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Environment Agency and Water Levels in the Sankey Canal

Volume 718: debated on Tuesday 12 July 2022

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

I am most grateful to Mr Speaker for granting me this debate on such an important issue to my constituency, and particularly to those who live in my home town of Widnes. I want to raise the perilous state of the Sankey canal, also known as the St Helens canal and, to many of the older generation among my Widnes constituents, the Cut.

In my maiden speech in this House 25 years ago I said:

“Mine is a constituency of many waterways—the river Mersey, the Manchester ship canal, the Bridgewater canal and the St. Helen’s canal.”—[Official Report, 10 June 1997; Vol. 295, c. 1036.]

Those waterways have played a significant part in my parliamentary work over my time here, much of it on the successful campaign to secure a second Mersey crossing road bridge. In the past few years, I have raised and supported the ongoing Unlock Runcorn campaign to restore the link between the Bridgewater canal and the Manchester ship canal and the restoration of the locks. I now find myself needing to raise the future of the Sankey canal in this place.

I was born and bred in Widnes and have never lived anywhere else. In my early childhood I lived in the Newtown area, only a short distance from the canal. I know how important a role the canal plays in our community and its importance to my constituents and many others who enjoy it and get great pleasure from it—of course, I am one of them.

There are several reasons why the matter should be debated in Parliament, not least because it was three Acts of Parliament that authorised its construction and extensions. The Sankey canal, initially known as the Sankey Brook navigation and later the St Helens canal, is a former industrial canal that was opened in 1757. It was England’s first of the industrial revolution and the first modern canal, even before the Bridgewater canal.

The canal was opened in three stages. The first Act of Parliament authorising the construction of the navigation was passed on 20 March 1755. It was entitled “An Act for making navigable the River or Brook called Sankey Brook, and Three several Branches thereof from the River Mersey below Sankey Bridges”. The second Act of Parliament was obtained on 8 April 1762, amending the earlier Act, and was entitled “An Act to amend and render more effectual, an Act made in the Twenty-eighth Year of the Reign of his late Majesty King George the Second, for making navigable Sankey Brook, in the county of Lancaster, and for the extending and improving the said Navigation”. The Act authorised the extension of the navigation to Fiddler’s Ferry on the River Mersey.

To counter competition from the new railways, another extension was planned from Fiddler’s Ferry across Cuerdley and Widnes salt marshes to Widnes Wharf, on the west bank of the River Mersey near Runcorn Gap, creating a second connection to the Mersey and another basin. That extension was authorised by a third Act of Parliament, granted on 29 May 1830. The almost 2-mile section of canal that is in Widnes opened in July 1833 and was for many years known as the New Cut, reflecting the fact that it was the last section to open.

Thereafter, well into the 20th century, the canal continued to play an important role in the transport of goods and materials essential to industry and the economic wellbeing of our country. It closed completely in 1963 and became derelict. British Waterways sold it to the respective local authorities and parts of it, in Warrington and St Helens, were filled in.

Between 1979 and 1983, a cosmetic restoration of the canal was carried out between Spike Island in Widnes and Sankey Valley Park in Warrington. Two marinas were also created at Spike Island and at Fiddler’s Ferry. A water supply for these works was an issue; the original way in which the canal was kept in water, via feeds from the St Helens area including Carr Mill dam, which was constructed to supply water to the canal, no longer functioned because of the infilling that had occurred.

An agreement was reached with the Central Electricity Generating Board to pump the water that was a by-product of their electricity generation at Fiddler’s Ferry power station into the canal. The CEEB agreed to do so for free, and for almost 40 years that was how the canal was kept in water.

It was known for many years that Fiddler’s Ferry power station would one day close and the water it put into the canal would no longer be available. Halton Borough Council has told me that that is why work on trying to identify, and most importantly fund, solutions began several years ago. The council has advised me that numerous bids and initiatives were made or embarked upon, but all either failed to attract money or were found to be unworkable.

All the realistic solutions that could supply enough water would have to be undertaken in Warrington. Therefore, Halton council has been working in partnership with Warrington. In 2019, Halton was told that the power station would close on 31 March 2020, which it did. It was informed that the water supply would cease and says that the main stakeholders were also informed. The council match funded engineering reports, which Warrington Borough Council commissioned, and provided a share of the cost.

Just as the covid crisis began, Fiddler’s Ferry power station agreed to carry on pumping for a while longer, after which Warrington, in partnership with Fiddler’s Ferry, embarked upon some temporary pumping, which lasted until March this year and then ceased.

From April 2022, water levels in the Halton section of the canal began to drop. Halton says that its efforts were stepped up to see where Warrington was up to with a permanent water supply solution, but for many reasons, including the pandemic, progress has been slow and is still ongoing. The partnership with Warrington is very important. Halton tells me that there is nothing that it can do in the short to medium term with regard to the water supply. I have challenged this. It says that it is

“very reliant on Warrington for that. It is also essential that any water supply that is found is both sustainable and affordable.”

Halton Borough Council has also commissioned a design that will seal the locks and make areas of our canal more watertight. While this, if the works that are carried out, will not in itself sort out the water supply issue, it will help in future to hold more water back. In addition, it will be undertaking some infrastructure repairs along the route of the canal, which it says it was unable to do when the canal was full of water.

The solution favoured by Halton Borough Council and the Sankey Canal Restoration Society would be to reconnect the original historical water supply sources and let them feed the canal by gravity. This will be supplemented by new sources from developments that are starting to take place along the canal. Another option that it may be possible to deliver more quickly, although Halton Borough Council believes that even this could take up to a year, would be to use the former power station pumping facilities to withdraw water from the River Mersey. This, again, would be too long. From information I have been given, it is estimated that the cost to operate this annually would be about £1 million plus the energy costs. Halton tells me that Warrington Borough Council is exploring this option. The previous pumping arrangement put 2 million gallons of water per day into the canal. With that amount of water going in, Halton Borough Council and Warrington Borough Council did not have to worry too much about the high volumes of leakage that occurred from along the length of the canal. Halton Borough Council tells me that to make the best use of whatever water will be available, the canal will need to be more watertight than it ever was historically.

We are faced with the stark reality of a canal that is an important part of our national industrial heritage almost drained of water. Boats are left high and dry. It is having a catastrophic impact on wildlife. Despite the fantastic efforts of residents to rescue some of the fish, many fish are now dead. From viewing a video taken today by local reporter Oliver Clay, I have seen very disturbing scenes of hundreds, possibly thousands, of dead fish. Birds have been badly affected, especially the many swans. Some are also injured because of the drop in water levels and have become tangled with debris and rubbish at the bottom of the canal. Again, local people have done all they can to help to rescue the swans.

I cannot stress too much the importance of the canal to the whole character of the town and our borough. It is as much part of our identity as rugby league, the River Mersey, and the bridges that cross the Mersey between Widnes and Runcorn. The canal runs into Spike Island, which is a local beauty spot with fantastic views across the Mersey and of the bridges. It is hard to believe that it was once at the centre of the British chemical industry during the industrial revolution. After it was abandoned by the chemical industry, it became one of the finest land reclamation projects anywhere in the country. It is visited by many thousands of people each year. It has parkland, woodland, wetlands, footpaths, and so much wildlife. The Stone Roses held a famous concert there in 1990. The canal is an integral and crucial part of Spike Island and its ecosystem.

I cannot emphasise enough the importance to local people of the canal—the pure enjoyment of being near it, leisure walking, being close to nature, fishing, and of course mental health. People come from far and wide to visit Spike Island. It also forms part of the trans-Pennine trail. The Catalyst Science Discovery Centre and Museum sits by the canal. Visitors from around the country, including many schoolchildren, come to this award-winning museum and many spend time visiting Spike Island. At the top of the museum there is a wonderful glass viewing area with panoramic views of the Mersey and Spike Island. Imagine now having to look down on an empty canal!

While I understand the financial issues facing one of the smallest local authorities in the country, I believe that Halton Borough Council has got this wrong. It should have been more dynamic, bold and innovative in finding a solution and funding to sustain and maintain water levels and secure the canal’s long-term future. As I said, this has turned out to be a catastrophe. It appears that the council has lost control of the situation. I have witnessed few issues during my time as MP for Halton that have caused such widespread concern, distress and anger across my community. That is why I have had to step in, with help from the hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), and call a meeting with all key stakeholders later this month who can have an influence on solving this problem. I want to see everybody in the same room at the same time, so that we can get to the solution as quickly as possible. As I have said, I am grateful to the hon. Member for his support.

I have to say to the Minister that we also need help and support from the Government, as well as from the Environment Agency and United Utilities, which will be at the meeting. I urge the Minister to give a strong steer, as a solution needs to be found and there can be no more delays. The canal is a national asset that is important to our natural environment and ecosystem. I invite the Minister to come and visit the canal to see for himself, and I may also ask him for a meeting to discuss in more detail the challenges we are facing.

Given the challenges of flooding, which take up a lot of the Government’s time, not least in areas such as Blackbrook in St Helens, the canal provides an option to take away excess water and could be an important asset in helping to alleviate flooding. More planning consideration must be given to the canal so that any new developments built close to it feed the service water run-off to it. There should be much more outrage about what is happening to this historic canal, not just as we have seen locally but nationally. This canal forms an important part of the industrial history of our country. It was the first canal of the industrial revolution. If this was happening in London, the national media would be all over it. The Government speak a lot about levelling up, but I can say to the Government that this is a great opportunity to literally level up, and I urge the Minister and his Department to work with me and the local authorities to find the resources needed to save the historic Sankey canal.

I will finish by quoting a few of my constituents who have written to me. Many hundreds have been in touch with me. One said:

“I moved to Widnes from Manchester and could not believe how beautiful this town is. I only discovered Spike Island when I mithered my partner to show me the place where the Stone Roses played. From the moment I arrived I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the place.”

Another resident said:

“Spike Island has been a godsend for me with my mental health, its peace and tranquil beauty has always calmed me.”

A local psychologist who works with vulnerable people said:

“I often deliver walk and talk therapy and Spike Island is a safe and convenient venue.”

Another constituent said:

“We rescued another 10 swans tonight that were stranded in the thick silt. These swans are unable to fly away”.

A constituent in Runcorn said:

“Apart from the historic value of the canal and the huge number of birds, wild fowl and mammals that have a habitat there, it is a hugely popular area with locals.”

There is huge support for the canal and Spike Island, where the canal runs through. This issue is vitally important, not just in my constituency but for the wider region and nationally, given the historic importance of the canal. I urge the Minister to do all he can to put his support behind finding a solution, and I look forward to meeting him at some point in the future.

I start by congratulating my neighbour, the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) on securing this debate, and I have to say I agree with pretty much everything he has said. While it is often the case that Warrington and Widnes will do battle when it comes to rugby league, we are standing as one on the issue of the Sankey canal.

I am, as the hon. Gentleman is, keen to find an urgent solution. Even though the visual problem we see with an empty canal is not actually in Warrington South in my constituency, I know that local people value this area as a leisure amenity. As he has just said, it is a beautiful part of the north-west and somewhere that people can enjoy outdoor space and make the most of the fantastic countryside that we have. Frankly, political boundaries do not matter to normal people. They are not bothered which council controls it; they just want the issue sorting. The overwhelming message in what I am about to say is that we need to find a solution and we need to get people together. I am pleased that between us we will manage to bring people together at the end of this month, and I hope we can find a long-lasting solution that delivers for the people of Warrington and Halton.

I pay particular tribute to the volunteers at the Sankey Canal Restoration Society, who have spent many years working to restore and preserve this canal. I can only imagine the angst that they feel when they look at the asset—the prized asset—they have been working to restore suddenly drained and, frankly, in a terrible state. I have seen some of the pictures, and there really is a contrasting image of two canals—a canal in Warrington that is full of water and has been maintained by the local authority and, I am afraid to say, a canal in Halton that, as the hon. Member said, has not been maintained and now has no water in it, but has silt at the bottom and, frankly, looks in a terrible state.

I first met those from SSE, which currently owns the Fiddler’s Ferry site, a number of years back when I was elected. I spoke to them on numerous occasions because I knew the site was going to be cleared and that demolition would follow, and each time they told me that they had warned the local councils this was going to happen. It was a problem that could have been foreseen, and their decommissioning plans and their plan to withdraw power needed a solution from local councils. Halton and Warrington, along with the Sankey Canal Restoration Society, have been working together on this because they have an aspiration to restore navigation to the entire length of the canal, but it seems that we have really been pushed backwards in that respect.

One of the considerations of this project was finding a permanent and sustainable water supply, and I understand that various options have been explored over the years. Having received a report from Warrington Council, it seems that no solutions are free from difficulty. I understand that water from the canal is being lost at a rate of about 9,000 cubic metres a day, which is a significant amount, and we really do need this work to continue.

I will conclude by saying that the hon. Member is absolutely right: a financial solution is required from the councils. I know that Warrington is continuing to invest, and I do urge the Minister, wherever he possibly can, to intervene to support the efforts to restore this canal, because this really matters to my constituents.

With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to begin by placing on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who, before the events of last week, would have been the Minister responding to this debate. While I am incredibly honoured and delighted to have this role, there is no doubting the commitment and passion for the environment that she brought to it during her time in office. She should feel rightly proud of all that she achieved and, indeed, she will be a very tough act to follow.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) on securing this debate on what is clearly a very important matter to him and many of his constituents. Our canals are a highly valuable feature of our national landscapes. They are the most visible demonstration of our country’s industrial heritage. They are green corridors, sometimes in areas with little other space for nature, as well as a place for leisure and relaxation for so many people, such as boaters, anglers, joggers, cyclists and ramblers. They are rightly treasured across our country, and there is understandable concern when their future is at risk, as in the case he has highlighted tonight. It is important to note, however, that our canals provide all this despite, or perhaps even because of, the fact that they are run not by central Government but by our 30 navigation authorities across the 3,400 miles of regulated inland waterways in England and Wales.

The Sankey canal is an historic part of our industrial landscape. It was the first modern canal in England, with the initial section opened as long ago as 1757. Built to carry coal to Liverpool, it is 16 miles long, although less than 1 mile is used by boats today. The hon. Member for Halton laid out the history of the canal and its importance to the local industrial heritage very well. I understand that a long-term restoration project is under way, led by the Sankey Canal Restoration Society, working with the relevant local councils and the Canal and River Trust, which together own various sections of the canal.

Until recently, the water supply for sections of the canal came via pumps at the Fiddler’s Ferry power station, but with the closure of this plant in 2020, the supply ceased. This is, of course, an issue that local councillors have been aware of for some time, with Halton and Warrington councils reportedly working on a solution for over a decade. The Environment Agency is the regulator responsible for water resources management and compliance with water quality requirements, and it has been doing what it can to support the local councils with advice. In June 2022 the Environment Agency granted an abstraction licence to Warrington Borough Council to abstract water to supply to the Sankey canal.

The Environment Agency has been working closely with Halton Borough Council on fish rescue work that has been undertaken in recent weeks, attending the site to provide advice on the removal and relocation of fish. The hon. Member for Halton highlighted some of the recent concerning events there and I am pleased that the Environment Agency is assisting in that.

While the Environment Agency will continue to support the local councils where possible, this is not an area where we have dedicated departmental resources. DEFRA gives an annual grant to the Canal and River Trust, the independent charity established in 2012 to manage over 2,000 miles of waterways. The grant to the Canal and River Trust provides some financial support for the charity as it establishes itself and develops new revenue streams while working towards self-sufficiency. The current grant stands at about £52 million a year, with £10 million of that dependent on the trust meeting performance criteria covering principal asset condition, towpath condition, and flood management. The funding for the Canal and River Trust is specific to that charity and not a general fund.

Given the scenes filmed today showing that hundreds or possibly thousands of fish have died, will the Minister go back to the Environment Agency and ask exactly what it is doing to advise and help save the fish in the canal?

I had a meeting with the Environment Agency today and received an update on its work. It assured me that it is providing help and support to address the situation the hon. Gentleman highlights with regard to fish and wildlife, but I will happily go back to it in light of today’s debate and ensure that that continues to happen.

Last year 743 million or so visits were made by people to the Canal and River Trust canal towpaths for a wide variety of reasons including walking, cycling, and deriving health and wellbeing benefits from being close to water. DEFRA is undertaking a review of the current Government grant funding, as required by the 2012 grant agreement with the trust. The review is assessing the trust’s performance over the past 10 years for value for money, and gauging whether there is a case for continued Government grant funding after the end of the current grant period which expires in 2027. The review is nearing completion and we expect to announce a decision in the autumn.

On the issues the hon. Gentleman raised about the Sankey canal, I absolutely believe that he, working with colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), with local councils, and with the tremendous enthusiasm of volunteers like the Sankey Canal Restoration Society, can make a huge difference here. Right across the country, volunteer groups, supported by local councils and their MPs, have led the way in fundraising and in delivering fantastic infrastructure projects to restore and improve canal systems. I have every confidence that the hon. Gentleman can do the same in his constituency.

We currently have a tale of two canals, however. In Warrington, where the funding has been granted by the local authority, there is water in the canal; in Halton, where the council is refusing to fund it, there is no water. Can the Minister give some direction to the council on what it might want to do to address this problem?

Both my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman made that point very well: one council has stepped up and enabled improvements to take place to restore the canal, whereas another council has not. I believe the answer primarily lies locally in finding a solution to restore the canal and ensure its future. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Halton for his invitation to visit the canal, and if I can find time in my diary, I would be very happy to do so. I am also happy to meet him, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South and any other stakeholders, because I want to play my part in trying to find a solution. As the hon. Member for Halton will appreciate, the Department is limited in what it can do, but I am happy to use my office to encourage a local solution to be found. I believe that we can do so—that a local solution can be achieved. The hon. Gentleman’s clear desire is to find a way to secure the future of that historic canal, which is an important part of local history and the current enjoyment of local people. I believe he can do so, and am very happy to do what I can to assist him in that effort.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.