My Department is working with the Inland Waterways Advisory Council and the waterways authorities to establish and to quantify the wide range of goods and services delivered by inland waterways. That will build on work undertaken by my Department and IWAC to evaluate those benefits. British Waterways’ research estimates that its canals alone deliver public benefits of some £500 million per annum and support more than 20,000 jobs in local economies throughout the country.
I congratulate the Minister on winning the support of the Treasury for ways to maintain the integrity of our invaluable canal network and expand their capacity. Does he agree that, for the future, a third sector model—a sort of National Trust for the canals—would be the best way to harness public enthusiasm for the canals with environmental and economic benefit and the stability that has been achieved in recent years?
Indeed. I pay reciprocal tribute to my right hon. Friend and other hon. Friends who are so assiduous in keeping an eye on the future of British Waterways because of the wide benefits involved, and to the Treasury, which listened to the arguments and responded to them. The third sector model has featured in the Government’s announcement, and British Waterways sees the potential for this alongside the exploitation of its property portfolio. It is a fascinating way forward designed to tap into the good will towards the waterways around the country, and I am sure that we will explore it further.
The Minister will know from the reports that the Select Committee has done on our canal network of the importance of the property portfolio in contributing income to maintain the good progress that has been made on the historical infrastructure of the canal network. What assurances can he give me that that property portfolio will not in any way be degraded under potential new arrangements and put at risk the income needed to maintain the historical infrastructure of our canal system?
The real turnaround in the waterways has been to do with the success of the exploitation of the property portfolio under the British Waterways model, and we acknowledge that the third sector model referred to by my right hon. Friend would indeed necessitate the use of that property portfolio. It is also to do with the record investment that this Government have put in, with £800 million in grants over the past decade alone. The current state of our waterways and their maintenance, improvement and restoration, is a tribute to the work of British Waterways but also, I have to say, to the importance that this Government have placed on them.