HC Deb 28 January 1930 vol 234 cc949-57

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. B. Smith.]


I desire to raise a question in connection with the development of the canal system of this country of which I gave notice as long ago as 4th December—though only now has the opportunity presented itself for me to bring it forward—because I had been singularly unsuccessful in extracting from the Minister of Transport any satisfactory replies to questions I had put to him. This subject merits the attention of the Government from two points of view; first of all on account of the serious neglect of one of our most important transport assets, and secondly because of the large amount of employment which would be afforded by a national scheme of canal development. In the case of many proposals submitted it becomes a question of referring them to a committee or of making inquiries; but in this case the inquiries have already been made, and we know the facts. The Royal Commission of 1906 recommended the unification of all canals in this country under a central waterways board. As the first step towards taking satisfactory action, they recommended the appointment of a central waterways board which should take over and administer all canals. The first canals to be taken over, they said, were those constituting what is known as the "cross system." The canals that run from Birmingham and Leicester to London, Leicester and Burton to the Humber, from Wolverhampton and Birmingham to the Mersey, and from Wolverhampton and Birmingham to the Severn—they are the cross system.


Perhaps the Minister of Transport would say whether these proposals would need legislation?

The MINISTER of TRANSPORT (Mr. Herbert Morrison)

I am afraid the carrying out of the recommendations of the Commission would involve legislation


The suggestion I am going to make might require legislation, but I am not going to ask the Minister for legislation.


If the suggestion of the hon. Member requires legislation then, although he is not asking for legislation, it would not be in order to discuss it on this Motion.


In that case I will put my remarks in such a form as not to require legislation. Those were the proposals of the Royal Commission in 1906. Nothing was done, owing to the outbreak of the War. Immediately after the War a very important Departmental Committee was set up under the right hon. Gentleman the late Minister of Health, which recommended that the canals should be grouped into seven different systems under public trusts, and that gradually all canals should be absorbed in that way. Very little has been done since that time, except in connection with the River Trent, where there have been important developments, and also the formation of the Grand Union Canal, linking London and Birmingham. During this time a great deal has been done towards re-equipping the canal systems of France, Belgium and Germany, which have been brought up to date and are of great use. The difficulty in this country is that we have such a very large number of individual owners of canals, possibly something like 100, that they are not able to act together. Many of the canals cover only small distances, some acting merely as links between one canal and another. The proprietors cannot agree on any policy, and are not in a strong enough position to raise money to carry out the work which is needed to keep the canals up to date. It is only by stimulus from outside that they can be brought into the frame of mind which would encourage them to take action.

Last summer I made a very agreeable trip through my constituency with one of my children on a canal barge. Even that small acquaintance with our canal system made me realise the enormous amount of work that requires to be done. Anyone who has looked into the matter realises that our canals need deepening and widening, that the bridges need widening and the locks need widening. If this work were undertaken it would employ a great deal of labour, not in one part of the country only, but all over the country. Then, when the canals had been brought into such a state as to make it possible for motor barges up to 100 tons to pass through them, a great deal of employment would be provided by the building of those barges. Hundreds of motor barges would be required, and each would cost something like £1,200. I would like to call the attention of the Minister to a passage from the Report of the Royal Commission of 1906: The Commission realised more and more as their inquiry proceeded how hopeless it would be to expect anything from the waterway system of England and Wales in the future for the benefit of trade and industry if the waterways were left in the present disunited and unimproved condition. With a few notable exceptions, canals would become less and less efficient and useful, and many would swell the list, as years went on, of disused and derelict canals. This system of transport, which in foreign countries has become of great value to trade, as a result of measures of unification and improvement, would in this country be practically lost. That was in 1906. No progress has been made since then, and our canals are in just the same or in even a worse condition. They are hopelessly neglected, and we are losing the advantage of what might be a very great national asset. As an example of the present difficulties, proper use cannot be made of the direct canal route between London and Hull because there is a link of 22 miles between Hull and Nottingham where the locks are so narrow that larger-sized barges cannot pass through. That is the sort of thing that ought to be put right. It would be a great advantage to what it, for certain purposes a competitive and reasonably cheap form of transport. I hope that when he replies the Minister will not say—I am sure he is above that—that the matter has been carefully considered and that everything possible is being done, that this is a Government of angels—


There is only one angel in the House.


—and that everything is in a perfectly satisfactory state, because he knows very well that there is a great deal to be done—without legislation, at all, but by voluntary action. The Government are supposed to be a Socialist Government, and here we have a proposal which is supported by all parties for the nationalisation of an industry. However, I must not develop that point because it would require legislation. If the Minister cannot give me a definite reply to-night, I would ask him not to give me a final refusal, but to take the matter back and talk it over with his officials in order to see whether he cannot do what I am going to suggest. The suggestion I put forward represents the views of many leading authorities in the canal world. Somebody has got to take the initiative in bringing these people together, to stimulate them and encourage them, and I think the Minister of Transport is eminently fitted to do it. The Government claim to be a Government of action, and I suggest that the Government should call a national conference of all who are in any way interested in our canals—whether canals or railways' or any other form of transport. When they have assembled them the Minister should point out the great importance of unification, amalgamation, and rationalisation, and he should promise that anything the Government can do by advice, assistance, and if it were in order, I will suggest by legislation; and by that means the Government could make it clear that they attached great importance to this question. This course would be in the national interest, because it would give employment to those who cannot get it at the present time; it would develop a sadly neglected asset, and would show that the Government are doing everything they can to help the canal authorities. The Government should get those authorities together to see if they cannot draw up suitable proposals.

I make these suggestions in all seriousness, because I believe, if carried out, they would provide a great deal of work in this country, and would assist the Government to bring down those pitiless figures of unemployment which are mounting up week by week. I ask the Minister of Transport not to turn down this proposal as being unworthy of serious consideration. I am putting foward the view of many people who are deeply interested in this question, and who are most anxious that something should be done. The Government have here a great opportunity, and I hope they will rise to the occasion.


I rise to say one or two words with regard to the canal system of this country. I suggest to the House that the development, on a commercial basis, of the canals of Great Britain is one of the greatest fallacies that can be held. I know that some people say that the railway companies, in the past, bought up the canals, and allowed them to become derelict. That is an old story, but it is not true. Some people believe that the canals in this country can be made a commercial success because in Europe they are said to have been successful I will give a few figures on this point. First of all, I think hon. Members will agree with me when I say that canals can only be used generally for heavy traffic. Therefore they can only be useful as a commercial proposition to this nation by serving the industrial districts of Great Britain, and those districts are generally in hilly and not in flat country. To recondition some of our canals would probably cost as much as £70,000 per mile. Those who are acquainted with our mining and industrial areas, and who know the geography of the country, are aware that not only are they mostly hilly districts, but the rivers are very tortuous, shallow, and in some places interspersed with weirs.

It is true that the Manchester Ship Canal has been successful, but the reason for that is that it runs through a flat portion of the country and connects a large industrial centre with a port. Those who know the course of the Manchester Ship Canal know that it does not touch any other important industrial district of any magnitude and it does not run through a hilly country. Then there is the Aire and Calder Navigation Canal, which has tide water right away from Hull to Goole, and flat country intervenes beyond that to Leeds. There is the Caledonian Canal, and in this instance out of 60½ miles 37½ miles run through natural lochs. Everyone who knows anything about canals must admit that to be successful they must run through flat country, and there must be near at hand good navigable rivers if those canals are to be of the slightest use. I ask the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander), who is very anxious to assist the development of transport and provide employment, to look at the contour of our country and compare our conditions with those existing in Germany, France, Belgium and Holland.

I would like to give a few figures. The average rise or fall per mile of the inland navigation waterways of Germany is 1.49 per mile, and it is less in Holland and Belgium. In the case of our canals, the average rise or fall is 10.8 per mile against 1.49 in the European countries which I have mentioned. In the case of the Berlin-Hamburg canal the length is 230 miles with three locks. The canal between Birmingham and the Thames has nearly as many locks as miles of waterways, and to develop this canal to accommodate 150-ton barges would cost between £50,000 to £70,000 per mile. Anyone who has dealt with the question of inland water transport knows that you must have a linking up with navigable rivers, and there must be natural waterways and not hilly country.

In Germany, out of 7,038 miles of inland navigable waterways, 5,815 miles follow natural water conditions. In France, out of 7,006 miles of navigable waterways, 4,392 exist under natural conditions. In Austria, out of 2,772 miles, 2,247 miles follow the natural courses of rivers and lakes. In Russia, out of 22,000 miles of canals, roughly 21,000 miles follow natural waterways. Those who have travelled in Russia know that you can travel from Riga to the Caucasus without going through a single tunnel on the railway. In Britain, out of 4,053 miles of canals, only 1,482 miles follow the natural waterways. In the case of the French canals, which run mostly through fiat country and follow natural waterways, between 1912 and 1921 the traffic fell by 22 per cent., and the employés by 14,500.

I rose to give the House these figures, which I had not prepared specially for this Debate, because I did not know that this question was going to be raised; but as soon as the hon. Member got up to deal with this subject, I went to my locker, where I found these figures which I had prepared for another occasion. I put it to the House, without desiring to be presumptuous, and as one who has made a study of transport, that to talk about the development of our canals being a commercial success is absurd. Anyone who looks with a plain eye at this question will agree that the development of British canals on successful commercial lines is a great fallacy.


The recommendations in the reports which have been mentioned involve very considerable matters of legislation to which, under the Rules of the House, I am precluded from referring. So far as the Government is concerned we are ready to consider any suggestion for the proper development of the canal system of Great Britain. It is true that some of our canals are experiencing financial and economic difficulties. The fact has also to be taken into account that, for some forms of transport, the canals offer advantages and for others, disadvantages. Of course, the same argument is true of railways and road transport.

The Ministry of Transport has to deal with transport as a whole, and to see that each particular form of transport is used for the traffic which it is best calculated to carry. The Government, far from being unsympathetic in regard to applications for assistance or lacking in encouragement in regard to canal undertakings, has already intimated to the Canal Association that it is ready to consider any schemes or proposals which may be referred to the Ministry of Transport. On the 26th of July the Development Act was passed. On that very day I received a deputation from the Canal Association, and a very friendly discussion took place. I invited that Association to submit as soon as possible any schemes which would be of economic advantage to the country, and which would tend to accelerate and stimulate employment. I undertook that any such schemes would receive sympathetic consideration from the Government.

Various proposals have been put forward. Proposals have come from the Grand Junction Canal, which is now the Grand Union Canal Company, and they have prepared a scheme for the improvement of their waterways which will permit the direct passage of barges carrying increased loads between Birmingham and the Thames. The application of that company for assistance under the Development Act is under consideration, and my hon. Friend the Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) may rest assured that no prejudice will be allowed to influence our consideration of that application. The Government assistance rendered available by the Development Act has also resulted in the preparation of a scheme by the South Yorkshire and Sheffield Navigation Company for the improvement of their navigation, to enable coal to be conveyed from the collieries to the coal docks on the Aire and Calder Navigation for transhipment. That scheme also is under the consideration of the Government, and the House may be sure that every friendliness will be manifested towards useful proposals of this character.

There remains the question whether, outside legislation to be promoted by the Government, it is possible for the canals to amalgamate. I think, myself, that it is desirable that the amalgamation of canals should proceed. There are complications, of course Some canals are owned by railway companies, and some are owned by companies solely concerned with canals. So far as it is possible for the people in the industry to come together and merge their interests in order that the industry as a whole may be made economically stronger, my hon. Friend may be sure that any assistance that I can render them will be forthcoming. The industry itself must however, make up its own mind. They know that there is a friendliness towards them at the Ministry of Transport, and, if my memory serves me, the deputation from the Canal Association raised the question of amalgamations when I saw them. I told them that in my view the principle of amalgamation was desirable. I urged them to get together and work out practicable schemes, and said that, when they had got to that point they could rely on any friendly assistance that I could give consistent with the public interest. I think, however, that the first responsibility rests upon the industry itself.

Finally, there is the aspect to which I referred earlier, of co-ordination between canal transport, railway transport, road transport and possibly coastwise shipping. The Royal Commission on Transport has already received evidence from the Canal Association and from the National Council for Waterways, and they are now proceeding with the final part of their terms of reference. This deals with the very complicated and difficult question of transport co-ordination, and in their deliberations on that point they will no doubt take into account the evidence that they have received from the canals and the inland waterways; and the House may be assured that, as soon as the Report of the Commission is available, that aspect of the matter will be considered by the Government, with other aspects of transport co-ordination with which the Commission may deal. I thank the hon. Member for the way in which he has raised the matter, and also my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow (Mr. Bromley) for the interesting information which he has given to the House. The House may be sure that, so far as the Ministry of Transport is concerned, there is no prejudice against canals as such, or against any other useful system of transport. I always take the view that it is my duty, as Minister of Transport, not to be Minister for any particular form of transport, but to be Minister for transport as a whole, and to pursue a policy calculated to bring into the most economical use the various forms of transport which go to make up the British transport system as a whole.