HC Deb 25 January 1955 vol 536 cc113-24

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

7.54 p.m.

Mr. John Taylor (West Lothian)

I promise the House that I do not propose to take advantage of the extra time which accident has placed at my disposal. The subject of this Adjournment debate is the future of the Union Canal. It appears that there is more than one canal called the Union Canal in this country and so I hasten to explain that I am referring to the Edinburgh-Glasgow Union Canal, a very short one—30 miles in length—authorised 138 years ago in 1817. It serves the purpose of connecting Edinburgh with the Forth and Clyde Canal near Grangemouth.

The canal is all on one level, except for a flight of locks at its western end bringing it down 110 feet to the level of the Forth and Clyde Canal. My purpose in initiating this debate is mainly exploratory. I wish to discover, not only for my own satisfaction, but for that of many of my constituents and for the local authorities in my constituency, what plans, if any, the Government, the Ministry or the Canal Commissioners have for the future of this canal. For the greater part of its length it flows through, or rather stagnates, in my constituency of West Lothian and it creates a number of problems for the local authorities in my constituency.

The canal has long ceased to be used for transport. I have not been able to discover that any part of it is used regularly as a canal or even spasmodically or occasionally for transportation. In my constituency its presence makes necessary a large number of bridges so that the roads may cross the canal, or in order to carry the canal over the roads; because, as it is all on one level, it will be appreciated that the canal does not always cross under the roads but on occasions it crosses over them. I believe that the exact number of bridges involved in my constituency alone is 19. I meant to check that figure during the Christmas Recess, but the weather prevented me from doing so.

With the existence of these bridges, therefore, it is a source of continuous expense mainly to the county council and on occasions to the Ministry. Where it crosses over main roads the canal is also a source of continual difficulty, and, indeed, danger, for the bridges are low in clearance and make narrow bottlenecks in the roads. The most notorius example is on the trunk road A9 at the eastern end of the Royal Burgh of Linlithgow. The canal is carried over the main road by a narrow, low bridge at a difficult angle on a fairly steep hill. It is one of the blackest of several black spots on that important main road.

Because the canal bridge at this point is so narrow, it causes danger and delay to traffic. As the Minister knows, no double-decker buses can use the road although this is the main road from Edinburgh and the south to Stirling and the north. It is the main trunk road from London to John o'Groats. It carries a very heavy volume of traffic. There is a large amount of passenger traffic and the Scottish omnibuses and other buses using that road have a continual problem, because only single-decker vehicles can be used where double-decker vehicles should be employed. No doubt the Minister will have glanced at the recent traffic census to see what a heavy volume of traffic is carried on this road which is one of the heaviest in Scotland.

Also because of the low clearance of the bridge, industrial traffic of any height must be detoured over a fairly long distance. On this one bridge alone, therefore, there is created delay, irritation and expense and some amount of danger; all because of the presence of a disused canal which serves no useful purpose at this point. There have been various plans to deal with the problem. Suggestions and schemes have been considered—

Mr. B. T. Parkin (Paddington, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. May I ask your indulgence in seeking your advice on a situation which has arisen as a result of which Members of Parliament are unable to interview their constituents in St. Stephen's Hall because of what is now being done outside this House, thus preventing free access to Members of Parliament? At present a number of my constituents, who have come here to see me by appointment, are being ridden down by mounted police, driven off the pavement outside the House and pushed away from this building. I fully appreciate that it is a very difficult situation, but St. Stephen's Hall is empty, the pavements outside it are being emptied, and, with your assistance, it seems that it would be possible to make access more readily available to people.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris)

There may be a difficulty, but that is not a point of order. It is not a position with which I can deal.

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

I was wondering whether you could give some guidance in the matter, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I am in the same position as my hon. Friend.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

There may be difficulties, but the hon. Member's point is not a point of order and I cannot give any guidance about it.

Mr. Taylor

To continue, among the suggestions which have been made has been one that the canal might be cut and sealed off at either side of the bridge to enable the road to be widened. Another is that the canal might be cut off but culverted under the road or siphoned over the road in pipes at a sufficient height to avoid interference with traffic. I should like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether any of these plans are practicable; whether they have been considered objectively by the Ministry, and whether there is any prospect that one or other of them, or a wider plan to deal with the canal as a whole, will be carried through.

I think it is appropriate to put these points to the Ministry of Transport because it is responsible for the maintenance and proper state of trunk roads, and this is a very important one. There are many other points at which the canal creates road problems, and also other problems, not connected with road transport. A deserted and disused canal is always a greater danger to children than one which is in frequent use. The very fact that its banks are deserted means that any child who falls in is less likely to be rescued by passers-by or by traffic upon the canal.

A stagnant stretch of water is probably a danger to health, especially in certain seasons. There are also flood dangers. For instance, there is a current dispute between the Canal Commission and the town council of the Royal Burgh of Linlithgow about flooding at the Mains Malting Housing Scheme. There is an overflow from the canal there, and canal water goes into the burn when the level of water in the canal exceeds a certain height. The town council contends that too much water is allowed over the spillway, with the result that the council's houses, and houses belonging to the Scottish Special Housing Association which are in the vicinity, have been flooded on too many occasions recently.

Not unexpectedly, the Canal Commission denies that the existence of a spillway upon the canal is responsible for this. The Commission says that it is due to the inadequacy of the drains. The local authority and the Scottish Special Housing Association, however, feel that the drains which they have put in would be adequate were it not for this unwelcome water which floods into them as a result of the existence of the canal.

The Burgh of Linlithgow has a special reason to hope that, sooner or later, it may see the end of this canal. It is confined by the loch on the south side and by the canal and the railway on the north side, so that it cannot expand. The canal creates difficulties all along its length. I would make a forthright plea that the canal should be drained altogether, but I am restrained from doing so by the possibility that its uses for industrial water may be considerable. It may be that the removal or draining of the canal would create insurmountable problems for industries using its water. Perhaps the Minister will say whether this is so, or if the canal could be cut in places so that its worst features could be removed while its use for essential industries was retained.

I believe that it is still used by the North British Rubber Company. I know that it used to be, because in my youth I once pulled a boy out of the canal and swallowed what seemed to me to be a considerable portion of its contents, and I can still taste the rubber. I think that it is also used by Scottish Oils Limited in my constituency, and possibly by one or two paper mills in both my constituency and in that of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn). It would be useful to know to what extent the canal is used for essential industrial purposes and whether that use could be retained if the worst features of the canal were removed.

It is rather an odd thing to say in this season, but West Lothian County is often short of water. Its existing water supplies are inadequate in a dry season. Although one would think that that is not an immediate disadvantage, it is as well to remind ourselves that the summer before last was a dry one and the county then experienced water difficulties. The Union Canal is mainly supplied from the Cobbinshaw Reservoir. It may be—I am feeling for information here—that this reservoir, if relieved of that drain, would provide an additional source of water for the county, at little or no expense either to the county council or the Government.

Thus, the Minister has two main points to answer. First, has his Department any plans to deal with the canal where it creates road problems of a serious nature? Secondly, is the continued existence of the canal essential for industrial purposes, or could these continue to be served by sealing off the canal at certain points whilst retaining the necessary water supply? The answers to these questions would greatly assist the county in shaping its future policy. If we could be told that there is a possibility that the canal, or its worst features, may be removed there would be a great deal of rejoicing in the county of West Lothian.

8.8 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Hugh Molson)

I am not wholly unfamiliar with the problems created in the constituency of the hon. Member by this canal because he, with two of his colleagues, came to discuss this matter with me in—I believe—June of last year. At that time we were discussing the very serious traffic congestion in and around Linlithgow on the A.9 road. As the hon. Member has said, this is an extremely important trunk road. It is the main London-Edinburgh-Thurso road.

There is not the slightest doubt—and I made it quite plain to the hon. Gentlemen when they came to see me—that in the Ministry of Transport we are much concerned about the congestion, and indeed also the danger, in that section nearest to Linlithgow on this road. As the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, one of the serious dangers is that, as the road passes under the canal bridge at right angles to its general alignment, there is a reverse bend with bad visibility.

We are, therefore, concerned about this canal because of its effect upon road transport. I cannot confirm the figures which the hon. Gentleman gave of 19 bridges, but I agree that this canal, built in order to deal with problems of the transport of heavy goods a very long time ago, and carried at a single level over a very long distance, passes over and under many modern systems of transportation and has proved itself to be a very serious problem.

The Union Canal at present carries no commercial traffic, having been closed to it in 1933, when the locks connecting it with the Forth and the Clyde were filled in. I think it would not be true to describe it as being semi-derelict, because although it is not used for the purpose for which it was originally constructed, the canal is being adequately maintained to prevent its becoming either a danger or a nuisance.

Although the canal is not used now for commercial purposes, it is used for pleasure boating. In 1954, it was used by 36 boats, mainly skiffs, and indeed, when the hon. Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin) rose a few moments ago, I was reminded of a previous debate on canals when he was adopting a very definite line in order to try to insist upon the maintenance of a canal, which was no longer used for commercial purposes, in order that it might be preserved as an amenity for the enjoyment of his constituents. The reason why he rose tonight was something quite unconnected with canals, and I thought that perhaps you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, were as much taken by surprise by the point which the hon. Gentleman raised as I was myself.

When considering these canals and the question of closing or draining them, it is important that we should bear in mind the other uses to which a canal can be put even though it has ceased to be used for the purpose for which it was constructed 100 or even 180 years ago. The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. J. Taylor) referred to the fact that in the days of his youth—and I am sure we were all interested to hear about the episode in which he rescued a boy from drowning in that canal—

Mr. J. Taylor

I think I ought to make it clear that I do not think the boy would have drowned. He was more frightened than anything. Indeed, if he had stood up at the place where he fell in, his neck would have been above water.

Mr. Molson

I feel inclined to say about the hon. Gentleman that his modesty does him as much credit as his gallantry.

It is quite true that this canal is now being used for supplying water to industrial concerns. The hon. Gentleman was good enough to indicate to me the general lines which he was going to follow in his speech tonight, and, therefore, I was at pains to find out exactly what industrial concerns in his constituency are using the water from this canal. First, there is the Scottish Malt Distillers Co. Ltd., at Linlithgow.

Mr. James H. Hoy (Leith)

That is where the flavour comes from.

Mr. Molson

I have always considered that there is no substitute for Scotch whisky. It is a view which I have frequently maintained when I have been in the United States and Canada, and this confirmation of it is naturally very gratifying to me.

Next, there are J. Nimmo and Co. Ltd., and the Oak Bank Oil Co. Ltd., the Broxburn Oil Co. Ltd., Alex. Dougall & Sons, Ltd., and various other concerns, like the North British Rubber Company, which I think has its works outside the hon. Gentleman's constituency. There are approximately 12 or 14 concerns of considerable industrial importance which are at the present time drawing supplies from what remains of this canal. It is quite certain that, when considering whether to do away with a canal which, even though it is no longer used for the commercial traffic for which it was constructed, is nevertheless supplying water to important industrial concerns, we must be very careful what we are doing.

Moreover, the British Transport Commission has taken over the responsibilities of the railway companies to which it is the successor, and I understand that to many of these industrial concerns the London and North-Eastern Railway Company had contracted to supply a fixed amount of water. Therefore, the British Transport Commission would find itself obliged to pay substantial sums of compensation if it took any measures which prevented it from supplying the industrial water which its predecessors had contracted to supply.

Confronted with these problems, we have to consider what would be the best course to take. The hon. Gentleman was good enough to say that his speech tonight was intended to be exploratory, and I am giving him, with complete frankness, the reply that, in the case of this canal, as in the case of many other canals, we recognise that it is no longer used for its original purpose, and, particularly, that it is a considerable obstruction to the improvement of communications on A.9 and various other roads. We are anxious to arrive at the best conclusion as to what should be done, and we are attracted by the idea of doing away with the bridge over the A.9 road and perhaps maintaining the flow of water by culverting or syphoning, in order that the value of the canal as a reservoir should not be lost.

We have not arrived at a final conclusion on the matter, however, for two reasons. The hon. Gentleman will remember that, as a result of strong representations made in the House—which came, I think, equally from both sides—the British Transport Commission last year set up a committee to consider what would be the best and most economical use that could be made of all the canals with which it has been entrusted. Lord Rusholme is the Chairman of that Committee, and I understand that it has agreed upon a Report. It would obviously be wrong for either the British Transport Commission or for ourselves to come to any final conclusion about this matter until we are in possession of this Report.

In addition, we are making these technical investigations as to the best way to preserve the water reservoirs, which are of value to industry, while at the same time doing away with the obstruction to traffic which the canal is causing at the present time. Therefore, my answer to the hon. Gentleman's very friendly and inquiring speech is that we fully recognise the importance of dealing with this matter.

I think that I have already given the hon. Gentleman an assurance that in due course the A.9 in his constituency is going to be dealt with, whether by a great bypass or in another way, and that the problem of this canal is one which has to be considered at the same time. As soon as we are in possession of the Report of the Rusholme Committee, we expect that the British Transport Commission will propose to us what it thinks should be done about this matter. We shall certainly try to arrive at the best and wisest solution in order to preserve the advantages which we have inherited from an earlier age in having this water, and, at the same time, to ensure that the canal, which is now derelict for commercial purposes, causes no obstruction to modern traffic.

8.23 p.m.

Mr. A. Woodburn (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)

May I, on behalf of my hon. Friends and myself, thank the Minister for his reply? This problem is probably as important to me as to any other person, because I travel along the A.9 road from my home to my constituency. I am very familiar with the bridges mentioned by my hon. Friend, both in good weather and bad.

Without professing to be an expert on engineering, it seems to me that, as a temporary first step, it would be possible to lower the level of the road where it runs under that very low bridge without causing any very serious inconvenience. I agree that it would make the hill a little steeper on the south side of the bridge, but that disadvantage would, I think, be outweighed by the advantage of making the road sufficiently low to let transport through.

A story is told, for the truth of which I cannot vouch, of a lorry which was about an inch too high to get under the bridge. The lorry got stuck in front and the driver could not move it either backwards or forwards. A little boy from the Falkirk High School came along and suggested to the driver that he should let some air out of his tyres. He did so, and was able to drive the lorry under the bridge. Whether that story is true or not, it is still a good one, and illustrates the difficulties of some transport drivers.

Quite a number of my colleagues are very familiar with this canal. At some time or other, We twa ha' paddled in the burn. I am quite sure that some of my colleagues paddled in this particular burn when they were much younger and saw many children lose their lives in it. I agree that there are many agreeable purposes for which it is being used, and I again thank the Minister for his very generous and helpful reply.

8.26 p.m.

Mr. Thomas Oswald (Edinburgh, Central)

I wonder whether if, in this exploratory discussion which we are having, the Minister could be of some assistance regarding that section of the Union Canal which flows into and ends in my constituency of Edinburgh, Central. In recent weeks, we have had a very extensive "Drain the Canal" campaign because of the condition of the canal in Edinburgh, Central.

I was interested to hear the Minister speak of the water supplies being taken into the various industrial concerns, but I wish to point out to him that in some instances the normal intake is so silted up at the moment that mobile pumps have to be used to get the water in. Indeed, in my section of the canal, if I may use that term, there have been many complaints about the amount of rubbish and bottles being dumped in the canal, and because of the number of near-drowning accidents. Only last week, the chairman of the "Drain the Canal" committee appealed to the Edinburgh City Police to place that section completely out of bounds because of the danger caused by snow and ice on the canal banks.

In the summer months, owing to the low level of the water, that section of the canal becomes a direct menace to health. It is being suggested that at least that portion of the canal which flows between the tenements and the industrial concerns should be fenced off just before it reaches the section which the Minister has mentioned, the section where boating takes place. The Edinburgh University Rowing Club uses that section of the canal, and I agree that, once it is outside the city, it has some sylvan beauty.

It is important to realise that new houses are being built in the vicinity of the canal which is still within the perimeter of the city. Complaints have been received from mothers in this area about children tumbling into the canal, and they are asking for that section to be roped off to prevent the younger children toddling from their homes because of the wonderful attraction of water. My constituents have been extending this campaign for several months.

I ask the Minister to look very closely at these complaints. We have already had an assurance from the British Transport Commission that it will, from time to time, see that some weed is lifted out of the canal. Indeed, the Edinburgh newspapers—and I give them credit for this—have published photographs of the weed being left to rot for a considerable number of weeks on the canal banks.

My constituents are complaining bitterly, first because of the mud, silt and rubbish which is continually being found. In fact, the stage is being reached when the canal will fail to flow into that part of central Edinburgh because of the continued silt and the failure to remove it as and when required. I ask the Minister to look closely at this section, bearing in mind the complaints that have been made over quite a number of months and the health of the citizens of Edinburgh in close proximity to the canal.

8.28 p.m.

Mr. Molson

I should like to respond to the appeal made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Oswald). I shall myself draw the attention of the British Transport Commission to the points that the hon. Member has made on behalf of his constituents.

The Edinburgh Development Plan provided for filling in the canal and constructing a roadway over it, but certain industrial interests who were dependent upon the canal for their water made objections at the public inquiry which was ordered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. It was also quite clear that the Commission is at present under a statutory obligation to provide certain quantities of water, and before the canal, or even the part to which the hon. Member has referred, could be filled in, it would be necessary for the Commission to be relieved of its statutory obligation.

I have, however, listened to what the hon. Member has said and I will certainly pass on that information to the Transport Commission with the request that the Commission should carefully consider it.

Mr. Oswald

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Eight o'clock.