§ 11.9 a.m.
§ Mr. David James (Brighton, Kemptown)
I beg to move,That this House welcomes the Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Inland Waterways presided over by Mr. Leslie Bowes and the Government proposals for an interim policy following the report set out in Command Paper No. 676, but, in view of the continued rapid deterioration of much of the inland waterways system, urges Her Majesty's Government to announce its further decisions as quickly as possible.
I have been very fortunate in love, but I have not hitherto been lucky at cards and games of chance. The only thing that I ever remember winning was a small bottle of nail varnish, before you, Mr. Speaker, drew my name out of the hat a fortnight ago.
I can assure the House that I would have wanted much longer to assess its moods and temper before venturing to speak, but I must ask for the indulgence of the House in view of the situation in which chance has put me. I do not, however, want to shelter behind the conventions of a maiden speech. After all, this is a Motion with which I cannot deal in merely five minutes, and I will willingly give way to hon. Members on either side of the House if they think that I am talking nonsense.
It is customary to mention one's own constituency in a maiden speech, but I am in rather a difficulty because Brighton is the queen of watering spas, and has unrivalled architecture and wonderful history, but it has not got a single yard of canal. Being on the side of a hill plunging down to the sea, there could never be a canal in Brighton unless one tunnelled through the Downs, which I do not propose to recommend to the House. Perhaps I can content myself by saying how proud I am to represent the Kemptown Division, particularly since my great great grandmother was Minnie Seymour, the adopted daughter of Mrs. Fitzherbert. I therefore have my roots in historic Regency Brighton.
I now come to the Motion. Our difficulty is that all of us have two completely different mental pictures in mind when discussing canals. On the one hand, we think of Suez, Panama and the new canal through the Canadian Great 1524 Lakes as arteries of transport, bustling and busy. If any man were to suggest that they should be allowed to silt up, wither away and die, he would be rightly considered a dangerous form of lunatic. On the other hand, we have a picture of little winding streams, about ten feet wide, covered with duckweed and littered with rotting barges, and because we happen to have invested our treasure, wealth and effort in digging canals a hundred years before anyone else, it is regarded as natural that they should be allowed to silt up.
This is a historical situation, and I want to emphasise that I do not blame any living man for the present state of affairs. Our canals were dug in the eighteenth century; and in the early nineteenth century, when people were a good deal more ruthless and cut-throat in their approach to these matters, the newly found railway system bought up the canals piecemeal deliberately to throttle a rival.
This attracted the attention of Parliament, and four committees sat between 1846 and 1887, but nothing, in fact, was done. In 1906, a Royal Commission was set up, under Lord Shuttleworth, which sat for three years and did a monumental job reviewing the history and evidence. This Commission particularly recommended that our canals should be put under a unified system of ownership, and also commented on the hopeless and chaotic state of the toll structure. However, the 1914–18 war intervened and nothing was done.
In 1920, a sub-committee was set up under Mr. Neville Chamberlain, and, again, the House may be surprised to hear that nothing was done about its recommendations, Finally, in the mid-'thirties, the Boscawen Commission was set up to consider transport matters generally, but, again, the 1939 war arrived just in time to stop anything being done. At the end of the war, the Minister inherited a century of neglect. Therefore, no one is to blame for the present state of affairs.
I think that hon. Members opposite must congratulate themselves on their Transport Act, 1947, which while all its provisions were not, perhaps, entirely acceptable to this side of the House, did in one respect implement the recommendation of every Royal Commission. 1525 It got our inland waterways under uniform ownership. That was the first real ray of light shed on our canal system for nearly a hundred years.
In 1956, as everyone knows, the Bowes Committee set out to report. It reported last year, and that is the occasion for this debate. I need not take the House through the whole of its Report, which covers over 100 pages, but five recommendations stand out very clearly.
First, the Committee recommended dividing the canals into A, B, and C class canals. The A class canals, which are 380 miles long, are waterways which pay their way at present and on which it is worth spending money. At the moment, £5 million is being spent on them, and there is no particular problem there. Class B canals, which are 935 miles long, are chiefly operated by narrow boats which are not paying their way at present. They represent the core of the problem which we are discussing. Class C canals are those which are appropriate for what the Committee called redevelopment, but there is a sting in the tail here which I must call to the attention of the House.
The Committee states, on page 40… elimination, in the sense we intend, always connotes positive action, and never the abandonment of a waterway to time and neglect ".I mention this particulaly because abandoned canals drown people, smell, burst their banks and create many problems. I also know that it is very easy for back bench Members to recommend to Ministers the expenditure of large sums of money and, at the same time, to crusade for reductions in taxation. We have an inescapable form of expenditure in that it costs more to fill in a canal than to dredge it and make it available to use. In particular, we know that the cost of filling in the Avon Canal was to be £120,000, while the National Trust hopes to redevelop it for about £55,000. There is, therefore, an inescapable choice before the House.
The next major recommendation of the Committee was an annual licensing charge to do away with the chaotic toll structure on which everyone has always commented. If any of us tried to operate a lorry on a road which may not be in existence in ten years' time and which is, in any case, subject to varying charges between points A and B, which could 1526 not be determined in advance, we should have some idea of the difficulty facing operators of canals, and a uniform annual charge based on £1 per ton per annum would seem to be a very effective answer.
The Committee's next recommendation, of equal importance, was that Class B waterways should be restored for twenty-five years. It emphasised this by saying:We are convinced that confidence in the future existence of the latter waterways is an indispensable condition of a revival of traffic upon them ".The Committee also recommended that efforts should be made to increase revenue from all other sources. Canals, after all, supply water and yachtsmen use them, and so on. These sources are inadequately milked of the revenue which they should provide to our canal system.
Finally, the Committee was, unhappily, divided equally on whether our canals should remain the responsibility of the British Transport Commission, or whether they should be placed in the hands of a separate canals conservancy. I do not propose to arrogate to myself the casting vote in this important matter, but I think that the House, and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, in particular, might like to address itself to three questions.
First, does my hon. Friend consider that a body, 80 per cent, of whose assets and 70 per cent, of whose employees are concerned with the railways, is the most appropriate one to run a canal system, particularly bearing in mind the whole historical circumstance that it was the railways which throttled the canals? One has a suspicion that in future the Transport Commission may be subjected to exactly the same temptations which befell its forebears.
Secondly, is the Transport Commission the right body to handle the subsidiary functions of water supply land drainage, and the like?
Thirdly, would it not be desirable to harness the voluntary principle in this matter? I think that probably most hon. Members have had mail on this subject from people who feel passionately strongly about our canal heritage. Surely these people and their enthusiasm should be harnessed to this task.
The National Trust raises £1¼ million a year and it has successfully raised 1527 £40,000 for the lower Avon navigation. Would this fund of good will be as available to the Transport Commission as it would be to a national waterways conservancy operating in many ways like either the Thames Conservancy or the National Trust? I do not attempt to answer these questions. I merely pose them.
I would like to make one or two observations on the various uses to which our canals are put. I do not propose to say much concerning transport, because there are experts who will be able to develop that at great length. I cannot, however, help being struck by the pessimism of the Bowes Report. It is, after all, common ground that until there is a guarantee that our canals will have twenty-five years' lease of life and until the toll structure is altered, there will be no improvement.
Judging by other countries, however—Belgium, for example, where the canals are used twenty times as much as we use ours, and the United States, which is still digging canals—I see no reason why we should shun the evidence of all history that water transport is the easiest and cheapest way of moving goods. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport has to deal with the appalling problem of congestion on the roads over the next few years, I should have thought he would welcome anything which would take even a small proportion of 5-ton lorries off the roads and utilise 25-ton narrow barges in their place.
I want to deal at slightly greater length with the recreational side of this problem, because I believe that hon. Members, on both sides, are perturbed at the implications of the new age of leisure which has just come upon it. All the social problems of juvenile delinquency, and so on, arise from the fact that, for the first time, people have more time on their hands. All of us want to guide people into using that time in the most profitable way. What could be better than a canal as an answer to this problem? We have virtually 2,000 miles of glorious national park. A canal holiday is a cheap holiday. It is a family holiday and it is a mildly adventurous holiday which enables people to enjoy the beauties of our countryside. I believe that this aspect will become more and more strong as time goes on.
1528 The Bowes Committee suggested that the use of inland waterways for pleasure might possibly increase by as much as 50 per cent, in five years. It increased, in fact, by more than 50 per cent. before the publication of the Committee's Report. If we look to the New World, whose economies were not ravaged by war, as a guide to the future, we find that in the United States one person in 29 owns a boat on an inland waterway and that in Canada the ratio rises as high as one in 17.
We have approximately 2,000 miles of navigable waterway. On the Broads, there are six boats for hire on every mile. If we had even three boats for hire on every mile of our canals, and if those boats were to pay a levy of £2 a week, the entire deficit of our inland waterways as a whole would be completely obliterated.
There are also the important aspects of fishing and walking. Most of our tow-paths are not rights of way, and if the canals were to go the towpaths would go with them, denying people access to many thousands of miles of country. It is impossible to estimate the number of anglers, but it is suggested that if every angler had to pay 1s. licence every time he went fishing that in itself would be another major source of revenue. I know, of course, that the riparian rights in our canals are by no means entirely vested in the Transport Commission and that it might be necessary to take steps to see that those rights were vested in the Commission. This again, however, is a wonderful relaxation for men in a modern industrial world. I believe that many hon. Members are only too pleased to get away on a Saturday afternoon and catch a few fish.
Finally, I want to refer to the aspects of water supply. We have always enjoyed talking about our weather. So effectively do we talk about it that we know exactly what has been going on ever since Roman times. Thanks to the Venerable Bede, we know that between 673 and 750 A.D. there were a series of prolonged droughts. The first half of the twelfth century also was a very dry one, culminating in 1114. In that year, following a dry summer the year before and a hard, dry winter, the Thames was quite a narrow stream in as early as April and by October children could wade across the Thames at about this point at Westminster.
1529 At the beginning of the eighteenth century, there was a similar period lasting about fifty years, when the annual rainfall was about 70 per cent. of what it is now. If those great historic periods of drought were able to cause our country severe embarrassment when its population was about 2 million following largely agricultural pursuits, what effect would it have on us today, with 50 million people to sustain and an industry involving vast quantities of water?
This is not a catastrophic problem, because our consumption of water is now about 4,600 million gallons daily. That sounds a great deal until one realises that a bountiful Nature pours a daily average of 45,000 million gallons of rain upon us. Even now, therefore, we want only one-tenth of the water we receive, and even if we were to have another period when our rainfall fell by half there would still be enough to go round with five times to spare.
There is, however, a problem of conservation and of getting the water to the place where it is needed. I believe that in our canal system, which is largely a contour system, we have the ideal method of transporting water in need from one place to another. While one dry summer may have embarrassed only 20 per cent. of our water undertakings, a series of dry summers might cause serious difficulty unless we were prepared to keep our canals in such a situation that they could be employed for this purpose.
I am coming to the end of my speech, because we are right up to date. In January this year, the Government produced an interim Report on this important subject. That Report went as far as any Government could go, knowing that they were facing a General Election and no man liking to commit his successor to any particular course of action. None the less, the interim Report has left us in a situation where none of those things which are known to be essential to the successful operation of our canals has been done, or can be done.
We believe that there is a rather notable new broom as Minister of Transport. I believe that the House and the country at large would wish this new broom well if it swept, and swept very hard, at this baffling problem.
§ 11.28 a.m.
§ Mr. Grant-Ferris (Nantwich)
I beg to second the Motion.
It must be seldom in this House that the opportunity occurs to a close personal friend of the mover of a Motion to be able to congratulate him upon his maiden speech. I wish that I could find words sufficiently adequate to express my feelings in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. James) warmly enough.
To make a maiden speech at any time is a difficult undertaking and one which produces the inevitable butterflies in inordinate quantities. To make it upon a subject which is not the intimate concern of one's constituency, and upon a subject of which one has not made a detailed study but is prepared to do the research and the great work which my hon. Friend has done in putting his speech together, and in submitting it to the House in such a convincing way, is almost unique in our Parliamentary history—at least, to my knowledge.
I therefore congratulate my hon. Friend, whose great qualities I have had abundant chance to appreciate in private life, very much indeed upon the fine speech which he has made. One may say that one would have expected it, because he is the son of the former Member for Wellingborough. Many of my colleagues here whose memory goes back to pre-war days will remember that sprightly and gay little figure of the hon. and gallant Member for Wellingborough, Wing Commander James, and I am sure we are all delighted to note that both his mother and father have had the opportunity of listening to him this morning.
He made a splendid contribution, and I shall not say the usual thing—that I do not propose to follow him closely in what he said—because I intend to follow him very closely in what he has said. I think he said that he did not intend to go at great length into the Bowes Report. I do propose, Mr. Speaker, under your guidance, to go at some length into the Bowes Report, because I think that on occasions like this, when we can have a discussion when time does not press us and we have something important to say which we have waited a very long time to say, we ought to take the 1531 opportunity and give the subject as good an airing as it is possible to give it.
I begin by agreeing with my hon. Friend that this is a subject which has exercised the Government to some extent intermittently throughout a very great number of years. Commissions, most of whose Reports I have read, and which have sat during the last fifty years, have all, with one exception at any rate, come to the same conclusion, that the situation is bad and is getting worse, and that something ought to be done about it. Of course, in those days when these Commissions were brought in we had not then got, as, thank goodness, we have today, a highly-developed sense of the value of the beautiful things and of keeping our countryside beautiful and of making it something we ought to be proud of again. That has developed now, and it is one of the great things which we have to consider when studying what we are to do about our waterways system.
What is it which has so wrought this enthusiasm for this subject among Members of this House, to a degree which has caused some surprise in certain quarters and, perhaps, has surprised the House itself in some ways? I think it stems from a debate which was held in the last Parliament but one and which resulted in the passage of a Bill the purpose of which was to close a waterway called the Stroudwater Navigation, I think. It was a very fine waterway which went from the Severn to Stroud. After a long debate that Bill was passed by a very small majority and that waterway was abandoned, and the possibility of certain schemes for amenities being undertaken there were lost for ever.
That caused concern to a great many hon. Members, but that is nothing to what happened a little later. A little later than that there was another of the Reports to which I have referred, the notorious Board of Survey Report, which was the result of an inquiry set up by the British Transport Commission within its own body, and which, not surprisingly, did not report in any way to which the Transport Commission would object. That Report came forward with the astonishing suggestion that no fewer than 600 miles of waterways should be closed and abandoned. That, of course, caused 1532 a great deal of consternation throughout the country, and not least in this House.
In detail, what, I suppose, caused the biggest consternation of all was that among the threatened waterways was the Kennet and Avon Canal. To their everlasting glory Kennet-side Members, many of whom are here this morning, I am glad to see, rose as one man and said that only over their dead bodies would such a thing be allowed to happen. Of course, that brought matters to a head somewhat. Then there was a very large meeting in—or shall we call it a descent upon—Whitehall of Kennet and Avon enthusiasts and sympathisers and well-wishers who found their way into the Ministry of Transport and practically took possession of the place, and I believe they very nearly landed a boat in the Minister's office. So it was brought home to the Minister of Transport, and, indeed, to everybody, that this sort of thing would not be allowed.
My right hon. Friend then Minister of Transport, who is now the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, did something which was wise in several respects. First, it gave him a bit of time, and Ministers are always anxious to find a bit of time when things are depressing. He set up the Bowes Committee to report upon the inland waterways.
That Committee went to work with a will. Unfortunately, it took a very long time. I do not say that by way of criticism at all. It was a difficult job it had to do, but it took a very long time. It took two and a half years. In the end it produced a very fine Report.
If I may summarise in a sentence, as it were, what the cardinal point of the Report is I would say it is that, generally speaking, it is very much cheaper to maintain and preserve waterways as a going concern than to try to annihilate them. Then it goes on in some detail to describe what needs to be done, and that is what I propose to do now.
First, I must point out that the Bowes Committee made a very interesting statement when beginning the discussion of the problem of how the system could be developed. It said this:In considering the financial position, we have necessarily based our calculations upon the figures provided in the accounts of the British Transport Commission. We have 1533 assumed that British Waterways have administered the waterways with proper efficiency and economy and that the figures of expenditure are not swollen by extravagant or inefficient methods.
Well, they have not been swollen by extravagant methods. No one would say that about the Commission. Whether they have been managed by equally efficient methods the House will have plenty of opportunity to judge as this debate develops. However, the Committee did say that at the beginning, and then it went on to talk about the canals and what should be done with them.
It said that they should be divided into two classes, as my hon. Friend said, Class A and Class B. Class A are, of course, mainly estuarial, broad waterways which run at a profit and which, perhaps, could be run at yet greater profit than they are now. Class B canals are those which do not run at a profit although the Bowes Committee say that, if things were done as it says, it might come about that they could be run at a profit.
Let us examine the causes of the weakness of the Class B waterways. Here I quote from paragraph 101, where it says:The Class B waterways could cater for considerably more traffic than they carry at present, but the carrying industry has little spare capacity in terms of boats and crews. We noted the scanty traffic on a number of Class B waterways which are in good working order and are available for anybody who wishes to put boats into service.
The Committee then talks about the great scope that exists for the improvement of transport performance, and so on. Paragraph 102 says:To a great extent, these drawbacks are inherent in the nature of Class B waterways, and it is futile to ignore their limitations. Higher economic performance must depend largely upon technical advances, and, given the basic limitations of the track, the chief field for advance is in the vessels and their operation: better craft, better facilities for loading and unloading, more effective deployment of labour—means, in short, of increasing the ton-mileage moved for each unit of capital equipment and of labour employed. Technical innovations of several kinds, actual or projected, have been brought to our notice. The final judgment on whether, and where, new methods and equipment can advantageously be introduced must rest with those whose businesses stand to gain or lose by the results.The Committee then says:For our part, we have addressed our minds to what it is practicable to do to remove deterrents to enterprise and ingenuity and to give them a clear run. We concluded that encouragement can and should be given in three 1534 directions: the removal of uncertainty as to the immediate future of the waterways: their reinstatement to, and subsequent maintenance in, full working order; and the navigation levy.
So really we come to what is the cardinal recommendation of the Committee with regard to Class B waterways, which is that they should be guaranteed to remain open for twenty-five years. As my hon. Friend has said, unless that guarantee is forthcoming there is no possibility of people using these waterways and putting the necessary capital into boats and equipment if they think that the track beneath them is going to be withered away. That must be realised and something must be done to restore confidence.
Then we come to the question of tolls. The Committee was impressed by what it had found in Continental countries where waterways are used to a much greater extent than they are here. There the system of tolls has largely disappeared and payment is made in a different way altogether. The Committee suggests that tolls on the Class B canals at any rate should be waived altogether and a separate licence fee introduced which would bring in about £25 a year for a narrow boat. The Committee says:It has been represented to us that the tolls now paid on merchandise commonly represent 20 per cent. or more of the total freight charge …and it adds that there is no hope of getting these waterways back into use unless the present system of licences is changed and, of course, unless the guarantee is forthcoming as well.
That is the position with regard to the Class B waterways. By and large, they are in good working order and to be quite fair the Commission has done quite a bit, as many people have seen, to improve them in the last few years. But there are many cases where this matter has not been attended to as it should have been, and certainly the question of licences and of the guarantee must be given the highest possible consideration by the Government.
The Committee then goes on to say what improvements should be made of a very material character to the actual waterways themselves, the widening of the Weaver and also the widening of the Grand Union Canal with the idea 1535 that eventually a wide waterway would be practicable between Liverpool and the Thames. The Committee studied this matter most carefully and made that recommendation.
The fact remains that, unless something like this is done, most waterways now working will very soon, in cases where they have not already, begin to fester and ultimately the bill will be bigger than ever. We are only putting off the evil hour. If my hon. Friend thinks that he can wait much longer, I can assure him that he cannot.
Let us consider what are popularly called the Class C canals, but which are not so called in the Bowes Report itself though everyone since the publication of the Report has come to call them Class C canals. In other words, they are the canals other than those I have mentioned and they are, generally speaking, those not considered fit for further economic development but which may have very high amenity value or, on the other hand, may have no value at all and ought to be rubbed out.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Wilson (Truro)
If my hon. Friend will allow me, may I put it on record that the expression "Class C" canals appears in the draft recommendation in Appendix K of the Report though it does not appear in the body of the Report? The expression was so used there and, since publication of the Report, it has been so used.
§ Mr. Grant-Ferris
I had missed it in the Appendix. As my hon. Friend says, it is not in the main part of the Report. In any case it is of no special importance; I mentioned it only in passing.
In considering these canals, we now begin to get straight into the problem of the alien uses of them. I do not want anyone to think that these points about alien uses do not apply in very great measure to the Class B canals; they do, but it is in the Class C canals that we come right into the problem. It was on this matter that my right hon. Friend the present Minister of Defence, then Minister of Transport, last year decided to set up a Departmental Committee to examine the question. The terms of reference of that Departmental Committee were as follows: 1536To assist as necessary in the promotion of schemes for the treatment of inland waterways which cannot economically be maintained for commercial transport, to consider such schemes when formulated, to make recommendations upon such schemes to Ministers concerned; and to advise Ministers upon any general matter connected with the redevelopment of those waterways.The Committee is presided over by Admiral Sir Frederick Parham, lately retired from the Royal Navy where he had a very distinguished career. He has brought a new approach to our problems. Apart from that, with the exception of one ignoramus, the Committee consists of the best brains which can be found in the country today to consider the matter.
§ Mr. Grant-Ferris
That Committee has now been at work for some nine months and during that time we have looked at a number of canals and introduced several concrete schemes. In particular, we have introduced a scheme to enable the British Transport Commission to hand over the southern branch of the Stratford-on-Avon Canal to the National Trust, which proposition is in the hands of my right hon. Friend the Minister at the moment and his decision on the matter is awaited.
§ Dr. Barnett Stross (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)
Can the hon. Gentleman tell the House how long the discussions on this matter have been going on and when they started?
§ Mr. Grant-Ferris
I think I would be right in saying that the discussions started even before the Committee was formed, and they have gone on since then. It was the first canal the Committee took on, and a decision was quickly reached. Of course, the negotiations had to continue all through the summer, so it took a considerable time. This shows the difficulty of doing these things by that method, when a properly constituted body with the appropriate powers should be doing it. Still, there were reasons why the Committee had to be set up, and I will not decry it.
The trouble is that there are not any "takers" for the canals. Apart from the National Trust, which is interested in one or two of exceptionally high value from a national point of view, it will be, as far as the Committee is concerned, 1537 difficult for the Committee to find anybody else who is prepared to take on the Stratford-on-Avon Canal and "make a go" of it. On the other hand, we are inundated with letters from various local authorities and other people who want to scrub out bits of the canal here and there, and in some cases even more important waterways. This rather reduces enthusiasm. When one feels that something constructive can be done then the necessary enthusiasm is there, but if all our work is to consist of rubbing out, I am afraid there will be a tendency for attendances at our Committee meetings to fall, to put it no worse. I hope my hon. Friend will bear this in mind when he is formulating his policy, which I am sure he will be doing soon.
In considering the alien uses of the canals, to my mind by far the most important i5 the sale of water, not as some might think, navigation for pleasure or fishing. The sale of water has shown a great improvement over the last four years. At different times in this House when the estimates of the British Transport Commission have been discussed, there has been considerable comment and the Commission has been pressed to get more money for the water it sells. To be honest, the Commission has done so, and we can trace the rise in the receipts to the period over the last four years since the House of Commons has been pressing the Commission to do that very thing.
Here it is interesting to take a practical example. The other day the members of the Committee went to Manchester to look at the Ashton Canal, the Peak Forest Canal and the Macclesfield Canal. We had a distressing experience over the Ashton Canal because Manchester treated us to its very best in the way of weather—by that I mean that it was very bad indeed—and we saw the canal under conditions which could hardly have been worse. It is a good waterway but has been subject to a tremendous amount of vandalism. I will not tell the House the varieties of implements and other things we saw pulled out of the water when an attempt was made to pass our boat along the canal, but they were interesting. The fact is that the Canal is a most important waterway from the point of view of the sale of water. In spite of the fact 1538 that most of the vandalism has taken place in the last four years, the sale of water from the Ashton Canal and the Peak Forest Canal together was about £2,000 more last year than it had been four years previously.
We can get from this an idea of the possibilities and how important it is that the canals should be kept open as waterways and maintained properly. Generally speaking, it does not cost so much more to keep a canal open for navigation as well. The Ashton Canal is important because it forms a link with others, but I do not intend to go into those details. I say this merely to illustrate the fact that the sale of water is of great importance.
I always try to be just and there are limits to which, under the present law, the British Transport Commission or any other body can go in improving the sale of water. The canals are governed by 150 or more Acts of Parliament, many of which go back to the 18th century. Indeed, sometimes documents have to be obtained from the Records Office to discover exactly what is the trouble, and it is difficult to get to the bottom of it.
In many cases the riparian owners were given the right to draw water from the canals in consideration of allowing them to go through their land. This was all right in those days because they were usually farmers who needed water for their beasts. In some cases the farmers are still in succession today, but in many other cases the land passed into industrial use long ago. This is very much the case around our big cities, and yet the right to get water free under the terms of the original Act is still held. Those are things we must change. If we are to maintain the canals properly we must be able to get the necessary revenue, so it will be necessary to look closely into that point and to modernise and consolidate all the old Acts of Parliament.
Now I come to the fishing angle. In this connection I am sorry to see that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Rotherham (Mr. Jack Jones) is not in his place today. Unfortunately he has to be away, otherwise I would do no more than mention the importance of this aspect. The Bowes Committee found it difficult to pinpoint the angling situation. I have played a hand in this of late and have myself interviewed the secretaries 1539 and chairmen of all the main fishing clubs and organisations in the country, as far as I know. There is an immense diversity of opinion about what should be done and what would be the best for anglers generally. Certainly I elucidated the fact that there are many hundreds of thousands of fully paid up angling licence 'holders; that is to say, people who can be named because they have paid their subscriptions. Of course, there are many others who fish.
Unfortunately, the fishing rights do not belong mainly to the British Transport Commission and so it has a good answer to anyone who says that the Commission should charge more for fishing. Notwithstanding that, there is a great deal that could be done. For instance, stocking could be greatly improved, bailiffing could be undertaken, the general care of towpaths to a degree higher than that necessary for navigation could be undertaken. I am sure that fishermen would be only too pleased to make their contribution towards an agreed method of the way to do these things, although I question whether they should come within the purview of a transport organisation.
Before proceeding to the more controversial aspect of the Report may I re-emphasise that the legal position must be clarified. Someone must take on the work of consolidating 150 or more Acts of Parliament into one Act, and I suggest that the new conservancy, if we get it, is the right body to do the work.
Now I come to the vital question of who should own and administer the waterways. The British Transport Commission has proved inadequate. What is the best substitute?
First of all, let us consider the British Transport Commission. I am desperately anxious to be fair.The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.There is no doubt one hears about all the bad things that the Commission does but no one ever bothers very much to tell one about the good things and one does not know them unless one happens to be very keen on the job, as I am, and goes around and sees for oneself that a great many good things are now done. However, the fact remains that there is a very strong degree of criticism 1540 of the way the Commission, in the shape of British Waterways, carries out its duties and its general relations with the public. Here again, I do not think it is fair to make these assertions unless one is prepared to back them up with some personal experience.
First of all, the negotiations which took place between the National Trust and British Waterways were extremely disagreeable and very difficult indeed, and this has made the National Trust little inclined to pursue them further. One has one's experience in the House. Hon. Members will remember that only a matter of months ago a proposal came forward to allow Sheffield to have the Pocklington Canal in order to deposit in it sludge from a waterworks which it was thinking of building. The Commission's Bill received its Second Reading. The then Minister of Transport was about to set up the Parham Committee. Some of my hon. Friends and I interviewed members of British Waterways and gave it as our opinion that the House would not like them to avail themselves of the special procedure which would be necessary for the inclusion of a late Clause but felt that it should be a matter which should be discussed with the Parham Committee, which was just about to be set up.
Our advice was not taken. In due course British Waterways appeared before the Committee presided over by Sir Charles MacAndrew, then Chairman of Ways and Means and of the Panel of Temporary Chairmen of the House, and put its case for the inclusion. During the hearing a letter was submitted which was of such a nature that the Committee decided that it should be reported to the House. I do not want to go too closely into the details of it now. It will be fresh within the memory of hon. Members. It showed, however, that people ought to be advised by other people who really know these things, and also that people should not be allowed to write letters of such a character, a sort of Crichel Down character, which that letter purported to be.
The result was that British Waterways was reported to the House. When that sort of thing happens to an individual it is a very serious thing indeed, and we usually see him at the 1541 Bar of the House making a public apology for what he has done, but when it is an official corporation, such things do not come about. What I am trying to establish is that these ways of carrying on business are not the ways which we should like to see, and they are not conducive to a better relationship with waterway users.
I am sorry that my speech is taking a very long time. I have not yet come to the bones of it. No doubt, as we proceed we shall find out what we are getting at, and that is something very concrete indeed.
It is no good our criticising British Waterways and the British Transport Commission. They have been given an impossible job to do. They were instructed that they had to run their undertakings and make a profit, or, at any rate, not make a loss. However, one cannot neglect one's capital in any business for years and suddenly expect to be able to make a profit because one is told to do so. Consequently, let us be fair about it and realise that the responsibility lies squarely upon Her Majesty's Government, for they are the people who are in a position to take action about it and to see that this state of affairs is brought to an end.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer bears a very great responsibility to the taxpayers of the future unless he shoulders these burdens firmly and thoroughly now, because the bill is growing. It just will not do to say "We will meet it one day." We are moving out of the age in which we should say that sort of thing. We are now in a much more prosperous and happy age altogether. We want to keep our countryside good and tidy. We want the messes that are there cleared up and something really good done to make this undertaking efficient and useful for the future. It can be done although it cannot be done under the present administration.
Here I come to the alternative recommendations of the Bowes Committee. They are very categoric indeed. A group of hon. Members from this side of the House saw all the members of the Bowes Committee, the half who were for leaving the canals with the Commission, and the other half. Whereas we found that those who were in favour of the alternative 1542 recommendations were absolutely enthusiastic and convinced that that was the only way to do the job, the other half did not feel very strongly about it but thought that on the whole it was better to go for the status quo, on the basis that the devil that one knows is better than the devil one does not. If hon. Members will look at those recommendations and weigh them against the alternative recommendations they will see that that is so.
This sentence from the alternative recommendations sums the matter up more perfectly than any words of ours or anybody else could do:The imposition of new statutory duties on the Commission is in itself no remedy; the canals have long been decaying monuments to unfulfilled statutory duties.
§ Mr. Grant-Ferris
They appear at the end of paragraph 9 on page 84 of the Report. In paragraph 10 appear the following words:In brief, we think it inevitable that in the event of a conflict between British Railways and British Waterways, the interests of British Railways will predominate. We believe also that this situation must not only tend to undermine the confidence of British Waterways and its staff, but also be discouraging to those nationalised industries and private enterprises which might otherwise contemplate investing in craft and shore installations.
I should have said, as a result of my observations of the Commission as I have gone about the country—I have seen the staff at all levels and have many friends among them; many of them have been very good and I have had innumerable kindnesses and courtesies from them—that the uncertainty which came about during the two and a half years that it took to set up the Parham Committee and what is going on now is extremely bad for their morale, and their morale is not at all high today. They are good men and keen watermen, and I am sure that the situation can be restored provided that they know that they are working for an organisation which will not be closed. The alternative recommendations continue:We therefore conclude that (a) the basic requirements for the administration of waterways differ from those for the administration of a nationalised carrying business; and (b) the controlling body must be able to give its whole attention and effort to the varied and 1543 exacting tasks visualised, free from preoccupation with the many problems which face the British Transport Commission on their rail and road services.
Those are the main recommendations of the Committee, and it is clearly up to us to consider what we are to do about them. I suggest that the terms of reference of the Parham Commitee ought to be enlarged and that we ought to add that the Committee should be authorised to examine the possibility of setting up an Inland Waterways Conservancy and to report to the Minister on this aspect of the problem. That would be a very good thing to do because, obviously, much preliminary work must be tackled before proposals can be brought before the House.
Whereas many people feel that something should be done to take the canals away from the British Transport Commission, by no means everybody is united on exactly the form in which the Inland Waterway Conservancy should be put together. There are some who say that all three of waterway classes—A, B and C—should be included in the new Conservancy, and there are some who say that it should be only B and C. Those who say that the Class A should be included feel that the body we shall create will be lacking in importance and dignity without this Class. On the other hand, those who feel that the Conservancy should consist only of Classes B and C feel that the voluntary effort which is so important in such a matter as this will be lost and that nobody will subscribe to a Conservancy which includes a large profit-making set-up such as the Class A waterways. These are some of the differences which exist and which need to be ironed out.
The great advantage of this would be that it would give the work to a body of people with suitable training. It might include someone from my right hon. Friend's Ministry, someone from the Treasury and another lawyer, and one or two people in the country who know a great deal about this matter could well be added to the Committee. When that has been done we shall have the best brains available in the country to do the job. Above all, it will relieve the pressure, which everybody knows is great and is likely to become greater, on the Ministry of Transport to produce some proposals quickly.
1544 That would be a great advantage. The short delay which it would cause would be accepted cheerfully by all those in the country who are calling for action now. I am sure that my hon. Friend knows that an enormous number of letters have deluged upon hon. Members in the last week or so urging them to bring pressure to bear on the Government for some action of this kind. I assure my hon. Friend that that deluge was not influenced by me. I urge with all my heart that he should think seriously about this and see whether he cannot arrange to take this step. I think that both sides of the House would accept it cheerfully as a first step.
This speech has already lasted far too long. The trouble is that when one is keen on a subject and knows something about it, one is apt to think that everyone else is just as keen and wants to know as much about it. I have felt the necessity to urge these points at some length because this is the kind of subject which takes a hold of anyone interested in it. If you take an interest in it, as the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wells (Lt.-Cdr. Maydon) have done, the subject gets hold of you and you have to do something about it. I want my hon. Friend to remember this: there are hundreds of thousands of people who are keen about the waterways and who mean to have action. There is no question about it. The Government must do something, and we are confident that they will.
§ Mr. Grant-Ferris
We can see what is happening outside the House. Look at the action which has been taken about the streets of London. We have the kind of Minister who means to do things. I have the greatest possible confidence in him, and I am prepared to give him just a little more time to come to a conclusion about what must be done—but something must be done. We have a beautiful heritage. I have tried to make the point that it is not only a question of dealing with the commercial side of the waterways. Much can be done to improve that. We also have to remember the fishermen and Nature Conservancy, not to mention courting. All these things have to be borne in mind. We owe it to our country, beautiful as 1545 it is, to make it much more beautiful and to rid it of this dreadful scar which has lasted for far too long.
§ 12.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)
Since I am the first hon. Member on this side of the House to be called today, may I begin by speaking for all my hon. Friends in saying how much we enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. James). I congratulate him not only on his luck at the beginning of his Parliamentary life, but also on his speech and its contents. It was delightful.
The hon. Member for Nantwich (Mr. Grant-Ferris) is a passionate front-line fighter for the canals. I have always regarded it as a great pleasure to be in his "navy", as it were, in the battle for the inland waterways. He is undoubtedly the admiral. He has taken us through a number of recommendations in the Bowes Report, particularly the alternative recommendations, and it is not necessary for me to weary the House by doing the same.
I remind the House that in the alternative recommendations there is a word which puts this matter in perspective—that the inland waterways are a minute proportion of the responsibilities of the British Transport Commission. The word is "minute". I do not believe that the Commission is the best agency for handling the canals, but I do not know what the best agency is.
The key may be in developing something along the lines of the Thames Conservancy and making such a body nation-wide. I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Kemptown refer to the Thames Conservancy. It is not generally remembered that the Conservancy has operated successfully for one hundred years. It is governed by users and local authorities, it collects tolls, sells water and exercises all the functions of a river board. There should be an examination of the possibility of having a national agency on the lines of the Thames Conservancy to deal with canals.
One of the strongest reasons for that belief is that I am concerned not only with commercial transport on the canals and their recreational use and angling and water conservation, but also with land drainage. I believe that all those subjects are inter-related and only a 1546 national agency would be able to do justice to all the different aspects.
The hon. Member for Kemptown referred to the glittering history of his constituency. My constituency does not have such a glittering history, but its history is very much longer. In it there runs the oldest canal in the country, the Fossdyke. The hon. Member quoted the Venerable Bede. Long before the Venerable Bede, Fossdyke was running from the Trent to the Witham. Many authorities believe that the Fossdyke was built not for the carriage of goods, but for drainage. Of course, it was subsequently found to be very useful as a most important means of transport in that part of the country.
The Fossdyke and the River Witham are the concern of everybody who lives in and around Lincoln. In fact, it is impossible for people living in that area not to have to consider them, for nearly every year they are reminded about inland waterways through having their streets flooded and, at the same time, receiving a demand for a drainage rate, which is alleged to be paid to prevent that very flooding.
There is also the angling. Anglers come not only from that part of the country, but in huge coachloads from the industrial North and the industrial Midlands. There is also boating. To sum up: people in my part of the country are deeply concerned in any decisions about the canals and inland navigation.
The agency which I have suggested would be able to consider commercial use of the canals as one item and not only the obvious commercial transport of bulky goods. There are other commercial uses which are not so obvious. The piping of oil is very expensive when pipelines have to be built across the countryside, but it so happens that there are many places where, with a little ingenuity, the pipelines could follow the banks of the canals. The B.T.C. has also been extremely successful in running organised tourist trips on the canals. A great deal can be done in the commercial sense.
On the recreational side, my family and I have spent many happy days, probably totalling weeks, on inland waterways. There is nothing more delightful. But it is only fair that the boats which use the canals should pay more than they 1547 now pay. The hon. Member for Kemptown mentioned a figure of £2 a week. I think that he meant a tax of £2 a year or a month.
§ Mr. de Freitas
That is too high and might adversely affect the revenue from recreation.
Angling is another important matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. Jack Jones), who is not in his place, spoke upon a number of subjects, but especially on angling. It is important that anglers should appreciate how closely they are concerned with the interests of other canal users. There are about 3 million anglers in the country. Whether they go to catch fish, to get away from home, or to drink beer alongside the flowing water, the fact is that millions of people like angling.
If a canal becomes blocked, for some years it might be a good place for angling and even better than before it was blocked, because there are then no boats to disturb the angling. But then decay sets in and the water becomes overgrown with weeds, the water level falls and thus the canal is lost to angling. It is important that anglers should appreciate that. It is becoming more widely realised, and one of the largest angling associations in the country is a corporate member of the Inland Waterways Association.
I can summarise my views on water conservation by quoting from a Motion on the Order Paper which I and a number of hon. Friends have signed. It deploresthe condition of drainage and the drainage rating system in the country generally, and in Lincoln, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire in particular; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to introduce legislation to co-ordinate drainage and water conservation and to permit the construction and maintenance of drainage works and reservoirs at the expense of the nation as a whole.That should be part of the function of the large authority which, I have suggested, should be concerned with all aspects of inland waterways.
The hon. Member for Kemptown recalled that there had been long periods 1548 of drought in the history of the country and said that such periods might come again. If we had in succession two or three summers like last summer, the country's water shortage could be very serious. What is not sufficiently realised is that the canals are not only reservoirs, but could be used as a national grid for water, in the way that we have a national grid for electricity. The Bowes Report says, in paragraph 233:We consider that the value to the national economy of inland waterways as suppliers of large quantities of non-porable water has not received sufficient attention.It is especially interesting that, because of the way the country lies, the canals would tend to bring water from the wet west of the country to the drier east. They could thus play a valuable part in agriculture, industry, and all other aspects of water use.
One of the most striking examples of the use of canals in this way is that the South-East Cheshire Water Board takes water from the River Dee. The water travels 50 miles along the Shropshire Union Canal and goes into a reservoir near the constituency of the hon. Member for Nantwich. I understand that it costs £18,000 a year to maintain that stretch of canal and that the fee from the water board is £19,000. If this is so, it is a very profitable use of the canal.
I have not seen any study of the financial and other implications of a scheme such as I have outlined. I want a study to be made. I regret that the Bowes Committee could not deal with the wider questions as well. I hope that a committee will be set up to deal with them. Meanwhile, although it is by no means perfect, I support the Motion. When the Government consider the problem, I ask them to bear in mind especially the inter-relation of commercial transport, recreational use, angling, water conservation and land drainage.
§ 12.30 p.m.
§ Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)
I must ask for the indulgence of the House and, at the same time, declare to the House the small interest I have in this subject. My company is actively engaged in commercial enterprise on the inland waterways.
I am more fortunate than my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. James), in that in the Maid- 1549 stone division of Kent we enjoy the River Medway flowing through the Garden of England. The Medway may well be looked upon as a model inland waterway. We have the four necessary ingredients mentioned by the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas), namely, good commerce, water supply, fishing and private boats, both for pleasure and for hire.
In the Medway, we have the London and Rochester Trading Company, which is doing a splendid job in maintaining a supply of wood pulp to the paper mills. This very enterprising concern is at present proceeding to endeavour to supply finished paper to the great national daily newspapers by water. I have heard only this morning of another company at Tonbridge which is seeking to do further commercial carrying.
This morning, I want to deal primarily with the pleasure boat aspects of this subject. The British Transport Commission is not the right organisation to go in for pleasure boating. I go the whole way with my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich (Mr. Grant-Ferris) in not wishing to be unfair about the Commission. It is a splendid organisation, doing a very good job in many ways, but it has been described elsewhere as a tribe of sub-railwaymen. It is no secret that it spends £4,000 to buy a boat to let out for hire which a number of people sitting in the public gallery this morning can buy for £1,700. It cannot possibly be profitable for a public body to spend 120 per cent. too much on capital goods. The Commission, through no fault of the individual people on the job—the fault is at a higher level—has built up a vast volume of ill will with private boat operators.
A private boat operator is able to make a very substantial financial contribution not only to the inland waterways system, but to the Exchequer. It is stated in the Bowes Committee Report that the contribution from fuel tax alone was £50,000 a year from the Broads. The Report says, also, that there were approximately 100,000 holidaymakers on the Broads in the year in which the Committee reported. After the recent very dry and remarkable summer we can expect a still greater influx of holiday-makers next year. It would not be a 1550 false estimate to hope for about 180,000 holidaymakers next summer in all our inland waterways.
I do not want the House to form the opinion that I think the canals are a poor relation of the Broads. The Broads are a most delightful holiday resort, with the big boat operators doing all they can to preserve the amenities and to make holiday makers enjoy themselves in all ways. But there is a vast potential in the canals and inland waterways for a completely different type of holiday. There are no locks to work on the Broads, whereas in the canals there are locks. My hon. Friend the Member for Kemptown said that it was a mildly adventurous holiday. It can be an extremely adventurous holiday. Further, canals and other inland waterways come right into the hearts of our cities. In the Borough of Maidstone we enjoy having a river and enjoy seeing boats moored below Maidstone Bridge. I have had a number of letters, as I am sure hon. Members on both sides have, complaining about the stink of the rivers. That subject was debated in the House last Friday.
One of the greatest difficulties for holiday boat users in the canals and navigations flowing into and near our cities is to get at the locks on Sunday. The River Lee and Stort Navigation is a splendid and very beautiful stretch of waterway coming within ten miles of the House. Yet if an hon. Member tries to open a lock on the Sabbath day he will have to accompany his request with something from his trousers' pocket. We are told that people do go through the locks on Sunday. It is completely out of step with modern holidaymaking to expect boats to be stationary on Sundays and there is no right at present for boats to go through.
I urge my right hon. Friend to proceed with setting up some such conservancy as has been suggested from both sides. I think that we are all agreed, and I am especially glad that the hon. Member for Lincoln mentioned the drainage that Fossdyke produces. I recently had the misfortune to try to bring a boat from the Fossdyke into the other canal system. In the end, I found it cheaper to bring the boat by road. That is a most unfortunate state of affairs. The point 1551 made by the hon. Member about a good boat traffic maintaining the quality of the waterway for the fishermen is most important. We who enjoy the Medway are acutely aware of the importance of good flowing water for the sake of fishing.
Our fishing in Kent is available to tens of thousands of Londoners who come to Teston and Yalding. At least, they used to come to Teston until the Transport Commission saw fit to shut the railway station. That is just the sort of thing which the Commission does. It is completely out of step with the angler and the holidaymaker. I therefore urge the Minister to proceed to set up a commission which will put all our inland waterways, certainly the Class B and C waterways, on the same footing as the Thames Conservancy.
The general manager of British Waterways has stated that he does not think that the Class B and Class C waterways can ever be made to pay. My hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich (Mr. Grant-Ferris) has already said a good deal about the difficulties and the costs of redevelopment of Class C waterways, but it must be borne in mind that any stretch of canal that is abandoned means not only a financial liability, but a very great danger of drowning.
I must stress the point of the danger to children in the great cities where canals are frequently not properly shut off. We welcome the fact that canals come into our cities and so enable people to get out by boat and to walk along the towpaths but, at the same time, we must be sure that the canals are properly shut off by boards so that children will not be drowned. At Yalding this causes very great concern to local people, the boat owners, the police and the local councils.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kemptown has said that this is the age of leisure, and so it is. Here we have these extremely cheap family holidays. My hon. Friend said that they were cheap, but he did not say how cheap. For approximately £10 a head people can have an adventure on the Lee or the Stort, or on the Norfolk Broads—wherever one pleases. It is in keeping with the spirit of the age.
1552 We are enjoying more and longer holidays. We are also enjoying a spirit of enthusiasm. Much has been said on both sides of the House about enthusiasm, and I should not like the Minister to go away with any idea that those who support this Motion are wild enthusiasts, with duckweed in their hair. We may be enthusiasts, but we are also people who realise that a very substantial business element is building up—young business men, keen, able; sleeping on the job, eating on the job, at work for 24 hours a day if need be.
One can never get that sort of enthusiasm from a transport commission. The hon. Member for Lincoln was absolutely right in saying that the inland waterways system is a minute part of the Transport Commission's responsibility, but we cannot expect railwaymen, or sub-railwaymen—or, indeed, civil servants of any kind—to be enthusiastic. I would, therefore, urge the Minister to see for himself, and not to pay too much attention to any urgings he may receive from his Department or elsewhere. As has already been said, he is a new broom. We hope that he will see for himself.
There is a real business building up. Potentially, there are about 3,000 people engaged in this work in small units—exactly the sort of industry that all hon. Members would like to see promoted. In recent days we have been debating local unemployment. Here is a splendid opportunity to provide further employment in scattered and remote areas.
I very much welcome the Motion, and I ask the Minister seriously to consider setting up an independent conservancy. That, in its turn, may promote the responsible, new, thriving industry that has come to our country. These keen young men who know their job are doing it, not only for financial reward—this is not a well-paid trade—but for their neighbours in the great cities.
§ 12.45 p.m.
§ Dr. Barnett Stross (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)
My first and most pleasant duty is to congratulate the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. J. Wells) on his maiden speech, delivered so easily and fluently, without a note in his hand, and offered to us with great conviction and sincerity. I am sure that the House will look forward to hearing him very many times in the near future.
1553 His division seems somewhat similar to my own in that at least it has a canal system. My division contains the Etruria Basin, with which I know the hon. Member for Nantwich (Mr. Grant-Ferris) must be very well acquainted. I first knew it, not so much because I was specifically interested in canal ways as that I used to go into the barges many times in my professional life to deliver babies there. I can assure hon. Members that that is quite as exciting and adventurous as taking a boat through the locks, especially as the wives of the bargees, when I was practising, used to be addicted to wearing twenty or thirty petticoats and were very loath to take off a single one of them even to have the baby delivered.
My interest in these waterways is essentially that of recreation and amenity, but it is impossible to have such an interest without studying the problem carefully. The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. James), who opened this debate so brilliantly, and the hon. Member for Nantwich, who seconded the Motion, have covered the field magnificently, and I am not at variance with the principle of anything they declared.
We are dealing here with a national park that takes up no space. We know very well—certainly, in Stoke-on-Trent—that into the very darkest parts of the city these caressing and liquid fingers probe and spread. From an amenity point of view, nobody can study eighteenth century England if he does not embark on the canals and in that way look at eighteenth century England for himself.
To walk along the towpaths, or pass in a boat through my own constituency, is exhilarating. Only in that way can one appreciate what the Potteries really mean, because they were built round the canals—and built a long time ago. That remarkable genius, Wedgwood, built our first canal, partly to bring in material from outside, which was shipped from Cornwall to Runcorn and then came from Runcorn by canal, but primarily to make certain that the pottery goods could be carried out other than by means of mules and packhorses, because breakages were remarkable. There were no real roads in those days 1554 —certainly none leading from Stoke-on-Trent. The canal was the road, so the townships gradually grew around it.
We have heard why the canal system has been neglected, and we cannot blame any living person for it. The railways did not take over the canals because they loved them or cared for them, but because they feared them and were determined that they would not be a type of competition that would militate against the charges the railway companies had in mind to impose for freight carriage. That cannot be helped.
We are faced today, however, with the fact that our roads, of which we have a magnificent network, are no longer as enjoyable as they were, either to walk on or to cycle on. Nor are they the means of enjoying the countryside, even by motoring. Indeed, one cannot stop on our great expensive new motor roads. We are fined if we stop. Therefore, from the recreational point of view, we should be doing less than our duty if we did not take a long-term view of the potential use of the canals as a sort of national park for recreation and adventure for our people, because not much else is so easily available.
The principle that fortifies us is that we should always bear in mind that this is a great national asset. It must not be allowed to deteriorate further, because that would be a waste of money as well as a waste of amenity. When we are compelled to choose, whether we like it or not, between abandonment and elimination or a firm decision to conserve and to make additional use of them, it is helpful to bear in mind that abandonment and elimination is more expensive than redevelopment and conservation.
Therefore, all that is really left for us to consider is when do we start to do something, how vigorously can we move forward, and who will find the capital required to bring these canals into good order. Of course, I am referring only to the Class C canals, plus that section of the Class B canals which may from time to time be handed over to a future conservancy board. I would not for a moment dream of interfering with the British Transport Commission and its control over the Class A system of canals or certain sections of the Class B system which it still wishes to retain.
1555 I have had some communications on this matter, and, no doubt, so have other hon. Members on both sides of the House, for it has already been said that there is very deep interest in this matter of the canals and their future use from the recreational point of view. One letter came to me from a member of the Stoke-on-Trent Boat Club. He is not a citizen of Stoke-on-Trent, for, judging by the address given, which is Lombard Street, I have a feeling that he is a banker in London who has chosen to become a member of the boat club in Stoke because he likes the club and the way it is moving forward. I should like to quote a few sentences from his letter. He says:I do not know whether you have ever been through Stoke by water on a working day;Of course, I have done so many times. He goes on:It is a most dramatic experience, and if you have, you will understand what I mean in my notes about the canals having an educational value. I am a member of the Stoke Boat Club, oddly enough, as I think they are an enterprising body and deserve support"—and here comes his most interesting last sentence—and I shall certainly come, by water, to the Jubilee Celebrations next summer.I quote this letter as an example of the type of enthusiasm which we can get among our citizens on these matters.
Having mentioned the Stoke-on-Trent Boat Club, I should add that the club has written to me putting forward four points which it suggests I should put forward to the Minister. They cover almost everything which I think all of us are asking for on both sides of the House. I will read them and deal with them separately later. The letter states:We particularly press you to do everything possible to get the adoption of the following points:—May I now deal with these four points? The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport will have noted already that my constituents know what they are talking about.
- 1. The formation of an independent Inland Waterways Conservancy.
- 2. The abolition of the toll system and its replacement by an annual boat licence.
- 3. The recommended 25 years plan of development.
- 4. The guarantee of full maintenance."
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Hay)
What is even more remarkable is the unexpected unanimity of hon. Members on both sides of the House.
§ Dr. Stross
I am shocked that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary should be surprised.
This is a great national asset, and there is only a slight difference of emphasis as to how we should deal with it, because on the general objective there is no difference between us.
I have already said that abandonment is expensive, and I wish to quote some of the figures which have been sent to me by the correspondent whose letter I quoted earlier. He is a member of the Ministry of Transport Inland Waterways Development Committee and an executive member of the National Trust, who has studied the matter deeply. I should like to give the following figures which he has sent to me:The cost of eliminating the Crumlin Arm (Monmouthshire canal) was officially estimated some years ago at £638,000; of eliminating the greater part of the Kennet and Avon canal at £600,000; and of eliminating the Southern Section of the Stratford, a short rural canal, at £120,000. The abandonment of two miles of the Nottingham canal cost the city council £90,000. Abandonment of the Barnsley canal, still not tidied up, has so far cost over a quarter of a million pounds.
I do not have to say any more, because I think everyone will agree that it is expensive to abandon and eliminate these canals, and that there is strong support for the argument that, if it is cheaper to put these canals into good condition and hold them for the use and benefit of our citizens, there should not be any further argument about it at all. I should add, for the information of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary that we have strong objections to the timidity of the proposals in the White Paper. These are my measured words when I speak of the timidity of those proposals, with which I will deal a little later.
The first point made by my constituent was the one on conservancy. That would need legislation, and we see at once from the White Paper that the Minister says that we cannot have legislation, and that it would be premature until we have some further experiments. Do we need further experiments? Are we not certain, from what has already 1557 been done at Stroud, for example, that we can so cheaply save by conservation as compared with elimination? Conservancy, I think, is a sort of compromise between the two points of view which have been expressed by the Bowes Committee.
I would remind the House again that four members of the Committee wanted to leave the canals with the Transport Commission, and the others thought that we should transfer the whole system to a new body. Conservancy is a compromise, and, as I said earlier, I would not dream of taking away from the British Transport Commission the Class A canals. If we set up a conservancy—and I hope we shall—an independent body—it would deal with the Transport Commission and would, in the first place, take over the Class C canals which are derelict. There would be one organisation dealing with the Transport Commission and taking over that section of the Class B canals which are being run at present and which the Transport Commission would like to release. It would ease the change-over very simply if there were only one body to deal with it.
The administration of the conservancy would have to include all the interested organisations—those who walk along the canals, those who fish in them, those who like boating, the local authorities and all people interested in drainage, and it would not be too difficult to set up such a body. The advantage that would follow would be that it could be treated as a charity for tax purposes. From that would flow these three points, which have been touched on by previous speakers. It would enjoy a mass membership throughout the country from people who would pay subscriptions, thus providing a source of revenue. An appeal could be made for money throughout the country, as is done on behalf of the National Trust and similar organisations; and thirdly, voluntary help could be enlisted.
If the Transport Commission abandons the canals it will be expensive. We all agree that we cannot let them rot and become a nuisance and a danger. We know the approximate cost of abandonment. If it costs, for the sake of argument, £50,000 per mile to abandon and eliminate the canals, should not the new conservancy have the interest on 1558 that money for at least the first ten years, after which the matter could be reviewed? We should not be giving them fresh money, nor should we be placing any additional burden on the taxpayer. We would simply for a certain time be handing over to the new administrative body the interest on the amount of money which it would cost to eliminate canals which the Transport Commission was unable any longer to handle.
If the canals are eliminated someone must find the money to do so. If they are not to be eliminated—if they are to be conserved, as the House wants them to be—why should not this conser-vacancy have the right to the interest on this money for the first ten years—I am speaking for myself when I suggest a period of ten years—after which we could review the situation? The interest on that money would help to save the canals instead of destroying them. If that were done, with all the additional revenues, which have been mentioned by hon. Members, from the use of pleasure craft and from other uses, I think a fine piece of work of conservation could be done throughout the country, and it would place no additional burden on the taxpayer.
May I come to the second point which my constituents have raised? They suggest the abolition of the toll system. This system is ridiculous, clumsy, out of date, inefficient and a nuisance, as everyone knows who has had to put his hand in his pocket at these tolls. We know that there will be a vast increase in the number of pleasure craft on the water, particularly if our summers change for the better as this year's did. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) was mistaken when he said a licence of £100 a year would be too much for pleasure craft. Owners of such craft could easily pay it. In a few years' time there would be a revenue of at £¾ million if we reached a density of three boats to the mile on the canals.
Thirdly, my constituents asked me to press for the twenty-five years' development plan for Class B canals, as recommended by the Bowes Committee. The White Paper does not accept this recommendation, and here I have a quarrel—good natured and good tempered—with the Parliamentary Secretary. I beg him 1559 to realise that what he says about the two years interim trial period will not work. I believe that while he is discussing and arguing, the two years will go by without anything being done. I could easily estimate the vast amount of money which would be lost to this system by waiting another two years. The White Paper was published in February, 1959, which is a General Election year, and this might have had some influence on the Government. It may be that the Government did not wish to do anything rash or upset any particular interest. Now that that issue has gone, we have the right to press the Government for some decisive action.
§ Mr. Hay
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman again, but I hope to say something on this point when I speak later. I should in the meantime like to draw attention to paragraph 8 of the White Paper which explains precisely why we have suggested this two-year period. The main reason, if I may summarise it, is that the preparation of a new policy and of legislation on this matter would take a considerable time. We therefore felt it desirable to have this experiment in order to acquire experience while we had the opportunity of working out the policy. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that electoral considerations did not enter into the question.
§ Dr. Stross
I am delighted to hear it. Let us discuss it on the merits of paragraph 8. I urge the Parliamentary Secretary to tell his right hon. Friend that the House wants this matter to be dealt with urgently. We do not want to wait any longer than is necessary. We accept what is said in paragraph 8 but we do not want our assets to deteriorate and waste. The whole country is united in demanding that some decisive action be taken.
The fourth point is the guarantee of full maintenance, which is dealt with in paragraphs 16 and 18. Paragraph 18 contains these words:During this period, the Commission will maintain these waterways at least in their present condition, and will, where traffic justifies it, undertake piling and other works of improvement.I am grateful for those words, for at least they are a promise that the Com- 1560 mission will do something. We are losing money all the time and we are glad to learn that the Commission will not allow any further deterioration than it can help.
The last sentence in paragraph 16 is less satisfactory:Thus a guarantee of continued availability for commercial navigation for twenty-five years of the whole 900 miles of these waterways cannot be given at this stage although every effort will be made to preserve the system as far as is practically possible.That is better than nothing, but I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary appreciates the feeling in the House generally.
In paragraph 9 we have the views of the Government:The Government regard it as most desirable that early action should be taken to deal with these canals, and they endorse the objectives set out in this part of the Report. They consider that the general lines of the approach which it proposes are most promising, and should be tried out in advance of legislation. They accept that legislation to facilitate redevelopment is needed, but they cannot commit themselves at this time to accept the detailed procedural machinery suggested until some practical experience has been gained.I urge the Parliamentary Secretary to believe that it is not practical experience which now needs to be gained. I think it is possible to set up a conservancy now. Some practical experience of conservation has already been gained by voluntary agencies.
We know the type of conservancy that is needed. It needs the support of all the interests involved, and the local authorities must serve on it. If it is dealt with sympathetically by the Transport Commission and the Government and given the initial finance which is needed—not new money but money which inevitably would be wasted if it did not step forward—such a conservancy will without any doubt succeed in preserving this great national asset and preventing it from falling into ruin.
§ 1.10 p.m.
§ Sir Spencer Summers (Aylesbury)
Those of us who have taken an interest in this subject can today count ourselves as singularly fortunate in that, first, an ally should have been lucky in the Ballot and, secondly, that my hon Friend who moved the Motion, the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. James) should have done it so brilliantly. He 1561 and I have been personal friends for many years and we have many mutual friends outside the House. All I shall content myself with saying is that I shall have the utmost possible pleasure in telling them that in my judgment and, I believe, in the judgment of everyone present here today to hear him, he put up an absolutely outstanding performance.
Reference has been made to the interim policy of the Government as embodied in the White Paper Cmd. 676. I should like to remind the House of two sentences in that White Paper, particularly as the Minister drew our attention to paragraph 8. In that paragraph it is stated thatThe Government's present proposals therefore set out an interim policy to cover a period possibly of some two years, … It is intended to start consultations with those concerned on the shape of future legislation as soon as some experience has accumulated and in any case well before two years have elapsed.This document is dated February, 1959, and the first of those two years will very soon have elapsed. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will regard this as one of the opportunities for consultation which is open to him and will lose no time in having such other consultations as the Government had in mind.
I shall not speculate on whether serious consultation would have started but for the luck of the draw, because I do not know whether that would be a very profitable speculation, but I very much hope that the Minister will be impressed by the enthusiasm and to a large extent the unanimity shown on both sides of the House in dealing with this topic.
The interim policy may, I think, fairly be summarised by saying that the Class C canals will be redeveloped on the advice of the Advisory Committee insofar as it is practical to give effect to it. The Class A canals will continue to be operated by the Transport Commission. Indeed, the Class A canals present a comparatively small problem, but there is nothing in the interim policy effectively to deal with the much more complicated problem of the Class B canals—which, incidentally, are three times as long as the Class A canals, which are self-supporting.
On page 33 of the Bowes Committee Report some most significant words are used in dealing with the problem, as the 1562 Committee saw it, of the Class B canal. The Report says:We are convinced that confidence in the future existence of the latter waterways is an indispensable condition of a revival of traffic upon them. … We are therefore convinced that, if our selection of waterways to constitute the prescribed navigable system is accepted, they should be put into good working order, and maintained to prescribed standards, for not less than twenty-five years.
The question of the guarantee has been referred to by more than one speaker in the debate. I do not think that we can emphasise too strongly that it cannot be expected that those who want to see the canals prosperous, and want to develop facilities for pleasure boating and other things, can do so unless they are assured—and they can be assured only by the Government—that there is a reasonable prospect of any investment they make fructifying in the future.
Hon. Members have quoted experience from their constituencies. I was very pleased to learn that an enterprising group set out only this year to develop the possibilities of pleasure boating in the canal basin of Aylesbury. That enterprise is described as "the first independently-owned yacht Marina in Britain." I cannot imagine that it can do more than set about a token investment until it is assured of continuity in the future. Therefore, it is of the utmost possible importance that that aspect should be stressed. Reference has been made to the archaic licensing system. I see no reason why that should await anything being changed because, whatever future administration is thought proper for the canals, there is no need to perpetuate a system which is recognised on all sides as thoroughly out-of-date and not conducing as it should to the encouragement of traffic on them.
It is common knowledge that the Class B canals are losing money. It is asserted that in no foreseeable future is it likely that they can be self-supporting. In other words, they will require a subsidy. What is not always appreciated, although this was referred to in the Report of the Bowes Committee, is that they are already getting a subsidy. A subsidy is coming from users of the railway system. If a subsidy is needed for the canal system, which is a national heritage and has other aspects than navigation, why should it be financed only by the users of the railway system? If public funds are 1563 needed and expenditure on the canals is necessary, it should surely come from the general public and not from the limited public using the railways.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) spoke of the very heavy cost of abandoning certain canals. Inasmuch as I have exactly the same brief as he evidently had and the opportunity of quoting the same figures, it would be only tedious repetition if I were to quote them again, but I can testify to the source from which they came and I have no doubt at all that they strengthen the case when it is realised what an immense cost accrues in an attempt to abandon a canal.
The hon. Member also quoted some figures that I have on pleasure boating and if we have the same brief it is not unlikely that we should be doing so, but I criticise the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) in saying that it is asking too much of those who wish to enjoy pleasure boating to pay £2 a week for substantially sized boats so that that might assist the development of the canals. I understand that it is not at all impossible to expect those boats to be used for 28 weeks in the year—possibly longer. If facilities for enterprises on the canals are to be improved, surely those who will benefit from them cannot complain if they are asked to make a substantial contribution.
The approach to the whole topic seems to be: will this or that pay? I cannot help thinking that in the whole context of the canals too much emphasis is placed on the limited argument of whether the credit side or the debit side financially comes out as normal business requires. There is far more in it than merely a profit and loss account produced by such figures. If people want to look at the profit and loss side, let them not lose sight of the advantage to the Treasury in fuel duties as more pleasure boating is developed on the canal.
I have said that there appeared to be considerable unanimity on both sides about what should be done. Until the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central referred to his wish to have the Transport Commission retain its navigation operations, I was hoping that the unanimity might be complete.
§ Sir S. Summers
I come, therefore, to what I believe is the problem which will face the Ministry in reading and considering what has been said today. First, a small point. I have often heard it argued, when certain features of a nationalised industry are under discussion, that it is very unfair on the nationalised industry if a profitable section of it is hived off and taken by private enterprise. If that be a good argument, it is surely equally fair to say that, if an unprofitable item is identified for the purpose of hiving off to other hands, those who argue one way in the first place should support us in the second.
There must be a line drawn somewhere. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central would draw the line at the Class A canals and say that these canals should be run and operated by the Transport Commission, while something different should happen to the Class B and Class C canals. I am not sure that it is wise to make this differentiation, because one particular type of canal has been arbitrarily placed in a certain category by a particular set of people who, on reflection, might wish to change this or that section in the light of further experience. I doubt that it is wise to have an arbitrary line between the types of canal and say that a certain body shall be responsible for one type and that some other body should be responsible for the others.
I recognise that the Transport Commission is essentially what it purports to be—a means of operating transport—but I believe that it would be wiser to have all the canals, in whatever category they may arbitrarily be placed, run by some conservancy, commission—call it what one will—but, for the navigation operations on the Class A canals and other parts of the system which are suitable and economic for navigation, let the Commission have the right to place its boats and conduct that part of its activities in its own name.
I remind the House that people who consider rail transport problems sometimes say that one solution ought to have been for the nation to own the track and to lease the track to the Transport Commission to operate in that way. It may, 1565 perhaps, be called a hidden subsidy, but, at any rate, it is an understandable thing. In this particular context, there may be much to be said for all the canals being under the same aegis, irrespective of their category, the Transport Commission being licensed to operate on such parts of the system as it wishes, carrying out its proper functions there.
There is another advantage in this. There have been references to voluntary effort and the possibility of attracting private money. If the canals are all under one commission, I see no reason why it should not be possible to lease for a very large number of years a particular feature of the system to the National Trust, exactly as has been done on part of the Avon Canal, where very large sums of money and considerable voluntary help has been forthcoming to put it in order.
This need not in any way vitiate the principle which, I believe, the Government must face, first, that the Transport Commission is not the proper body to be responsible for the main length of our canal system and, secondly, that it is desirable that the whole system shall be under one responsibility.
My hon. Friend the Minister said earlier that he was rather surprised at the degree of unanimity on the two sides of the House.
§ Sir S. Summers
I think that my hon. Friend might have realised that we all had the same brief since the publication of the Report of the Bowes Committee. Whatever private briefs, which do not support the Bowes Report in its entirety, we may have had, we are applying our minds to the recommendations of the Bowes Committee.
By and large, as I see it, the House is saying to the Minister, in the name of the public, "We will not tolerate for much longer playing with this subject". We must get down to it and, if necessary, spend money to develop the tremendous opportunities that there are. I hope that the clarion call which, in effect, this debate will produce will have the desired effect on the Ministry.
§ 1.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Carol Johnson (Lewisham, South)
I shall not detain the House for long, because most of the points I had in mind have already been dealt with fully and adequately by hon. Members who have preceded me. It is already clear that there is a formidable body of argument with which the Minister will have to deal, even before my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) has made his contribution to the debate.
There is, however, one aspect of the matter to which only passing reference has been made and which I should like to elaborate. I refer to the case for regarding our canals as important for their beauty and the good walking facilities which are provided along the towpaths. Naturally, I expect to have the very sympathetic support of the right hon. Gentleman the present Minister of Transport because he himself, I know, is very active in outdoor recreation.
All the three hon. Members who have spoken have referred to the fact that our canals are part of our great national heritage. The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. James) spoke of our canal heritage, a very good phrase. The Bowes Report itself points out that the canals were built at a time when the quality of design in this country was very high and they fitted very successfully into the English landscape. Moreover, when they were introduced, the canals brought water to many parts of the country where, hitherto, there had been none. This helped to increase the variety as well as the beauty of the landscape, and also strengthened its animal and plant life.
I was particularly pleased by the reference in the Government's White Paper to the encouragement which must be given to the National Trust in its negotiations with the British Transport Commission for taking over certain canals or sections of the canals, but I imagine that others besides myself were rather disappointed at the report we had from the hon. Member for Nantwich (Mr. Grant-Ferris) about the actual difficulties which have arisen in connection with those discussions. This indicates that many of these problems cannot be shelved by the Government and passed over to other bodies to be 1567 dealt with. The Government must in future take a much greater responsibility than they have in the past.
One of the very special features of the canals is that they have helped to produce very many long-distance footpaths. It is most important that we should see that these are protected and maintained. The hon. Member for Kemptown referred to the great importance of providing facilities for recreation along our canals, and he reminded us that, in the new age of leisure, demands of this kind will increase.
The Bowes Report concentrates attention upon this aspect and, in paragraph 117, says:Towing paths which are not already public rights of way should be opened to the public as footways, free of charge, so far as such use is not inconsistent with the use of the waterway for navigation".But many towpaths may not necessarily be rights of ways. There has been litigation in the past on whether a particular towpath was a public path. On the other hand, many towpaths are recognised as rights of way and have been included in the draft plans being produced by county councils in connection with the footpath survey.
It is interesting that as long ago as 1947 a special Committee on Footpaths and Access to the Countryside devoted a section of its Report to the importance of towpaths. This Committee, the Hobhouse Committee, stated in paragraph 134 of its Report, Command Paper 7207:… we wish to refer to towpaths and other paths along canals and rivers as these often form some of the most attractive routes for pedestrians.Paragraph 136 reads:The opening of new rights of way along towpaths or river banks will be an important consideration in any footpath plan.
I urge the Minister, therefore, to give serious consideration to this aspect of canals in future policy. We are all aware of the difficulties which arise when canals fall into disuse and the paths become dangerous to their users. I suggest that, as far as possible, arrangements should be made to transfer them to highway authorities so that there is some financial responsibility for their upkeep. If the submission that the footpaths themselves are an important 1568 feature is accepted, I hope that the canals will not be abandoned simply because of the cost of the upkeep of the footpaths.
The Minister has an opportunity today to satisfy a wide range of people, drawn from all classes, who, in their various ways, have used, or may in future use, the canals. I hope that he will say that the Government intend to give much more serious and urgent consideration to this matter than they have done in the past. We are all very much indebted to the hon. Member for Kemptown for moving the Motion. We have had a wide-ranging debate with a good deal of unanimity of approach on both sides of the House, and I hope that the Minister will tell us that the Government will take action in this matter and not leave it to be dealt with by other bodies.
§ 1.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Wilson (Truro)
I am glad to be able to support the Motion. Anyone who has made a close study of the Bowes Report must have been impressed by the exceptional thoroughness with which the Committee examined all matters within its terms of reference and the exceptional comprehensiveness of its recommendations. It even went so far as to include an Appendix giving an outline of a draft of the necessary legislation if the recommendations of the Committee were implemented. This is most unusual in a report of this sort.
Anyone familiar with the complexities of the problems which the British canals present must agree that any Government in the last year of its office could hardly be expected to undertake the necessary comprehensive and extensive legislation which would be needed in order to implement the recommendations, or the main recommendations, of the Report. I therefore think that we should be impressed by and grateful for the fact that, instead of doing nothing, which the Government had ample excuse for doing faced with such a situation, they did, as an interim policy and in the first place, set up the Inland Waterways Redevelopment Advisory Committee to deal with the minor part of the Bowes Committee's recommendations on the disposal of the so-called Class C canals. The words "interim" and "in the first place" are 1569 stressed in Command Paper 676. Anyone who thinks that, as a result of the White Paper or of the setting up of the Committee, he can sit back for another two years and not bother about the canal problem is making a very great mistake and is burking the whole issue.
I want to speak from my own experience as a former solicitor to the Great Western Railway and not from the brief of the constituent of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross), although I do not think that we should belittle that brief. I understand that, in addition to being a constituent of the hon. Member, the gentleman in question is treasurer of the National Trust, is a banker and that he has had experience of canals in connection with a Parham Committee. However, apart from anything said in that brief, which a number of hon. Members have received, from my own experience it is quite impossible to get anything done satisfactorily on the canals until we get rid of the absolute chaos of ancient Statutes which clutter up and obstruct action being taken. I discovered this from personal experience as solicitor to the Great Western Railway. I shall come back to that point later.
Anyone who wants to understand the problems presented by British canals must start by clearly remembering two facts, one of geology and one of history. The geological fact which must be remembered, otherwise it is not possible to understand the canal problem, is that Great Britain is not naturally a canal country. Unlike Holland, Belgium and France, or parts of Germany, we have no framework of great natural rivers and river deltas on which to base a canal system. Unlike so much of Holland, Belgium and large parts of France and Germany, very little of Great Britain is flat alluvial soil, where the digging of a canal merely means scooping out the ditch and letting the natural water table fill it up with water.
In Holland, roads are built by scooping out the peaty top soil down to the sand subsoil, letting the water table fill the ditch, floating a barge load of sand along the ditch, tipping the sand into the canal, filling it up, and laying a brick surface for a roadway. The great Amsterdam-Utrecht-Rotterdam motorway was built by those methods during the last few years. I have spoken to 1570 the engineers who carried out the building of that modern motorway by those methods, and I have seen photographs of the work being done.
Canal building in Great Britain is nothing like that. It is a very different matter. Our country is very hilly, and to build a canal we must collect water from springs and streams, impound it at an unnatural level, get it to flow in unnatural directions and blast through rock formation. We must tunnel or cut through hills, and carry water across valleys by means of aqueducts. We have to build vast numbers of locks. The average vertical lift of a British canal is ten feet per mile. The average vertical lift of a canal in Western Europe is 1 ft. 8 inches per mile. In West Germany, in 3,200 miles of waterway there are 215 locks, but, in Britain, on 1,886 miles of nationalised canals there are 1,540 locks. In other words, Germany has an average of one lock every 15 miles, whereas Great Britain has one lock every 1¼ miles.
To build canals in such circumstances is a considerable engineering feat. Here, we come to the second factor without which an understanding of our canal problem is impossible. This considerable engineering feat which was necessary to build our canals was carried out by our engineers in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. It was carried out by engineers who had no resources available to them except gangs of navvies with wheelbarrows, picks and shovels. They had no transport except horses and carts with which to carry bricks and hewn stone, no concrete—certainly no reinforced or prestressed concrete—and no rock drills. Their only means of dealing with rocks was wish wedges, sledgehammers and crowbars and, perhaps, a little gunpowder. In consequence to build canals by such methods was a costly, tedious and slow business and it should be remembered that they were built with money subscribed by private enterprise investors.
In the circumstances, the canal builders had to consider carefully for what purpose the canals were intended. They were intended only to compete with the horse and cart. Therefore, the engineers who built them rightly designed them just large enough to give a horse-drawn barge an advantage over a horse and cart, and no more.
1571 It is calculated that a horse and cart could move one ton 20 miles in one day. That gives a ton mileage of 20 tons. For a narrow boat such as was customary on our narrow canals—a craft 70 ft. long, 7 ft wide and carrying 25 tons—we can work out the ton mileage by saying that one horse takes 25 tons 30 miles in one day, giving a ton mileage of 750, compared with the 20 of the horse and cart. If two persons are employed, as normally they were, on a horse-drawn barge, it would still have a rating nineteen times better than a horse and cart. If, however, we compare the narrow boat with a diesel-engined lorry, the calculation works out very differently. A lorry carrying 15 tons can travel 150 miles in one day. That is a ton mileage of 2,250. Even if the narrow boat has a diesel engine and is drawing a butty with another 30 tons, it cannot possibly compete with a lorry on a ton mileage basis. Unless the charges in relation to the ton mileage are much less than for the lorry, economically the narrow boat simply does not have a hope of competing.
Cost, however, is not the only reason why people choose one form of transport rather than another. As I have pointed out many times in the House of Commons, the choice for an individual in selecting transport is always either one or other or a combination of two factors, cheapness and convenience. It is convenient for some people to use a narrow boat on a narrow canal for commercial purposes. If a person's works happen to be alongside a canal and the destination where his goods have to be taken is also alongside the canal, it may be convenient for him to use it for that reason. If transhipment is involved, it is unlikely to be a convenient method and, therefore, the commercial uses for a narrow boat in modern times are very small. In other words, the opportunity for commercial use of a narrow canal is not very great.
With larger barges, the picture is, of course, very different. They can go into harbours and they have the great advantage of getting alongside ships, which, by offside loading and unloading, can avoid harbour dues. That is an attraction to exporters and importers of which the owners of larger barges can take advantage. In addition, the ton mileage of the 1572 larger barge is a very different matter. For instance, in the Trent Navigation, one power boat and three dumb barges and a crew of nine can carry 600 tons 70 miles in one day, or a ton mileage of 4,200, which is more than twice the ton mileage of a 15-ton diesel lorry. Unfortunately, however, less than half our canals can take larger barges and only a small proportion of those which cannot could be altered to take them without great capital cost, a greater outlay than the cost of building a roadway. For this reason, such alteration is hardly justifiable.
Furthermore, as the canals were built under a mass of Private and Public Acts passed by this House before it had any experience of Railway Acts and before any precedents were set up, the complications of much earlier legislation dealing with canals has to be seen to be believed. Some of the Acts raise so many queries that they do not afford a guide to the legal profession. They are full of the most obscure protective Clauses creating private interests of all sorts. They vary from Act to Act on the most important matters, even as to the right of supply or the right to take water. Some of them are even on handmade paper and printed with hand-set type. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich (Mr. Grant-Ferris) pointed out, some of them can be found only in the Public Record Office. There is no copy of them in this House or in the archives of British Railways. All those Acts are both archaic and chaotic and a nightmare to any lawyer who is asked to express an opinion about them, as I have had to do in the past. Until all these laws are dealt with, it is not possible to make progress.
The fact that most of our canals were built too small and under obsolete and ineffective laws would not have mattered if canals had continued to develop as a growing concern in the same way as from the early Acts governing turnpike roads, which were just as curious as the canal Acts, we gradually developed our modern system of roads.
Unfortunately, however—and this is a historical fact which also must be borne in mind—the development of our canals preceded the development of the railways. The advent of the railways 1573 followed close upon the full development of the canals and we must remember the psychological effect upon our predecessors caused by the advent of the steam engine. Nowadays, we are so accustomed to new wonders every day that we are not much disturbed even by a sputnik which goes round the moon, and we forget the psychological shock which the steam engine produced on our ancestors. They were mesmerised by it.
I have before in this House quoted a passage from "Dombey and Son", in which Charles Dickens, who, after all, should have been a tough customer—he was a Lobby correspondent and a journalist—and not easily upset emotionally, compared a railway steam locomotive to the omniscience and the inevitability of the angel of death. That was the sort of attitude that people in those days took to the advent of steam.
Our canals remained frozen in the turn-pike stage of development, not only because they were less than economic or because the railways bought them up but did not develop them. There may be something in that argument, but it is not by any means the sole reason for the lack of development of canals. The chief reason, I think, was that it simply did not occur to anybody in those days, soon after the advent of steam, to invest money in the development of any form of transport other than the railway steam locomotive. People were so mesmerised and bewitched by the advent of steam that they simply did not consider any other form of transport. It is actually on record that for a time there was grass growing in the middle of the Great North Road and of the Bath Road, and that even road transport gave up the ghost, nothing being done about transport except steam transport—for a time. The canals became the victims of a creeping paralysis and have remained that way ever since.
The number of Reports which subsequently came out have been alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. James), whom I take the opportunity of congratulating on his maiden speech, which was a very remarkable one. The more recent of those Reports have been mentioned both by him and by the Bowes Committee—the Royal Commission of 1906 which reported in 1909, on which no 1574 action was taken; the Departmental Committee of 1920, on which no action was taken; the Royal Commission on Transport of 1930, on which no action was taken; the Heneage Report in so far as is affected land drainage connected with canals, and on which no action was taken.
The only action taken at all, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich (Mr. Grant-Ferris) mentioned, was that, almost by accident, the Transport Act, 1947, amongst a lot of other things, did carry out a recommendation from the Report of 1909 and unified the ownership of the main canal system. Subsequently the British Transport Commission, after the Board of Survey Report of 1954, classified the canals into groups: first, those carrying a substantial amount of traffic which could be developed; secondly, those carrying some traffic and which might be maintained for the time being; thirdly, those on which there was little or no traffic and which should be transferred; and fourthly, the Caledonian and Crinnan Canals which they thought should be handed over to the Secretary of State for Scotland.
Following that Report the Commission initiated a scheme for spending some £6 million on development of Class I canals. The Class A canals, so called in the Bowes Report, are not identical with those Class I canals. They are very nearly the same but not quite. The B.T.C. proposed spending £6 million on all Class I canals and has, I understand, carried out about half that programme to date. I do not want to be critical of the B.T.C. but I must say that the results have not been very impressive.
If we look at the Report and Accounts of British Waterways for 1958 we find that they made a loss of £640,000. Receipts were slightly higher but the loss was double what it was in the previous year. Costs of administration went up by 20 per cent., the numbers of administrative and clerical staff increased by 8 per cent., nearly a quarter of the entire staff left and had to be replaced during the year. There may be reasonable explanations of all that, but if the Commission were a private or public liability company I think the chairman would have to do a lot of explaining at the annual general meeting as to how that came about.
1575 What should be done now? Obviously, the larger canals which do pay their way and on which money for development has been spent recently should be kept going if only to avoid the additional road congestion which would ensue if the canal traffic were thrown on to the roadways. But what are we to do with the rest? They are mostly too narrow and carry little or no traffic and they lose money.
People not familiar with the problem may be tempted to say, "Scrap the lot and cut the losses", but, as has been pointed out by a number of speakers already during the debate, the abandoning of a canal is an extremely expensive business, because one just cannot walk away and leave it Apart from the questions of smells, of bursts, of leaking, of the spread of disease which one hon. Member mentioned, there is the question about depriving people of water rights which they have acquired over a very long time.
There is also the amenity question. An abandoned canal looks hideous. If it is filled in, compensation has to be provided for the owners of water rights, which may be very expensive. If it is not filled in banks have to be maintained, and fences to keep children from getting into the water, especially in urban areas where they may fall in and be drowned. There is also great expense in rebuilding bridges and putting them into proper order, which must be done before any local authority will take them over and maintain the roads across existing waterways.
Figures have been given and were mentioned today by several hon. Members. I should again like to say, from my own personal experience, that the Great Western Railway did not want to be saddled with the Kennet-Avon Canal and would long ago have abandoned it but for the fact that it was too expensive to do so. I know that in the far-off pre-war days there was actually a scheme seriously considered whereby the Kennet-Avon Canal should be given away at a nominal price to anybody who would undertake the liabilities. Unfortunately, even at a give-away price, nobody could be found who would undertake the liabilities.
Fortunately, there are other uses, which have been alluded to, which do 1576 not conflict with any traffic which does remain, which do earn revenue, and which are growing in popularity. I would put first the supply of water which several other hon. Members did. The legal powers which the Commission has over charges for water under the existing chaotic laws are very doubtful indeed. Although the Commission estimates that it will be earning £500,000 by this means by 1959 to 1960, much water at present is abstracted at a very low price or even without permission at all, and I have no doubt that if the law were amended in the form suggested by the Bowes Committee a much larger revenue could accrue. The fact is that each month or each year the law remains in its existing position does amount to a loss of revenue to whoever must maintain the canals and is an additional reason why we should not wait any longer than we can possibly help before pressing on with the amendment of the law on the canals. Revenue which ought to be collected is disappearing all the time, and people are either getting something for nothing or getting it at much too cheap a price.
The same applies, of course, to fishing. This is a sport the popularity of which is growing. According to the Bowes Committee it is bringing the canal authorities—it is apparently referring to the whole of the waterways of Great Britain and not only to the nationalised canals—only £7,800 a year. That is an extremely low price having regard to the fact that the National Trust states that it earned £2,287 in 1958 for one and a half miles unstocked waterway at Clumber Park. Compare that figure with the £7,800 earned over, presumably, 2,000 miles. It is an absurd figure and ought to be very much larger, and it can be if the law is altered.
Then we have had reference to boating. Kenneth Grahame, who was no Englishman but who lived at Cookham Dean, knew his Englishmen very well when he made Water Rat say to Toad of Toad Hall in "The Wind in the Willows":There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as messing about in boats.Particularly note his expression, "so much worth doing." I think it is the natural instinct of all Englishmen to 1577 want to play about in boats. They do it when they get the chance, and more people are getting the chance today than before. The Committee pointed out that it thought it was safe to assume that there would be an increase of 50 per cent. in the next five years in the number of boats on the waterways. In fact that increase had taken place before the Report was published.
I am not suggesting that these various methods of collecting revenue in connection with waterways are sufficient to pay for the Class B canals, but I think they would go a long way towards minimising the losses on those canals which are really the crux of the debate. Everyone agrees that the Class A canals should be kept in being for big barge navigation and should continue to carry traffic and make that traffic pay its way.
I think everyone agrees that Class C canals which are no longer commercially valuable should be redeveloped as best they can for non-navigational use and, if possible, disposed of to any authority or individual which will take them over. The Government White Paper which we welcomed set up the Inland Waterways Development Advisory Committee to that end.
The question which we are really discussing is what we should do with the Class B canals. They carry some traffic and could be developed for non-navigational use, but they are still unlikely to pay their way. The two main recommendations of the Bowes Committee were that the A, B and C canals should remain vested in the British Transport Commission, that the Class A canals should be expected to pay their way, but that financial relief should be given to the Commission in respect of the working deficit of the Class B and Class C canals. The alternative was that Classes A, B and C and the B.T.C. fleet should vest in some new body, a waterway corporation which should receive aid from public funds.
Both those proposals implied that some aid should be given from public funds, and it was only on the question of who should manage or own the waterways that they differed. The disadvantages of the first suggestion, of course, are that it would place a transport undertaking that is overwhelmingly a rail and road transport undertaking in 1578 charge of waterways, only half of which are of transport use, and the query arises whether transport officers by training and temperament are really the most suitable persons to make imaginative use of public amenities.
The second recommendation is the other way round. It would place the commercial Class A canals and the B.T.C. fleet in the hawk of an organisation largely concerned with amenities. It seems to me that neither of those proposals is really satisfactory. I am much more attracted to the suggestion, made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, and by others, that we should have a typically British compromise, which seems to me to be common sense, and leave the Class A canals and the B.T.C. fleet with the Commission which should continue with them as it does with its other transport units and make them pay one year with another. We should transfer the Class B and Class C canals to a new body, a sort of cross between the Thames Conservancy Board and the National Trust, which would enable such traffic as could be carried on the narrow canals to continue but be chiefly concerned with amenities. It would rely for revenue mainly on water rates, fishing and boating, on voluntary gifts and on Government grant.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central referred to the scheme put forward by his constituent for getting a Government grant. I must say that scheme seemed attractive to me because it implied that instead of someone paying the capital cost of disposing of a canal, which is what someone would have to do if the canals were left in their present state, the Treasury would be called upon to provide only an amount equal to the interest on that sum which can be calculated.
The example referred to and the suggestion made by the hon. Gentleman's constituent was that if canal Z is 50 miles long and if after selling it or giving away as much of it as possible it would cost £½ million to make safe and transfer highway bridges and to compensate those with water rights and so on—£½ million is not an impossible figure in view of the sort of costs which might be involved in the abandonment of the Kennet and Avon canal and so on—and if £12,000 a year would be 1579 needed to maintain those parts which could not be eliminated or transferred, we should take £12,000 and add £500,000—multiply by 5 over 100, that is 5 per cent. on the capital cost of abandonment—which would give a figure of £37,000 a year.
Such an annual grant would cost the Treasury less than finding the £512,000 which would be necessary in order to abandon forthwith. If any conservancy board which received a grant of that sort did well with its commercial traffic, boating, fishing and water rates, and so on, it might be possible for the annual grant to be reduced. If the board did badly it would have sufficient income to borrow the necessary capital to close the canal without a further capital grant from the Treasury.
It was also pointed out that while these canals were kept in being some benefit would accrue to the Treasury in respect of the Income Tax it would receive from the people employed, which would number several thousands, and also from the fuel duty on the boats and vessels that use the waterway.
I think that this idea of a conservancy board, whether it be one to take over the lot or only the Class B and Class C canals, should be looked at now. The question of legislation should not be delayed a moment longer than necessary, because we are losing revenue all the time that legislation is left in its present form. I think that these ideas should be looked at now, and for those reasons I support the Motion. I not only welcome the Bowes Report and Cmnd. 676, but I urge Her Majesty's Government to announce their further decisions on the matter as soon as possible.
§ 2.9 p.m.
§ Mr. R. J. Mellish (Bermondsey)
The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson) has made a number of important and interesting points. He has, of course, great knowledge of canals and is very well qualified to speak on the subject. Later, I hope to deal with a number of the points which he has raised, but it is, first, my pleasant duty to congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. James) on so ably moving the Motion. His maiden speech was first-class and was delivered with a great 1580 deal of wit and an enormous amount of charm. I am not now saying just the usual nice things which are said in the House when an hon. Member makes a maiden speech.
I was told that the hon. Gentleman was not supposed to be an expert on canals, but I am sure that by the time I finish my speech it will be proved that he knows more about the subject than I do. That probably goes for the Parliamentary Secretary, too. The hon. Gentleman is certainly to be congratulated on his performance today. I am sure that the whole House would wish to join with me in saying that to the hon. Gentleman and also in congratulating his hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. J. Wells), who also made a first-class speech.
The enthusiasm and knowledge which the hon. Member showed are things that we all welcome. I read that one of his ancestors represented Maidstone a hundred years ago. I am sure that if he makes more speeches like the one we heard from him today he will make a greater impression than probably his ancestor did. We wish him well and congratulate him on his speech.
The subject which the hon. Gentleman has been lucky enough to be able to place before us as the result of coming first in the Ballot has been shown to be of great importance to the House and to the country. I have been impressed in the debate by the tributes which have been quite rightly paid to the British Transport Commission for the work that it has undertaken since 1947 as a result of the Act passed in that year. It was good to hear Conservative Member after Conservative Member paying rightful tribute to the Commission. On this side of the House we find that a very welcome change, and I am delighted that this was made clear in the effective, reasonable and able speech of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Nantwich (Mr. Grant-Ferris), because of his great knowledge.
I start my speech by adding to what has been said about the work that has been accomplished, because if we are to talk about the future we must have as a background some knowledge of the work that has been done. As we know, since 1947 the Transport Commission 1581 has been in charge of the system of waterways in England and Wales which represent over 2,000 miles of territory. From 1948 to 1953 the Commission spent over £1 million on arrears of maintenance on the main routes and another £500,000 on additional plant and machinery.
It should be put on record that as a consequence of spending this money and doing that work the Commission increased the traffic on the Class I canals by over 3 million tons between 1948 and 1953 in spite of the deplorable legacy it inherited. In connection with traffic it should be remembered that only 10 per cent. is actually carried by the Commission, the remainder is carried by private enterprise. So, when we talk of increased traffic, we should remember that it is the country's money which is being spent by the Commission in making it possible for private enterprise to use this necessary form of transport.
In 1954, the Commission established a Board of Survey under the chairmanship of Lord Rusholme. After great consideration the waterways system was divided into the three categories of which we have heard so much. I apologise if I repeat some of the things already said in the debate, but, since we are talking about the same Report, although we shall arrive at slightly different conclusions the subject matter will have to be repeated. The Board of Survey called the three categories Grades I, II and III. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Truro has told us that a development plan was agreed as a result of the findings of the survey, with £5 million to be spent on the Grade I canals. I believe that already £3 million have been spent on that development plan.
§ Mr. Mellish
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.
About half of that considerable sum of money which is to be found from the resources of the Commission has been spent quite properly on the essential 1582 canals of Britain, which are in Group I. I say at once to the Parliamentary Secretary, in agreement with everyone who has spoken today, that there is no longer any excuse for failing to face the urgent problem of our waterways system. It is now so urgent that it has become bad for the morale of the people employed and for the recruitment of staff. For instance, application was made recently by the trade unions for an increase in the wages of those employed on the inland waterways. I think that the House will be as shocked as I was when it hears the details.
The application was made last Thursday week on behalf of the manual grades of the Transport Commission. The present rate of pay is £7 14s. 11d. for a working week ranging from 44 to 46 hours, with very little opportunity for overtime or bonus. The unions argued that this scandalous rate of pay should at least be brought to the level of the average rate being paid by river authorities, in civil engineering, and so on, which is £9 a week. What was the reply given only last Thursday week? They were told that, while the validity of the claim was not challenged, there was no money in the "kitty", so the claim could not be met by the Commission. It could only be provided from Government sources.
There are 4,500 employees on that rate of pay. I am not saying they are all manual grades, but the majority are. Such a rate is indefensible and it is unwarrantable to say, in effect, to the Commission. "You have to pay your way at the expense of these men". We should not forget that we are talking of human beings. So this is another vital reason why the finances of the Commission should be put in order.
After the survey there was the appointment of the Committee of Inquiry into Inland Waterways and there are two major questions of principle arising from its Report. The first is the unanimous recommendation of a subsidy from public funds for the navigable waterways. I think that no one in the House would oppose that recommendation. My own urgent request to the Parliamentary Secretary is that something should be done immediately about the subsidy. The Government cannot delay this. They cannot say they will look at it in two 1583 years' time, because, as I have shown, a large number of people are suffering.
The second major question of principle which must be considered today is the recommendation for an independent statutory body to carry out the disposal of those waterways which have outlived their usefulness for transport purposes. On this recommendation alone there was a major division of opinion in the Committee.
The hon. Gentleman the Member for Truro said that the suggestion that our waterways system is similar to that of our foreign competitors is absolute nonsense. I was glad to hear the hon. Gentleman say so, because he has considerable knowledge of the subject. In my view, our waterways cannot compete on a commercial basis with other forms of transport. Some people say glibly that if we redeveloped all our canals they would take thousands and thousands of tons of traffic off the roads. It is not quite like that. We know that our waterways fulfil certain functions besides transport and we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) about land drainage and industrial water supply.
Here again, we must have legislation to ensure that those who use the canals shall pay for the service. I will illustrate that by telling the House how some canals are used. I am advised that there is hardly any payment made. For instance, the Erewash Canal, which is in the Birmingham district, is 22 miles long and there are between 12 and 14 factories and works which draw water from it. Besides these there are five or six local authorities whose drainage system includes the canal, and all the farmers through whose property it runs draw water from it. One of the most important functions of this small canal is that of flood prevention. Yet I am told that the Transport Commission receives hardly a penny for all the work done.
I read in the Guardian of 17th September about a new water supply scheme which the Minister of Housing and Local Government was about to open. It was a wonderful scheme introduced by the Mid and South-East Cheshire Water Board. It had taken two years to complete and cost 1584 £1,200,000. This is what an official of the Board had to say:… the use of the canal meant an estimated saving of £750,000 in the laying of a pipeline as well as £6,000 tons of steel.
I am glad that someone is getting something out of it, but the Commission is not getting anything out of it. It is monstrous. That saving having been made, some realistic contribution ought to be given to those who have the job of running these canals. The Bowes Report often mentions the question of the services which are provided.
The Bowes Committee followed very much the lines of Lord Rusholme's Board of Survey in that it broke down the waterways system into three classes—A, B, C. It is important to get on the record what it said. It said that Classes A and B taken together cannot cover their operating expenses; nevertheless it is in the public interest that these two classes should be kept in being as an integrated and efficient system of inland navigation, combining with navigation other important economic and social uses. The Committee described the A and B class canals as the "Prescribed Navigable System."
The Committee referred to the financing of the Class A canals and said that they should be kept at a high and improving standard of maintenance by the ploughing back of surpluses. That is fair enough. All the profit should go back to ensure that the canals become more efficient that they have been. The Committee said that the Class B canals, though suffering from inherent drawbacks, should be given the chance to attract more traffic. To remove deterrents to greater use, three measures were proposed. One was reinstatement, spread over five years, to the original standard, and the Committee thought that the maximum cost of this would be £3.5 million. Another was that there should be a guaranteed maintenance at that standard for a period of twenty-five years to give confidence to potential users and to encourage investment in carrying craft and so forth.
The Parliamentary Secretary must give us an answer in respect of those two recommendations alone. He must say how far the Government are prepared to go and will go in matters of this kind. I agree with what other hon. Members have said, that if we are to 1585 make the Class B canals really good we must give those who use them confidence that there is a future for them and that the Government will find the money to make certain that they are of use.
The Committee also recommended the replacement of a system of tolls based on a ton-mileage by one of annual licences on carrying craft, and pointed out that the loss of revenue from this change at the 1956 level of traffic would be £164,000.
When we take the financial implications of this and prepare a balance sheet, we find that in respect of the Class A canals all the surpluses are to be reinvested. From the point of view of the Commission, that means a nil return there. In the case of the Class B canals, the annual deficit at the 1956 rate will be £321,000 and the replacement by tolls by licences will be £164,000. Therefore, the total deficit which the Commission faces in respect of both the Class A and the Class B canals is roughly £500,000 a year. To that must be added the cost of reinstatement.
The Parliamentary Secretary must tell us what is to happen about this money. It has to be found. We cannot just have a Report of this kind and agree it in the House and recognise the financial implications and then not do anything about it except say that we will have another look at it in two years' time. I do not want to be involved in arguments which were put forward during the General Election. There was then a certain reason for some of those arguments. That is all behind us now and we have a different spirit. The Commission is not now regarded as quite as bad as it was a few months ago. Therefore, it is important that its future should be ensured.
I think that the proposals to spend money on the Class B waterways are, at first sight, difficult to justify, but they must be viewed in the light of the alternatives. Here I must repeat some of the things which have been said so effectively by others who have a greater knowledge of these things than I can ever hope to have. If nothing is done, the deficits will continue to increase and the condition of the waterways will continue to deteriorate and public health and public safety will be endangered.
1586 An unknown amount of expenditure—I do not know how anyone could work it out—would have to be undertaken in giving services to certain industries and agriculture which are at present given, and in providing social benefits. Whatever the future of the Class B canals, the general line of the Bowes Committee was that, broadly, the money spent should permit of as much national benefit as possible.
I want to say a word about the very important other recommendations of the Committee. This is where some of us part company, such as on the question of how we are to deal with the redundant canals, those in Class C. The Commission ought to have them taken away from it as quickly as possible. The question is: who will take them over and how the job is to be done? The White Paper states that the Government have set up an Inland Waterways Redevelopment Advisory Committee. That is a fine title, a typical Government title. I gather that the Committee has been in existence for some time.
§ Mr. Mellish
I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to tell the House what the Committee has done up to date. Has it presented any recommendations? My view is that if this is how we are to dispose of the redundant canals, we shall be facing the problem for years. The Bowes Committee said:Some hundreds of miles of waterway will need to be reviewed case by case and a fresh assessment made of their value to the community, taking into account such transport potential as they still retain and any other commercial, economic and social uses associated with them.
If each of these cases is to be dealt with on its merits and has to go through the procedure of the Advisory Committee looking at it, negotiations, and so on, I feel that we shall, in the absence of legislation and of compulsory powers for the Minister, be dealing with the Class C canals for years to come. There are bound to be rows. The hon. Member for Truro has said that there are some canals which people will not have. There have been tremendous arguments in the past. I am advised that some negotiations over certain stretches of canal have take five or six years and at the end no conclusions have been reached and the Commission has had to continue carrying 1587 the financial burden. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us what the Advisory Committee has already been able to do. I should also like to know whether he is aware of the tremendous problems which have been faced in the past in negotiations about parts of canals.
We say that the proposal to set up a new body as a kind of disposals board for redundant waterways is sound, provided always that its function is kept separate from the transport function. It is right that the expenditure on the waterways should not be a burden on the Commission's finances, but should be borne on some other Vote. No additional expense is involved, apart from the administrative overheads, in the other form of board—the Waterways Redevelopment Board—suggested by the Bowes Committee. I am not here talking of the alternative recommendations. The only additional burden would be administrative overheads.
We believe that one of the serious weaknesses of the recommendations is the refusal to contemplate compulsory transfers. The B.T.C. has been negotiating with various authorities for the transfer of certain canals over a number of years, entirely without success. We think that the new body will be greatly handicapped because at the end of the day there are no compulsory powers which the Minister would be prepared to use to make certain that it could do its job.
We oppose from this side of the House what is called the alternative plan of the Bowes Committee, for we believe that setting up water transport in direct competition with road and rail would spell the end of the conception which we have always had of an integrated national transport system.
§ Sir S. Summers
Would it not be in keeping with the hon. Member's notion of an integrated transport system if the Commission were allowed to operate on the canals without necessarily being responsible for their maintenance?
§ Mr. Mellish
I listened to what I thought was a very good speech by the hon. Member, but I do not think that he listened to the earlier part of my remarks, in which I dealt with what the Commission has done. I believe that it 1588 has done a magnificent job for the country.
I believe that the Class A and Class B canals are an integral part of the system of canals which is essential to navigation and that if the Commission is to run the Class A canals, as everyone seems to think it should run them, it should be allowed to have the Class B canals to run, too. If that is not done, and if the alternative plan of the Bowes Committee were to be accepted, it would spell the end of the conception which we as a party have always had of an integrated national transport system. By its terms of reference and outlook the I.W.C. would be less capable than the B.T.C. of appreciating the overall economic advantage to the nation of the different forms of transport. Nor do I agree with the remark made during the debate that the position of the inland waterways has suffered because the B.T.C. was train-minded. The work of the B.T.C. shows that it has done all it possibly can with the money allowed. It has a record of which the House can be very proud.
Furthermore, there would be no financial saving if the alternative plan were accepted, but there would be a drastic change in the administrative pattern which, again, would have a bad effect on the morale and efficiency on those who are already in the inland waterways service.
Although I am a Londoner, and fear to mention Scotland in the debate, I ought to remind the House that the Caledonian and Crinan canals are to be retained as navigable waterways for their value to the social and economic life of the Highlands, the cost being borne on the Scottish Office Vote. We think that that is desirable. The remaining canals would be dealt with under the W.R.B. procedure.
Our conclusion is that after a good deal of uncertainty, there is a chance of settling this matter, which has troubled the nation for a long time. We press the Government to accept in principle the Committee's Report and recommendations. Of the liabilities to the Exchequer involved by the recommendations, some will merely be an accounting transaction in lieu of the deficits already shown in the B.T.C.'s finances and some will be a payment for recreational and social benefits comparable with that 1589 under the National Park Acts. We believe that much can be done by new legislation to ensure that the National Parks Commission, for example, takes its share of responsibility for some of these canals. The National Parks Commission would like to do that. Examples have been given to me in which it has tried to do this, but negotiations have always broken down on the question of finance.
The remainder, whatever figure may be finally accepted, will be the price we shall have to pay for the legacy which we have inherited from the past. I know that the Government do not intend to reject the Committee's Report, but to reject it and do nothing would be to condemn the Transport Commission to a hopeless future of perpetually meeting the deficits of these waterways and being the target, as it has been for some time, of an unending bombardment of outraged public opinion.
I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will have more to say than is contained in the White Paper. He should recognise from the volume of opinion behind him and from this side of the House that we believe that, now that the General Election is over, if there is to be a future for the waterways system in this country, only by State aid can this be brought about. This subsidy would be well worth while. The Chancellor is budgetting for nearly £5,000 million in the financial year. If, over a number of years, £5 million of that is spent on Britain's waterways system, it will be money well spent. There can be no excuse for not finding the money.
§ 2.37 p.m.
§ Lieut.-Commander S. L. C. Maydon (Wells)
I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) speaking almost in complete contradiction to many of the sentiments expressed from directly behind him. There is a wide body of agreement in the House that the major part of our canal system ought to be taken away from the British Transport Commission and given to some other organisation.
§ Mr. Mellish
Perhaps I might clear that point up straight away. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) made it clear that much should be retained by the British Transport Commission. My hon. Friend 1590 the Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) was the only hon. Member from this side of the House to express a slightly different view, and I think that on reflection he will see the disadvantage of it.
§ Lieut.-Commander Maydon
It seems, then, that my understanding of what was said by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross), particularly his quotation from a letter which he had received from a constituent and his comments upon it, is rather different from the interpretation put upon that letter and the hon. Member's comments by the hon. Member for Bermondsey.
§ Dr. Stross
As I have just read upstairs the report of what in fact I did say, I can say that what I said was that I would not dream of taking away the Class A canals from the Commission and that the Commission should retain all those parts of the Class B which it still required. I said that in dealing with an independent, newly-created body, which we should set up by legislation, the Commission would be able to transfer those sections of the Class B it wished to transfer, and that this would be an easy way of effecting it.
§ Lieut.-Commander Maydon
I agree that the hon. Member suggested that the B.T.C. should retain the Class A canals, but I did not understand that he thought that the Commission should also retain a part of the Class B canals. I apologise if I have misunderstood him.
There is one other part of the speech by the hon. Member for Bermondsey on which I should like to question him, He spoke of a level of wages which, in the present state of affairs, hon. Members would all deplore. He mentioned a sum of £7 and a few shillings, and he then added that no overtime is available. I gather that he also quoted figures of hours of work varying between 44 hours and 66 hours a week. If that is the case, how is it that these men are not paid overtime when working these widely varying hours of work?
§ Mr. Mellish
I have taken advice on this and I will repeat what I was told and what I said earlier. Their basic pay is £7 14s. 11d. a week and their working week ranges from 44 to 66 hours. I gather that it is a fluctuating type of employment and that they have 1591 certain hours to work, with very little opportunity of earning either overtime or bonus. Sometimes they work 66 hours and sometimes 44 hours. Those are the terms of their work, and apparently they do not receive overtime.
§ Lieut.-Commander Maydon
I certainly agree that if a man is asked to work 66 hours a week, without earning overtime on those very extraordinary hours, something must quickly be done about it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson) said something about the skill of the people who built the canals. I was very interested in what he had to say and I should like to refer to two outstanding features in the canal system which I have recently seen. One is a beam engine, one of the oldest steam engines ever to have been made, which is still in running order. It operates at the summit of the Kennet and Avon Canal, not very far from Marlborough. For anyone interested in machinery, especially old machinery, I can well recommend a visit to that engine house, where that beam engine still pumps water into the head waters of the Kennet and Avon Canal.
The second is the aqueduct—not being a Welshman, I find difficulty in pronouncing the name—at Pontcysyllte which takes the Llangollen Canal over the River Dee. It is about 120 feet high. One can look down over a nine-inch edge and see people playing cricket on a field below and others fishing in the River Dee. The canal is carried in a cast-iron channel for about a quarter of a mile over the River Dee and at one end there is a tunnel through the adjacent hillside. That aqueduct and that section of the Llangollen Canal was opened to traffic one month after the Battle of Trafalgar was fought. It is a remarkable tribute to the prowess of the engineers of those days.
I was very glad that hon. Members on both sides of the House resisted the tendency, which, I am sorry to say, is current in some quarters, of slanging the B.T.C. No good at all can come of that. A nationalised industry, with all its disabilities and deficiencies, is quite unsuited to operating a system of this nature. The industry is riddled with prejudices and inhibitions. It has not 1592 so much a chip on its shoulder as a load of railway sleepers on both shoulders. It is not difficult to understand why the system does not work. In fairness to the Commission, I draw the attention of hon. Members to paragraph 181 (c) of the Bowes Report in which the Committee at least acknowledges what the Commission has tried to do about the canals.
Any form of recrimination where something of this nature has gone wrong leads nowhere. It is a matter not of who has made the mistakes in the past, but of the urgency of finding out what is wrong and the quickest means economically and the best way of remedying it—and I emphasise that to the Parliamentary Secretary and ask him to take that message of urgency to his right hon. Friend.
The Class A canals, which have been adequately described already, comprise the wide navigations which, by and large, work economically and which, taken together over a time, show a profit. From that the hon. Member for Bermondsey and his hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central have argued that that category of canal should therefore stay in the hands of the present owners, the B.T.C.
I resist that argument with all the force I can. That would lead to a fragmentation of the system and fragmentation would be fatal. Whatever the state of its various branches today, it is one system, irrespective of whether certain canals are wide and others are narrow. I shall refer to narrow canals and what can be done about them later on. It would be fatal to break up the system into small pieces and to share responsibility among different authorities.
The narrow system—Class B canals—still has some hope of commercial promise, although that is very problematical and requires urgent consideration. With my limited experience in only two quarters of the country, I do not believe that that system can ever be made to work economically unless it is adapted to carry craft capable of lifting 100 tons or more. I do not believe that that is altogether impossible.
§ Mr. Mellish
What is the point of taking responsibility for such canals from the Commission? Does the hon. 1593 and gallant Member envisage that the narrow canals some day somehow will be economic, but not under the Commission?
§ Lieut.-Commander Maydon
Let me answer that in my own way. It is obvious that the Commission will not spend money on unremunerative functions when such vast sums of money are needed for railway modernisation. Hon. Members and others are persuading people that where branch lines are unremunerative they must in common sense be closed down. Can we, almost in the same breath, saddle the B.T.C. with responsibility for the unremunerative canals? It does not make sense.
§ Mr. Mellish
The Bowes Committee recommended that there should be a £3.5 million scheme and twenty-five years maintenance and that the B.T.C. should operate the canals. If they are put under any other body, unless that body is given such guarantees and such money, it could not do the job.
§ Lieut.-Commander Maydon
I entirely agree with the twenty-five-year guarantee, but in fairness it should be said that the Bowes Committee was divided on this very issue of who should be the responsible authority. Quite apart from that, although I have great respect for all those who were members of that Committee, we in the House should not accept as infallible the findings of any committee no matter who its members may be. It is our duty on days like this to discuss such findings and to agree or disagree as we see fit.
I cannot see the sense of this system continuing in the hands of the Commission, which is primarily a railway commission, especially at a time when pressure is being brought to bear on the railway system to close down unremunerative services. We therefore have to find an alternative body, and that must be a body which will take over the whole thing, lock, stock and barrel. By all means let us allow the Commission and all others who wish to do so to run barges, narrow boats, pleasure craft and so on, provided that they pay the proper tolls.
That brings me to the knotty problem of tolls. I agree that the present system is ridiculous. It might work if there were a published tariff so that an opera- 1594 tor could discover that to transport so many tons of stone dust from Wolverhampton to Chester would cost him so much. That cannot be done, because there is not a published list. It takes a very long time to obtain information about the tolls which will be levied on unusual cargoes. Consequently, operators are gradually, in desperation, seeking to send their cargoes by other means, usually by road.
Recently, after less than two years' work upon it, a motorway has been completed running from London to Birmingham. Undoubtedly it will be of great economic benefit to the country's industry as a whole and of great benefit to people wishing to move quickly, for pleasure or holiday reasons, from one part of the country to another. If a motorway can be completed after less than two years' work, some of the narrower canals could be adapted to carry craft capable of lifting heavier loads. There is no doubt that it would be a very expensive proposition, but if it were undertaken slowly and by degrees many canals which are at present uneconomic would come back into business and make a balance on the right side year by year.
I wish to speak about the alien uses. I took the opportunity last summer to hire a boat on the Shropshire Union Canal and going right up from near Wolverhampton into the foothills of Wales at Llangollen. I can recommend it to anyone who has never done it as a most remarkable holiday and a very healthy and pleasurable way of taking one's family away in the summer. The trip brought one or two things urgently to my attention. The first was the cleanliness of the water. There has been talk today of the use of canals as a channel for effluent. No one would argue against that, provided that the effluent is clean and wholesome, but to pass through snow-like barriers of white foam from detergents discharged into the canal waters is not very pleasant. In fact, it is one of the least pleasant things one can meet on canals.
Secondly, if we are to encourage people to use the canals for pleasure purposes, something will have to be done to enforce a sanitary code on canal users. There is every evidence that holidaymakers are being encouraged to 1595 use canals. Traffic this summer was tremendously greater than it was last summer, and there is evidence that it is increasing. The experts must examine whether it will be a matter of providing lavatories along the banks or providing special equipment on board. Something will certainly have to be done. I want to see canals which are not only a pleasure to sail along but are of such a nature that, if someone falls into one by mischance, he does not rapidly look for the first place to have a good bath and pour a bottle of Jeyes Fluid or some other deodorant into it. I want to see canals on which people can not only sail for pleasure, but can also swim in for pleasure. It can be done, because I have swum with great pleasure in the Llangollen Canal which carries water from the River Dee to Hurleston Reservoir and supplies Nantwich and other places.
Thirdly, steps should be taken to keep the banks clear from litter. In 1958 the House passed the Litter Act. It has made an impact, but not nearly enough. The debris left by all and sundry on canal banks is very noticeable. I regret to say that experience indicates to me that fishermen are very largely to blame. In one instance I took the matter up with the secretary of a fishing club. He denied all responsibility and told me that very proper measures had been taken to instil into the members of his club the need to carry their dirty paper and other debris away with them, instead of littering the banks. However, in places frequented by fishermen there is usually much litter. By personal inspection I have recognised among it those little semi-transparent envelopes in which fishermen are sold the nylon traces for their lines. If they leave those there, it is likely that they leave other undesirable objects.
Fourthly, there is the debris in the canal itself. Old bicycles, wire netting, spring mattresses, unwanted more intimate household ironmongery, are all thrown into the water. Out of sight, out of mind. Very forceful action must be taken to stop this. On 20th November there was an Adjournment debate about a derelict canal in Lancashire which was proving a danger to children. I agree that in towns and cities something must be done about that, but I do not think that any hon. Member wants our canals, 1596 rivers, lakes or any form of water in the countryside fenced around with impenetrable barriers. That would be inordinately expensive and should be unnecessary. Parents and guardians, and all those having responsibility for children should exercise that responsibility and see that they do not get into such places of danger.
We come now to what must be done. I would say, transfer the whole system to a conservative body—[Laughter.]—I mean, a conservancy body. Although that was a slip of the tongue, I would hope that, in every sense of the word, it would be a conservative conservancy body. We need quickly to repeal the old clutter of previous legislation, and to enact new, simple and adequate Measures. We do not want to surround the whole thing with a barbed wire fence of legislation.
We should abandon only the very barest minimum of these waterways because, as has been so often pointed out today, it is far more expensive to abandon a canal than to maintain it. We should not only maintain but try gradually to improve the existing system.
I agree, also, that the toll system should go and that a system of licensing should be introduced. A figure of £2 a week for a licence was mentioned earlier. That would certainly be tolerable for pleasure boats plying for hire, but it would drive many private people right away from the canals. They just could not look at it. Therefore, a very careful scaling of licence charges would have to be worked out. But the main thing, I am sure, is that the Minister should look at the problem now, and act quickly before it is too late.
§ 3.1 p.m.
§ Mr. James MacColl (Widnes)
During the course of the debate there have been one or two rather backhanded compliments and one or two brickbats thrown at the British Transport Commission. As one whose home adjoins the Grand Junction Canal, I think that within the limits placed upon it, and the necessity for it to make ends meet, the Commission has made a genuine effort to provide amenities on the canals and to look after the interests of people who want to use them for the purpose of enjoyment as well as for purely commercial purposes.
1597 I can only say that in relation to my own house there could not be any pleasanter amenity than the "Zoo bus" that runs from Warwick Avenue across Regent's Park to the Zoo. The Commission provided a most fascinating and interesting exhibition in the lagoon at Paddington. It was of great value and stimulated a tremendous amount of interest in the kind of things that can be done on inland waterways. Therefore, while I have much sympathy with those who have this enthusiasm, I think that there should be more recognition of what the Commission has done.
Nevertheless, I accept the proposition that those waterways that it is not feasible to run commercially should be regarded as amenities. Nothing could be worse than a grouping of canals, separated from the ordinary transport system, in which Class A canals, though not to get the full development that they should have, would be saddled with responsibility for subsidising the Class C canals, while the Class C canals would not be regarded as amenities. There would he much pressure on the Commission to keep expenditure within reasonable limits, but there is no worse form of organising a nationalised industry than to group together all the non-paying sections. Certain canals are amenity canals, and should be so regarded. In my constituency is one of the oldest canals in the country—Sankey Brook. According to the Bowes Report, it is a Class B canal. What is the future of a canal like that? Is it really feasible to develop a very large burden of traffic on it?
Let me remind the House that the Sankey Brook runs underneath the main highway between Warrington and Widnes. About four years ago, as part of the celebrations of the bicentenary of the building of that canal, we had a visit from the Railway and Canal Historical Society, and it was my very great privilege to accompany the members on a pilgrimage round the precincts of the canal, which included a sail up the canal for the very enjoyable purpose of having high tea with the Mayor of St. Helens.
We were, of course, if I may use the term in all humility and modesty, a collection of V.I.P.s, and the people who were working the canal, as part of their desire to see that everything went 1598 smoothly, opened up the bridge in good time to make quite certain that we were not held up at the bridge. However it may have been, that we paused for a moment for refreshments before we started on that trip, I will not say, but we were a little late.
I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to imagine the reactions of the people of Warrington who were on their way home in the rush hour when they found that they were held up by the main road bridge being up. As they waited for a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes, along with buses and motor cars in a great queue, suddenly, there came down the canal a boat, upon which were a number of people, including the Mayor of Widnes and the Member of Parliament for Widnes. What did all these citizens of Warrington think, and what did all these citizens of Warrington say? The rules of order would prevent me from going into that in any detail. I can only say that a broad picture was painted of the general decadence of life in Widnes, together with certain remarks about the local Football Club which I resented, but which had a trace of truth in them.
Imagine the reactions of the people to an increasing stream of traffic going up and down this canal, and one will realise that the development of these canals on any large scale in many parts of the country will require very considerable capital expenditure on the provision of proper bridges and similar matters.
I remember that when I was a member of one of the Select Committees of the House dealing with a Private Bill to close a canal, we had a very hard-fought battle on it. The issue was a perfectly simple one, from which one could not really get away, however keen one may be. It was whether it was justifiable to make the capital investment necessary to raise the bridges so as to ensure free passage of traffic underneath. That is the kind of task which would have to be faced if canal traffic were developed to any very great extent.
The next point about which I want to ask the Minister concerns the rating of canals. If we look at the history of rating, the part played in its development by the canals is a most fascinating historical byway, because canals were one of the earliest examples of large- 1599 scale undertakings covering a large number of parishes, where it was not possible to put a finger on the particular spot at which income was earned. Obviously, in carrying goods from one part of the country to another, one drove through a wide area, and one could not say where the profit was earned and where the liability for local rates should be placed.
There is a long history of decisions, with which you are no doubt familiar, Mr. Speaker, dealing with that point. Under the Local Government Act, 1948, British Transport Commission canals were exempted from rates and contributions were merged into the general payments made by the Commission for all its undertakings. That solved a lot of difficulties.
During the nineteenth century the habit grew of Private Bills coming forward for the building of canals. It was often possible, if one could get the House in a reasonable frame of mind, to insert in a Bill a Clause exempting the canal from rates. That is one of the earliest examples of derating, which has become a somewhat pernicious development since. Before the 1948 Act we had a curious situation. Some canals were liable for rates and other canals were not liable because in their case exemption had been secured by Private Bills. Indeed, there was considerable dispute about whether the liability for rates of a certain canal fell in the parish where goods were delivered or whether they should be collected at the spot at which the tolls were levied, for example, at a lock.
There was a further anomaly which is relevant to this problem of what is to happen if we transfer inland waterways to other bodies. That is the problem of the difference in liability to rates between a river and a canal. A canal is an artificial construction built by the work of man from the beginning to the end. The land was acquired, the ground was dug, water was pumped in and there was the canal. There is no doubt that that would be an occupation of land for which the people owning the canal would be liable to be rated. But a river is an act of God. All that happens in the case of a river is that someone acquires certain licensing rights to use the river, 1600 to dredge it, to build locks on it, and so on. I speak with some hesitation on this point, because there have been decisions either way, but I think it is fair to say that a navigable river is not liable for rates, whereas a canal is.
What is to happen if the blanket of exemption created by the Transport Commission is taken away? If some other body is set up to take over all or some of the inland waterways, some liability will have to be accepted for looking after the rating situation.
My next point has already been touched on in this debate, notably by the hon. and gallant Member for Wells (Lieut.-Commander Maydon) and the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. J. Wells). I refer to the risk of calamities on canals—indeed, I might say the risk of disaster. Hon. Members spoke of children falling in and drowning. This is a continual problem. In the Borough of Paddington, which has a considerable stretch of canal flowing through it, a toll of human life takes place almost every year through children falling in owing to the inadequacy of fencing, and so on.
That is something one has to watch very carefully, but other and possibly graver risks on canals have happened in the past and may happen in the future if the use of inland waterways is developed on a very large scale. To remind the House that this is not just a matter of "roses, roses all the way", a beautiful life of idealic bliss on our inland waters, I quote from the magisterial work, "British Canals", by Charles Hadfield. On page 67 of that work it is stated thatThe life of the waterways has always had hazards. Men, women and children have now and then fallen into a lock, been crushed by a boat, or slipped into the canal in the darkness.Then he quotes how, in 1802, the Basingstoke Canal Company reported:one of the Company's Barges, the Baxter, encountered a sudden and violent Storm about the Nine Elms, as she was going up the Thames, loaded with Grocery and Merchandize, which rendered her totally unmanageable, and she must have sunk in the Middle of River, but for the assistance of a large Sailing Vessel which kept her floating till she gat near the Shore, when she went to the Bottom and was soon filled with Water.Mr. Hadfield refers to another vessel which sank after she had been close hauled to the shore.
1601 Those are cases of danger to merchandise, but I now quote another case where, regrettably, there was risk to life. There is a case quoted on page 156 of Mr. Hadfield's book, the shocking case which I hesitate to read to the House because it always involves me in a certain amount of vicarious humiliation because it refers to a Lancashire canal, the Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal. The record says:The catastrophe … was caused by the insenate folly of a party of passengers, drunken men, numbering near twenty, who overawed the quieter portion on board, and persisted, for amusement and to frighten the women, in swaying the boat, heavily laden and overcrowded, from side to side, until the window-sills of the cabin, below the deck, were almost on a level with the water of the canal. The brutal wretches, maddened with drunkenness and riot, paid no heed whatever to the remonstrances of the captain, the shrieks and piteous entreaties of the women, or the tears and cries of children who were on board; for the journey was a favourite Sunday trip, …''An hon. Member opposite who spoke firmly in favour of opening the locks on Sundays should reflect that possibly a higher judgment might interfere with the breaking of the Sabbath day—many families going that day to visit friends or relatives in Bolton …an admirable thing to do—the dreaded apprehension was changed to reality. The heavily ladened boat, urged by powerful impetus, gave one fatal dip below the water-line, turned upon its side, with its living freight, a hopeless multitude, and rose no more.There is a third case from the Worcestershire—Birmingham canal, early in 1796, but the only other one I mention—these are not isolated cases—is the very famous one of the explosion on the Regent Canal. That, if I remember aright, was in 1874, when a barge loaded with ammunition or gunpowder blew up underneath the bridge on the Regent Canal with very considerable damage and—I am not certain of the details—loss of life. It was an event which, in its time, very much shocked public opinion.
It did cause loss of life. I have found the place now, I am happy to say. It is page 68:An extraordinary accident, which happened yesterday week at five o'clock in the morning, cost the loss of several lives, much damage to houses and furniture, and a vast alarm to the north-western suburbs of London.1602 My hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) will, no doubt, have some regard for the north-western suburbs of London, although he is, of course, very familiar with the southeastern ones. This was a barge laden with petroleum and gunpowder, one of a train drawn by a steam tug up the Regent Canal.
There may be an inclination to say that that is all old history and it is wrong to raise these matters in 1959, but I can tell the House of a barge which hit an iceberg on a canal as recently as 1947. The citizens of Paddington and Marylebone have, for many years, been accustomed to barge their domestic and other refuse down from the Paddington wharves to Middlesex, near Hayes, where it used to be dumped—much to the dislike and irritation, I may say, of the unhappy citizens of that very delectable spot in Middlesex.
he House will remember that 1947 was the year of the great freeze. The Grand Junction Canal froze up. I put to the House the dilemma confronting the local authorities of Paddington and Marylebone. On the one hand, the canal was frozen up and it was impossible to dispose of the refuse. On the other hand, more and more refuse was accumulating in people's houses as their dustbins and other receptacles were filled. Was it best to try to collect the refuse from the houses and dump it at the canal wharves to await barges to take it down when the thaw came? I think that I must not go into all that, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, because I feel that you would think that I was abusing the attention of the House were I to do so.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Sir William Anstruther-Gray)
My mind was beginning to move in that direction. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will keep as close to the Motion as is proper.
§ Mr. MacColl
I wished merely to pose the dilemma which faced us at the time when we had to make a decision about what we must do.
Should we collect the refuse and then, so soon as a thaw came, try to get the barges down the canal as quickly as possible in safety? This was done, but a barge was sent down before the thaw was complete. It struck an iceberg in the middle of the canal and sank. It 1603 sank loaded only with refuse from the Borough of Paddington and, therefore, one can say that there was, perhaps, no great damage done. The mess was cleared up in time. I mention this case to illustrate the hazards which may face people who wish to develop the use of inland waterways if steps are not taken to assist people who may suffer damage of this sort.
Thank goodness, the awful kind of scene which I described as having taken place on the Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal is not likely to happen in these advanced and civilized days, but comparable disasters might take place. It is extremely important to have adequate machinery so that people who suffer from that kind of thing are protected. The precise means is a matter about which the Minister may indicate what he has in mind
To sum up, the two points I put to the Minister are these. First, what effect will the implementation of the Bowes Report have on the rating of canals and the present exemption which exists? Secondly, what precautions will be taken to look after the welfare of people who may suffer possible danger to life and limb through the kind of disaster which has taken place on our inland waterways from time to time?
§ 3.24 p.m.
§ Mr. Humphrey Atkins (Merton and Morden)
The hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) said that he was opposed to the alternative recommendation of the Bowes Committee for a number of reasons. He appeared to be worried that, if the alternative recommendation about the ownership of the canals were brought into force, the profit from the operation of the Class A canals would be used to finance the less profitable or unprofitable Class C canals. Might I draw the hon. Member's attention to the Bowes Report and suggest that he studies it more closely? He will find in paragraph 29 (a), on page 89, that it is specifically stated by the four members who made the alternative recommendation that that would not happen. I should like the hon. Gentleman to be clear that, whatever recommendations are adopted, the profits from Class A waterways will be used only on Class A waterways.
§ Mr. MacColl
The difficulty would still arise, because of the ambivalent attitude of the Commission. What is the main job—to make the Class A waterways economically sound, or to provide amenities of a National Park character for the Class C waterways? That dilemma which faces the British Transport Commission would still arise.
§ Mr. Atkins
I agree, but the hon. Gentleman will find a unanimous recommendation of the Committee that, whoever owns them, the Class A waterways should not finance the others, but the profits be used to improve them still further.
One of the most remarkable things about the debate has been the degree of unanimity on both sides of the House. With very few exceptions, all hon. Members have urged the Government to do roughly the same things. I do not propose to detain the House with a lengthy argument about what we are urging the Government to do, because at this time of day it is difficult to avoid saying things which have been said before. I want, briefly, to outline the main things which I think it is essential the Government should do as a result of the Bowes Committee's Report.
The first concerns the unanimous recommendations of the Bowes Committee. I do not think that anyone disagrees with the Committee's division of the inland waterways into three categories, A, B and C. There are about 380 miles of Class A canals, 935 miles of Class B canals, and the remainder are Class C canals. I do not think that anyone would disagree with the recommendation about what should be done about the Class C canals. Indeed, it is being done already.
My right hon. Friend's predecessor set up the Parham Committee, upon which my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich (Mr. Grant-Ferris) is serving, which is going ahead with the redevelopment of Class C waterways. This is an admirable exercise which, I hope, will continue. I do not think that there is much argument about the Class A waterways. They are good navigable canals, are profitable and must be kept as such. As I have said to the hon. Member for Widnes, the profits must not be diverted to maintain Class B or Class C waterways.
1605 It is the Class B waterways which are not profitable, but which it is desired to retain as navigations, on which the main difficulty and problem arises, but, here again, the Bowes Committee was unanimous about what should be done. The Committee wants to keep them open as far as possible for navigation and to give as much encouragement as possible to the enterprise and ingenuity of those people trying to revive traffic on them. The Committee gave, as has been said, the three practical steps which it believed would encourage and revive traffic, namely, the 25-year guarantee, the reinstatement and maintenance of Class B waterways to a prescribed minimum standard, and the abolition of the present toll system and the replacement of it by a navigation levy. The Committee believes, I am sure rightly, that this will help to develop the navigation on Class B waterways, but even so it admits that this would not make Class B waterways profitable.
I would draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to paragraph 84 of the Bowes Committee's Report, which reads:The economic uses of the waterways"—that is, Class B waterways—include a number of functions besides the transport of merchandise. … Some of the uses other than navigation are 'economic' in the sense of being commercially exploitable; land drainage, on the other hand, produces no revenue to the waterway, and the reception of effluent produces very little, yet these functions are of obvious importance to the economics of adjoining areas. These must not be overlooked in considering the economic use of the waterways".It is extremely important that the alien uses, as the Bowes Committee describes them, should be fostered to the maximum extent. Those alien uses include such things as the supply of water, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich referred, the reception of effluent, the licensing of pleasure craft, fishing rights and the aesthetic and recreational value of the canals, to which the hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. C. Johnson) referred, which, although non-revenue-producing, must be of great value. There is no doubt that the canals provide a useful means of transport and an invaluable means of recreation as well as these other uses.
1606 I should like to quote paragraph 240 of the Bowes Report, which states:Short as it was, the canal golden age was of great importance to the development of the country's industrial strength; it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that these same waterways, slowly being outmoded by economic progress for the purpose for which they were built, could again make a valuable contribution to the national production in a manner never contemplated when they were constructed.I would like to add two words to that sentence to make it read:… could again make a valuable contribution to the national production and well-being in a manner never contemplated when they were constructed.
My hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary may well ask, "What has all this to do with me? My Ministry is concerned with transport, not all these matters." That is an understandable and natural attitude and it is the attitude that the Transport Commission has adopted—again, understandably. It is for this reason, among others, that I support the alternative recommendation to remove the control of the whole nationalised system of canals from the Transport Commission. I believe that there should be an inland waterways corporation or conservancy controlling all the nationalised waterways, although I am prepared to agree that the Commission, if it so wishes, should be allowed to be carriers on those waterways.
My final point is that in this century there have been two Royal Commissions, two Departmental committees and a Board of Survey report on this problem, but no action whatever has resulted. I urge my hon. Friend to act now and not to add to the list of reports which are put aside. I know that it may take a long time to produce legislation—we do not mind that—because there are 150 Acts of Parliament which can be found only in the Record Office.
What we want today is a decision from my hon. Friend on the future of the canals and a promise that legislation, if necessary, will be put in hand at once. I hope that my hon. Friend will realise from what has been said in the debate that, just as the Bowes Committee was unanimous in recommending action, so, also, is this House unanimous in demanding a decision from the Minister. The House and the country are determined not to allow the present state of affairs to continue any longer. I hope that my hon. Friend will not fail us.
§ 3.33 p.m.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Hay)
We have had an extremely interesting debate upon this interesting subject of canals. I should like to begin by congratulating, as so many hon. Members have done, my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. James) upon the twin facts of having raised this subject, which we have not had an opportunity of debating for such a long time, and doing so in such an admirable maiden speech. We were all struck with the fluency, clarity and charm of my hon. Friend's speech and I sincerely hope that we shall hear him again from time to time upon other subjects too. I congratulate also my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. J. Wells), who made a striking intervention in a maiden speech and showed a unique knowledge of the interesting business of trading upon the waterways, which has served us well in trying to understand what is in some ways a complex matter.
I never cease to wonder at the variety of the problems with which the Ministry of Transport has to deal. There are the road programme, London traffic and the "pink" zone, road haulage, bus licensing, the manifold problems of the railways and shipping. We now have shipbuilding also, and today we have had canals.
I mention all this not to show how hard working my right hon. Friend and his officials are but simply to make it clear that decision on some of these matters must necessarily take a little time. It must be borne in mind, too, that my right hon. Friend and I have been in this office now for only some five or six weeks, and we have to master some of these problems of the canals which some of the hon. Members who have spoken today have studied for years. I hope I shall be forgiven if my knowledge of some of these matters is a little superficial, but I assure the House that I shall try to learn.
Let me come straight away to what is the Government's main standpoint on this matter. We are by no means insensible to all the various aspects of canals which have been discussed today. We understand their commercial value in some cases; we understand their aesthetic values; we understand the recreational opportunities they provide 1608 far our citizens. What the Government wish to do is to preserve what it is possible to preserve, but the Government inevitably have to take account of the large number of matters far which they are responsible. We really cannot solve this canal problem, which has been growing up, as hon. Members have said, over a hundred or a hundred and fifty years, simply on aesthetical or recreational considerations alone. Our attitude is one of sympathy and helpfulness, but mixed, as it must be, with a proper sense of what is practical. That is our approach.
I do not propose in the time at my disposal to rehearse again the history of our canals. They have gone through many vicissitudes. They have seen the advent of the railways, the motor, and more and improved roads. Many stretches which were formerly busy waterways have fallen into disuse, as we have been reminded. I do not propose to go into the numbers of Royal Commissions, Select Committees and inquiries and so on which over the years have investigated these matters.
I think that the post-war story starts in 1947 with the Transport Act which set up the British Transport Commission and transferred to it these 2,000 miles of canals and navigations. From that moment they were united for the first time in peace time into the hands of a single authority. I should like to pay my tribute to the work which has been done by the Commission and by British Waterways.
There has been a certain amount of criticism of this during the debate, some of it on the grounds that inevitably a Commission which is mainly concerned with running a railway cannot have much sympathy with canals. The House may like to know that I am assured that nobody at the moment on the British Waterways Board of Management has a railway background at all. They are waterway people and always have been.
Anyhow, from 1947, as I have said, the canals have been in the hands of the Commission, and in 1954, as a result of a good deal of pressure, the Board of Survey under Lord Rusholme, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish), was set up to see what the long-term needs of the canals would be. That Board of Survey 1609 reported. As a consequence, in January, 1956, the Commission embarked upon this long development plan for certain selected waterways. The figure, as I explained to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bermondsey during his speech, was somewhere between £5½ million and £6 million, and that plan is halfway through.
My hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson) was a little critical of this plan, but personally, from the information I have had, I think that it is going pretty well. The Commission is carrying out a good many works. It is removing obstacles in the canals themselves, enlarging and mechanising locks, widening, deepening and straightening channels, and doing a great deal of work on the protection of banks. It is also modernising warehouses, workshops, repair yards, terminals, and providing a lot of new plant, like dredgers. I think that this is a plan which all those who love our canals and want to see them prosper should applaud and should help.
§ Mr. G. Wilson
I did not want to be critical of what was actually done on the Class A canals, but was merely pointing out that this plan is no answer to the main problem, which is that the loss is still increasing.
§ Mr. Hay
I misunderstood my hon. Friend, but he and I certainly make common cause on his latest interjection.
In any event, as he says, all this expenditure is going on the navigable canals, mainly the Class A canals, where there is traffic that can be carried and perhaps expanded. That is an area of the Commission's activity in which a profit can be and is being made. I am told that in 1958 a profit of £209,000 was made on the Class A canals. On the other canals, that is to say a lot of the Class B canals which are mainly the narrow-boat canals, it must not be thought that no work at all of restoration and maintenance is being done. In fact, a lot of work is taking place. Bank protection and maintenance are going on all the time and even some works of minor improvement.
If I give the following figures, I think they will show how much is being done at the moment. Work on the Class B canals is being done at the rate of some 1610 £430,000 a year. Since 1954, the figure has gone up by £287,000, which is some 51 per cent. I mention this particularly because the Motion speaks of the "continued rapid deterioration" of the canals. It is quite true that those canals which are no longer commercially of value are run down. But this is a process which is nothing new; it has been building up over the past one hundred years. My criticism of those words is that they give the impression that long-term deterioration has somehow speeded up in the course of the last year or two which I do not honestly think is either the intention of my hon. Friend the Member for Kemptown, who moved the Motion, or is commensurate with the facts.
The truth is that on some canals the position is undoubtedly better than it has been for many years. On others, we are keeping abreast of deterioration, because even on the Class C canals the British Transport Commission is doing work. It is also true, of course, that some of the unused canals are continuing to decline.
I do not propose in the time available to go over once again all that was said by the Bowes Committee. As we know, that Committee was set up in 1956 and it took some time to investigate its subject. I should like to take this opportunity to thank Mr. Leslie Bowes and his colleagues—I think this is the first time that there has been an opportunity of doing so in the House—for the hard work and great care which they took in the preparation of their Report.
The main conception underlying the Report is a recognition that today, as hon. Members have said, canals are something more than a means of transport. They are important from the point of view of water supplies. We have heard of drainage, and the disposal of effluents. They are important for pleasure boating, for fishing, for recreation, for walking as the hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. C. Johnson) said, and so on. Therefore, the main point of the Committee's recomendations—those upon which its members were unanimous—was that there should be a retention and development of this 1,300 miles of navigable system.
The Committee divided up this area into the three categories about which 1611 we have heard today, the A, B and C canals. On the Class A canals, canals which are profitable at the moment and where traffic potential can be developed, the Committee recommends that all the capital investment should go. On the Class B canals, which are unlikely to become profitable, it recommends restoration at the cost of some £3½ million over a period of five years. On the Class C canals, those which have no further value for commerce, the Committee recomends—and I emphasise this point in view of what I have to say in a moment—a case by case review leading either to closure of a canal or its restoration, and suggests that this should be conducted by a waterways redevelopment board which would consult with the interests affected.
§ Mr. Mellish
The Minister has missed out one important recommendation, that of the twenty-five year maintenance period.
§ Mr. Hay
I am coming to that. I was trying to make the main point about what we are suggesting for the Class C canals. It is true that the Committee recommended a guarantee for twenty-five years to give a feeling of security of tenure, but it divided on the important question of the future administrative responsibility for canals. The Chairman and three members suggested leaving them with the British Transport Commission; the other four members suggested transferring them to an inland waterways corporation which would be the redevelopment authority as well.
That was the situation which faced my right hon. Friend's predecessor and with which we had to deal in June, 1958, when the Committee reported. We were faced with the difficulty that there was a clear policy on major issues but a divided opinion from the Committee on another major question of policy. We knew also that it was obvious that anyone who chose to embark upon legislation on the matter would be undertaking a great task because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Truro said, there are many Acts of Parliament involved, some going back many years, so it was clear that a lot of interests would have to be consulted first.
We then produced the White Paper in February this year. The hon. Gentle- 1612 man the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) criticised it because of what he called its timid approach. I hope that when I have finished my speech the hon. Gentleman will not maintain that view, because our basic approach was a realistic one. It is set out in paragraph 8. We stated there that legislation is needed and that there is an enormous volume of work to be done by legislation if we are to carry through any recommendations of the Bowes Committee. We stated that the legislation will be complicated and controversial and will take a long time to prepare.
However we pointed out in the White Paper that the Bowes Committee was agreed upon the somewhat new conception of redevelopment, and we thought therefore that this should be tried experimentally before a final decision could be reached on the long-term policy. For that reason the White Paper suggests the two-year interim period for the experiment so that we can obtain experience; not simply to put off the issue, but as a foundation for the legislation we shall have to introduce before long.
We accept at once that the main financial effort must be placed on the Class A canals and the development plan of the British Transport Commission is already doing this. With regard to the Class B canals, about which a number of questions have been asked, we feel that to put these fully into condition and to cover their operating losses would place a considerable burden on public funds, and much of that burden would be in the nature of a direct subsidy. This is all dealt with in paragraphs 16 to 18 of the White Paper.
Because of that consideration we could not agree to this being done during the experimental period of two years, but we stated in the White Paper that some of the Class B canals might be developed for non-transport uses and that the experimental period should be used to investigate this possibility. In any event the B.T.C. is maintaining the Class B canals, and in some cases is even making minor improvements under its development plan; so our view about the Class B canals is that there should be a similar investigation 1613 of them by the Parham Committee in the same way as of the Class C canals.
§ Mr. Mellish
Can the hon. Gentleman give no hope that the deficit on the Class B canals will be met out of public funds?
§ Mr. Hay
I cannot go beyond what is in the White Paper. The hon. Gentleman must not confuse the B.T.C.'s operating surpluses and losses—its commercial figures—with the amount of money that is envisaged both by the Bowes Committee and by the White Paper for the restoration and maintenance of canals.
§ Mr. Mellish
This is a very important point in fairness to those who have eventually to run the Class B canals. Deficits on their running exist now. Apart from normal restoration, has not the time come when something ought to be done about the existing deficits, bearing in mind what I said about the men's wages?
§ Mr. Hay
I realise all that, but I am not prepared at this stage to go beyond what I have said.
I now turn to the position about the Class C canals. The major part of the Bowes Committee's recommendations and our proposals in the White Paper concern the treatment of the Class C canals. Our idea is that the Commission or other interested parties should initiate redevelopment schemes for individual canals under which all interested parties should play their part and make a contribution commensurate with the service or benefit which they receive from the development. Any future legislation will be framed on that basis. The Government have undertaken to look sympathetically at applications for grants when work proposed to be done in carrying out re-development schemes is eligible for such grants under existing legislation. Also, where the cost of redevelopment cannot be met by proper and reasonable payments by the interests concerned, we have promised to consider making small, ad hoc, gap-bridging grants towards the capital cost of redevelopment.
The major proposition of the White Paper is the setting up of the inland Waterways Redevelopment Advisory Committee, the Parham Committee. I should like here again to express our appreciation of the work that is being 1614 done by this Committee. It is representative of a very wide range of interests and specialised knowledge. It has already made a very good start with its task. It has, for example, acted as accoucheur, if I may so term it, for the scheme for the Stratford-on-Avon Canal where the National Trust has in mind to take a lease of the canal for five years and develop it.
The Committee has made two reports to the Minister so far, the first dealing with the Stratford-on-Avon canal and the second dealing with the closure of certain short lengths of canal in the Midlands. The recommendations relating to the closure of the short lengths of canal have been accepted by the Government, and they will be going into the B.T.C. Bill this year. I am afraid that I cannot announce the decision on the Stratford-on-Avon proposition this afternoon, but we hope to announce it before very long.
The Committee has a very great deal of work on hand, and I am certain that we must give it the opportunity—after all, it has been in operation only some six or seven months—of going more deeply into the whole of this matter than it has been able to up to now. Already—I have talked to the Chairman about this—problems are being thrown up in respect of every single one of the canals which are being examined. It is no good hon. Members saying, "You must announce a policy. You must give a subsidy. You must deal with this problem quickly" when they know that before we move we shall meet all manner of difficulties which must first be solved. I believe that that is the right policy for us to pursue at this stage.
§ Mr. Hay
I hope the hon. Gentleman will let me finish. I have already cut what I had intended to say.
The results of the individual development schemes will give us some very useful and necessary experience before we move to the next stage and take decisions on the broad prospects of redevelopment and any legislation necessary. I think it is still too early, and the work done by the Committee is still insufficiently complete, to say now what our future policy ought to be and exactly when we shall announce it. The experiment must be given time to work.
1615 During the debate a new proposal has been put forward. It is the call that we should have a canal conservancy to take over from the Commission the canals which are unprofitable, which I presume means the Class C canals and some of the Class B canals. I take it that this would be a public body set up by Act of Parliament, a cross between the National Trust and the Thames Conservancy. This is put forward as a compromise between the two opposing viewpoints expressed by the Bowes Committee on the future responsibility for canals. It has a number of very important features, not the least of which relates to finance. As I understand it, the finance would be drawn from subscriptions from members, appeals, donations and so on from members of the public, increased revenues because it is thought that more can be made out of the canals than the Commission makes, and, finally, a contribution from the Exchequer.
On the last point of the Exchequer contribution, which is where the Government are concerned, the argument goes like this: if canals have to be closed and filled in, the taxpayer will sooner or later, directly or indirectly, have to bear the cost. Where they cannot be closed, he has to go on paying the cost of maintaining them. The taxpayer would therefore be better off if he paid the Conservancy a sum which would be equivalent to the interest payable on the capital cost of the elimination of the canals, and an asset for the benefit of the public would be retained. If the plan succeeded, the capital cost of elimination might be avoided altogether. If it failed, the taxpayer would still have to find the money, and perhaps at that stage the Government would lend it.
I have tried to summarise the argument quickly, and perhaps I shall be forgiven if in the short time available I have done it an injustice, but I may say in excuse that I saw this proposal in writing and in detail for the first time on Tuesday evening of this week and the officials of my Department saw it for the first time on Saturday evening of last week.
I agree with a number of hon. Members that it has many attractions. It is certainly a constructive idea and an 1616 attempt to help us deal with a very difficult situation, but I must mention straight away a few of the difficulties which we see, not because I want to try to shoot the idea down out of hand but simply to show that we have to move a little more carefully than would be the case if I announced straight away in the House today that we accepted it.
First of all, we are not too certain whether the proponents of this idea have not been a little over-optimistic about the possibility of public subscriptions and support. Secondly, it is quite clear that very substantial help would eventually have to come from public funds. The House realises that my right hon. Friend cannot take a decision upon a matter of that kind in isolation. He would have to consult his colleagues, particularly my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Furthermore, this is a somewhat novel proposition. Complex and probably controversial legislation would be necessary, and certainly there would have to be a good deal of consultation before we could go very far—consultation with such bodies as the County Councils' Association, the land drainage authorities, the river boards, other local authorities and the British Transport Commission, which, after all, is still the owner of these canals.
These are some of the more obvious difficulties which we have to consider, and I hope that just to mention them makes it clear that I cannot accept this proposal as a policy here and now. Indeed, I do not think that I was asked to accept it here and now. Certainly we will examine it most carefully in the light of the experience being gained by the Parham Committee.
Finally, it was suggested that this new idea of a Conservancy should be put to the Parham Committee for consideration and report. We will also consider this. I cannot accept this suggestion, either, out of hand and at such short notice. The Committee has a programme of work ahead of it, and at some stage it will certainly want to express a view about these matters, but the proposal raises an important issue which the Bowes Committee found very perplexing and on which it members were divided—the issue whether the canals, or some of them, should be left with the British 1617 Transport Commission. This proposal for a Conservancy is in many ways similar, although not identical. I refer the House to paragraph 15 of the White Paper, in which we said that the question of future ownership and responsibility should be left open for further consideration during this two-year experimental period. I feel sure that that is the right thing to do.
I can give the assurance for which my hon. Friends ask. We will certainly look at this proposal. We will take it into account, as we will take into account a number of other suggestions which have been made about the future of the canals, some by the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas).
§ Mr. Hay
I cannot give way. I have only half a minute left.
If I may sum up, we welcome constructive suggestions of this kind, for we want to do what is best. We can see some snags straight away, and we want a little more time than six days to think it over. Nor are we sure that the Parham Committee would be the best method of examination of such a proposal. An inter-Departmental committee or an ad hoc body, for example, might prove preferable. We will do what we can and we will announce a decision as soon as we can. In the meantime, I am grateful to the House for the debate.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That this House welcomes the Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Inland Waterways presided over by Mr. Leslie Bowes and the Governments proposals for an interim policy following the report set out in Command Paper No. 676, but, in view of the continued rapid deterioration of much of the inland waterways system, urges Her Majesty's Government to announce its further decisions as quickly as possible.