HC Deb 20 March 1956 vol 550 cc1207-14

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Colonel J. H. Harrison.]

2.0 a.m.

Mr. William Hannan (Glasgow, Maryhill)

Late as the hour is, I am grateful for this opportunity of raising what I consider to be an important question about the future economic well-being of Scotland and in being able to endeavour to obtain some answers to questions of policy from the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who, I am sure, will be only too willing to help in the matter. In the allotted time of fifteen minutes I I can hardly deal exhaustively with the problem, but if the Joint Under-Secretary will answer some questions which are intended to elicit information from the Government I shall be satisfied.

I want to relate the problem of Scotland's canals with the statement which the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation made in the House on 1st February last on inland waterways. He indicated that still another committee of inquiry was set up to include the entire system of inland waterways in its purview. Some of my right hon. and hon. Friends were extremely critical of the fact that still another committee of inquiry had been appointed, and accused the Government of using the committee as a delaying tactic, to evade the responsibility of stating policy.

I hope that I shall be able to get information tonight on two points on which I have failed to get it when I wrote to the Minister on 2nd February. One is whether the new committee of inquiry is to examine the canals in Scotland. The second is whether the £5½ million development programme announced by the Commission in the earlier part of January is also for canals in Scotland. The Minister's statement indicated that the committee of inquiry would be for Scotland also.

The answer to the second question was not so clear. That brings me to the first question that I would put to the Joint Under-Secretary. What are the principal waterways which are to be developed by means of the £5½ million? Are any of them in Scotland? Was any consideration given to the Rusholme Committee's Report or the Report of the Board of Survey, which pointed out the importance of the Crinan Canal and the Caledonian Canal in Scotland?

The Minister's reply continued: It does not take account of the money which the Commission will be spending on normal maintenance of other canals including those in Scotland. In the case of the Forth and Clyde Canal, for instance, the Commission have recently authorised a considerable outlay on the purchase of maintenance plant and equipment. How much is to be devoted to the Forth and Clyde Canal? Is it in addition to normal maintenance?

The Board of Survey's Report recommended that canals in Scotland should be transferred to the Secretary of State and become his responsibility and under his administration. Has any consideration been given to that? Have the Government come to any conclusion in the matter? I do not want to argue the merits of the case because I see very little in the point.

It is true that on 1st April the roads and bridges become the responsibility of the Secretary of State. As some of my hon. Friends on these benches have argued before, some of us are not too happy about the whole of the national transport system again being broken up, and now that this further suggestion is made it would be interesting to know whether the Government intend to transfer responsibility for canals to the Secretary of State for Scotland at some future date. It would certainly straighten out some of the confusion which has arisen in the past when Questions have been put on these matters, for sometimes the Secretary of State is competent to answer and on other occasions he is not. Therefore, it might help to clear up some of the confusion if we could have an answer to that question.

The next point I want to make is that the General Manager of the British Transport Commission, Sir Reginald Kerr, is reported to have made the statement in January that Scotland's canals are in an excellent state and do not need any improvement. I can scarcely think that the general manager would make that statement if he had at that time a knowledge of the canals, because it is just arrant nonsense. I was glad to see a later statement that he was going to Scotland, presumably, having made the statement, to examine the canals. He will no doubt have had an opportunity to go, and one thing which we are entitled to know is whether he has made a report and whether that report will be made available to us.

I do hope that it shows a change in his opinion, and that he will have seen—particularly in that part of the Forth and Clyde Canal which passes through my constituency in Glasgow—the frightful deterioration and stagnation on that stretch, particularly where the canal rises in a series of locks coming from the west to the centre of the city. There, I am quite sure, is evidence enough for any reasonable individual to be convinced of the great need for a decision on canals generally, and particularly as a temporary stop-gap; something has got to be done to stop the erosion and decay of the banks, to replace the old wooden bridges, which are hand-made, with some more up-to-date means of elevation.

This disillusion becomes most marked at this point in Maryhill, and I do urge upon the Minister himself not to be satisfied with any report which would seem to convey a contrary opinion. The local authority is loath to, and indeed cannot, do anything itself until a decision is taken about the future of the canal.

Let me very briefly describe the conditions. On one side is a thickly populated part of the area, and on the other bank there is the main shopping centre, including the post office, which is the Mecca of many old-age pensioners, and the means of crossing the canal is a rickety wooden duckboard, open at one side, which is most dangerous. Of course, because it is the direct way to the shopping centre, retaining walls and hoardings are wrongly taken down by people anxious to have this easy access, because the detour means an extra walk of three-quarters of a mile. Something has got to be done at that site, and I ask the Ministry earnestly to consult the responsible authorities, and to provide a recognised legitimate crossing, either overhead or under the canal, for people there.

There is not only the Forth and Clyde Canal. There are also the Union Canal, in Edinburgh, and the Monkland Canal. Canals in cities have a fatal, sinister fascination for children. So long as there is no apparent traffic on them they hold an even keener fascination for children. Disused canals, like disused buildings and shelters, have a great fascination for children who want to explore, to experiment and to play their childish games. Every time a young life is lost there is a public outcry for something to be done.

There is great concern at the apparent lack of sympathy on the part of public authorities about dealing with something which appears to be of no use and derelict. It is part of my contention that, if the canals were used economically by traffic, there would be less call—mistakenly—for something to be done to convert the canals into roads which, in many instances, would be quite impracticable, or to fill them in and simply leave it at that.

The public generally do not recognise that the Forth and Clyde, the Union and the Monkland Canals fill a great industrial need by the provision of a constant supply of cheap water for cooling purposes and by carrying away effluents, etc.; but that is no answer to the anxious parents, distraught on many occasions because of the great strain of looking after their children. The canal in Glasgow is known locally as "the death trap." In the now housing estates which are being built on either side of the canal there is great concern about the open embankments, which are quite steep. An innocent child aged 2 or 3, if it lost its momentum on that bank, could easily fall into the water.

Whatever temporary expedients are employed, they will be no answer. What policy should be adopted? There are three which hold great prospect and which would serve a useful purpose. The Rusholme Committee made that clear. The Scottish Council for Development and Industry and the Scottish Board of Industry have made a very interesting statement and representations to that Committee. They point out that the Forth and Clyde Canal stretches right across the narrow waist of Scotland and links the two estuaries of the Clyde and the Forth. Strategically, in future, it could be of great importance. The fishing fleets going from the east to the west can make that journey in one day, whereas if they have to go north and through the Caledonian Canal that takes three days. The fishing authorities are anxious that the canal should be kept open. It is for the Government to make a decision, and I hope that they will make it soon.

The Crinan Canal, nine miles in length, runs through Lock Fyne into the open Atlantic, but the remarkable feature is that it has of recent years actually had no water and therefore could not be used by ships. That involved an extra eighty-five miles by sea by way of the Mull of Kintyre. In these modern times, and especially with the growing interest in afforestation and tourism, that ought not to be allowed to continue. The canal should be deepened and widened.

When we move further north up to the Caledonian Canal the same applies. There are three great lochs from Inverness to Fort William, and although the canal is 60 miles in length there are only 22 miles of artificial cuttings. There, too, there was a shortage of water last summer due to the beautiful summer that we had. There is a need to improve these cuttings by deepening them and widening them so that ships of a larger draught may use the canal more often and result in an increase of traffic of both foreign and British shipping.

On the Caledonian Canal there are 29 locks in 22 miles, and in these modern days we should be able to overcome that drawback. While I know that the Minister will have a ready answer, that we must wait for the further committee to report, surely at this stage the Ministry or the Commission have some opinion which we should be pleased to hear and have on record. The Rusholme Committee classified the canals in three categories. There were those it wished to develop, those it wished to retain and those it considered to be economically unsound. None of Scotland's canals are on the list to be developed. The only thing the Rusholme Committee says is that they are to be transferred to the Secretary of State for Scotland. Does that mean that we have to wait until the canals are transferred before we get a line on policy?

The Union Canal, the Monkland Canal and the Crinan Canal are on the list of those which in the opinion of the Committee are uneconomic. About the Forth and Clyde Canal we shall have varying opinions. But in the light of the statements that I have made, and the Report of the Rusholme Committee, I hope that the Minister will now be in a position to give some information about whether any decisions have been made in respect of the canals.

2.18 a.m.

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

The hon. Member for Maryhill (Mr. Hannan) has asked a number of questions with which I will try to deal in the short time that remains. He has referred to the Rusholme Survey, and he will be familiar with the chapter which deals with the five Scottish canals. It is there pointed out that the Caledonian and Crinan Canals were the only two which appeared from the evidence before the Committee as being likely to continue to be of value for transport purposes.

The Forth and Clyde Canal did not appear to be of value for transport purposes, although it is indicated that it was of importance for supplying water to industrial places. The Union and Monk-land Canals are both nearly derelict at present and the Committee was of the opinion that nothing was to be gained by maintaining them in a condition suitable for navigation.

The Rusholme Survey was considering canals purely from the point of view of transport, and it was for that reason that my right hon. Friend decided that it was necessary, before further steps were taken, to deal with canals of Great Britain, that there should be a new committee empowered to consider canals, not only from that point of view of transport, but also from other points of view, and to make recommendations with regard to their disposal.

The terms of reference, with which the House is familiar, deal, first, with the maximum economic use of the system; secondly 'the future administration … for such inland waterways as cannot be maintained economically for transport purposes, having regard in particular to the requirements of public health and safety and to the facilities which these waterways can provide for purposes other than transport, such as recreation, water supply, land drainage and disposal of effluents; (iii) the conversion of canal sites to other purposes where this is considered desirable and practicable. And finally, To consider the present law relating to the closing of waterways to navigation and to make recommendations."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st February, 1956; Vol. 548, c. 922–3.] The hon. Gentleman, in the questions that he has asked me, has put forward three main points. He urges that in suitable cases the canals should be developed for transport purposes. He has drawn attention also to their importance for other purposes, including water supply and drainage, and, thirdly, he has referred to the nuisance which a more or less derelict canal can create, especially in a built-up area, and the danger that it can have for children living in the district.

I think, therefore, that he, at any rate, will not be in agreement with the criticisms that were made by some of his hon. Friends that it was unnecessary to have a new committee to go into these broader aspects of the use and value of canals; and he will also, I hope, be aware that in order that the Bowes Committee should be well qualified for considering the special problem of the Scottish canals, Mr. John Wilson, the General Manager and Secretary of the Clyde Navigation Trust, was appointed to that committee.

Mr. Hannan


Mr. Molson

I am afraid I have not time to give way to the hon. Gentleman. He asked me a number of particular questions to which I would like to give an answer.

The Government are not at present in a position to make a statement on canal policy. It is because we realise that this very large and serious problem will have to be dealt with on comprehensive lines, with perhaps legislation facilitating the transfer of canals from the present authorities to local authorities or some other bodies, that this committee has been set up, and it clearly therefore would be wrong for us to make any statement of policy until we have received the Bowes Committee's Report.

None of the £5,500,000 which the British Transport Commission has announced that it is spending on the development of certain canals will be spent upon the development of any of these five Scottish canals. From the Rusholme Survey it is clear that none of the three canals that are open to navigation at present needs development for transport purposes, and the £5,500,000 is going to be concentrated upon those particular canals, or some of them, given in page 68 of, the Rusholme Report, where it is considered that investment would be likely to be of benefit from the point of view of transport.

As to the Forth and Clyde Canal, there has been a certain change in the view of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry since they gave evidence before the Rusholme Survey. At that time they were of the opinion that the Forth and Clyde Canal was of negligible value as a transport undertaking. Since then they have put somewhat slightly different views to the Bowes Committee. As the hon. Member indicated, they are now of the opinion that its maintenance may be of importance to the inshore fishing fleets of the Firth of Forth and the Clyde. That is the kind of matter which, of course, the Bowes Committee was set up to consider.

With regard to the question of transfer to the Secretary of State, that is a matter of policy which will not be decided until the Bowes Committee has reported.

I have taken careful note of what the hon. Member said with regard to the condition of the canal in Maryhill. We have discussed that matter on previous occasions, and I am sure the British Transport Commission will take note of what the hon. Member said. With regard to additional expenditure upon equipment for maintenance, the sum which has been invested is £14,000.

I know that I cannot entirely satisfy the hon. Member. That is because the whole matter is under consideration by the Bowes Committee, but I hope that I have been able to give an answer to most of the points which he has raised this morning.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Two o'clock.