Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the future of United Kingdom inland waterways.
My Lords, I start by thanking all noble Lords who have joined us today for this debate. I declare my interests as a member of the Inland Waterways Association and honorary president of the Monmouth, Breconshire and Abergavenny Canals Trust.
There are currently 4,700 miles of navigable waterways across England, Scotland and Wales—plus, of course, the waterways in Northern Ireland—and a further 1,800 miles of unusable waterways, 700 miles of which are proposed for restoration. The ownership and control of these thousands of miles of waterways rests with more than 100 navigation authorities. The largest manager is the Canal and River Trust, which looks after 2,000 miles, followed by the Environment Agency, which manages 650 miles.
Our inland waterway network is a unique and precious national asset, which has the potential to transform places, enrich lives, improve mental and physical health, support communities and promote economic development. More than half of the population live within 10 minutes of a waterway. Because of their historical role as the motorways of the past, waterways pass through not only wondrous countryside but also the heart of our conurbations. Take a few steps from Paddington station or the Birmingham International Convention Centre and you are immediately on the canal and towpaths of a country-wide waterway network. Unlike the grand places that are among the primary assets of the National Trust, which are often tucked away in some glorious piece of countryside, our waterways pass through some of the most deprived communities in our land. My purpose in this short debate is to shine a light on the value of our waterways, to examine the economic potential that they can unlock and to put to the Government a range of issues where government action can make a difference to realising the waterways’ full potential.
I start by concentrating on the economic potential that waterways provide. Analysis and research of this impact are somewhat sketchy, but they suggest that the value of land and property alongside a navigable canal is some 10% greater than comparable land alongside a disused canal; so values rise where working waterways exist. This rise in value is a vital tool for local authorities up and down the country where there are disused canals. The potential for planning gain should be of great interest to local authorities seeking to promote economic development. Planners have long used development potential to fund public goods such as roads, schools and other forms of community infrastructure, so applying some of this development gain to the restoration of the canal would be a wholly appropriate use for the public good.
The question I pose to the Government is: where is the economic planning policy that would drive this enhancement to our communities, and what steps are the Government taking to encourage local authorities to think carefully about the link between economic development and canal restoration? Another consequence of restoring canals is increased tourism spend. I know that my noble friend Lord Lee will expand on this later. My challenge here is to ask the Government what they are doing to encourage this economic potential.
Like other noble Lords, I should like to have a better understanding of the recent decision by Ministers to put on ice the transfer of the Environment Agency’s navigable waterways to the Canal and River Trust. Perhaps the Minister can tell us where these discussions are at the moment. Has the Minister met with the CRT to explore its offer to take over the operation of these waterways? Can the Minister tell us whether the department is looking for an improved offer from the CRT? If that is the case, can the Minister tell us what more the CRT can do to improve the merits of its offer?
There is some speculation that this is related to the large structures on the waterways that are controlled by the Environment Agency. Of course structures of that size also bear a risk of failure or decay. The Government presently stand behind the Environment Agency as the guarantor for dealing with any damage or consequence of an event to those assets. If an asset of that sort were to be passed to the CRT, there would obviously be a need to either crystallise the risk into a form of payment or to back it with some form of guarantee. Can the Minister let us know whether this issue is one that needs to be resolved and, if so, what is the timescale?
The Canal and River Trust can leverage funding in a way that the Environment Agency cannot. As Environment Agency budgets are squeezed, so its ability to maintain structures and the assets that it manages for government becomes equally restricted. Its ability to restore and repair is reduced. These were precisely the reasons why the CRT was established, and why there was always an expectation that the Environment Agency waterways would eventually be included in the transfer to the Canal and River Trust. The CRT has guaranteed government funds through to 2027, which enables it to borrow and lever additional funds and invest in the longer-term future of our waterways. It produces a return which far exceeds that which the old British Waterways could provide. The sad state of canal closures in Scotland demonstrates the value of the trust structure that we now have in England and Wales.
If our waterways are to maximise their full potential, the Government must engage and appreciate their worth. There is some feeling—I have experienced it—that the Government, having passed on much of the work to the Canal and River Trust, have stood back from promoting the worth of our waterways which, after all, is not necessarily an economic issue for government but it is something that government can promote. It would be reassuring if the Minster could tell us the number of visits that he and other Ministers have made in their official capacities to see our waterways in action. It is not just Defra Ministers who need to engage. Waterways provide access to millions of people; they touch many of our most deprived communities; they can address health inequalities; and they reduce physical inactivity, obesity, diabetes and poor mental health. Through adoption by local people, they can help to build strong, resilient communities—more than 200 community groups have now adopted a stretch of waterway and that number is rising by 20% each year. Beyond that, waterways support learning and skills, covering such diverse areas as natural science, engineering, heritage, arts, technology and mathematics. They help to restore natural habitats and protect endangered wildlife species—and so the list goes on.
Waterways play a role that spans so much of the life of our country, be it in education, health, leisure, sport, local government, tourism or the environment. In reality, this spans many government portfolios. What role is the Minister’s department playing in co-ordinating the government overview of the impact of our waterways on life in our country? It is so important for joined-up action in the promotion of the role that waterways can play. Our waterways are our asset on the doorstep. They need to be nurtured, treasured and—most importantly—used to the full, and the Government have a major role to play in providing that support.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord German, on having obtained the debate. I make it clear at the outset that I agree with almost every word that he said, which is a novel experience for me. I also declare an interest: I have been interested in waterways—in fact, I have been on them, mainly in the English Midlands—for the last 20 years. I am on my second narrowboat; as you buy them they get more and more expensive, so I do not think I will go further than that. Like the noble Lord, I congratulate the Canal and River Trust on its successes. I know that there were worries when it was formed as to whether it would be successful, but it has been very successful. Like him, I am disappointed that we have had the hiccup with regard to the Environment Agency’s waterways coming into the CRT, but in the long run that must happen; if it does not, the problems will increase.
The noble Lord also mentioned the way in which the CRT can continue to help with the restoration and recovery of canals, and I want to highlight a couple of important measures on that point. One would of course be to put in place the link that has been talked of for some time between Milton Keynes and Bedford, which would make access to the Environment Agency’s waterways in the east much easier and would considerably extend the opportunity for leisure use there. I give a more immediate welcome to what is proposed with regard to Daventry. The noble Lord mentioned that it is open to local authorities to use the planning system to generate the money that will create a canal. In Daventry we are talking about only something like a mile and a quarter, but it would enable people who currently go past Daventry on the Grand Union to go in and take advantage of the town itself. That is one of the great advantages that we see from the waterways.
We are dealing with waterways in the United Kingdom, which enables me to bring in those in Northern Ireland. The problem is that there are not that many of them, unfortunately. There were a number of canals but none is active at the moment. The railways in Ireland never made any money, nor did the canals; it has to do with the way in which the population is distributed and the absence of large industrial sites outside the Greater Belfast area. We have a problem there. We have the Fermanagh lakes, the Lower Bann and its great lake, which is problematic in some ways. However, I draw attention to two potential developments in Northern Ireland. The first is the Lagan Navigation, which is this year starting a process of restoration to one of its locks. In fact, it is the first lock that you encounter in Belfast, because the Lagan Navigation goes from Belfast to Lough Neagh. We are starting with what will be the most expensive lock to restore, which is a good first step forward. In that connection, I have to mention that my wife is the deputy chairman of the Lagan Navigation Trust, so I am slightly prejudiced.
I also mention the Ulster Canal, which starts and ends in Northern Ireland but, in between, it meanders through large parts of the Republic of Ireland. That enabled us to choose that to develop as a cross-border co-operation project. I was well aware of the extent to which the Government of southern Ireland had taken a strong lead in the restoration of canals, and have succeeded in putting in place the two major canals that go from Dublin to the Shannon, thus extending greatly the area that can be cruised. I knew that officials in Belfast did not have the same enthusiasm and it seemed to me that, if we put together a cross-border body and exposed them to the broader horizon that their southern counterparts had, that might have a positive result.
I do not know whether what I am going to say is absolutely true, because I am dealing with what other people have said to me, but they have told me that there is an annual meeting under the aegis of Waterway Irelands between the people representing north and south. In the course of this annual meeting, the folk from Dublin said, “Here’s our money for beginning the restoration of the Ulster canal”, and the Northern Ireland representatives hummed and hawed and got uncomfortable as they had not got anywhere. They had not got past the idea that was prevalent nearly 40 years ago that there was no significant market for leisure activities based on canals and had not realised that huge leisure opportunities are developing on canals. From the point of view of Northern Ireland tourism, this adds another niche. Tourism in Northern Ireland is always going to be a matter of niche markets, because we do not have sun and the temperatures that people get in the Mediterranean and elsewhere, but this is an important niche to add. I hope that sooner or later the penny will drop and we will some steps being taken on the Ulster Canal. As it links Lough Neagh with Lough Erne, that would give an integrated waterways network in Northern Ireland, which would generate more leisure activities.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on securing this debate. In my short contribution today, I want to focus primarily on the tourism aspects of our inland waterways. I declare an interest as chairman of ALVA—the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions. It has 70 members, all of which receive more than 1 million visitors a year, and a very important member is the Canal and River Trust. It manages 2,000 miles of historic navigable waterways, which is 70% of our national network. When I was Tourism Minister in the later 1980s, inland waterways were regarded very much as a lost tourism opportunity. Many waterways were overgrown, full of debris and unnavigable. The Thames was then regarded as a hugely underdeveloped tourism and national asset. However, even then improvements were starting. In my Pendle constituency, significant work was done in cleaning and upgrading the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.
In recent years, mainly thanks to the work of the Canal and River Trust, formerly British Waterways, huge strides have been made. Many waterway networks within and around our older industrial towns, such as Birmingham and Manchester, have been transformed and restored. The Canal and River Trust licenses and supports 33,000 boats on our waterways, and in a typical two-week period the waterways welcome 2 million walkers and 180,000 fishing visits and facilitate 600,000 joggers, 700,000 cyclists and 150,000 canoeists, rowers and paddle boaters. The trust’s waterways are home to 63 SSSIs and the third-largest collection of listed buildings in the country, including significant individual attractions such as the Anderton boat lift. It is estimated that 2,500 jobs are sustained by inland marinas and boat hire.
Turning from the macro, a couple of years ago we had the privilege to move from south of Manchester to Richmond, Surrey and now live 200 yards from the Thames. This section of the Thames is a major tourism and sporting draw. On the river there are moored boats, canoeing and rowing—it is marvellous to see youngsters participating—as well as small boat building and repair operations, fishing, the very occasional brave swimmer. There are paddle steamers and larger boats taking passengers through the Teddington lock to Kingston and Hampton Court and in some cases to Westminster. There is wonderful birdlife, with a wide variety of ducks, gulls, herons and cormorants. Given the number of herons and cormorants, it is quite clear that the Thames is host to a very substantial fishing stock. I judge that there is a much greater fishing opportunity than people realise.
I fished the Thames locally on three occasions with Warwick Salzer, a Thames fishing guide, in his converted landing craft and caught a number of nine-pound and 10-pound pike. A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity of seeing a seal in action, taking a fish for itself just off the towpath. All this activity brings substantial tourism footfall and spend to Richmond, obviously benefiting the wider economy—cafés, pubs and restaurants. Most tourists walk the riverbank. I describe this as “towpath tourism”, for jogging, walking and cycling, but I have to say that it is not ideal, in many respects, to see walkers and fast cyclists so intertwined—though fortunately, I have seen no serious accidents yet. Of course, Richmond is somewhat special, given its history, with the Turner view, the park, Kew Gardens, Twickenham Stadium; but the river is the number one draw for most visitors. Many other communities up and down the country benefit from tourists and visitors engaging in water pursuits or just walking the towpaths.
I want to ask the Minister about pollution and prosecutions. In a Written Answer to Question 515 on 21 June last year in the other place, the Minister— Dr Thérèse Coffey—gave details of successful prosecutions in England, with Wales having been devolved over the past 10 years. In each year, between 2007 and 2010, there were over 100 successful pollution prosecutions. However, since 2011, that number has fallen steadily. In 2015, there were only 22, and last year, only 14 in the first half of the year. Of course, since 2011, enforcement undertaking offers have been available, which are legally binding voluntary agreements containing proposals for the restoration of any environmental harm. They have been available as an alternative to formal prosecution. Does the Minister think that the fall in prosecutions is perhaps because of the aforementioned alternative? Does he have any numbers on agreed enforcement undertakings? My concern is that, perhaps because of manpower reductions or cost-cutting, the Environment Agency is not able to police our rivers and inland waterways and investigate reports of pollution incidents as speedily and thoroughly as would be ideal. Obviously, I totally understand if the Minister would prefer to write to me on that specific point.
In conclusion, I hope and expect that our inland waterways will be steadily improved and expanded further in future for the benefit of residents, communities, tourists and—of course—future generations.
My Lords, I welcome the debate of the noble Lord, Lord German, UK inland waterways and the opportunity to take part. I have nothing to declare: I am not an associate and I do not own a longboat, unlike my noble friend, but I enjoy walking along our many waterways with my two friends, Daisy and Ted, who are my dogs. I enjoy them and they enjoy it, too.
Bringing our waterways into the big society puts decision-making into the hands of the thousands of people who love the waterways—like me—and have the pleasure of living near them. Therefore I welcome the Government’s commitment to invest and support local communities and volunteers helping to shape the future of our much-loved waterways.
Importantly, the main and overriding issue is that of safeguarding the safety and structural integrity of water infrastructure and the safety of users and neighbours. One of the main issues must be improving water quality and managing flood risks, as well as enhancing and supporting our heritage while respecting the character of our landscape, creating ample space to develop leisure and commercial activities—as previous speakers have alluded to. Of course, there are many challenges but I always think that challenges bring new ideas.
Waterways are our history; demonstrating their individuality and uniqueness is important. We may not be Holland, with many miles of waterways, but our network of 200 year-old canals and rivers is valued and therefore must be preserved. Our landscape, too, is very precious, so both have to be supported for long-term sustainability, highlighting the opportunity to welcome our visitor economy.
An important issue to raise today is our waterways’ connection to our health and well-being. They are integral in encouraging and supporting physical and healthy outdoor activity. They are an opportunity for someone who may feel isolated and lonely; they can be a lever to begin volunteering, resulting in creating long and lasting friendships, particularly as we are all living longer and healthier lives.
It is also the time to value the environment. Almost 50% of the population live within five miles of a waterway and nearly 1 million people live within a 100-metre catchment. Attention must be drawn to improving physical access to canals and to introducing creative signage, with up-to-date public information to keep awareness and interest for people. As I have stressed, securing the long-term future of our managed waterways is a given, as well as resolving the best outcome for the public purse. Lots of work is also needed to rid our canals of the scourge of the many types of microplastics entering the environment via sewage and sewage sludge.
From soft landscape to commercial opportunities, there are huge opportunities for businesses and small and medium-sized enterprises which want to relocate and stimulate a community, bringing work and jobs. It is particularly important to our rural areas which are situated in an idyllic setting.
Finally, it is important just to be able to enjoy the ambience as well as valuing our natural environment; to discover the pleasure of just being there beside our canals, for everyone who wishes to preserve our heritage. They, too, want to make a better place for our future generations.
Once again I thank the noble Lord for tabling this debate and look forward to the Minister’s response in encouraging the improvement of our canals and waterways. I hope there is support, so that canals and waterways will have a future.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord German, for bringing us here today. I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, that one of the best scenes I have seen in my life was on the shore of the lake by Enniskillen, where the hotel is. When we opened the curtains in the morning and looked down to the water, at the cattle with their feet in the water, it was absolutely magnificent. If those sorts of things are not exploited, somebody needs to do something about it, because they are eminently saleable.
My history goes back a long way, I am afraid. I was present at Reading Town Hall at the initial meeting of those who were determined to stop the Government abandoning the Kennet and Avon Canal, and at the start of the restoration of that canal, alongside which I lived for a long time, at Bradford on Avon. My history is on the railways. I want to bring to the Minister’s attention the huge input that is now achieved on the railways from the community rail partnerships, of which there are a very large number. Those people do a variety of things in terms of looking after buildings, gardens and making sure the station is pleasant. Much of that encouragement has come from the train operating companies and Network Rail putting seedcorn down to encourage people, giving them training where necessary, and tools and accommodation that they can use. Thousands of people are fascinated by railways; I think they are even more fascinated by canals.
What I really want to draw attention to is the fact that, although there are a lot of willing, and increasingly skilled, volunteers—I believe that a lock at Stroud in Gloucestershire has been restored almost entirely with volunteer labour—that must never be seen as a means of government washing its hands. If volunteers ever got the idea that the efforts they put in meant that the Government would withdraw their support, that would be almost pernicious. Whatever problems there might be with funding—and there will always be such problems—supporting those volunteers is vital to the Canal and River Trust and to the railways. Volunteering and the allegiance that people feel to their railway lines and canals is a strange thing. It is not something that I think motorways suffer from at all—people want to get away from those.
I wanted to speak in this debate to say to the Minister, “Look at what the community rail partnerships are achieving and make sure you give at least equivalent support to the volunteers”. There are many ways that can be done—through training and dealing with buildings and gardens, and even just picking up rubbish, which is very important in many of these places. I shall be very interested to hear what the Minister has to say when he replies.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord German, for tabling this debate and to all noble Lords for reminding us of the joys of participating in the nearly 5,000 navigable miles of inland waterways. We in the UK are very privileged to have access to such an abundant network of canals, rivers and lakes, with all the opportunities they bring for leisure and work. As noble Lords have said, they provide enormous opportunities for recreation, whether fishing, cycling, walking or simply messing around in boats. They also continue to provide inexpensive and environmentally beneficial opportunities for moving freight around the country—something I am sure we could exploit more than we do at the moment. They even provide affordable alternative living space. At least one of my noble colleagues resides on his canal boat in London when the House is sitting—even during the bad weather, he told me, although he also told me that the increased mooring charge is finally pricing even him out of that lifestyle.
Boat ownership is now more prevalent than it was at the height of the Industrial Revolution, and we have heard a little about the joys that it brings. Canals also provide significant wider environmental benefits. There are benefits to wildlife from restored waterways, including improved biodiversity in flora, fauna and habitat, and they play their part in reducing CO2 emissions and improving drainage and flood alleviation. As a number of noble Lords have said, the restoration projects that have taken place have provided enormous community benefits and opportunities for volunteering, as well as improved health and well-being, which goes along with that.
Therefore, it is important that we do everything we can to maintain the quality of the water and the surrounding pathways to ensure that the highest environmental standards are maintained. I pay tribute to the work of the Canal and River Trust and the Environment Agency for their hard work in protecting these valuable natural assets. However, clearly more needs to be done, as we have heard today.
We still face huge challenges from water pollution—a matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lee. The Environment Agency recently said that England’s water companies are still responsible for an alarming number of pollution incidents each year—at least one a week. As its chair, Emma Howard Boyd, pointed out:
“This pollution can lead to the death of wildlife, major environmental damage and, in the worst cases, puts the public at risk”.
Last year, Thames Water received a record £20.3 million fine after it admitted dumping 1.4 billion litres of raw sewage into the Thames between 2012 and 2014, leaving people and animals ill and killing thousands of fish. Although the fine was the biggest in the Environment Agency’s history, it represented just 10 days’ operating profits for the company. Therefore, we need to ensure in the future that fines are proportionate and that they truly act as a deterrent. So I ask the Minister: what further action is proposed to ensure that water companies take their environmental responsibilities seriously? Meanwhile, I was pleased to read that Michael Gove has also laid into the water companies and has threatened to give Ofwat greater control over what he described as their “opaque” finances. I also have to say that I visited the Thames tideway super-sewer project a few months ago and was pleased to see that the company was finally taking positive action to clean up the Thames.
Although we think of canal boats as being environmentally friendly, we cannot avoid the fact that they contribute to the air pollution caused by nitrogen oxides. Particularly in residential areas, they are responsible for the pollution caused by wood-burning and solid wood stoves, and boat engines used for propulsion and electrical generation. Of course, canal boats typically have diesel engines. So there is a need to accelerate the search for alternative fuels and energy storage, including the wider use of solar panels and hydrogen- and battery-powered engines.
Farmers owning adjoining farmland also need to play their part in cutting back on river and canal pollution. Although there is much greater awareness and education of landowners these days, more than half of our rivers have been found to have unacceptable levels of phosphorus caused by sewage effluent and contaminated run-off from farmland. Can the Minister update us on the steps being taken to ensure that farmers are compliant with environmental standards? How many prosecutions have there been of farmers who wilfully ignore their responsibilities?
Canals and rivers also play their part in harbouring non-native invasive plants and animals. We know, for example, of the destructive impact of non-native crayfish, but people are also guilty of disposing of plants intended for garden ponds and aquariums in our rivers and waterways without realising the harm they can cause. Can the Minister remind us what steps are being taken to educate the public about the threat these pose, and also to educate volunteers, who do so much to clean up our waterways, about what they should look out for in terms of non-native invasive plants and animals, and what action they should be taking?
We have debated the negative impact of plastic on our rivers and waterways several times recently. All too often single-use plastics are dumped or washed into rivers and flow out to sea, creating huge marine pollution as well as unsightly shorelines and beaches. As we know, nearly half of all single-use plastic bottles are currently not recycled. Instead, they are discarded or put into regular bins, and end up in landfill. Once there, as we all now know, they take hundreds of years to break down. We urgently need to cut back on their use by implementing a bottle-deposit scheme, as well as improving recycling rates. Perhaps the Minister could remind us of the outcome of the recent consultation on this issue and tell us what action the Government now propose to take on single-use plastics.
Finally, I am aware that many of these issues are addressed in the 25-year environment plan. When the plan was published, we expressed concern at the lack of urgency and the need for more measurable targets. There was intended to be follow-up on this issue. Can the Minister update us on the progress of that action?
I am conscious that my contribution has focused on some of the challenges facing our waterways, rather than celebrating them. They are a much-loved part of British life and my concern is only that that should continue to be the case.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord German, on securing this debate, particularly given his contribution as president of the Monmouthshire, Brecon and Abergavenny Canals Trust. Protecting those very important canals is a great achievement. I have listened with great interest to noble Lords, given their considerable interest in and experience and knowledge of our inland navigation system.
As your Lordships will know, the first canal system dates from Roman Britain and was used largely for irrigation or to link our rivers. Many of our canals were built at the height of the Industrial Revolution, which demanded an economic and reliable way to transport goods and commodities in large quantities. I am always struck when one travels up the M1 that one can see the motorway, the railway and the canal and note how beautiful the canal is. However, I had better not go down that line too much.
That highlights how our canals and rivers have played a significant part in our country. Of course we treasure the tangible connections with the past, and probably even more equally, if that is possible, we realise the benefits of the waterways not only for today but for the future. They encapsulate a history of growth and then decline, and from the 1970s onwards a story of regeneration and increasing commercial and recreational use. I am thinking of some of our urban centres. My wife is a sculptor and the foundry she uses is in Limehouse. If one visits Limehouse today, or indeed Birmingham and Leeds, we can see that in many of the towns and cities that were the hub of the Industrial Revolution, the canals and rivers are the open door because of their development potential, as the noble Lord, Lord German, highlighted. Moreover, when we think of heritage it is obvious to move on to tourism, as the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, emphasised in his remarks.
A great many listed buildings line our canals and rivers: scheduled ancient monuments, heritage structures ranging from small iconic milestones as well as working structures such as lock gates and swing bridges. We can marvel at the Caledonian Canal cutting through the Great Glen or the 29-lock Caen Hill flight on the Kennet and Avon Canal. I recall in a previous life the valiant work of the late Admiral Sir William O’Brien with the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust. We also have the architectural splendour of the grade 1 listed Pontcysyllte Aqueduct carrying the Llangollen Canal over the River Dee. That structure alone is a UNESCO world heritage site which attracts 300,000 visitors a year.
Apart from their traditional role as a system of travel and transport, our inland waterways serve the many purposes to which noble Lords have referred. The noble Lord, Lord German, talked about regeneration and growth, as well as the contribution they make to water supply and transfer, drainage and flood management, and as a means of commercial transport, a point highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch. From the fishing point of view, the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, raised the importance of angling and how the angler often is the person to notice when there is pollution in the water and thus is part of the early warning system.
We said in our manifesto and in our 25-year environment plan that we want to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than the one we inherited. We want everyone to be able to enjoy ready access to our blue spaces—that is, the towpaths of our canals and our riversides which provide great benefit. I was struck by the words of my noble friend Lady Redfern when she spoke of the sheer pleasure derived by the large number of people who live close to our waterways. We could describe that as the green and blue prescriptions that the waterways provide.
The significance of the formation of the Canal and River Trust is that it was the first major transfer of a public body into the charitable sector and it has acted as a flagship. As has been said, the trust has ownership of more than 2,000 miles of waterway. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, will not mind me emphasising this, but providing the trust with £800 million under a legally binding 15-year grant agreement in what I would call stretched times is an indication of the appreciation of what the trust is doing now and can do in the future, which is a very strong endorsement. The funding has given the trust financial certainty so that it can plan for the long term as well as achieve value for money and attract funding from other investment and commercial income such as boat licensing—I heard what the noble Baroness said about that—and donations.
I will highlight the words of my noble friend Lady Redfern and the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw. One key objective in creating the trust was to increase the involvement of local people in the waterways. I would recommend to noble Lords the Library pack, which set out the annual report of the trust. I was impressed that, in 2016-17, the trust harnessed 540,000 volunteer hours. I so agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, said about invasives—I spent a really enjoyable day pulling Himalayan balsam with volunteers in the river catchments of the New Forest National Park. Not only are the volunteers doing great environmental work but, when I said, “Thank you very much”, they said, “Don’t you realise how much pleasure we derive from doing this work?” It is bearing fruit, because there is less Himalayan balsam in these upper reaches causing damage.
The noble Baroness also mentioned raising awareness, which is why our Check, Clean, Dry campaign is so important, with its message not to bring back anything with your sponge bag. I will be having a meeting on floating pennywort, which is also causing great problems to watercourses because, at some point, a member of the public took it from their pond and put it in the watercourse. We need to raise awareness of that. The trust has also increased community involvement—which was also raised by noble Lords—including in arts and education projects. Last year, 43,586 children took part in its waterways education programme.
The Environment Agency is the second-largest navigation authority in the country, with the majority of the length of its waterways accounted for in the Fens and Anglian waterways, the River Thames and the River Wye. The agency manages more than 3,000 assets for the benefit of more than 26,000 boat users and the wider public. These waterways also provide a significant contribution to the UK economy and are an intrinsic part of the urban and rural landscapes through which they pass. The Government are providing funding of £13 million to the Environment Agency to support the maintenance of its navigation assets from 2016-17 to 2019-20. Additional income is raised from boat licensing charges and commercial income.
I turn to the Broads Authority, because I have responsibility for national parks and the Broads Authority is in that family. They are wonderful waterways; I spent a wonderful day on them in my ministerial capacity and a number of other days in other capacities. The authority undertakes a vital role in looking after the 120 miles of navigable waterways in Norfolk and Suffolk. This beautiful waterscape alone attracts 8 million people a year, bringing in around £550 million to the UK tourism economy. I raise that, because I think it is a small example of what the waterways bring in terms of tourism, and indeed what tourism brings to our national economy and to our reputation.
All of the many other navigation authorities take very seriously their stewardship role. Both Natural Resources Wales and the trust are responsible for a number of the waterways in Wales. Scotland and Northern Ireland manage their respective inland waterways. I was particularly interested in what my noble friend Lord Trimble said about Waterways Ireland, which is one of the six north-south implementation bodies established under the British-Irish agreement in 1999. The funding currently reflects the current distribution of waterways in each jurisdiction—the Northern Ireland Assembly accounts for 15% and the Irish Parliament for 85%—but capital development programmes are funded separately by the jurisdiction where the works are carried out. My noble friend highlighted the collaboration and co-operation in the restoration of the waterways that serve both parts of that island, which is a key example of a force for good.
I pay tribute to the Inland Waterways Association, its 16,000 members and the many volunteers who—as I have said—work tirelessly in helping to safeguard and enhance our waterways. It is a very strong partnership.
The noble Lord, Lord German, and my noble friend Lord Trimble raised the issue of the transfer of Environment Agency navigations to the trust. The Inland Waterways Association and many in the boating community have welcomed this, and we are working on it. My honourable friend Thérèse Coffey has met the trust, and they are working on this; she has instructed officials in Defra and the Environment Agency to work with the trust on a revised proposal which fully accounts for which assets could be transferred and the timings for that. If I have any further details, given the hour and time, I shall write to the noble Lord.
I shall also have to write to the noble Baroness about some of the examples of pollution. I have a lot more to say on pollution, which is a scourge. It is something that we need to deal with, whether it emanates from farming or boats—wherever it emanates from—because we need to bring down pollution rates and improve water quality. That is a key part of the 25-year environment plan.
I am sorry, but I have been at the equine forum this morning, so I shall say that this has been a very brisk gallop through a very important subject. I conclude by saying that my honourable friend spent a very interesting visit to the Birmingham canals, and I have over my time visited many canals. The trusts are right to celebrate this year the 50th anniversary of the Transport Act 1968. I wish them, and all those who have the responsibility for navigation and inland waterways, all success, because the future is very much one where, whether it is an enhancement of quality of our green or our blue environment, the waterways have a key role to play in the fulfilment of a better life for the people of this nation. So I am most grateful to the noble Lord for this opportunity.