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Restoration of Canals

Volume 676: debated on Thursday 4 June 2020

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

I have to confess to the House, or to what is left of the House, that I secured this debate in what feels like a very different world. Although the restoration of the canal is, of course, hugely important, the covid-19 crisis has slightly changed the tone in which I will speak on it. I see the Minister is in her place. I very much look forward to hearing her thoughts on how we can restore the rest of the UK’s canal network.

This afternoon, I joined my constituents and interested parties over Zoom to talk about the Montgomery canal—it is very important that it is the Montgomery, not Montgomeryshire, canal, as I keep getting reminded—with Michael Haig from the Inland Waterways Association and Michael Limbrey, who heads the Montgomery restoration efforts. I can report to the House and the Minister that the efforts to restore Montgomery canal are alive and well, and going at great speed thanks to a recent national lottery heritage fund grant of up to £4 million, which is being spent as we speak, and thanks to the volunteers.

I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) and for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) would have liked to have been present to intervene away, but sadly they cannot be. My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield is the chair of the all-party parliamentary waterways group, and he particularly wants to refocus this effort as the House gets back fully. I warn the Minister that I see today’s debate as a prelude on this subject, as I am sure that there will be debates coming thick and fast.

Before I go on to the wider benefits to the canal network, I will touch directly on the Montgomery canal, and give a bit of its history. The Montgomery canal was built through an Act of Parliament in 1794, and by 1796 a lot of it was in operation, running from Llangollen to Newtown. Sadly, in 1944, after a breach, it was rendered inoperable. Luckily, most of the land around the canal was kept intact, and now the Canal and River Trust owns most of it, which has helped with the restoration.

The Prince of Wales gave tremendous support and enthusiasm at the start, through the Prince of Wales Committee and the Variety Club of Great Britain, and in 1969, through the hard work of 180 volunteers and nine gallons of beer, the efforts started in earnest to restore the canal. The restoration of Montgomery canal would be a huge benefit to my constituency, especially as we look to support the tourism sector as we come out of covid-19. Although the effort is there, it would benefit massively from the Minister’s personal attention. I hope very much to walk down a stretch of the canal as we return to normal in our political operations, and I know the trust would welcome that too.

Canals are incredibly important to tourism, benefiting our sector to the tune of £1 billion in England, supporting 30,000 jobs. Through this crisis, a lot of businesses are of course suffering, as well as a lot of charities. I welcome the Government’s support to date, and I welcome the work of the Canal and River Trust. I pay particular tribute to the work of its chief executive, Richard Parry, who is donating an element of his salary to the charitable appeal that it is organising to support the Canal and River Trust and businesses affected at this time. A support package is really needed, and I know my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield has written not to the Minister in her place but to Treasury Ministers about that. I support the majority of the calls that have been made.

To return to the tourism impact, it is terrific to see developments happening right now down the canal, I think in anticipation of its eventual restoration. Montgomeryshire and rural parts of Wales suffer from a lack of scaled accommodation to host anything, but recent developments, such as new hotel provision, mean we can build at pace for the inevitable arrival of tourists after covid-19—not now. They are always welcome in Montgomeryshire, but at the moment we are closed for business. I ask them in due course to come and enjoy the canal network.

The canal touches lives, as we have seen throughout this crisis. Our towpaths and canal network give support to local residents, as I am sure they will in due course give support to constituents from across the UK. There are mental health benefits just from being able to walk those 35 miles. Huge provision is being made to increase the cycle network in this country, and the towpaths already cater for walkers, canal enthusiasts and cyclists. I hope that will generate more money into the sector. This is about providing a safe opportunity for people to enjoy the countryside and our canal networks, and I hope very much that the Minister and the Government will put more money into that.

Let us consider the environmental benefits alone. We have seen the creation of the special wildlife areas around the canal, as the volunteers and the trust have restored our canal locally in Montgomeryshire. Restorations across the UK have put in place two new reservoirs that would not otherwise exist at the moment. I could argue until the cows come home as to whether there is a huge negative effect of the restoration, but the mitigation goes above and beyond, and I pay tribute to those involved for that. I particularly wish to draw a response from the Minister on the environmental benefits both of the mitigations put in place and of the canal network of the UK.

Obviously, the restoration makes an economic contribution in terms of tourism, but the environmental benefits cannot be overstated. There are many projects along the Montgomery canal, and of particular fascination is the fact that there are 127 significant buildings, from the bridges to the warehouses of the canal age, that we seek to protect. The restoration is proving to be a way to build on that together. The Inland Waterways Association has helped to restore more than 500 miles of canals and rivers, and although there is much more to do, that local heritage on the Montgomery canal would be struggling without that work now. I am talking about many projects, such as the Schoolhouse bridge project, where we have recently been raising £300,000; we have secured local buy-in, but with Government support we could really deliver on a lot of these projects.

I have mentioned tourism and the environment, and I will start to draw my remarks to a close. I implore the Minister to consider that there are restoration projects in constituencies across the UK, and if we look at the gross value added effect of restoring canals, we see that there is a huge positive return to the Exchequer and the public purse. It is excellent value for money to invest in restoring our canal networks. I have alluded to the mental health benefits and the tourism effects, but if we work with the IWA and the Canal and River Trust, we can set out an excellent stall. The Government could invest in cycleways across the UK, not just in the cities and market towns, and could level up the canal network. People sometimes think that restoring the canals and turning the UK economy round on the basis of canals is a joke. I am not saying that it will completely restore the effects of the current crisis, but it will help. It will help draw together local businesses to build a plan for tourism and development. It will help drive domestic tourism, and it will have environmental benefits. I will leave that thought as a preamble to further debates on this subject, but I look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to be here this afternoon talking about canals—a lovely subject on which to end the day. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams) on securing this important debate on the restoration of Montgomery canal. He brings personal experience, because I believe he was brought up in the area, and it is one he knows very well. The canal is affectionately known locally as “Monty”, which shows how much people love that canal and the idea of the canal.

I have my own experience with canals, because I grew up near the Kennet and Avon canal. Large parts of that have been restored during my lifetime, and it does indeed bring an enormous benefit to places such as Bath, Bradford on Avon and into Wiltshire. That is not to mention the canal locks. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has been to the section of the canal in Devizes, but there are 32 lock gates, if one wants to keep fit.

Over 50% of canals are now restored. A chunk of Montgomery canal has been restored, and there are well developed plans for the next phase of the restoration, with four phases over 19 years. My hon. Friend is talking in particular about a 35-mile stretch that still needs to be restored. I had a look at a map, and it goes up to Ellesmere in Shropshire and then connects with Newtown in mid-Wales. It is a very beautiful part of the countryside. This stretch of the canal goes through a site of special scientific interest, nature reserves and heritage sites, one being Llanymynech lime kiln works. There are some very interesting things to look at all along the way. With my horticultural background, I was especially interested to learn that Monty is home to the largest UK population of floating water plantain, which is a rare aquatic plant. If I ever do get there, I hope my hon. Friend will take me to see that plant, because I would very much like to see it.

The restoration of our disused canals is proving very valuable, enabling an increasing number of people to enjoy the outdoors and get close to water. Being close to water and being outside has much value for health and wellbeing. The Canal and River Trust did a survey recently, and it discovered that life satisfaction and happiness is 10% higher if you live near water, so we can see the benefits of restoring canals.

The responsibility for the management and maintenance of canals in England and Wales rests with the owner and the navigation authority. For the majority of canals, that is the Canal and River Trust, which is the case with Montgomery canal. The Canal and River Trust was set up in 2012, and as part of the transfer of ownership, the Government agreed a grant of around £50 million per year over 15 years to support the trust to develop income- generating strategies and revenues to invest in canal maintenance and regeneration programmes, which have been incredibly effective.

My hon. Friend spoke eloquently about Montgomery canal, which is a great example of a restoration project that is off the ground. The Canal and River Trust is working with the Montgomery Waterway Restoration Trust to manage the project and raise additional funds. With the cost of the first three phases estimated at £34 million, there is clearly much more fundraising work to be done, but if the success of the project so far is anything to go by, I am confident that this will be achieved. It is clear that a broad range of partners have already been found, which is heartening.

The Canal and River Trust, along with other smaller navigation authorities, is reporting increasing numbers of visitors along their canals. Those visitors are both walking and cycling—it not just about being on the water, but using the towpaths, as we have heard—as well as boaters using the waterways. During this pandemic, canal towpaths have reportedly been used even more, as people get out for their daily exercise. We have noticed this in Taunton Deane, where we have a section of canal, and a lot of people have really enjoyed being able to get out there.

Not only do canals bring a great health benefit; they can also make a really important contribution to the economy locally, especially where they go through urban areas and areas that have traditionally been in decline. They have generated money through tourists coming in, and through starting to get freight back on to the waterways. With the move to net zero and to cleaner air, this is actually a huge asset, and we are starting to realise that canals can have a rebirth as transport links.

My hon. Friend mentioned the impacts of coronavirus and its effects on people using the sides of the canals. There has been a knock-on effect on small waterways businesses, which I would like to touch on quickly. I would like to assure these businesses—many of them have contacted me—that I am aware of the challenges they are facing, because a lot of them have not been able to operate their businesses on the canals. I have asked my team in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to work very closely with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, because it is working up a potential tourism offer for those businesses.

I am very pleased to see that there has been some easing of lockdown restrictions on some of the small businesses on our waterways, and we are looking at more opportunities coming up in future weeks and months. While still keeping to the social distancing guidance, people are now able to hire canoes, kayaks or paddleboards—I do not know whether we have any paddle- boarders here, but one can take out a paddleboard—and to go fishing and enjoy a day trip on a small boat, as well as continuing to use the towpaths. We are working on guidance to enable more of the waterways sector to open, I hope, in the coming weeks; we are working on that as we speak. I hope that that gives a little bit of confidence to the industry. I very much hope that the waterways will play their own part in the recovery as we start to get going again, with people taking holidays on the waterways and canals, day trips and all the things that my hon. Friend suggested that waterways can bring to an area.

In closing, I very much thank my hon. Friend for being persistent in relation to this debate, because it has been postponed previously, and for giving us a little bit of colour about his canal and the restoration scheme. The Government recognise the very considerable benefits our canal network brings in myriad ways, such as providing greater access to the outdoors, enhancing wellbeing, bringing us closer to water, engaging with nature—those water plantains—increasing leisure and recreation, increasing regeneration and bringing value to the economy.

I think we are singing from the same hymn sheet in that I am a convert to canal restoration. I very much forward to walking down that stretch of restored canal— I will not say hand in hand with my hon. Friend, but I would certainly like to walk down it with him—and to enjoying the wider benefits of Montgomeryshire.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.