funding gets tighter and tighter for British Waterways, we are not protecting what we already have. If we do not protect the existing canal structure, whatever we do in the future will be cut off by this blight or plague of silt that is going on now.

I have lived in my constituency for seven years and I have fished on the Grand Union canal since I was a young child. In all that time, I have not seen any dredging going on whatsoever. I was fishing on the canal at the weekend and I can tell the Minister that the main Grand Union canal going up through Hertfordshire is only about 18 inches deep. Silt is a major problem. We want more traffic to use the canals and we might want to transport heavy goods to the supermarkets that are situated right by the edge of the canal in my constituency, but the problem is that those goods simply could not get there, because ordinary pleasure craft are bottoming out in the canal on a regular basis. As I say, silt is a major issue.

Therefore, as we look forward and try to keep our canals as part of our heritage, we must be careful. Funding is tight and British Waterways should look after what it already has before it invests too much in something that we may not be able to hold on to.

Order. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Two more Back Benchers still wish to contribute, and I will crack open a bottle of champagne if I, or my successor, is able to ensure that both are able to do so.

Thank you for squeezing me into the debate, Mr. Bercow. I shall make three brief points in support of the main argument that we need to open up more of the network, rather than just maintain what we already have.

Many points have been made about the regeneration of our cities as a result of canal investment, and I remember trying to navigate the Birmingham canal in 1980 as part of a family holiday, but giving up on the attempt. Now, of course, the canal is at the heart of Birmingham’s regeneration, as are canals in relation to Salford Quays and Sheffield. Sheffield’s quays have been redeveloped as the canal has been opened up, and the redevelopment is not as limited as was earlier suggested. At most times, the quays in Sheffield are packed with canal boats.

The two other points that I shall make have not been touched on too much in the debate. The first point is about wildlife and wildlife corridors. Canals represent wildlife corridors that reach into the heart of many urban areas, and the concept of the wildlife corridor fits neatly with the living landscapes concept that the Wildlife Trust has developed. We therefore have an opportunity to build the natural environment, to cut carbon emissions and so on if we invest in our canal network. The issue is not just about the environment and carbon emissions, however; it is about enjoying wildlife for its own sake. My brother takes his family on canal holidays two or three times a year, and they enjoyed their first sighting of a kingfisher only last year. It was an amazing experience for them.

The tranquillity of the canals makes them a genuine holiday option, and we should not underestimate the opportunities for tourism that result from our investment in the canal network. It is tranquil, calm and offers unique insights into our countryside. Kevin Spacey recently cited the canal network as one of the top landscapes in the British countryside because of the opportunities that it offers for a unique landscape experience.

My second and final point is about walking opportunities. We are going to open up the coastal network via the draft Marine Bill, which I hope will be in the legislative programme, and we have established the right to roam on our moorlands and in our countryside. So at a time when we are extending access to walking, would it not be ironic if we were to lose some of those opportunities because we failed to invest in our canal network? Some 50 per cent. of the population can access canal towpaths within 10 minutes. The opportunities for access and, on top of that, disabled access are particularly relevant to our canal network. On that point alone, we should invest in our canals.

Let us open up more of the canal network. It would be short-sighted not to do so in terms of regeneration and the health, environment and tourism and economic development agendas. Investment, please. It is not expenditure; it is investment.

Thank you, Mr. Bercow, I shall buy you the champagne myself.

[Ann Winterton in the Chair]

The Montgomery canal restoration is an exemplar project of sustainable waterway restoration and regeneration, stimulating local and regional regeneration through a major contribution to the visitor economy and to the canalside’s economic development. The only problem is that there is a missing link of 13 km, which would join Shropshire and Wales. Making that link work requires a strategic partnership, but I am glad to say that we have universal agreement to the Montgomery canal conservation management strategy, whose partnership vision states:

“To restore the Montgomery canal as a flagship model of sustainable canal restoration with a strategic focus on rural regeneration. To protect the canal’s unique environment and heritage through research, management and excellence in design. To increase access for all through interpretation with the promotion of tourism and educational use.”

I am sure that the project is achievable. It is one of only 11 that British Waterways has identified as a “priority one” for restoration throughout the UK, and the only one in Shropshire, the west midlands and Wales. As such, I invite the Minister to visit it. It is just around the corner from his constituency and on the way to Rochdale via Ellesmere Port. He will be most welcome, and he will be shown a winning project. So, as he does his round-robin tour of British canals, I hope that he will not only come and learn, but make the sort of commitments that will really make our British waterways thrive.

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on obtaining it. She, among several other hon. Members, has been a champion of this country’s canal network, and every hon. Member who has the fortune to lead a debate about canals can be assured of the support of many other hon. Members. That shows throughout the United Kingdom, and in England and Wales in particular, not only the importance of the canal network to industry in the past, but its potential in the future, which has been well demonstrated this morning.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) mentioned several inquiries that the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs undertook recently. I shall not go back over the issues that were raised throughout the report and in its conclusions, but I should tell the Minister that if we are to make the most of the resources that the Government can put into British Waterways, there must be a good relationship between British Waterways and the sponsoring Department. It has improved over the past few years, but it is something that I am sure the Minister will want to work hard at, because the waterways will benefit when the relationship is going well.

The key theme of the debate has been the difficulty in prioritising maintenance or restoration when the amount of money available to the canal network is limited. Several Members have pointed out the importance of ensuring that silt is removed from the waterways, otherwise they become unavailable to, and unsuitable for, boats. Somebody said that only 3 per cent. of canal visitors visit on boats, but they add to the liveliness of the canals, and canals without boats would be only half the facility that they currently are, and present only half the attraction that they currently present.

Another issue that the Minister, whom I welcome to his new post, will take on board is the vast amount of volunteering that goes on for British Waterways. Much of the progress that has been made would not have been made without volunteering, so he must take it on board and ensure that it has the encouragement that it has had in the past and will need to have in the future. One strength of British Waterways has been its ability to bring together partnerships to achieve its objectives. It has worked with public bodies, such as local councils, and with the private sector. Often, when a canal is improved, the value and importance of the land on either side increases, but one problem that has not been properly addressed is how British Waterways can take advantage of the increase in value of the land that borders the canals. The private sector benefits in many instances, but British Waterways has not yet found a way to ensure that at least some of the value of its investment is returned.

Several Members have taken advantage of this opportunity to speak about their local canals, and I must say something about the Mon and Brec canal. The Minister will know that just recently, it suffered a massive breach, and it has taken more than £1 million just to mend it, but a health and safety examination of the canal has shown that other work needs to take place, so we are putting together partnerships to do that. I know that some funds for other developments have been lost to the Mon and Brec canal, but the Minister has been invited to visit many canals, and I guess that it is the nearest one. His predecessor indicated that he was willing to go along, but I should much prefer the present Minister to do so when there is water in the canal, rather than when there is not, so perhaps we can find a time when he might do so.

There are a number of issues that hon. Members have indicated the Minister should look at. One is whether, at a time when funding will be tight, funds could be made available by other Departments that might have an interest in canals. The Department of Health has been mentioned, but the Departments for Transport and for Culture, Media and Sport also have a real interest in the network, and some money could be found within those Departments and allocated to the canals.

Ongoing maintenance has been mentioned, but I was particularly taken by the reference to involvement in local government planning as regards safeguarding the routes of canals. Many canals are now cut across by developments, which could have been avoided so that those canals could be opened in their fullness. Both rural and urban areas are connected by canals, and the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands made a powerful point about restoration of that part of the waterway network that is still derelict. At worst, a derelict canal is a dirty ditch, but it can be a high quality piece of water that can provide many facilities by promoting biodiversity, stimulating the property market alongside waterways, boosting local tourism industries and making this country a better place to live. The hon. Lady has made a good case for restoration, which will take a relic of the industrial past and turn it into a sustainable feature for the future.

May I welcome you, Lady Winterton, and say how fortunate we are to have been so splendidly served by two excellent Chairmen this morning? I welcome the Minister to his new position. Perhaps he will say why it is that after the last reshuffle, apart from the Secretary of State, every single one of the ministerial team for his Department was replaced. I wish him well, and I hope that he will stay a while longer than his predecessor.

I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing the debate. She spoke with great authority, knowledge and eloquence, and identified a number of issues that other hon. Members also rowed into. In particular, she mentioned the multiple roles that British Waterways is expected to play. It is the UK’s largest navigation authority, and I think that we forget that it cares for about 3,540 km of historic canals and navigable rivers—a tall order indeed. It is responsible for navigation, recreation, fundraising, and, in answer to what my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) said, I believe that British Waterways has an adaptation role to play in preventing and alleviating flooding, and in adapting to climate change generally. I wonder whether the Minister will respond to my hon. Friend’s point about the work of the internal drainage boards. Bedfordshire is exemplary in that regard. Why have the Government cut the Environment Agency’s budget for maintenance? That is causing great concern up and down the country.

The hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands and other hon. Members drew attention to the fact that British Waterways is markedly supported by volunteers. We have heard that demonstrated today, in what has been an interesting Cook’s tour of English canals—we will all be looking to our diaries to see when we should visit. Reference has also been made to the co-operation of district and borough councils, county councils, the Mayor, the Environment Agency and the Inland Waterways Association. In addition, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) said, there is a role for the private sector—notably, in running the local pub. Indeed, British Waterways will increasingly have to rely on the private sector for future financing.

Having come from the European Parliament, one thing that has always struck me is that the inland waterway network of this country is a jewel, but together with coastal shipping, it is frequently overlooked and under-utilised in many ways. If one considers the political lobby of inland waterways in other European countries such as Holland, France and Germany, one realises that our inland waterway network could have a much greater role to play.

The underlying thrust of the debate has been the amount of funding that navigation bodies such as British Waterways have, and how they manage the inland waterways with those limited funds. Will the Minister respond to the fact that in the most recent comprehensive spending review, navigation bodies have been given flat cash for the next three years, and will therefore come under increasing pressure? I would like to quote his predecessor, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), in the excellent Select Committee report that a number of hon. Members have referred to this morning. He said that

“the actual canal restoration is never commercially viable and has to be supported almost entirely by public or volunteer funding. In many cases canal restoration creates increased, albeit marginal, future maintenance costs for British Waterways.”

I shall restrict my remarks to three questions, and ask the Minister whether he will re-visit the Government response to that report.

How do the Government intend to implement the recommendations of the report, particularly the fifth and sixth recommendations? The Committee called for

“Defra, in cooperation with British Waterways and other interested government departments….[to] develop a transparent mechanism to score and prioritise public investment”.

The Government were dismissive and said that they did not agree with that recommendation. The Select Committee went on to say:

“It is likely that BW will need increasingly to rely on income from canalside developments in the future. A reduction in restoration projects involving BW may therefore in the long term adversely affect BW’s move towards achieving an even greater degree of financial self-sufficiency.”

The Government responded negatively, stating:

“Unlike regeneration projects adjacent to the existing network restoration projects rarely produce new income streams and usually impose additional costs”.

In summing up, will the Minister answer the conundrum that lies at the heart of the debate called today and previous debates? The conundrum is this: restoring a canal creates spending on restoration in a particular instance, but it creates increased maintenance costs for the future. Maintenance of a newly restored waterway therefore implies increased expenditure, which perhaps the Government or British Waterways do not have access to. If he responds to that point, in what has been one of the best attended debates in my parliamentary career, he will have served the House extremely well this morning.

I would also ask the Minister to say what lessons have been learned from the fact that British Waterways had to withdraw from the Cotswold canals partnership, without consultation. Clearly, as was reflected throughout the debate, where we are so heavily reliant on a public-private partnership for investment, British Waterways needs to work more with voluntary and local bodies.

May I end on a positive note? I commend British Waterways in particular for its work on and financing of Prescott lock, which I had occasion to visit recently. I think that it will do a huge amount to prepare London for the Olympics in the construction phase. We all wait with bated breath to hear the Minister respond to those points.

I thank you, Lady Winterton, and your predecessor, Mr. Bercow, for being excellent stewards of this debate. It is one of the best attended sessions that I have seen in Westminster Hall for quite some time, and that reflects the passion, commitment and knowledge that people have displayed in their contributions.

I shall do my best to deal with as many points as I can, but Members will understand if I do not address them all in the limited time available. I have noted the concerns and will try to return to them, not least the dozen or so invitations that I have had to tour the country and visit all the canals. We have had 12 speeches plus the contributions from the Front-Bench spokesmen. There have been at least half a dozen interventions, and all the concerns have been noted.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing this excellent and well-timed debate. It is good that I am able, early in my ministerial career and new responsibilities, to address some of these issues. I am aware of her long-standing interest in the subject and that she was named parliamentarian of the year by the Inland Waterways Association earlier this year. Members are sometimes shy when we remind them of such things, but the honour is well deserved in this case. She has brought knowledge and insight to the issue.

I briefly turn to my hon. Friend’s contribution. She mentioned nationalisation in 1947, and the pivotal role of collaboration. Regional development agencies, local authorities and others must come together to drive forward investment in waterways, whether for restoration or new developments and so on. That is pivotal, and I shall return to it in a moment.

Many Members picked up on the role of volunteers, and the fact that if we did not have them at the instigation of nationalisation many decades ago and also now, we would be in a far worse position. That is worth recording.

I welcome this opportunity to reconfirm the Government’s commitment to the inland waterways. It is a commitment that I believe was recognised in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s report on British Waterways, which was published in July this year. I do not think that anyone can doubt that we have seen a remarkable renaissance in the fortunes of Britain’s waterways over the past decade. My hon. Friend referred to the second canal age. The waterways are in a better state today than they have been since before the second world war.

Government investment in inland waterways has been considerable. Over the past decade, we have invested some £750 million in British Waterways, and the Environment Agency has spent more than £42 million over the past three years in maintenance and capital repairs to the waterways infrastructure. As has been mentioned, the waterways, which include the canals, navigable rivers and the broads, provide a range of economic, social and health benefits and so on. They have a vital role in supporting cross-Government agendas for social inclusion, conservation of heritage, the environment and regeneration. Many excellent examples have been given today of how that is done.

Restoring our canal network enables us to enhance those public benefits in new areas around the country, including, as has been mentioned, adding connectivity in some cases. Let me make it clear that I therefore fully support the concept of further restoration. However—this is a big “however”—when it comes to priorities for my Department’s funding, we must ensure that the waterways maximise public benefits while delivering an affordable, sustainable network within the total funding available. That involves difficult decisions by the Government and British Waterways on the strategic approach to getting the best benefits from our waterways. Our commitment is clear, but it does not mean that we can avoid difficult decisions.

The recent Select Committee report acknowledged the usefulness of the strategic steer that was agreed with British Waterways to provide it with greater clarity about the Government’s priorities for the network. We can divide the priorities for the waterways in England and Wales into three areas. The first is maintaining the existing network in satisfactory order to deliver the range of public benefits. The second is achieving the longer-term vision shared by the Government and British Waterways of moving towards greater self-sufficiency. Members will agree on the need to put the network on a long-term, sustainable footing. The third is delivering the range of additional public benefits, which are not divisible from maintaining the network—they go hand in hand. The Government place great importance on all those areas, but the first one—maintaining the existing network in satisfactory order to deliver the range of public benefits associated with it—must be paramount, not least as we consider the current economic climate.

We are concerned with all three areas, but we have to maintain and drive forward the existing network. That is reflected in the approach that we take with the Environment Agency, which itself needs to implement a sustainable and affordable strategy for waterways management. In the strategic steer to British Waterways, we also made it clear that the Government remain supportive of its ambition to expand the network. That would make an additional contribution to achieving the public benefits that I have already mentioned.

The strategic steer reflects the fact that there is a gap between what British Waterways needs to maintain a steady state, and current income from all sources; hence the need for it to concentrate its resources on the existing network. That includes, as has been mentioned, the need quickly to repair breaches such as the one at Stourbridge, where British Waterways will need to spend an additional £1 million on repairs. It must be right that British Waterways prioritise its resources to deal with unpredictable events that can have a significant impact on people’s enjoyment of the existing network and on all those whose livelihoods depend on it.

The EFRA Committee recommended that the Government should develop a mechanism to score and prioritise public investment in canal restoration, taking into account the benefits created and the agreed principles on how financial risks should be borne, and the Government noted that. The Select Committee also raised concerns about British Waterways bearing most of the financial risk for the restoration of canals. It rightly commented that canal restoration can directly bring all the benefits that we have described, and its view was that the risks should be spread more widely among the public sector.

The Government agree with part of that recommendation but not the first part. As we said in our response, decisions on restoration projects are best taken at a local or regional level, not least because funding has to be raised at the local or regional level.

Without imparting any criticism of British Waterways, my concern is that its pulling out of the Cotswold canal project led to a loss of trust in the future. How would the Minister respond to that?

The difficulty was the rapid way in which the decision was made. I believe that everybody would have preferred to have more time and the ability to put in place the right structures, but British Waterways was faced with an immediate challenge, and we must recognise that. It was a difficult dilemma but a classic example of one of those hard decisions. Faced with the predicament of repair, as it was, how should it move ahead? I take the hon. Lady’s point, and I believe that British Waterways would also say that, in an ideal situation, it would want to spend more time putting in place the right structures. Sometimes things happen in such a precipitous fashion that one has to take rapid action, but I understand the hon. Lady’s question.

Involving central Government in funding decisions and adding a potential new tier of bureaucracy to the process to achieve a national framework on directives and funding would therefore not be appropriate or practical. However, we agree that further consideration should be given to how financial risks are borne. Investment by British Waterways in restoration projects is a matter for the board because its job is to manage risk and balance the books. It has mechanisms in place that enable it to prioritise its contribution to such projects. Under the DEFRA deal with British Waterways, the Department has agreed not to micro-manage British Waterways, and the board has agreed to manage risk and to be accountable for its decisions.

The Select Committee also raised concerns that the long-term financial strategy of British Waterways was constraining its enthusiasm for restoration projects and expansion of the network. This again brings me to the need to make hard choices. When planning its activities, British Waterways must consider financial implications. It needs to keep it in mind that, unlike regeneration projects adjacent to the existing network, it rarely owns the land alongside restoration projects and such projects rarely produce new income streams. They tend to go to local communities and councils.

Some of the projects that have we seen are the Manchester, Bolton and Bury canal, the Liverpool canal link, the Droitwich canals and the Bow Back Rivers construction at the new Prescott lock, which I hope to visit shortly. Even if it cannot make a direct contribution to restoration work, British Waterways still does all that it can to facilitate restoration projects.

In conclusion, we can be proud of what has been achieved over the past 10 years. This debate shows the passion that is still there and the need to drive forward on maintenance and, where we can, on expansion and further restoration. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands for securing this debate at such an early point in my ministerial career. I welcome it very much, as well as the enthusiasm and knowledge of Members. Our waterways will continue to deliver a full range of public benefits, and I am determined that the public will continue to enjoy those benefits now and in the future.

I assure Members that I have made assiduous notes on concerns that I have not been able to address in detail, and I will certainly take up invitations and offers of occasional meetings with Members.