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Middle Level Bill: Revival

Volume 629: debated on Tuesday 17 October 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That the promoters of the Middle Level Bill, which originated in this House in the previous Session on 24 January 2017, may have leave to proceed with the Bill in the current Session according to the provisions of Standing Order 188B (Revival of bills).—(The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to support the revival of this important Bill and pleased to have the chance, once again, to discuss it on the Floor of the House.

Some Members will recall that the Middle Level Bill received its Second Reading on 29 March 2017, following a debate including a range of contributions from hon. and right hon. Members, but it was lost at the Dissolution of Parliament ahead of the general election. I do not intend to repeat the whole of my speech from that debate—[Interruption.] It is lovely to hear a request from Labour Front Benchers for more, but I will contain myself, despite their obvious enthusiasm. I will set out the basic details of the Bill and the reasons why we should legislate, as well as what has happened since we last debated the measure and the changes that have been proposed to respond to concerns raised in petitions and by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who has assiduously followed the progress of this Bill.

To be clear, the Bill is being promoted by the Middle Level Commissioners, a statutory corporation constituted under the Middle Level Act 1862. The commissioners provide flood defence and water level management to the Middle Level area and are the navigation authority for the Middle Level river system. Many Members who have seen the title of the debate on the Order Paper will probably wonder what the Middle Level is. The Middle Level is the central and largest section of the Great Level of the Fens, which was reclaimed by drainage during the mid-17th century. The area is bounded to the north-west and the east by the Nene and Ouse washes, to the north by the previously drained marshland silts, and to the south and west by low clay hills.

The Middle Level river system consists of more than 120 miles of watercourses, approximately 100 miles of which are statutory navigations, and it has a catchment of just over 170,000 acres. Virtually all the fenland within the Middle Level catchment lies below mean sea level. The Middle Level Commissioners, together with the local internal drainage boards, therefore operate a highly complex flood protection and water level management system to balance the various water uses and requirements, and to alleviate the risk of flooding to land and properties. The efficient operation of the system is vital to the safety and prosperity of the more than 100,000 people who live and work in the area and the 26,000 properties that depend on it. But for the operations of the commissioners and the local boards, much of the fenland would be underwater for a lot of the year, access from higher ground would be cut off, and many of the present land uses would be completely impossible.

Although the Middle Level was built primarily for drainage reasons, it has gone on to be used by a range of craft, particularly pleasure craft and motorboats. That brings us to the key point with any legislation: why do we need to legislate? The current system of regulation is hopelessly out of date and based on a different era of waterways usage. Our forebears in the 19th century viewed canals as a practical method of transporting goods and a working location, rather than as an attractive place for a holiday, hence measures such as an exemption from charges relating to manure-carrying. The success of many waterways today in recreation is due to the fact that they have a system of regulation and income generation that reflects the needs of boat users today, rather than those of the 19th century. That is why the current legal framework for the Middle Level needs to be updated.

That legal framework does not include adequate provision for the registration of vessels used on the waterways, or for the levying of charges for the use of the waterways and associated facilities. In particular, the commissioners may levy charges only on commercial traffic, not on pleasure craft. That is presumably because, in the past, the extent of commercial traffic was considered sufficient to pay for the costs of navigation. Again, that shows a different understanding of the use of waterways. However, commercial traffic on the Middle Level is now virtually non-existent. Almost all the vessels are pleasure craft, and they benefit from an exemption from charging under the old Acts.

I thank my hon. Friend—he is a very good friend—for giving way. I am listening to him with rapt attention, and I heard him say that the entirety of the Middle Level is below sea level. I do not know the area, so could he tell me if that means that the rivers cannot get out—does the stuff have to be pumped out?—and traffic on the waterways cannot get out of this sunken level? I admit that I am pretty ignorant about the area.

There are ways of getting from the Middle Level to other waterways. It connects to some waterways that have much more modern systems of regulation. Most of it is below mean sea level, but my understanding is that it is possible to get boats into and out of other watercourses.

The Middle Level was built as a very large drain—that is the best way of putting it—but in its usage it has become more like a canal. Such waterways work very successfully in other areas of the country, but the problem with the Middle Level is that its ability to generate income is based on its original design and conception, rather than its modern-day usage. Following on from my hon. Friend’s helpful intervention, I will talk about the issues concerning the income for maintaining the Middle Level.

At the moment, the commissioners do not receive any income from the navigation of the waterways because of the virtual non-existence of commercial traffic. That has meant that monies raised through drainage rates and levies have had to be used to fund navigation, instead of for flood defences. In the financial year ending 31 March 2016, that unfunded expenditure amounted to £178,000. The commissioners therefore seek to update and clarify their powers to enable them properly to regulate and fund their waterways. For comparison, the powers sought are similar to those already used by other large inland navigation authorities, such as the Canal and River Trust, the Environment Agency and the Broads Authority.

The commissioners consulted on their proposals between February and June 2016. They notified affected parties, including navigation interests, land drainage interests and local authorities. They published newspaper notices and placed details on their website. Some 23 responses were received, 18 of which were supportive, with three neutral and two opposed. Supporters included the Inland Waterways Association, the East Anglian Waterways Association, the Association of Nene River Clubs, the National Association of Boat Owners, the Middle Level Watermen’s Club, the Residential Boat Owners Association, the Association of Waterway Cruising Clubs and five local councils.

After the Bill was deposited, six petitions were received against it. They raise a range of issues to which the commissioners intend to respond in their evidence before the Opposed Bill Committee, but some significant work has already been done—assisted, I must say, by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch—to respond to many of the issues raised in the petitions. Likewise, work has been done to respond to concerns raised by Members on 29 March 2017, although I was pleased to note that the Bill then had the support of both Government and Opposition Front Benchers. There was a pledge to respond to the issues in the Opposed Bill Committee, but that Committee could not sit before Parliament was dissolved for the general election.

The six petitions deposited against the Bill were from individuals with varying interests in the navigation of the waterways forming the Middle Level, as well as from the March Cruising Club and the National Bargee Travellers Association. It should be noted that none of the operators of the private marinas in the Middle Level has objected to proposals to include their marinas within the scope of the commissioners’ regulatory powers. The commissioners met all the petitioners in July and August, and responded to each of their petitions in writing in September. One of the petitioners has indicated that he is now willing to withdraw his petition, but the irony is that he cannot do so until the Bill is formally revived. I am advised by the commissioners that, as yet, no other responses have been received.

It should be noted that although some of the petitioners did not accept during those meetings that there was a need for the commissioners to raise funds from navigation users, more were concerned that the fees should be predictable and affordable, and that the commissioners would guarantee to provide improved services and facilities in return for those charges. In addition, none of the petitioners, as is logical, took issue with the need for vessels to meet the standards of the boat safety scheme or to carry third-party insurance, as required by the Bill. Another problem with the age of the existing legislation is that it dates from before modern considerations of boat safety and third-party insurance.

The commissioners intend to give an undertaking, and to propose amendments to the Bill before the Committee stage, if the Bill is revived. They include setting up a users’ panel that would discuss an annual programme of maintenance and improvements before each year’s charges were set. The commissioners propose an amendment to clause 5(3) so that Well Creek is not closed to navigation between Christmas and new year. They also propose an amendment so that the person in charge of a vessel is not required to provide the names and addresses of others on board.

If the Bill is revived, I am confident that the remaining outstanding issues will be appropriately considered by the Opposed Bill Committee. At that stage, both the commissioners and the petitioners will have the opportunity to give evidence supporting their cases before the Committee determines whether the principle of the Bill has been proved. In addition to the points I have outlined, I am aware that the commissioners, via their solicitors, have been in contact with the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) and my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch to deal with a number of the individual issues that they have raised, which they may wish to set out again in this debate.

I hope my speech will satisfy Members to the extent that they will agree to revive the Bill. I accept that some users of the waterway are happy with an arrangement under which they are provided with a facility that others pay for, yet the current situation cannot be sustainable, and the provisions in the Bill reflect the system used to manage other waterways.

It is worth noting that locks have to be maintained to provide access to the system—if this was purely about drainage, the locks could be converted into weirs. In response to the query raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), I confirm that it is possible to get out of the system via those locks. That reflects the fact that this is not just a big drainage canal that happens to have some boat usage, but a system—built for drainage, and funded as though it was drain—that is actually maintained to provide access for motorboats and particularly for pleasure craft, which at the moment contribute absolutely nothing towards its maintenance and do not meet some of the most basic standards. I hope that that explains to Members why the Bill needs to be revived.

The commissioners accept that any use of new powers must be proportionate, and that the Bill will not give them anything beyond what other waterways have. A sign of their good faith is that some of the outdated byelaws, such as the requirement for a mast, are not enforced on the Middle Level. It makes sense to clear up the system and to remove some of those things that merely clutter up the statute book and inconvenience the organisation. Finally, as I have said, there can be no sensible objections to measures such as the implementation of third-party insurance and a requirement that vessels meet boat safety standards. It is my great pleasure to commend the revival motion to the House.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster). Given that I come from Cambridge, Mr Deputy Speaker, you may well wonder what my interest in the Middle Level is. The answer is that the river network is connected to the River Cam.

My attention was drawn to the Bill when I was contacted by a constituent, Eleanor Lad. I will briefly relay her comments, which express my concerns. She told me:

“Because use of the Middle Level is currently free, they are used by many boaters on low incomes, some of whom live on their boats, who cannot afford to use waterways where registration or licence fees are levied. Those who live aboard would be forced out of their homes due to an inability to pay.”

She continued:

“At present, the Middle Level is the one waterway system where boaters are not required to pay a fee or forced to agree to terms and conditions in return for the ability to navigate. Boaters will lose a safe haven where they can go if they are unable, through no fault of their own, to pay for a boat licence or to comply with the terms and conditions imposed by other navigation authorities.”

I appreciate the reasons why the commissioners are bringing forward the Bill, and I am grateful to them for meeting me to discuss these points. I was pleased to receive a communication from them saying that they

“confirm that the Commissioners will consult the NBTA, and any other organisations that are representative of houseboat dwellers, before making new byelaws under clause 9 or 10 of the Bill. They would be happy to give an undertaking to this effect before the Committee if the Bill is revived.”

I very much welcome that promise.

I would say, however, that consulting is not the same as taking account of people’s concerns. There is a real concern about people on low incomes who have nowhere else to go, and I very much hope that we will hear a commitment about dealing with what is a relatively small number of cases and a relatively small amount of money. I am sure that, with good sense, an accommodation can be reached that will satisfy everybody.

It is great that, compared with when we first discussed the Bill, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) has shown an interest in the subject, and I am glad that his constituents have taken the opportunity to brief him on some of their concerns.

The issue before the House is obviously quite simple—whether the Bill should be revived. My view is very much that it should not be revived, but should go back to the drawing board, because there is a lot more work to be done by the promoters and the petitioners in discussing some of the nitty-gritty issues, some of which have been referred to in this short debate.

I have been shown a copy of the commissioners’ response to the National Bargee Travellers Association’s comments in its petition. In the view of the association:

“The Commissioners’ response contains weak assurances concerning our concerns. We have little confidence in these assurances although we accept the Commissioners may have made them in good faith. Accordingly, we have not withdrawn our petition.”

The association encourages me and other parliamentary colleagues to continue

“to support boat dwellers, and…indeed all inland waterway boaters, by…opposing…this Bill.”

To take one example, paragraph 6 of the petition says:

“The Bill contains no protection for the homes of people who live on boats and it fails to recognise that Articles 6 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights provide boat dwellers with protection for their homes.

The legislation and enabled Byelaws could be used to evict boat dwellers, seize boats and carry out social clearance and discriminatory exclusion of boat dwellers from the Middle Level.”

That is quite a serious charge, you will agree, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Commissioners responded:

“Case law makes it clear, where the exercise of a power to remove vessels would interfere with the vessel owner’s Article 8 rights, it would be for the navigation authority to show that the interference is proportionate to their legitimate aims in seeking to enforce their powers.”

In other words, they do not deny that they would or could interfere in the rights of boat dwellers to continue to reside on their boats in the Middle Level. The commissioners continue:

“If the Commissioners could not do this, they would not be able to exercise the powers.”

That is a circular argument, and it typifies the problem that will continue to exist if the Bill makes progress. The commissioners have not responded adequately to the concerns expressed by people who have exercised the right to live on the Middle Level waterways, as has been the case for centuries, and to exercise navigation rights without being subject to penal charges and undue regulation.

As with many private Bills, as soon as such a measure is introduced all sorts of people come along and say, “Why don’t we regulate this? Why don’t we regulate that?” It is like a Christmas tree, with a whole lot more regulatory powers attached to it. Many of those powers, the House will find, are over the top and disproportionate, so I hope that in due course we can achieve a Bill that is much better than the current one. I had hoped that the Bill’s promoters would withdraw it and go back to square one, but they have not done so, which leaves us in the situation we are in. The agents acting for the promoters have been courteous and so on, but when they see what is going to happen next, I hope that their courtesy will be accompanied by a lot more substance, so that the serious concerns of Bargee Travellers can be met.

The last time we debated this, we heard a contribution from our then hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough, Stewart Jackson. He took this cause very much to heart, and I thank him for the contribution that he made on behalf of his constituents and other Bargee Travellers. We owe it to him to be able to continue that campaign, and it is great that we have the hon. Member for Cambridge on our side as well.

I shall keep my contribution fairly brief, but I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on bringing the Bill back to the House in a revived form. I am talking about the Bill, not my hon. Friend. As a member of the all-party parliamentary group for waterways whose constituency is served by canals, and as a boating enthusiast, I spoke on Second Reading, before the progress of the Bill was halted by the general election. I was therefore keen to make another contribution on the record today.

Across the country, we have benefited over the years from a network of canals, waterways and navigation systems. Once the means of transporting goods, today their use is much more leisure-oriented, but some of our waterways, as many of us know, still transport goods and some of them, as we have heard, are home to those who choose to live on the water. As a result of the work of organisations such as the Canal & River Trust, the Inland Waterways Association, voluntary groups and others, there has been a remarkable revival of our waterways. Canals, waterways, levels and drains all need ongoing maintenance, which can be expensive but is vital and integral to the operation of our waterways system.

Today’s debate focuses on the Middle Level, which is the largest section of the Great Level of the Fens, an area reclaimed through drainage, as we have heard. It is important to remember that in our deliberations. My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay explained very clearly that the Bill sought to modernise the operational powers of the commissioners, allowing them to levy charges on use of the waterways and to require payment for their navigation functions. That is vital because, as we have heard, all the fenland in the Middle Level catchment is below mean sea level. The commissioners’ work, together with that of the internal drainage boards is vital in providing flood protection and water level management.

We have heard that under the current system, commissioners do not receive any income from navigation of the waterways—unlike arrangements for other waterways and canals that allow organisations to levy fees from licences. The measures sought in the Bill would help with the maintenance and navigation of the level, and would put it on a more sustainable footing. They are reasonable and rational, and I really hope that the Bill is allowed to proceed in its revived form and make progress. I recall that on Second Reading the question of consultation was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). Reading background papers and listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay today, it seems as if the commissioners have taken the opportunity in the intervening period to seek to address those concerns, which is welcome. I therefore hope that the Bill is revived and that it can continue to make progress through Parliament, so that the funding and sustainability of the waterways is on a much firmer footing. That will enable the commissioners to maintain the fabric of our drainage systems and, in doing so, maintain our waterways for the benefit of all.

With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, it is a pleasure to respond briefly to the debate.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) and my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) raised the issue of fees. The commissioners recognise that for people with houseboats fees must be proportionate, appropriate and reasonable. They cannot provide a definitive answer on the exact level of fees to be charged, but they have said that Environment Agency charges include a significant discount for houseboat dwellers. They believe that they are likely to adopt a similar charging structure: there will not be just one charge for a particular size of boat, but a sliding scale based on the nature of usage. I acknowledge the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch about protections for houseboats, but it is worth remembering that in law and convention rights, any reaction must be proportionate, particularly when dealing with someone’s home. The idea that there are no legal protections if the Bill is enacted is not correct, but we can explore that in more detail in Committee with the National Bargee Travellers Association with a view to achieving a result with which everyone is comfortable.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), who again showed her passion for waterways and spoke about the need to ensure that arrangements are effective and modern so that the relevant institutions can go forward and create income to make themselves self-sufficient. I welcome her support, and I am sure she is looking forward to serving on the Opposed Bill Committee, where there will be some interesting debates.

We have had an interesting debate, and I hope that Members support the Bill. It was right, given that it had received wider support and secured a Second Reading, to revive it with some amendments to take on board concerns that have been expressed, rather than going back to the drawing board, which would delay the process of getting on with a modern system of regulation for the Middle Level that will be of benefit to all users in the long run.

Question put and agreed to.