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House of Commons Hansard
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British Waterways
07 July 2010
Volume 513

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Goodwill.)

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Thank you for allowing this Adjournment debate, Mr Speaker, on the future of British Waterways. May I also thank the waterways Minister for his presence here tonight?

This topic might seem a rather limited one, of interest only to narrowboat enthusiasts, barge owners, dog walkers and lock-keepers, but it is of profound importance not only for canal-side communities in villages, market towns and cities across the country, but for the intellectual validity of this Government. For what we have before us tonight is a test case for the big society in action. That, in case you missed it, Mr Deputy Speaker, is the Conservatives’ big idea: a commitment to society, not the state, and to people power, not market dogma. My message to the Minister is very simple: we are here to help him. As he begins his grand battle with the Treasury on the future of British Waterways, I want him to know that he has my support against the plunderers and privatisers who work alongside him.

We are an inland nation as much as an island nation; a country shaped as much by our great rivers and historic canals as by our by encircling seas. Take, for instance, my own wonderful constituency of Stoke-on-Trent Central. In Simeon Shaw’s 1829 classic, “History of the Staffordshire Potteries”, he writes of how

“in the vale below Burslem, July 26, l766, the first clod was cut of the Trent and Mersey Canal, by the late Josiah Wedgwood, Esq., then recently appointed Potter to the Queen Consort of George III.”

Wedgwood’s interest in canals was driven by profit rather than pleasure. He had already petitioned this place in 1763 for a new system of turnpike roads to allow for the easy carriage of the raw materials needed for his Etruria pottery works as well as the safe delivery of his finished ceramics, but still the road network let him down. So in 1765 he personally subscribed £1,000 for a new canal to connect the Trent with the Mersey and to allow his firm to export both nationally and internationally. The great engineer James Brindley was commissioned for the task and soon his entire network of canals criss-crossed the country, with Staffordshire as their box junction.

To allow for the transport of limestone and coal into Stoke-on-Trent, a new canal was added—the Caldon canal—that stretched from Etruria up into the surrounding moorlands. All that underpinned the boom days of the Potteries. “Pro patria populoque fluit”—it flows for country and people—was the Trent and Mersey’s motto, and the money certainly flowed for Wedgwood.

No wonder the great Adam Smith felt moved to praise canals for

“diminishing the expence of carriage”,

and putting

“the remote parts of the country more nearly upon a level with those in the neighbourhood of the town”.

As a vehicle for the investment of new provincial capital flows and for easing the transport of goods, canals were an essential feature of the first industrial revolution, but by the 1840s, the canal boom had given way to railway mania. Indeed, the consequence of rapid urbanisation and industrialisation meant that the canals and waterways of Britain were soon in danger of becoming open-air sewerage systems.

In 1847, the Scottish novelist Hugh Miller described the Irwell in Salford as

“a flood of liquid manure, in which all life dies, whether animal or vegetable, and which resembles nothing in nature, except perhaps the stream thrown out in eruption by some mud-volcano.”

My old friend Friedrich Engels was equally disparaging about the state of Manchester’s Irk,

“a narrow, coal-black, foul-smelling stream...out of whose depth bubbles of miasmatic gases constantly rise and give forth a stench that is unbearable.”

Railways took over from the canals, canal companies went into liquidation or were run down by railway owners, and local authorities declined to pay for canal upkeep.

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I understand the hon. Gentleman’s general point about railways taking over from canals, but does he accept that because the Glanusk estate refused to have the dreaded railway across their land, the Mon and Brec canal persisted for a lot longer than most canals?

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I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. I bow to his superior knowledge on the specificities of that point and I agree with it. However, there was a broad concern about the control railways had over canals in the late 19th century, which led to their being run down and to a collapse in infrastructure. Tonnage levels fell, canal miles collapsed and locks crumbled.

Eventually, the tide turned. The first stirrings of preservation can perhaps best be traced back to L. T. C. Rolt’s masterpiece, “Narrow Boat”, which described a journey taken in 1939 and expressed a terrible fear that

“if the canals are left to the mercies of economists and scientific planners, before many years are past the last of them will become a weedy, stagnant ditch, and the bright boats will rot at the wharves, to live only in old men’s”—

and we should add women’s—

“memories”.

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My hon. Friend speaks eloquently about the history of canals. Does he not agree that the Olympic legacy in east London involves a future for our waterways and that the future of British Waterways, among other bodies, is therefore very important in ensuring that the renaissance of canals continues into the next century?

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I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I do so as I shunt towards the future and get away from the past. Having seen the Prescott sluice along the Lea valley, I know the wonders of the valley.

Unfortunately, in the mid-19th century, the Government failed to rise to the task of looking after the future of the waterways. A cash-strapped British Transport Commission could not provide the investment needed to open up the waterways and still focused on freight traffic, rather than on the leisure potential of the waterways. Only with Barbara Castle’s great Transport Act 1968 was British Waterways given a specific mandate to focus on exploiting the enjoyment potential of our rivers and canals. Since then, of course, the transformation has been dramatic. All hon. Members will have witnessed in our constituencies the transformation in water quality and amenities brought about by the new British Waterways strategy. In Stoke-on-Trent, the Caldon canal has been rescued from closure and now provides a stunning route from the urban gothic of the Potteries to the stark beauty of the Staffordshire moorlands. Indeed, we even have our very own Hanley regatta based on the canal.

By the early 2000s, some 200 miles of new and restored waterways were added to the 2,000 mile network—a faster expansion than at the height of the industrial revolution. Moreover, we now have an unprecedented 34,900 licensed boats on the network and some 11 million people visit its waters and banks every year. According to Her Majesty’s Treasury, out of the £330 million total value of inland waterways managed and owned by British Waterways, the amenity and recreational use amounts to £230 million and the use for freight £700,000—but that £700,000 is not to be sniffed at, and it was with great pleasure that we learned that Tesco has begun to move much of its wine stock by canal.

Yet a revived canal network has also proved a highly effective vehicle for some £10 billion-worth of urban regeneration. Whereas once we in this country sought to deny our industrial inland heritage, with buildings jutting up to the canal edge, offering no space for waterside walks or civic space, canals are championed today as placemakers and urban signifiers.

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing such a fascinating topic to the Floor of the House. I am delighted to listen to the eloquent things that he says about the value that canals bring to our localities. In my case, the Kennet and Avon is the longest in-water canal in the country—if I may make that proud boast—but I submit that its restoration had much to do with the volunteer activity of the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust, plus a hefty dose of lottery money, delivered not coincidentally under the last Conservative Government. Of course, British Waterways had a part to play in that, but it is much more a reflection of the local love, enthusiasm and energy that the volunteers in my constituency feel for such an important asset.

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I am in full agreement with the hon. Lady. The wonder of canals is the civil society, the volunteering and the ethos around them. I was a trustee of the Heritage Lottery Fund in a previous life and followed with interest the Kennet and Avon’s progress. We have seen in all sorts of communities along the Kennet and Avon the regeneration aspects brought by canals.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this important issue before the House. Does he agree that British Waterways has had most success in promoting regeneration when it has brought its own property, land and buildings to the table with partners and has led those partnerships, and that, if it were to lose control of that property and land and those buildings, it would be very much enfeebled in its ability to promote regeneration?

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I am in full agreement with my hon. Friend, who brings me to the dark spectre of Her Majesty’s Treasury, which is where we fear that forces are at work that want to access that property in not the most progressive manner. The capacity of British Waterways to use volunteering, to bring in all sorts of other funders and to have that property asset inspires regeneration.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the way in which he is introducing the debate. As a former waterways Minister, may I tell him that what is striking is the nature of the cross-party consensus in respect not only of canals as a vital part of our heritage, which he has illustrated so well, but of their importance to tourism, regeneration and the environment? Will he invite the Minister to embrace the proposal made in the last Parliament to create a national trust for canals, to secure their long-term future and viability, using the assets to which he refers for the benefit of the long-term future of the canal network and therefore balancing the strengths of the system with the resources to deal with the repair and maintenance requirements, without which the canals will not be much of a heritage for long?

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I am in full agreement. First, I would like to say what the Minister should not do, which is listen to the Adam Smith Institute, which is keen to privatise British Waterways, and in the process hopes to realise £400 million—a rather low price, I think, for the centuries of heritage as well as the property assets.

There is no doubt, however, that a change in governance is needed. Currently, the nation is underspending by around £30 million a year on its waterways, and, in the words of the British Waterways chairman,

“without the required spend on canal maintenance and repairs the overall physical state of Britain’s waterways will once again go into decline.”

As my right hon. Friend makes clear, the Labour party fought the last general election on precisely that message of reform.

In December 2009, the then Government published details of its asset portfolio and promised

“to consider alternative models for the British Waterways business as a whole, such as mutual or third sector structures.”

That is what my right hon. Friend has described as the National Trust model, whereby British Waterways’ property endowment will be placed in a charity-locked mechanism to fund future maintenance. But this means more than just establishing an effective financial footing. It also means mutualising the governance system by extending democratic control to waterway licence holders, employees, volunteers, partner organisations such as local charities and the lottery, as well as members of the general public. That third sector model will give energy, activism and public buy-in to the sector. We in the Labour movement call it the co-operative principle.

So it was with great delight that I read in the coalition agreement that the Government

“will support the creation and expansion of mutuals, co-operatives, charities and social enterprises, and enable these groups to have much greater involvement in the running of public services.”

I was equally impressed by the Minister’s statement on 21 June where he highlighted the role of civil society in creating what the Government call the big society, and his commitment to look at a third sector model for the future of the waterways.

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Does my hon. Friend, like me, tremble at the thought of the alternative to the model that he proposes—that this asset will be sold off and thereby, once and for all, be out of public control and away from where it should be, which is in the hearts of the public?

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I am in full agreement. We do not know what would happen were British Waterways to be privatised, in terms of fees, uses and common access, and that sense of heritage, of a past coming down to us. The worry is that the Minister has decided to take no decisions until after the forthcoming comprehensive spending review. My worry is that by the time we reach the CSR, his colleagues in the Treasury might have decided that flogging off the property portfolio was too good an opportunity to miss. We might find ourselves in the awful position of watching the Chancellor stand at the Dispatch Box and sell our national heritage down the proverbial Kent and Avon, in the classic Treasury manner of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

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In my constituency, I have a huge swathe of the Grand Union canal, with fantastic marinas such as Braunston and a huge interest of the populace, who spend much of their leisure time around the canals. Given the hon. Gentleman’s analogy that the dark spectre of the Treasury is lurking all around, will he remember that in the dark days of the last Labour Government, when European fines were levied on the Government, money was moved away from the British Waterways budget into other areas to cope with that funding black hole? I would like to think that there is definitely cross-party agreement on the idea of mutualisation in the future.

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The hon. Gentleman confirms the point that the traditional model of funding is really no longer credible, not least under this Government’s rather aggressive approach to the public finances.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we are in some form of agreement, and that is why we have come together this evening to support the Minister in his lonely pilgrim’s progress against the big beasts of Whitehall. He might call it the big society, we might call it the co-operative spirit, but what we must seek to establish is a modern national trust for British Waterways, and a financially secure, democratic and sustainable future for the inland waterways that made our wealth and now help to shape our national identity.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) on securing this debate. After such a tense afternoon in the Chamber, it is nice to be able to find a subject on which there is a large degree of agreement across the House. He is well known for having a keen interest in the heritage and history of this country, and I also know that he combines this passion with representing with pride the constituency that has more miles of canals than any other in England. I take similar pride in the canal—the Kennet and Avon canal in west Berkshire—that runs in part through the constituency I have the honour of representing. I am old enough to remember when it was in large parts just a ditch. It was restored with the hard work, love and what the Americans call emotional capital of local people, with the backing of British Waterways and lottery money, as my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) pointed out. That has created an asset of unique value.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the added value of the canals. We must not be concerned purely with quality of life and recreational value; they are of course a financial asset because of what they provide through tourism and the local economy, particularly in rural areas such as mine. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) attends debates on these matters assiduously. She feels passionately about the Regent’s canal, just as so many of us feel passionately about our local canals. I have learned from the canal in her part of London the ability of canals to unlock regeneration, and to be a focal point for the local community in a way we cannot just ignore.

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I am sure that the Minister agrees that the 23 canal reservoirs up and down the country are also of enormous value to this country. Many of them provide excellent wildlife reserves and, hence, recreation, and are assets for our tourist industry.

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My hon. Friend touches on a very important point. Sir John Lawton is about to report on work commissioned by the last Government that this Government firmly supports. It examines the coherence between different natural sites around the country, and looks into corridors of biodiversity that can flow and allow species to increase in population in different parts of the country. Canals are a vital link in our natural environment, and I am keen during my tenure in this post—however long it lasts—to bang that drum as hard as I can.

I do not care whether our modern canals structure is based on the writings and teachings of Friedrich Engels and is considered part of the co-operative movement, or whether it can be considered the inheritance of Edmund Burke and his little platoons. What matters is that canals are properly managed and have a sustainable long-term future.

I shall do my best to deal with many of the points raised by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central and others. However, I would caution him on his view of the Treasury. In my experience, it consists of cuddly souls, warm-hearted and full of understanding on these matters. I do not share his deep pessimism.

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rose—

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I am glad to give way to the chairman of the all-party group on waterways.

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The Minister has an almost unique experience of the Treasury. However, I encourage him to make the case that a model that engages the public and makes them feel a part of the ownership and running of the canals might make sense financially to the Treasury, too.

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I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman is in the Chamber for the debate, as he is a notable chairman of the all-party group through which I hope we can continue these debates. I hope that what I am about to say will satisfy his concerns, if I have the time.

I am well aware of the concerns of Members from all parties about the future of British Waterways. I made a statement to the House on 21 June in which I explained our intention to move British Waterways to the civil society, subject to the outcome of the spending review. I again had the opportunity to set out the Government’s position to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central and others during oral questions two weeks ago, and I welcome this further opportunity.

I fully understand the important role that volunteering and the civil society have played over many years. Volunteering on the waterways has a long tradition, and many enthusiasts give freely and generously of their time to help re-create and restore our waterways. Without that, many historic canals would no longer be in operation and the network that we have today would be much poorer for it. I firmly believe that civil society has a valuable role to play in delivering public services, and as I recently announced, we will therefore continue to look in detail at such a model for British Waterways. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, that is a good example of the big society we are trying to create.

I assure hon. Members that that would not be a privatisation of British Waterways. I hope the hon. Gentleman and others will get the message across to some of their colleagues on the Opposition Benches that that is not what we are about. We want a mutualised product for the waterways, dependent on three clear objectives. First, it must have a clear purpose and robust governance arrangements that protect waterways assets and the public benefits that they bring, both now and in the future. Secondly, it must ensure that all users, local communities and other stakeholders can hold the new body to account. Thirdly, it must ensure that the waterways are placed on a more sustainable footing for the longer term while reducing the ongoing cost to the taxpayer.

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I am very encouraged by the positive way in which the Minister is responding to the debate. I can see how such a model can deliver sustainable maintenance of the waterways, but on the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal, for example, we had a breach that cost £1 million to repair. How would such a model deal with those emergency situations?

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I was shown a photograph of that breach by the chairman of British Waterways at my meeting with him last week. It is expensive to maintain the waterways, and I hope that what I am about to say will show that we can provide the means to ensure that whatever organisation emerges has access to funding—probably never enough, but at least enough to deal with major problems such as that.

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I very much welcome what the Minister is saying about the future of British Waterways, but does he accept that if it is to have the sustainable future that he talks about, it is vital that it takes with it its assets and its current property, and that they are not ripped out by his friends in the Treasury before the transfer takes place?

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I am conscious that this will not work unless that happens. The scale of that asset transfer is probably above my pay grade, but I am absolutely conscious that it has to be done in a way that enables the organisation to operate just as any other organisation of the type I am about to describe could. That is absolutely vital and a given.

As part of that work, we are considering including the Environment Agency’s navigations. I have an open mind on that and want to understand the pros and cons, but my initial view is that it, too, might be suitable for a civil society rather than a Government body to run. That would help to ensure that we had a coherent vision for the main inland waterways of England and Wales.

I know from meetings I have already had with waterways stakeholders that they have concerns, which they have expressed passionately, about two questions: what will happen to British Waterways’ property assets—the point just made by the hon. Member for Leicester South (Sir Peter Soulsby)—and can they influence decisions on the governance model of any new body? It is clear that British Waterways would need to retain its property assets for a viable civil society model. On the second issue, much work has yet to be done on the appropriate governance structure. One model is for a national charitable trust. I recently received a letter that was co-signed by a number of representative waterways bodies, including the Inland Waterways Association and the Angling Trust. The letter welcomed such a model, subject to decisions on governance arrangements and the level of ongoing Government support.

I know that there is some nervousness about the prospect of change and what it might mean for those with particular interests in the waterways.

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I do not wish to detain the Minister, but having been a Minister seeking advice on setting up social enterprise mutuals and the like, I would caution him to be alert to any advice that he might receive from within the civil service about setting up a mutual. I would also ask him where else he might be seeking advice from, because it is important that any model be properly drawn up.

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who is absolutely right. It is vital that we are extremely careful to ensure that we receive the best advice and get the correct model. I can assure her that officials in my Department are working hard on the issue and are committed to it, although we shall have a difficult time ahead with the comprehensive spending review, which I shall talk about in a moment.

We would have to have a completely new board or council that would shape its own future. It would not be British Waterways by another name, but a new structure, in different hands altogether. We do not aim to impose a particular model for a new civil society body, so we will work up different options in partnership with stakeholders, through workshops, forums and other engagement mechanisms. It is vital to understand the views of all interested parties if we are to reach a successful conclusion to our work on an alternative model for the future management of our waterways. As part of that engagement, I am considering a suggestion recently made to me to include representatives from waterways user groups on the current British Waterways board. We need to be ready for the big change in culture involved in the possible move to civil society.

As the House will be aware, very tough decisions need to be made in the coming months that will affect public expenditure for the next four years. That will inevitably affect the resources available for inland waterways spend in British Waterways and the Environment Agency.

Finally, let me make it clear that I believe strongly that the inland waterways are a vibrant resource that can provide a wide range of benefits and opportunities for individuals and communities across the country. Although we may find ourselves in extremely challenging times for public investment, in the longer term, the potential of our waterways can and will be realised if we all embrace the possibilities at all levels. I believe that moving British Waterways out of Government control to civil society has the potential to make a significant and innovative contribution to the long-term sustainability and resilience of the waterways, by providing additional income and greater engagement of all users, volunteers and local communities in waterways management. We will therefore be exploring all possibilities—

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