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Waterways: Tourism

Volume 688: debated on Monday 15 January 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they considered the implications for United Kingdom tourism before deciding to reduce the budget of British Waterways.

My Lords, the lead department for inland waterways in England and Wales is Defra. While there have been no specific discussions on the matter that the noble Lord raises, Defra and DCMS Ministers do speak from time to time on tourism issues.

My Lords, I declare an interest. British Waterways is a member of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions of which I am chairman. Very positive developments with our waterways have taken place in recent years. There has been a massive contribution towards regeneration of many cities and, on tourism, more than 100,000 hire-boat holidays. Given the tremendous potential, should not the Government put more money into waterways rather than less?

My Lords, the Government have put substantial sums into waterways—more than £500 million since 2000. That has helped to realise the benefits that the noble Lord identified in terms of the rural part of waterways and, as he rightly says, the regeneration of many of our major cities to the improvement of waterways. We look towards British Waterways to carry on that important work.

My Lords, given that the income of British Waterways has trebled in the past seven years and that almost half of its income last year was from trading activities, would it not be an idea to consider making it a self-financing agency by giving it a dowry of some of the land alongside its banks? It could become self-financing and make better use of its many assets.

My Lords, that is an interesting and radical idea. The Select Committee in the other place is looking at the future of British Waterways and I do not doubt that my noble friend will take steps to draw the committee’s attention to his radical proposal.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us what he expects us to infer from his substantive Answer, and whether that would be correct?

My Lords, I hope I give answers that lead to a common understanding across the House of what is intended in them. Suffice it to say that although the Question is about tourism and is therefore accurately and appropriately addressed to the Minister responsible for tourism in this House, budgetary decisions on British Waterways are the responsibility of another department.

My Lords, at the risk of appearing tedious, does the noble Lord realise that all Ministers answer for the whole Government, and the fact that a particular Minister belongs to a certain department has no bearing on his access to the knowledge required?

My Lords, of course I understand the point entirely. I was merely describing factually the ministerial line of responsibility in this area.

My Lords, if the Ministers in the two departments speak to each other, even on this very day, what was the reason for the reduction in the budget?

My Lords, Defra has had its budget re-evaluated this year for a reduction of 7 per cent. Although it has been widely reported that the budget cut for British Waterways is £9 million, it is in fact £3.9 million, which it was felt would be appropriately attributable to it.

My Lords, is it not the case that the cuts were made because of a lack of year-end flexibility, which is code for saying that the Treasury decided it was going to claw a large sum of money out of Defra? Is this not highly unfortunate from the point of view of Defra generally and in particular with regard to British Waterways, in respect of which I should have declared an interest as a boat owner?

My Lords, all government departments have organisations which derive substantial resources from them. Those organisations—particularly one as enterprising and constructive as British Waterways has been in recent years—have ambitious plans for development, which cannot necessarily be funded in the immediate year.

My Lords, how does the river Lea fits into the tourism and navigation plans for the Olympic Games? Will he confirm that there is a plan to put a £50 million lock across the end of the river to make it better for tourism and for the Olympics by bringing in materials and so on? How is that £50 million to be spent and how much of it will come from British Waterways ?

My Lords, the river Lea will certainly play a significant part in the development of not just the main Olympic site but also the canoeing and kayaking site further upriver in Broxbourne in Hertfordshire. The river Lea will have an important role to play in the development of our Olympic facilities and will add to the attractiveness of the site. I should add that we are also guaranteeing that a certain amount of the freightage necessary for developing the site will be water-borne.

My Lords, I have tried to speak so often that I am jolly well going to go on. First, does the Minister agree that certain goods could be well transported on our canals and inland waterways, and thus taken off the roads, and that more commercial traffic might be a great help financially to our canals? Secondly, do the authorities hold conversations with the French, who seem to make very good commercial use of their canals?

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to reply to the noble Baroness, who is always constructive on these matters. It will be recognised that British Waterways has difficulty making comparisons directly with French waterways, which are constructed on a much wider scale. We operate with much narrower boats, which presents a problem with freight traffic. Nevertheless, in its forward plans British Waterways looks toward an expansion of freight. Anything that contributes in those terms helps to reduce congestion on our crowded roads and, to a certain extent, our railways.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Scottish Executive, unlike the British Government, are fully supporting Scottish waterways? Do the English need some major visitor attraction, like the Falkirk Wheel, to persuade them how important waterways are to tourism?

My Lords, Scotland has responsibility for its own waterways and, as the noble Earl says, certain advantages. However, it will also be recognised that, in England, substantial parts of our waterways are greatly attractive. One thinks of, for example, the gorge in Shropshire, which is part of the origins of the Industrial Revolution and is, of course, close to a waterway.