Parliament Debate on Future of Waterways

Extract from Parliamentary Debate on Inland Waterways

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) on securing this debate. After such a tense afternoon in the Chamber, it is nice to be able to find a subject on which there is a large degree of agreement across the House. He is well known for having a keen interest in the heritage and history of this country, and I also know that he combines this passion with representing with pride the constituency that has more miles of canals than any other in England. I take similar pride in the canal-the Kennet and Avon canal in west Berkshire-that runs in part through the constituency I have the honour of representing. I am old enough to remember when it was in large parts just a ditch. It was restored with the hard work, love and what the Americans call emotional capital of local people, with the backing of British Waterways and lottery money, as my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) pointed out. That has created an asset of unique value.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the added value of the canals. We must not be concerned purely with quality of life and recreational value; they are of course a financial asset because of what they provide through tourism and the local economy, particularly in rural areas such as mine. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) attends debates on these matters assiduously. She feels passionately about the Regent’s canal, just as so many of us feel passionately about our local canals. I have learned from the canal in her part of London the ability of canals to unlock regeneration, and to be a focal point for the local community in a way we cannot just ignore.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): I am sure that the Minister agrees that the 23 canal reservoirs up and down the country are also of enormous value to this country. Many of them provide excellent wildlife reserves and, hence, recreation, and are assets for our tourist industry.

Richard Benyon: My hon. Friend touches on a very important point. Sir John Lawton is about to report on work commissioned by the last Government that this Government firmly supports. It examines the coherence between different natural sites around the country, and looks into corridors of biodiversity that can flow and allow species to increase in population in different parts of the country. Canals are a vital link in our natural environment, and I am keen during my tenure in this post-however long it lasts-to bang that drum as hard as I can.

I do not care whether our modern canals structure is based on the writings and teachings of Friedrich Engels and is considered part of the co-operative movement, or whether it can be considered the inheritance of Edmund Burke and his little platoons. What matters is that canals are properly managed and have a sustainable long-term future.

I shall do my best to deal with many of the points raised by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central and others. However, I would caution him on his view of the Treasury. In my experience, it consists of cuddly souls, warm-hearted and full of understanding on these matters. I do not share his deep pessimism.

Alun Michael rose-

Richard Benyon: I am glad to give way to the chairman of the all-party group on waterways.

Alun Michael: The Minister has an almost unique experience of the Treasury. However, I encourage him to make the case that a model that engages the public and makes them feel a part of the ownership and running of the canals might make sense financially to the Treasury, too.

Richard Benyon: I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman is in the Chamber for the debate, as he is a notable chairman of the all-party group through which I hope we can continue these debates. I hope that what I am about to say will satisfy his concerns, if I have the time.

I am well aware of the concerns of Members from all parties about the future of British Waterways. I made a statement to the House on 21 June in which I explained our intention to move British Waterways to the civil society, subject to the outcome of the spending review. I again had the opportunity to set out the Government’s position to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central and others during oral questions two weeks ago, and I welcome this further opportunity.

I fully understand the important role that volunteering and the civil society have played over many years. Volunteering on the waterways has a long tradition, and many enthusiasts give freely and generously of their time to help re-create and restore our waterways. Without that, many historic canals would no longer be in operation and the network that we have today would be much poorer for it. I firmly believe that civil society has a valuable role to play in delivering public services, and as I recently announced, we will therefore continue to look in detail at such a model for British Waterways. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, that is a good example of the big society we are trying to create.

I assure hon. Members that that would not be a privatisation of British Waterways. I hope the hon. Gentleman and others will get the message across to some of their colleagues on the Opposition Benches that that is not what we are about. We want a mutualised product for the waterways, dependent on three clear objectives. First, it must have a clear purpose and robust governance arrangements that protect waterways assets and the public benefits that they bring, both now and in the future. Secondly, it must ensure that all users, local communities and other stakeholders can hold the new body to account. Thirdly, it must ensure that the waterways are placed on a more sustainable footing for the longer term while reducing the ongoing cost to the taxpayer.

Roger Williams: I am very encouraged by the positive way in which the Minister is responding to the debate. I can see how such a model can deliver sustainable maintenance of the waterways, but on the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal, for example, we had a breach that cost £1 million to repair. How would such a model deal with those emergency situations?

Richard Benyon: I was shown a photograph of that breach by the chairman of British Waterways at my meeting with him last week. It is expensive to maintain the waterways, and I hope that what I am about to say will show that we can provide the means to ensure that whatever organisation emerges has access to funding-probably never enough, but at least enough to deal with major problems such as that.

Sir Peter Soulsby: I very much welcome what the Minister is saying about the future of British Waterways, but does he accept that if it is to have the sustainable future that he talks about, it is vital that it takes with it its assets and its current property, and that they are not ripped out by his friends in the Treasury before the transfer takes place?

Richard Benyon: I am conscious that this will not work unless that happens. The scale of that asset transfer is probably above my pay grade, but I am absolutely conscious that it has to be done in a way that enables the organisation to operate just as any other organisation of the type I am about to describe could. That is absolutely vital and a given.

As part of that work, we are considering including the Environment Agency’s navigations. I have an open mind on that and want to understand the pros and cons, but my initial view is that it, too, might be suitable for a civil society rather than a Government body to run. That would help to ensure that we had a coherent vision for the main inland waterways of England and Wales.

I know from meetings I have already had with waterways stakeholders that they have concerns, which they have expressed passionately, about two questions: what will happen to British Waterways’ property assets-the point just made by the hon. Member for Leicester South (Sir Peter Soulsby)-and can they influence decisions on the governance model of any new body? It is clear that British Waterways would need to retain its property assets for a viable civil society model. On the second issue, much work has yet to be done on the appropriate governance structure. One model is for a national charitable trust. I recently received a letter that was co-signed by a number of representative waterways bodies, including the Inland Waterways Association and the Angling Trust. The letter welcomed such a model, subject to decisions on governance arrangements and the level of ongoing Government support.

I know that there is some nervousness about the prospect of change and what it might mean for those with particular interests in the waterways.

Meg Hillier: I do not wish to detain the Minister, but having been a Minister seeking advice on setting up social enterprise mutuals and the like, I would caution him to be alert to any advice that he might receive from within the civil service about setting up a mutual. I would also ask him where else he might be seeking advice from, because it is important that any model be properly drawn up.

Richard Benyon: I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who is absolutely right. It is vital that we are extremely careful to ensure that we receive the best advice and get the correct model. I can assure her that officials in my Department are working hard on the issue and are committed to it, although we shall have a difficult time ahead with the comprehensive spending review, which I shall talk about in a moment.

We would have to have a completely new board or council that would shape its own future. It would not be British Waterways by another name, but a new structure, in different hands altogether. We do not aim to impose a particular model for a new civil society body, so we will work up different options in partnership with stakeholders, through workshops, forums and other engagement mechanisms. It is vital to understand the views of all interested parties if we are to reach a successful conclusion to our work on an alternative model for the future management of our waterways. As part of that engagement, I am considering a suggestion recently made to me to include representatives from waterways user groups on the current British Waterways board. We need to be ready for the big change in culture involved in the possible move to civil society.

As the House will be aware, very tough decisions need to be made in the coming months that will affect public expenditure for the next four years. That will inevitably affect the resources available for inland waterways spend in British Waterways and the Environment Agency.

Finally, let me make it clear that I believe strongly that the inland waterways are a vibrant resource that can provide a wide range of benefits and opportunities for individuals and communities across the country. Although we may find ourselves in extremely challenging times for public investment, in the longer term, the potential of our waterways can and will be realised if we all embrace the possibilities at all levels. I believe that moving British Waterways out of Government control to civil society has the potential to make a significant and innovative contribution to the long-term sustainability and resilience of the waterways, by providing additional income and greater engagement of all users, volunteers and local communities in waterways management. We will therefore be exploring all possibilities-

8.13 pm

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).

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