HC Deb 18 November 1966 vol 736 cc813-85

11.10 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Morris)

I beg to move, That this House takes note of the British Waterways Board Annual Report and Accounts for 1965 and of Chapter VIII (Inland Waterways) of the statement on Transport Policy (Command Paper No. 3057). This is, I believe, the first occasion on which opportunity has arisen for a general debate on the affairs of the British Waterways Board since its inception on 1st January, 1963, and I hope that the House will bear with me if I spend a few moments in looking back to the origins of the Board's inheritance.

The first canals were built in the second half of the eighteenth century and almost the whole of the British canal system was constructed during the next 60 years. Competition for freight was not great; transport by water was cheaper and often quicker than by road, and, at its peak, the waterways system, covering 4,250 miles, carried up to 30 million tons a year.

But the advent of the railway in the 1840s ended the heyday of the canals. About one-third of the system was acquired by railway companies, who had little interest in maintaining or improving their canals, and, by the late nineteenth century, the cold winds of railway competition were felt very keenly. Gradually, but inexorably, the smaller inland canals became neglected and little used; only the broad waterways, which linked with the main estuarial ports, survived as profitable transport channels. This period of decline continued. During the Second World War, canals were Government controlled, and, under the Transport Act, 1947, most inland waterways were nationalised under the British Transport Commission.

Thus, under the Transport Act, 1962, the Commission's waterways were vested in a separate British Waterways Board, which was charged, not only with the normal duties related to the running of their undertaking, but with a special duty to review their waterways and put forward proposals for putting them to the best use. In addition to the waterways themselves, the Board inherited the docks and warehouses allied with them, small carrying fleets and a miscellany of buildings and land associated with the waterways but no longer required for operational purposes.

This, then, was the inheritance of the British Waterways Board at vesting day on 1st January, 1963. The House is entitled to ask what the Board has achieved since then. The answer is, a great deal. The total comparable revenue deficit of the undertaking for the year 1962 was just over £2 million. On a turnover of around £4½ million the Board has reduced this deficit to less than £1½ million in 1965, of which just under £¾ million was the crippling and unavoidable annual interest payment on what my right hon. Friend referred to in this House earlier this Session as the "completely unrealistic capital debt" of £19.2 million imposed under the terms of the Transport Act 1962.

Indeed, the Board's operating deficit has been more than halved during its period of office, reducing from just over £1.3 million in 1962 to £625,000 in 1965. And this during a period of steadily increasing prices and wage rates. This is no mean achievement and the Board is to be congratulated on it.

During its first year of office, the Board introduced, with the full co-operation of the trades unions and the staff organisations concerned, an ambitious management reorganisation. The success of this, combined with the energetic economy drive throughout the undertaking, can best be judged by the improved financial results and by the fact that the number of employees of all grades has been reduced from 4,342 at vesting date to 3,432 at the end of 1965. The bulk of this reduction, I am glad to say, was achieved without redundancy.

The Board's other significant achievement during the past three years has been its imaginative yet clear-headed look at its own undertaking. Over the last 150 years, the canals, like Topsy, had "just growed", and the Board decided that there was a need for a detailed examination of what was really involved in the business of running waterways. What was the purpose of the undertaking? What were the limitations and the potential of the system? But I would like to say more about this later since it will, inevitably, lead me to discuss the results of its findings and our plans for a new policy for the nationalised waterways.

At this point, I should like to talk briefly about the Board's achievements during 1965. This was not an easy year for the undertaking. Competition for freight became more keen and the total of 7.9 million tons carried on the major transport waterways represented 5 per cent., or 410,000 tons less than in 1964, with a corresponding drop in toll income of 4.7 per cent., or £40,000. There were sizeable reductions in coal traffic in the Yorkshire/Humberside region; bulk liquids and general merchandise showed small reductions.

Strikes at several docks had a bad effect on carrying in the latter part of the year and the extensive flooding last winter caused hold-ups on the main river navigations. But, despite these difficulties, the Board held its gross revenue from the major transport waterways steady at about £1¼ million and kept its expenditure largely within the 1964 limits.

Perhaps I may remind the House of one basic difference, which is sometimes forgotten, between the Railways Board and the Waterways Board as providers of transport facilities. The Railways Board operates the track and the rolling stock using the track; the Waterways Board is, in the main, simply a provider of the track. Its own carrying fleets carry only a small fraction of the total freight borne on the whole system. To this extent it works at a disadvantage; the economics of its system are largely in the hands of independent operators.

But revenue from tolls and dues from commercial traffic represents only half of the Board's income from its waterways. Sales of untreated water for industrial and agricultural purposes brought in an income of over £700,000 in 1965. The critics of the Board complain that its average charges for water are too low. But it is impossible to generalise about the prices of water. That the demand for water is increasing is certain. As far as price is concerned, the actual rate depends on the specific terms agreed as a result of negotiations between buyer and seller, and I am confident that the Board's policy is to seize opportunities, as they arise, to maximise revenue in this field, consistent with a fair charging policy.

So far I have not touched on the amenity and recreational uses of the Board's system. The Board's first hard look at its undertaking resulted, at the end of its first year of office, in an interim Report to a previous Government. In this Report, the Board said that the undertaking should no longer be regarded solely as a national transport system, but as a "multi-purpose" undertaking, and that every possible use which the waterways could serve—transport, water supply, pleasure boating, angling and general amenity—should be assessed and exploited.

The Board realised that detailed costing and engineering studies would need to be carried out before recommendations for a sound and lasting waterways policy on the basis of this multi-purpose concept could be formulated, and these were carried out, culminating, in December of last year, in the publication of the first-class report "The Facts about the Waterways".

This is, I believe the only occasion in the whole history of the waterways, on which the managers of the undertaking have taken such a detached and clearheaded look at their own system and we now have before us, for the first time, realistic and factual information about the problems and costs of waterways in this country. I shall be referring to this Report again in a few moments.

But even while it was carrying out these studies, the Board was not slow to seize opportunity, where it could, of encouraging the amenity and recreational uses of the system. It has kept closely in touch with boat clubs and with pleasure craft hirers, from whom it has received every co-operation, and has welcomed the rallies organised by canal societies and boat clubs as a demonstration of the interest and enthusiasm shown by boat owners. It has tried to improve mooring and other facilities along the waterways available for pleasure cruising and introduced a new and generally more equitable pleasure craft licensing scheme which separated the licensing of craft from the making of charges for mooring.

The growing popularity of pleasure boating along the canals is evidenced by the all-time record revenue of £100,000 achieved in 1965. During that year about 5,650 powered pleasure craft were licensed to use the Board's system; about 5,000 of these were privately owned.

Powered pleasure cruising used to be regarded as a pastime only for the wealthier members of our society. But the evidence suggests that, today, this form of recreation is popular with and within the means of an ever-widening range of ordinary families. The current high standard of living and the new concept of leisure has enabled more and more of our people to discover and enjoy the undeniable attractions of cruising along the canals. In addition to powered pleasure cruising, facilities exist for canoeing and the use of other light unpowered craft.

Angling is, of course, increasing in popularity. But not all of the Board's 2,000 or so miles of water are suitable for fishing. On about 1,000 miles fishing rights are leased to angling societies. The Board does not own the fishing rights on most of the remaining waters; they are often reserved to riparian owners.

As I mentioned earlier, apart from the waterways themselves, the Board owns and manages terminal facilities such as docks, warehouses and a not inconsiderable estate of land and property originally associated with the waterways but now no longer required for operational purposes. The docks handled over half a million tons of traffic in 1965.

Warehousing is one of the Board's more profitable enterprises. In 1965 it showed an operating surplus of £137,000 on a turnover of £840,000 and a record three quarters of a million tons of goods were handled. Most of the Board's warehouses are inextricably bound up with waterway operation. Those on the major transport waterways are virtually terminal facilities practically entirely dependent on waterborne traffic; those related to the narrow waterways, with the notable exception of the Brentford warehouse which handles Thames lighter traffic, are, of course, less dependent on waterborne traffic.

The Board's non-operational estates consist for the most part of industrial and commercial properties. In 1965, as a result of successful negotiations for the renewal of leases and the grant of new tenancies at current market rents as well as benefits from earlier settlement, the gross revenue from these estates reached the £½ million mark. The working surplus was just under £400,000, an improvement of nearly £50,000 on the 1964 figure.

I should now like to take a look at the future. On page 2 of its Annual Report the British Waterways Board explains that one of its major pre-occupations throughout its period of office has been to play its part in enabling long term policies for the waterways to be formulated. In December, 1963, the Board submitted to the previous Government its very interesting and readable interim Report, "The Future of the Waterways" which I mentioned a few moments ago.

As we have seen, this was followed at the end of last year by a much more detailed Report—"The Facts about the Waterways". This was welcomed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Tom Fraser), as providing for the first time realistic and factual information about the problems and costs of the waterways. In the White Paper on Transport Policy we have made it quite clear that The Government accepts as the basis for the development of new policy the broad factual analysis in the British Waterways Board's Report 'The Facts about the Waterways'. In Chapter 8 of the White Paper we have given a brief outline of how we are approaching the problem of future policy. The House will not expect me to announce future policy decisions today—

Mr. David Webster (Weston-super-Mare)

Why not?

Mr. Morris

Let me explain. If the hon. Gentleman had read the recent Press statement from the Ministry it would have been obvious and apparent to him.

Indeed, it may be some little time yet before we are in a position to do so, for we are engaged at this moment in extensive consultations with a great many interested bodies. I would have thought that I would carry the House with me in that these consultations are vital, and until we have had these consultations it would not be right for me to announce policy decisions.

Mr. Webster

Will the hon. Gentleman assure the House that the powers which are due to expire at the end of next year and the year after will not be allowed to lapse before legislation is put through to make sure that this is done in an orderly manner?

Mr. Morris

I am sure the hon. Gentleman can rely on me when I say that whatever is done will be done in an orderly manner.

I should like, if I may, to underline some of the main points made in the White Paper and perhaps to clear up some possible misunderstandings. The White Paper has been met with a torrent of abuse from certain quarters, so misleading and intemperate that I will not weary the House with it. None of this criticism is accepted: no reasonable man reading the White Paper would, in my submission, have come to these conclusions. There are various shades of view about the future of the waterways.

At one extreme we have the Inland Waterways Association, whose avowed object is to keep the whole system of waterways going, regardless of cost. This was affirmed recently, under oath, by its chairman during his examination as a witness before the Opposed Bills Committee of this House, during the proceedings in this House on the Manchester Ship Canal Bill. On the other hand, there are some who feel that canals are a menace to health and to the safety of life and limb and that we should be better without them.

We are proposing a commonsense course. We want to make the best use we can of the canal system within the resources that can be afforded for that purpose. And may I make it clear that the Inland Waterways Association has been consulted by my Department and that its representatives have had discussions both with my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary and more recently with my right hon. Friend the Minister and myself. We hope very much that it will be possible to continue a sensible dialogue with them.

What have we tried to convey in the White Paper? Above all, we have faced the hard facts of life about the inland waterways so far as transport is concerned. The Board has demonstrated beyond all doubt that only a few of them are still of some significance for commercial traffic and are capable of being operated economically. We may deplore the loss of some waterborne freight to road and rail. But the railways and road haulage between them carry 96 per cent. of our inland freight. That is a fact of life which is likely to remain.

To put it mildly, it would be imprudent to invest large resources in new transport waterways, and the White Paper says categorically that we do not propose to do so. But I do not want to sound too disheartening. There are certain areas in this country where canal traffic is still playing an active and useful rôle and seems capable of continuing to do so. For example, almost half of the freight carried on the nationalised inland waterways is concentrated on the main river navigations in the Yorkshire-Humberside region.

As a matter of common sense, we shall be ready to consider on their merits any proposals for modest development or improvement that the Board may recommend from time to time, provided always that they show real prospects of a sound economic return, and the merits of any proposals of this kind would naturally have to be weighed against other claims on our national resources. It may be, too, that improvements in craft design, which are referred to in the Board's Annual Report, will enable waterway carrier undertakings to become more competitive.

We have indicated in the White Paper that those existing nationalised waterways which can form an economic transport undertaking will, with their allied transport facilities such as docks and warehouses, be operated on a commercial basis as a separate division of the Board's undertaking, with a more realistic capital structure. We are at present engaged with the Board in working out detailed proposals on these lines. I imagine—I hope that I am not too optimistic—that no one can quarrel with the practical wisdom of identifying the commercial transport elements and reorganising their finances in this way.

In paragraph 127 of the White Paper, we affirm the principle of a single management for the nationalised waterways. Chapter III of "The Facts about the Waterways", which is concerned with managing canals, shows beyond a shadow of doubt that it would be the greatest folly to divide the control of the commercial and the amenity waterways. The day-to-day running of canals and river navigations is a highly skilled and specialised business, calling for coordinated control over wide areas if the system as a whole is to be kept running safely and efficiently. Moreover, no voluntary society or Trust, however well supported by private effort, could cope with the financial burden of looking after the amenity waterways without very large subsidies from public funds.

It is clear that the main burden of cost must fall on the Exchequer; it is essential, therefore, that the Government of the day should be in a position to exercise direct control over expenditure. Accordingly, we have announced that in our view both the commercial and the amenity waterways owned or managed at present by the Waterways Board must remain under the single management of the Board. I think that that view should be generally accepted by anyone who considers this matter with a sense of responsibility, but that is not to say that advice and suggestions from other quarters will fall on deaf ears. Constructive ideas put forward by the many voluntary bodies and private individuals who know and love the waterways will always be welcome and we hope to devise a standing consultative machinery for this purpose—I want to emphasise that. Indeed, we expect that our current consultations with interested bodies will give us some useful leads in this direction, and again I want to under-line that, because I feel very deeply about it.

Given, then, that the Board is to remain in charge of the waterways that it now controls, what is to be the policy for those waterways that clearly cannot form part of the commercial transport division of the undertaking? The essential facts are now known. At the very least, these non-commercial waterways will continue to cost the country about £600,000 a year—that is, even if we deal with each waterway in the cheapest way, quite regardless of its potential for amenity and recreation, but simply ensuring that it will be kept reasonably safe and not become a menace to public health. This would mean either reducing the waterway to the standard of a simple water-channel, by breaking down the locks and substituting weirs, or completely eliminating the canal by draining the water away or piping it and filling in the formation.

A great deal of misleading nonsense has been put about in recent years about the cost of eliminating canals. Some people have been labouring under the delusion that the cost of eliminating a canal in open country is something like £50,000 per mile, and this has led them to assume that it must be much less expensive to restore a disused and derelict canal than to do away with it altogether. The only body that can speak authoritatively and from recent experience on this subject is the British Waterways Board, whose detailed findings and estimates are set out in Appendix 4 of the "Facts about the Waterways". The Board put the cost of eliminating a typical 10-mile length of rural narrow canal at £6,000 per mile—the corresponding figure for a wide canal in a rural area is £9,000 per mile. It is not possible to give typical figures for canals flowing through towns. In some instances they would be very much higher, and these would need to be looked at case by case.

In Appendix 5 of the "Facts about the Waterways", the Board has given a short account of each of the non-commercial waterways, with a statement of what it costs at present to keep it going, and estimates of the cost of elimination or water-channelling where either or both of these forms of treatment would be practicable. There are, of course, many cases in which elimination would not be a practical proposition—for example, when a waterway consists in large part of natural river rather than artificial canal cuts. For one reason or another, at least as regards canals in rural areas, it looks as though water channelling would be the cheapest form of treatment in the great majority of cases at present costs.

If a canal is reduced to a tidy water channel it can still be used and enjoyed for such recreational activities as canoeing, fishing and walking on the tow path, and, of course, it can still serve a useful purpose for land drainage or for the supply of water for industry or agriculture. Therefore, by and large, these important interests and functions could be safeguarded and preserved without costing the community much more than the inescapable minimum of £600,000 a year.

But to provide for the continued use of the non-commercial waterways by powered pleasure craft is another matter. This means keeping the locks in working order and maintaining a sufficient depth of water to enable such craft to cruise on the waterways. The cost of doing this, over and above the minimum of £600,000, is about £340,000 a year. I must make it clear that this is a net figure, arrived at after allowing for revenue from all sources, including receipts from pleasure craft. We have seen that receipts from pleasure craft are going well and are now running at about £100,000 a year, but they would need to be more than quadrupled to bridge the gap.

In effect, £340,000 a year may be said to represent roughly the extent to which pleasure cruising in powered craft on the nationalised inland Waterways is being subsidised by the taxpayer today. Such craft number between 5,000 and 6,000, and those who cruise in them are enjoying an amenity which is quite incidental to the purpose for which these canals were constructed. The object of the original canal undertakings was, of course, to provide facilities for the commercial transport of goods by water. The pleasure cruising that can be enjoyed on the waterways today is, as it were, an uncovenanted bonus in our inheritance from the early days of the Industrial Revolution. I think that it is right that these facts should be recognised, if only so that we may look at the problem in the right perspective.

But having said that, let me make it quite clear that we are fully alive to the great value of these waterways for recreational purposes and for pleasure cruising in particular. Some of those that are best known are quite delightful, such as the Lancaster Canal, the Llangollen Canal or the southern section of the Oxford Canal, and many others that are less used deserve to be better known by a wider section of the public.

I should like at this point to repeat with emphasis two sentences in the White Paper that may have escaped the notice of some enthusiasts. Having pointed out that it would indeed be possible to save £340,000 a year if the non-commercial water-ways at present used by powered boats were to be closed to them the White Papers says: But once they were taken out of use for pleasure cruising and standards of maintenance lowered it is unlikely that it would ever be possible to restore them. It would be wrong to allow this to happen to those waterways which seem likely to have a valuable part to play in meeting the country's leisure-time needs in years to come. I hope that any fair-minded waterway enthusiast who may have felt some misgivings about the Government's intentions will read the White Paper again and take comfort from that clear declaration of policy.

Indeed, if that is not enough, let him look at another White Paper published earlier this year, "Leisure in the Countryside". Here, in a somewhat wider context, the Government have already emphasised that the nation possess a considerable potential for all kinds of recreation in the extensive network of inland waterways in England and Wales. While recognising that some continued subsidisation will be necessary if facilities for pleasure boating are to be provided, the countryside White Paper has stressed that it will be for those who use the waterways for recreation to show what facilities they wish to support.

It is with such considerations in mind that we have now embarked on consultations to which I have referred, about the extent of the network it would be justifiable to maintain in the immediate future for use by powered pleasure boats. In addition to discussing this question with the Waterways Board, we are seeking the views of nearly 300 local authorities that have nationalised waterways in or near their administrative areas. We are consulting also the Economic Planning Councils and other appropriate national and regional bodies, and, of course, the Sports Councils. We have approached, too, a great variety of organisations representing those who are or may be concerned either directly or indirectly with amenity uses of the waterways and in particular with cruising on them for pleasure or for profit, including boat hirers, boat builders and about 50 boat clubs.

In a recent Press announcement we have issued an open invitation to individuals or organisations which may wish to comment on the selection of waterways which might be retained for pleasure boats to write to the Ministry of Transport before the end of this year. Many have written already and I very much hope that many more will do so. I am sure that in the debate we shall hear some very valuable representations from hon. Members on both sides of the House on this aspect. I should value very much their guidance and views.

The object of these consultations is to obtain not only information about the extent of the present use of the waterways for pleasure cruising and the prospects for expansion, but also ideas about ways and means of bringing about such an expansion by improving facilities and amenities—for instance, by the provision of more marinas and other new facilities for the mooring of boats, by the provision of lavatories and places for the disposal of rubbish, by the better maintenance of towing paths, and so forth; and we are particularly anxious to hear from the local authorities about the ways in which they may be able to help. I may say that the initial response to our inquiries from some quarters, particularly from a number of the boat clubs, has been friendly and encouraging.

Since the pleasure boat network involves a very substantial subsidy from public funds, its size, like that of all subsidies, must, in the public interest, be subject to periodical review.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)


Mr. Morris

So we are proposing that when the extent of the network has been established for the immediate future, it should again be reviewed after five years and thereafter at regular intervals. This will surely be a great gain—

Mr. John Wells


Mr. Morris

—in bringing about a period of stability in place of the precarious uncertainty that has prevailed for so long. I see no reason why we should not look forward to a considerable expansion of this increasingly popular form of leisure time and holiday activity. But I would repeat that it will be up to those who use the waterways for recreation to show what facilities they wish to support.

We have mentioned in the White Paper that the Government must reserve the right during the period between these reviews, exceptionally, to close a waterway to use by powered pleasure boats. I should like to take this opportunity to make it clear that there is nothing sinister about this reservation. Such a closure would be made only in really exceptional circumstances, for instance, where public safety, or quite unexpected and disproportionate expense, or other considerations of overriding national importance made this necessary. There is nothing in this perfectly sensible stipulation that should or need cause alarm and despondency.

I should like to add a brief word about redevelopment and restoration schemes. The British Waterways Board has about 450 miles of disused canals which are no longer navigable by commercial or powered pleasure craft. Some of these are in various stages of redevelopment, for example by infilling, piping or lagooning; some are navigable in parts by light craft such as canoes; others are maintained at "existence" level; a few are derelict.

Some of these waterways are in particularly attractive country and various amenity and enthusiast societies would like to see them restored and are prepared to raise private funds and organise voluntary labour to achieve this purpose. Help has been obtained from territorial and other units of Her Majesty's Forces and notably from working parties from Her Majesty's prisons. But the restoration of a canal is a costly business and so is its maintenance thereafter. No scheme is likely to be really practicable without considerable and continuing assistance from the Waterways Board at direct cost to the Exchequer.

The classic case is the restoration of the southern section of the Stratford-on-Avon Canal. This waterway was taken over by the National Trust from the Board and the Board's predecessors, the British Transport Commission. With enthusiastic voluntary labour and help from prisoners and the Armed Services, restoration has cost, I am told, over £50,000, towards which the previous Government gave a grant of £20,000. The Board contributed £1,500 a year towards maintenance for the first five years and is supplying water free in perpetuity. Yet the National Trust has found it necessary to appeal to the public for funds to meet a continuing deficit of £6,000 a year on running this canal.

Mr. John Smith (Cities of London and Westminster)

It is true to say that that is very largely caused by the fact that it has not been possible to spread the overheads of running the canal over other canals, as was hoped. It was originally proposed that the National Trust should take over other canals as well, such as the southern section of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire, which would have spread the overheads. The voluntary principle, however, enabled that canal to be restored, amid a good deal of drama, for less than half the cost either of restoring it or eliminating it with public funds. The present maintenance cost is less than half the cost per mile of the maintenance of British waterways as a whole.

Mr. Morris

I do not wish to enter into a discussion on what the hon. Gentleman has said. I know of his great interest in this matter.

What I am saying is that, despite a tremendous amount of voluntary enthusiasm and voluntary labour, and despite financial assistance on a quite considerable scale, there is, and always will be, the heavy cost of maintenance. It is not always the restoration which is important. That is a long and expensive process, and we welcome it where it can be done. But, in addition, we must always bear in mind that restoration is not the only factor. Maintenance can be, and is, a very expensive business.

Projects for the restoration of long lengths of derelict canal must be approached with caution because, almost inevitably, they will require capital assistance from the Exchequer and may often create, as on the Stratford Canal, an additional liability for future maintenance. But I am sure—again I emphasise this—that there will be continuing scope for voluntary effort. We have recognised in the White Paper that there are many people who have given of their time and resources to working on canals to fit them for recreational use and also to advocating their cause and that this energy and enthusiasm should not be wasted.

With so many hundreds of miles of navigable inland waterways, there should be plenty of opportunities for volunteers to help with schemes of improvement and development. There may well be cases where some part of a waterway is in a less than satisfactory state and where, with the assistance of voluntary effort, it would be possible for the Board to bring about a considerable improvement without imposing any additional burden on public funds beyond what the waterway is costing at present.

If I may mention an excellent current example, the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal Society has, I understand, been doing a splendid job in helping the Waterways Board with the repair of a flight of locks at Stourbridge. The Society has been kind enough to invite me to perform the reopening ceremony next spring, and I am looking forward greatly to that occasion.

In cases of this sort, we propose that the Board should be empowered to enter into agreements with suitably organised bodies which can raise the necessary resources of volunteer labour and voluntary finance. We envisage that the Board's statutory duties should be recast so as to emphasise its function as conservators of the amenity network, and in this connection the consultative machinery we are hoping to devise should be of great assistance.

Our aim, therefore is to ensure that we have a realistic financial structure for the waterways and a realistic management structure charged with the operation of the commercial side of the business and, dovetailing with it, that part of the amenity side which has proved to be worthwhile following our current consultations. In all this, I feel, an important place must be found for harnessing individual and voluntary enthusiasm.

In my responsibility for canals, I look at them, leaving the commercial aspect on one side, first, from the standpoint of a countryman, valuing all that is such an important part of our inheritance, and, second, as a representative of a great industrial area, knowing how important our amenities in the countryside are.

On occasion, in the past year, I have been moved to anger on the subject of our waterways and on occasion to compassion. I was moved to compassion, for instance, when I was told the tale of the nightmare of the parents living beside one of our canals in Liverpool. The hon. Member for the Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. John Smith) was in the House when we heard that tale recounted late one night. On the other hand, I was moved to joy when I was told in detail of the tremendous enthusiasm of some of the voluntary societies which have done, and will do in the future, I am sure, a great deal for our canals.

The whole House will agree, I am sure, that the Waterways Board has done a remarkably good job in most difficult conditions during these years of uncertainty. I have every confidence in its continuing efficiency and believe we may look forward to much greater achievements under a new, imaginative charter for the waterways which we hope to lay before Parliament in the not too distant future.

11.54 a.m.

Mr. David Webster (Weston-super-Mare)

I thank the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for what he said in his closing remarks. He reminded us of the sentiment which is felt towards the waterways and he spoke of their part in the history of this country, a very important part, although the tragedy was that, immedidately after the great development of our waterways, the building of railways began and they never really fulfilled their purpose. When the hon. Gentleman spoke of the enthusiasm which some people have for the waterways and their importance for leisure, telling us also of the fury in Wales on the subject of water, I was reminded of some words of my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Gibson-Watt) quoted in today's issue of The Times, Water is dynamite in Wales. On the subject of the leisure use of our canals, one thinks happily—I am sure that those of my hon. Friends whose interests in the leisure side of things will agree—of the quotation from "The Wind in the Willows", Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. The tragedy here, as is so often the case, is that where there is sentiment and enthusiasm there is financial loss. This is one of the great problems which the House will wish to take into account.

We must not blind ourselves to the fact that this is the first transport debate since the White Paper was published with a clarion of trumpets and, as the hon. Gentleman said, a little bit of well-considered criticism. It is four months now since the House and the country began waiting breathlessly for the Minister's pronouncement in the House. We have been disappointed. The Minister of Transport is not here today. Perhaps she is stuck in a traffic jam of her own making either in London or in a canal, and perhaps she will be here shortly. Perhaps she is making another pro-nunciamento to a gasping nation either from the United States of America or from a girls' school. But, at least, the two Joint Parliamentary Secretaries are here, and we know how assiduous in his duties the hon. Gentleman who opened the debate is. Recently, he attended the Second Reading Committee on the Road Traffic Bill without having been authorised to do so, so enthusiastic was he to perform his duties to the House. His Minister had failed to authorise his presence at the Committee, so we had to wait a week for a Government statement, and then we got it from the other Joint Parliamentary Secretary.

We have been told of the urgency of this problem, but I am very concerned that there are statutory powers which expire at the end of next year, powers which will have to be renewed either this Session or very early next Session. I remind the House that the Road Traffic Bill, on which the hon. Gentleman tried to help us recently, is a Bill to renew powers which expired on 19th March this year, seven months ago. I am, therefore, very suspicious of his Minister. If she lets these powers lapse as well, we shall have something very serious to say. I was very disappointed when I asked for an assurance that the matter would be put right by the end of next year, and I remind the hon. Gentleman that we would like to see the Minister in the House of Commons, not just making pronouncements outside, to make sure that the statutory requirements are met. This is a matter for the House.

I congratulate the British Waterways Board on a lucid, useful, and practical Report, and I congratulate it also on the excellent statement, "The Facts about the Waterways", one of the most useful publications ever issued by a nationalised industry. It is a highly commendable document, and I shall return to it later. I congratulate the Minister of Transport on her White Paper and sketching airily over the subject, posing the question which has already been posed by the British Waterways Board on two occasions, in its Interim Report and in its Final Report. She tells us that the matter is urgent but gives no solution, merely setting up, as usual, a procedure of consultation. This is an important matter on which urgent action is needed. I remind the hon. Gentleman that our policy was, "Action, not Words". If he and his right hon. Friend will learn from our example, we shall not be sorry.

I come now to the capital structure of the Board. Does the Parliamentary Secretary consider that the interest charge of £863,000, about 25 per cent. higher than the deficit for the last year for which there were figures, is one which he can tolerate much longer? I should have thought that, so long as the interest charge is as heavy as that, we cannot possibly have any realistic accounting. It is essential that a decision be taken quickly on this matter. Unless these interest charges are made more realistic, there is no point in attempting to establish an economic criterion for the running of our waterways. This is a great discouragement to those who are devoted to, and passionate in, their affection for the waterways and find it so demoralising that all the time the deficit figures increase because of interest charges.

Mr. John Morris

I want to understand clearly what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Will I have his support if I bring before the House a more realistic financial structure for the Board?

Mr. Webster

Let us see what the structure is, and then we will tell the hon. Gentleman whether we will give him our support. It seems to be the policy of the Government to ask us what we want to do, and then, if they are sensible and not doctrinaire, they try to do it themselves and say that it was their idea. It is about time that they stopped being so bereft of ideas. They continually ask us what we are going to do. We will see what the hon. Gentleman proposes—and we hope that he will do it in time to fulfil his statutory obligations—and then we will consider what to do about it.

Mr. Morris

I fear that I am just not with the hon. Gentleman. We have heard his strictures. Does he remember that the Transport Finances Act of this year extends the statutory powers of the Board until the end of 1968?

Mr. Webster

Yes, but there is also a reference in paragraphs 7 and 8 of the facts about the waterways to the powers which expire at the end of December of next year. These matters therefore need to be considered.

Mr. Morris

The hon. Gentleman must do his homework. He must remember the timing of that Report, and the Bill which we discussed on the Floor of the House. He took part in the discussions on the Transport Finances Act, 1966, which remedied that point, and extended the powers until the end of 1968. The hon. Gentleman must not come here without having done his elementary homework.

Mr. Webster

I thank the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of that. It gives him more breathing space, and we hope that the Government will take advantage of it to provide these powers in due time, because the Minister—I exonerate the civil servants in her Department— has a habit of not paying attention to the details of running her Department.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept the type of criteria set out in Chapter 2 of the facts about the waterways on the basis of the excellent Report by Cooper Brothers, both about warehousing, which is purely a financial and not an amenity problem, and about docks? With regard to warehousing, there is a surplus of approximately £130,000 a year. If from that we deduct overheads of 20 per cent. and depreciation of about £11,000, that leaves about £99,000. If against that we set interest charges at 6 per cent. this would mean £59,000, and £40,000 of net maintainable revenue. I think that the House would like to know at this stage whether this is acceptable to the Ministry, because we have not so far been told whether it is.

With regard to the docks, for two average years, 1963 and 1964, there was a surplus of about £40,000, to be precise £43,000 in 1963 and £41,000 in 1964. There was then a disaster in 1965, when the figure dropped to £3,800. In view of that sudden drop, at a time when a great deal of work was being done on Ellesmere Port, does the hon. Gentleman accept that a maintainable surplus would be in the nature of £50,000? Deducting central charges of £15,000, and £1,000 for extra depreciation, that would leave £34,000. If this were put on a price-earnings basis, as Cooper Brothers suggest, of one-tenth, this would capitalise at about £340,000. At 6 per cent. interest charge, this would be £20,000, and £14,000 surplus after interest.

Will the Minister give us some idea of what he thinks about this, and whether this type of capital evaluation and cost evaluation would be considered by the Ministry to be appropriate? This is important, because one of the great services provided by the Board—and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree about this—is that both in the nationalised industries, and often in the Departments which the Committee of Estimates of this House looks into, there is no known evaluation of efficiency. It is extremely difficult to do this in respect of either a nationalised industry or a Government Department. These figures, which are basically commercial, are of the greatest help to the House. This is the first time that I have seen anything quite so good in the possibility of cost evaluation, profitability evaluation, and the type of interest charge which can appropriately be made. I therefore think that it would be of great value to know whether this set of figures is acceptable to the hon. Gentleman.

The absolute minimum cost of providing the bare necessities on our canal system is said to be £600,000. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a figure of £340,000. If we exclude the cruising amenities aspect, what type of balance between the two have the Government in mind? This information would be useful to the House, because this is a difficult problem. The Department has my sympathy in working out the difference between maximum financial stability —which we know is difficult to do with regard to inland waterways where there may be an historical heritage which cannot be disposed of because the elimination cost is so immense—and the bare minimum of something which will give an adequate amenity to people who are demanding and getting more amenities and more leisure time, and now have their opportunities of travelling abroad severely curtailed.

As we are nearing the end of the year, can the hon. Gentleman give us some insight into how the results will go this year? Does he think that we will again be able to congratulate the Board, for the fourth time, on reducing its deficit? Can the hon. Gentleman give us some idea of the extent to which the seamen's strike damaged the carrying capacity and carrying income of the Board? Has the income from waterways varied considerably? Can we expect again this year another result for warehousing which will enable us to congratulate the Board?

I believe that there are some basic problems and difficulties which the Board will have to face in its commercial activities in the future. It is competing for its livelihood in the carrying of bulk cargoes, in the same way as the railways, particularly under Dr. Beeching, set out to get bulk cargoes both of coal and new traffic at a time when pipelines were coming into use. It was highly acceptable for them to go ahead and try to get oil traffic at the same time. This is in addition to the fact that it has the legacy of being an immediately pre-rail-way type of industrial fabric, which makes it very difficult for the Board.

We notice that the greatest increase in traffic is going to the major canals, but this trend is beginning to slow down, and it may be that it will stabilise because of the difficulties which I have mentioned.

There is also the problem of water channelling, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Every time this is done, the amenity value is reduced, and the people who want to go about in boats do not have the pleasure of doing so.

The cruising season is now over, and no doubt there has been a forecast of preliminary figures. As there has been a change of the pleasure craft licensing system, the footage and mooring system about which the hon. Gentleman talked, can we, for the second year, expect a 20 per cent. increase in revenue? This was highly commendable last year, and we hope that it will continue, because, if it does, it will show a considerable increase at compound rates before many years have elapsed, with the result that some of the problems which we are discussing today may be seen in a different context when looked at on an historical basis.

What discussions has the Minister had with the Waterways Board, the economic planning authorities, local authorities, and other appropriate bodies and boards, as well as the users? This subject was mentioned in the White Paper and we would very much like to know more about it.

We would also like to know whether we could have some facts on this sub- ject. The Crinan and Caledonian Canals, far away from the House, are specifically mentioned in the White Paper which says that they require particular consideration. Can we know more about what this consideration is to be? They are run at a considerable loss, but one appreciates that they have great requirements.

The House will agree that this is a difficult problem for the Waterways Board. The industrial and carrying side of the activities of the canals is a very small proportion of the total transport of freight, but at the same time the Board has water revenues and has to meet water requirements which will surely increase as the country becomes more industrialised and as industry needs more water. There is also the problem of providing amenities and pleasures. It is discussing only half of the subject to talk simply about the industrial side without references to the reward which one gets at the end of the day.

We sympathise very much with the Board and appreciate the problems which it faces and we congratulate it on what it has done. It has done extremely well, now having been freed from the traditional encumbrance of having the railways breathing down its neck. It is one of the tragedies of history that the railways took over a competing type of organisation, and the managements of the two have not always seen eye to eye, and could not have done even if there had been the best will in the world, which was not always the case.

One of the great things about the 1962 Act was that the Waterways Board was at last given freedom. It has used it immensely well and the House and the country are grateful to it and I am sure that everyone, regardless of political views, would like to join the Parliamentary Secretary in thanking and commending the Board, while reminding the Parliamentary Secretary that there are decisions still to be made and that the House wants to hear about them.

12.12 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Blenkinsop (South Shields)

It was rather a pity that the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster) wasted some of the earlier part of his speech making criticisms about lack of action during the last year or two when we have waited year after year for something to be done about the availability of canals, not only for commercial activities, but for leisure pursuits. This has been a cumulative problem, and most of us are delighted that at last we have at our backs some practical information upon which to take some kind of sensible decisions, something which we have seriously lacked in the past.

I join with others in congratulating the Waterways Board on its excellent reports, particularly the extremely lively interim Report, "The Facts about the Waterways", which anyone could read with enormous interest, all the more attractive because of the vigorous way in which it has been written, unlike some documents which we get from time to time from Government Departments and statutory bodies. There has been a fantastic explosion in the recreational use of water, not only canals but reservoirs, many controlled by the Board, and coastal waters. This demand is increasing enormously. There are about 3 million fishermen—there may be many more—and at least 500,000 people are interested in sailing in one form or another, and there are many other recreational uses of water. We are discussing not a tiny minority but a very large and steadily increasing section of the community, and if one devotes one's attention largely to these recreational uses of the canals and other stretches of water under the control of the Board, one is discussing what is becoming steadily a more and more important part of the Board's work.

Echoing what has been said, I want to express our great pleasure at the greatly increased attention which the Board is paying to this matter, as is evidenced by the increased revenue which it has obtained. While agreeing that it is still pitiably small compared with the costs which the Board has to meet, nevertheless revenue from various pleasure activities over the last year has increased considerably at a time when it had been thought that the increase which had been shown in previous years would tend to fall back. I do not know whether we can expect as great an increase this year —that would seem to be rather unlikely— but the figures are encouraging.

One of the issues which arises in this is whether the increase in interest is likely to be maintained in future in view of the limitation on the waterways which is provided by having a series of separated stretches of water. Attention is called to this important matter in the Report, and it is clearly something which must be carefully thought about in considering both the size of the deficit and the way in which provision is to be made in future to meet recreational needs. I agree that it would be wrong to think that the Board should have to meet the whole of this deficit in future. If we want, as I do, an expansion of recreational use and provision for recreational facilities, many others ought to join in helping to meet the cost. I include local authorities, for example, when discussing plans for the recreational needs of their areas and, of course, the users themselves, who ought to pay their share in addition to the subsidy from the Exchequer.

I want to refer to what was said about the position of the National Trust and the canal for which it is now responsible. This example proves the point brought out in the Report about the high cost not only of conversion and bringing into use certain stretches of canal which might otherwise not be available, but the inevitably high maintenance costs. It also emphasises the need to have one management body. I doubt the sense of having a number of separate bodies each trying to deal with the highly technical problems of the maintenance of waterways, and I think that the experience of the National Trust has proved my view. The Trust has an immense amount of good will, in spite of recent attacks— possibly increasing good will in the country—and has been able to get an immense amount of voluntary support and to attract a great deal of financial contributions, and yet it has met great difficulties in trying to provide the facilities it would have wished in the area concerned. There is no doubt that in these highly specialised operations the extent to which those with fewer resources than the Trust can provide and hope to operate stretches of water is questionable. Therefore, the proposal that there should be one major management body is sound, although I am anxious that the great range of volunteers should be able to help in every possible way. In the experience of the Trust over this relatively short stretch of water—it is about 13 miles long—one of the main factors is the doubts and anxieties about the extent to which the waterways system in the area would be maintained. This emphasises my earlier point. If we intend, as I hope we do, to make increasing permission for the number of people who want to use the water, we should not think only of more isolated stretches of water but of a connected system if we are to make a valuable contribution for the majority of people.

Mr. John Smith

As the hon. Gentleman says, it is true that this project was very difficult, but it was accomplished. Does he think that it would have been accomplished without a national charitable body like the National Trust? Does he think that the State would have put up the £50,000 which the Trust raised?

Mr. Blenkinsop

I am making no criticism. As a member of the executive of the National Trust and concerned with some of its operation, I supported this action. Had it not been for the intervention of the Trust, I agree that it is likely that this stretch of canal would have gone out of use and it would have been doubtful if it could have been restored. I favoured the operation, but it is right that we should learn from the Trust's experience in considering the cost of other stretches of water. The Trust hoped at one stage to persuade the Board to continue the management of the stretch of water, but this has, understandably, proved impossible. The Trust has therefore had to shoulder more than it had originally thought.

I am anxious to see a steady expansion of use, but the matter should be considered practically. I was concerned in the past with the examination of costs with the recreation in the countryside and at a famous conference called "The Countryside in 1970" concern was expressed about water use. I am pleased at the added attention which has been given to this in the last two or three years. I am encouraged by the number of voluntary bodies interested and the signs that the Government are realising how strong is the demand.

I hope that we will not have to wait too long for a clearer definition of the Government's proposals. Although the new date is the end of 1968 and not 1967, these dates soon arrive. On the question of time which might be needed to establish any new organisation for the recreational use of the waterways, I hope that we may have some clear statement of the Government's proposals in the next few months, so that the matter may be fully discussed with all who are interested and we can be sure that the legislation is passed in good time before the end of 1968.

I welcome the recommendations and accounts so far as they go and I hope that it is a sign that the Government intend, in the near future, to pay more attention than in the past to the importance of recreation.

12.25 p.m.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

I must declare an interest in this matter, both as a boat owner on the inland waterways system and an angler, but I must also confess that I have not yet caught anything on the inland waterways.

We agree, I think that the commercial section is successful and profitable and that we would all congratulate the Board warmly on its success. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster) rightly said that this Board, set up by the Conservative Party two Parliaments ago, had a concept of greater freedom. We on this side believe that the old British Transport Commission system was wrong, and we want the Board to have still greater commercial freedoms in the good directions that it is moving.

I take note of what the Parliamentary Secretary said, that the debate is really about the controversial section and not the commercial waterways. The future of the non-commercial waterways and the deficit are what concern us. The inevitable figure of £600,000 which must be paid out is known to all of us. What about the further £340,000 a year? This is the crunch. What about the existing system? How much of it is to be maintained? The Parliamentary Secretary castigated the chairman of the I.W.A. for saying that he and his association believed that the whole system should be maintained. The Parliamentary Secretary was at fault there, because, as the chairman reasonably pointed out, the entire through routes, the ring system, must be maintained.

As the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) said, unless there is a through route, if there are little cut-up portions of channel, this is useless. If there is to be pleasure boating, the system must be substantial. We accept that there must be a clear definition of the system to be maintained and I am sure that the I.W.A. would be happy if certain minor sections in the Birmingham area which serve little through route purpose were abandoned, but as a generality—

Mr. John Morris

I did not want to give the impression that I was castigating anyone. I wanted to draw to the attention of the House the various shades of view and I thought that I had done so. I also pointed out the evidence on oath of the chairman of the Waterways Association. I could go much further and repeat some matters in a document issued by the Association, which I think the hon. Gentleman will know, but I did not want to weary the House and he should not tempt me.

Mr. Wells

I do not want to tempt the hon. Gentleman now or at any other time. We welcome what he is doing for the waterways.

Why should waterways be maintained at all? This is a valid question. First, they should be kept for the leisure and relaxation of many millions of people. The hon. Member for South Shields guessed that there were 3 million fishermen. I believe that there are more. Angling is the finest therapy. I saw the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health in the Chamber earlier this morning and I thought that he would be winding up the debate. His Department spends vast millions on drugs every year; how much better to spend £340,000 on canals for the leisure, pleasure and peaceful relaxation of millions of people.

Anglers are the most numerous of the users of the waterways. I do not want to go into detail except to say that even the excellent document "The Facts about the Waterways" has been overtaken by time already. That document says that it has the marvellous total of £14,000, a doubling of the total over eight years. Yet the Report and Accounts today show that angling receipts are up to over £22,000, which shows that they can be jacked up quickly and considerably. This is due to the Board's efficient work.

There is always a storm when anybody suggests that anglers should have to pay more for their harmless pursuit, but I believe that anglers are all most reasonable men. Indeed, they would not be anglers if they were not reasonable men. Although occasionally the odd angler has the odd dispute with a boat owner, anglers and boat owners are complementary. If we did not have boats going through the channel, we should not have clear water for fishing purposes. The craft are essential. Since the decline of the commercial narrow boat on the narrow canals, the motorised pleasure boat is of all the greater importance.

The movement of craft is also important to the free flow of water for water supply purposes. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Summers) is in his place, because in his constituency there are particular problems concerning this aspect of the subject and we look forward to hearing from him about them. The free flow of water to water undertakings cannot be carried on in an abandoned canal. A motor boat going through regularly is much the quickest and cheapest form of clearance. The very substantial figures for the sales of water are worth noting. We are considering how to reduce the deficit. The receipts for water sales were up by £25,000 last year, and I am sure that this trend will continue.

If we accept that the pleasure boat is of vast importance to the inland waterways system, we should see how many of them there are and how we can get more. The report announces that there are 9,241. Of these, 6,000 boats were powered—and it is the powered boats which are increasing in number annually. I for one—and I may well be in trouble in certain quarters for saying this—am glad to see the decline in the number of residential boats, because on occasions these have turned into aquatic slums and have been the cause of accidents and dangers. The mobile powered boat and the unpowered canoe are welcome, but I deplore aquatic slums.

Of these powered boats, fewer than 500 are let out for hire. This is a very small but growing business. On the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads, over 2,300 motor boats are let out for hire on the comparatively limited waterways. I give those two figures to show that there is a vast potential for increasing the holiday possibilities of our canal system.

Why has this not been done? For one reason and one reason alone—lack of confidence. That is the watchword of the Labour Party in respect of national finance, foreign affairs and even the humblest of Parliamentary subjects. The Labour Party generate lack of confidence. This brings me to the section of the White Paper which the Minister tried to defend, in a most gracious manner—and I refer to paragraph 126, which would give the Government the right to have five-year reviews. This is regrettable. It is one method of destroying confidence in the waterways system.

I am a boat owner, and I admit that I bought another boat this very week, with a steel hull, and, provided that she is properly painted, she should have a life of some 20 years. We shall not get commercial operators to invest £4,000, £5,000 or £6,000 in costly boats to give people a good holiday at a modest cost unless they have confidence that the waterways system will continue for 25 years. I put 25 years as the absolute minimum period for which there should be a guarantee. I accept what the Minister said about the last sentence in paragraph 125, which is comforting, but these are words—not action. When we look further down the paragraphs we see this disastrous five-year review.

Early next year we hope that all these consultations are completed about what the extent of the waterways system is to be. Let us have reasonable consultations, as the Minister suggested, around the table and get a cut-back wherever that is possible, but we must leave the main through routes, the main ring routes and the routes which will supply special water and other facilities. When we have agreed these routes, let us have a firm assurance that there will be a 25-year period of guarantee. I believe that the reference to a five-year review was put into the White Paper as what I might call Treasury bait in order to keep the Treasury happy. This is a fundamental difficulty.

We are most grateful to the Leader of the House for making time available to us today to discuss this problem and we are grateful to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for his courteous help. But the fact remains that, whichever party is in office, the waterways are the poor relations of the Ministry of Transport. The civil servants in the Ministry of Transports are undoubtedly most excellent fellows, all biting their nails to get the Minister out of her traffic jam. But it is very much more important to give the people in the Waterways Board, who are the experts, and knowledgeable people on the subject, a freer hand and to take this matter away from the dead hand of the Treasury and the civil servants within the Parliamentary Secretary's own Department.

I turn to more day-to-day matters. The maintenance of our waterways system, the opinion of people who use it, is already very much better than it was eight or nine years ago. This reflects great credit on the Board. The Board has improved the system enormously, but in the last two or three years there has been no substantial step forward. Maintenance is not getting better. I put this perhaps more as a question than as a statement when I say that this is perhaps due to the cut back in the manual staff. There are fewer men on the job.

We know that the Board has done a good job in giving them more modern equipment. They are getting more technological equipment. But more money still should be spent on equipment if we cannot get the manual staff. As a generality, I deplore that the administrative and clerical staff was at precisely the same figure at the end of the year as it had been at the beginning. If there is a cut-back in the number of people who do the work in the cut, there should also be a corresponding cut-back in the administrative section. Incidentally, speaking of the administrative section, those of us who hold the waterways dear to our hearts were all very sad at the death of Mr. Scott in the last year.

The hon. Member for South Shields touched on the point whether the user should pay more. The boat user has already been asked to pay more. I believe that the boat owners as a body will willingly pay more and that, with certain modest exceptions, they will be prepared to accept a further increase. This may not be a popular remark, but I believe it to be true. If their waterways are to be kept open, I believe that they are prepared to pay a little more. I notice a figure of £100,000 as receipts from pleasure boats. The Minister said that this is already taken into account in the ret deficit of £340,000. He says that we must get more money from elsewhere.

But if the Minister could give people confidence so that they put down boatyards and marinas and so that the grocers turned their waterside shops so that they looked on the canals rather than only on the streets, he would be surprised at the result. In High Street, Bletchley, if I remember aright where there used to be a grocer's shop on the ground floor looking into the street, there is now a basement shop looking to the canal. This all adds to the service to the boater and to the amenities. These people will not invest their money unless there is confidence.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for the Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. John Smith) is aware of the fact—and we have heard his intervention on the point already—but there is no project of a commercial nature based at the end of the Stratford Canal. If there were something to go to, other than the charms of Stratford itself, more people would use the canal and, therefore, it would of itself be more viable.

Safety is something which concerns us all to an important degree. A disused or "dead" canal makes for dead children, and this is one of the gravest problems we have to face. Where there is a busy, thriving, active canal, there are people about. It is those great bedstead-full places, behind palisades of sleepers, through which children creep and are drowned. We are all very concerned and perturbed for the parents and families who live in the vicinity. If these canals were active viable places, with boats coming and going, these tragedies would be greatly reduced.

There are other categories of canal users, hikers, walkers, and industrial archaeologists who go to see the great structures of the period. The walkers and hikers could go elsewhere, but the anglers, the boaters, and the industrial archaeologists have very few alternatives to the waterways. For this reason, I urge the Minister to reconsider what he said in paragraph 126 of the White Paper. I believe it to be absolute rubbish; and that his very half-hearted defence of it this morning should be quickly forgotten.

We all know that the Lord Chancellor is setting out to throw away all the archaic legislation in the land. Were it not for that archaic legislation which created our canals, they would all have been done away with by the railway companies a century ago. On this point, perhaps the silliest phrase I have ever seen in a White Paper appears at the beginning of paragraph 121 of the White Paper, which says: The Board is, nevertheless, still obliged by legislation, much of it as old as the waterways, to keep many hundreds of miles open …". It says "much of it as old". Of course it is, but the legislation is older than our waterways. Which came first, the legislation or the waterways? Really, the Parliamentary Secretary should attend to his grammar, or whoever drafted this legislation should.

Mr. John Morris

I do not think that I should let the hon. Gentleman continue without making a comment. The hon. Gentleman must be aware that the waterways were constructed, and that legislation was enacted, at different periods.

Mr. Wells

I accept that comment, but the canal mania struck this country over a very short period and the great period of canal legislation began about 200 years ago today. The canals themselves were constructed, in the main, somewhat later than that.

I was about to warmly welcome the hon. Gentleman's proposal for a new consultative standing body to seek greater co-operation between interested parties. I hope that this body will serve a useful purpose and will not meet monthly simply because a monthly meeting is due.

The concept of what one might usefully call a football team supporters' club is one which is very attractive to hon. Members on this side. I say to the Parliamentary Secretary that financial difficulties are faced by some existing supporters' clubs, such as the Kennet and Avon Trust, which is, I understand, not allowed to pay for part of a project. If it wants a project, it has to pay the lot or nothing. That is quite absurd. If we can get away from that situation, we shall do so.

I understand the Board has been somewhat sceptical about the long-term staying power of voluntary supporters. I do not think that it need be so. I can see the Board's point, but conditions are important in this matter of confidence. If a supporters' team, or a supporters' club, could see that they were to have their waterways for many years ahead, their enthusiasm would be channelled into more realistic ways. I hope that this fundamental matter of confidence will be dealt with, above all else.

Finally, I thank the Parliamentary Secretary most warmly for his great personal effort in this direction. He did not take on his responsibilities all that long ago and he has had many great problems to deal with in other sections of his Department. We think that he has done an extremely good personal job in trying to promote the interests of the Board, and we hope that he will be successful in giving the Board greater freedom in the future.

12.45 p.m.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker (Derby, South)

I wish to begin by expressing a large measure of agreement with the hon. Gentleman the Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells) and congratulating my hon. Friend on his speech and the Board on its work over the years since it was created. It is important that I should begin by congratulating them both, because my hon. Friend might perhaps think that some of the things I have to say are more sharply critical than anything which has been uttered in the House today.

I am very glad that he was wise enough to say that he would not make any policy declaration. I hope he will consult further with all the interests concerned. Consultations with supporters' clubs—and I speak as president of the Supporters' Club of the Derby County Football Club, an important national organisation—will be of very great value to the Minister and to all his colleagues in his Department. Those people understand the waterways. They constantly use them. They know the problems, and they can help him very much.

I was a little pained by the Minister's constant reference to common sense, and even to his use of the word "realistic". I remember that a great Englishman, Mr. Benjamin Disraeli, once said that a realist was a man who insisted on repeating the blunders of his ancestors. I remembered that the railways, as the hon. Member said, were unwise enough to buy up and kill the canals, just as the road interests, the road constructors, the motor manufacturers, and the oil interests would like to have done to the railways in the last few years. I congratulate my hon. Friend's Department on the first preliminary move it has made to save the railways.

With reference to common sense and realism, let us look at this basic subsidy of £600,000, which my hon. Friend says will always be required—£600,000 for 2,000 miles of waterway. How does that compare with some other items? My attention was drawn to a question I put down to the Minister of Defence the other day regarding the rising cost of military research. It will surprise the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to learn that since 1964 the cost of military research to this country has risen from £250 million per year to £270 million, an increase of £20 million.

I do not know how much security we will get from that addition to our military research, but I propose to follow the point up with the Prime Minister and others. I hope to discover what is being done. Compared with the figure for military research £600,000 for a matter which is of interest to millions of our fellow citizens is not a large amount. Let us look at it in another way. That sum of £600,000 is just twice the annual cost of maintaining Hyde Park. I believe that if waterway policy were to be developed—as I hope my hon. Friend will develop it—there would be no need for any subsidy at all. The waterways could be made to pay their way.

I base my remarks on my experience at the Ministry of War Transport from 1941 to 1945. I then had the honour to be Chairman of the Committee on Inland Waterways and Canals, on which served representatives of every section of the industry. It had as its secretary, General Mance, known to the world as one of the greatest experts on transport problems of every kind.

We had a double task. The first was to try to get the inland waterways to make the maximum contribution to the carriage of goods during the war. As I remember, we managed an average, which we gradually increased, of more than a million tons a month, even in bad weather. That, if I may say so, was about 50 per cent. more than the present amount being carried. The second task was to look ahead from war conditions to the future of the waterways after the war. We were given the specific task by the Cabinet to prepare plans for public works that would be useful in the postwar slump that everyone thought would occur.

Fortunately, after the war we had a Labour Government in office and there was not a post-war slump. All the time that Government were in power there were more jobs than there were workers to fill them. Nevertheless, we prepared those plans for what we believed would be the productive development of the waterways. It was the unanimous view of the Committee—which was, I again remind my hon. Friend, one of very high authority—that the total commercial tonnage carried by waterways could be very much increased.

I shall not deal with the detailed plans we considered. We made special journeys to most of the major waterways, and consulted their boards. We elaborated very detailed construction plans. We believed, for example, that the Trent waterway could be extended from Nottingham to Birmingham and linked to the Severn. We proposed that it should be linked by what was called The Cross to the Thames, and by a new canal—with a good many new lifts, and so on—to Liverpool.

The Trent waterway was developed by Mr. J. H. Thomas and his colleagues in the Labour Government of 1929–31 as an unemployment enterprise. Locks were built which would take convoys of one tug vessel and three barges with a total load of 500 tons—about the same, at that time, as could be carried by a steam-drawn goods train—with a traction unit of only 80 horsepower, with only three men working the boats, with a few people on the locks, and with running costs incomparably lower than those of the train. It was calculated at that time that for a very small number of millions of £s this extremely valuable waterway, which has been of great importance to the North Sea ports and to Nottingham, could be carried to the very heart of industrial Britain, to Birmingham, and then linked with the Severn.

I give that only as an illustration of what I believe could still be done if we had the enterprise and vision required. A great deal could be done on the smaller waterways. We were convinced at that time that it would be possible, without great expenditure, to raise the unit of transport, on the Grand Union Canal, for example, from the 30-ton narrow boat to the 85-ton boat, which would have been economical to run. Whether it would be so today is a different question, because I admit that all the economic conditions have since greatly changed.

These waterways, particularly those that start from the sea, with the very cheap overboard loading from ship to barge or waterways vessel, are very advantageous economically, and they would, after all, take a good deal of traffic from the roads. The Transport White Paper and the Board's Report speak almost contemptuously of any contribution that could be made by waterways to relieve the freight burden on our road systems, but even a reduction of a million tons would be well worth while.

The present heavy lorry traffic is a grievous hardship to the whole nation, and an economic loss into the bargain. I speak from the experience of ray constituents. I rang up the chief constable there this morning and he had no new figures to give me, but at the last count there were passing through Derby from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every working day four coal lorries per minute, each carrying 10 tons of coal, and fines, which blow about and scatter, going uphill at speeds —the drivers are paid by the number of journeys they do—of 30–35 miles an hour, or whatever higher speed the vehicles can be made to do, and pouring out clouds of diesel fumes by reason of which my constituents believe they suffer from chest maladies much more than do other people.

This is only part of the lorry traffic now passing through Derby. Since the last count, the steel, oil and other heavy traffics have greatly increased. This other heavy traffic costs the police a lot of money, as a good many of the loads have to be taken by police convoy—I believe that at one time there were one or two per day—and the diesel fumes and other nuisance is exactly the same as that connected with the coal lorries.

It is said that there is great advantage because of the speedy door-to-door delivery that lorries give, but a great many of these services could be rendered by rail or waterway. A good deal of door-to-door delivery could be made by waterway. Speed is quite irrelevant, provided there is always enough in the pipeline to keep an adequate supply for the user at the point of arrival. I therefore urge my hon. Friends not to close their minds to the development of our waterways in order to take commercial traffic from the heavy goods lorries which cause so many road accidents today.

I turn now to a point made with great force, as I thought, by the hon. Member for Maidstone. It is true that our waterways, and particularly our narrow waterways, are not in far greater use for pleasure and commercial traffic because they are constantly threatened with closure. Who will invest money in pleasure craft or any commercial enterprise connected with a canal if, in perhaps only five years, anything might happen, even to the canal being closed? I agree that a guarantee of at least 25 years is necessary, and I hope that the Government will decide that a minimum of 25 years should be given to the present network. If that were done I am sure that an immediate and great increase in the capital put into the canals and narrow waterways would result.

I come to some other aspects of the work of the Ministry and the Board. In his admirable speech, my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary said that the Board had, for the first time, recognised that canals and waterways were needed for purposes other than the commercial carriage of goods. It is encouraging to know that the Board has given help to other developments and wants the waterways to be used for pleasure purposes; fishing and recreation of various kinds. I hope that the Ministry and the Board will view this aspect of their work with a wide vision of what may happen in the coming 10, 20 or 30 years. Ten years from now the major problem facing people will be the use of leisure time.

I am convinced that inadequate facilities exist for healthy recreation and that this lack is a major cause of juvenile delinquency, which so often hardens into a long-term criminal career. The inadequacy of facilities for healthy recreation is a major cause of social maladjustment among many young people of both sexes, and this is a grievous evil which we face. I have a considerable amount to do with physical recreation of various kinds, both on the British national and the international scene. I am profoundly convinced that the provision of proper physical education and training for sport—the provision of adequate facilities, leaders and coaches—could be a major factor in overcoming the social maladjustment which leads to juvenile delinquency and crime.

Two sports—the first coming under the heading of fishing and the second under the heading of canoeing and other forms of pleasure boating, even rowing— were mentioned eloquently by my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. The cost of providing facilities, leaders and coaches is minimal. Many clubs have been formed and, because of the hard work being done by their coaches and leaders, they are expanding and becoming flourishing social enterprises.

Some fabulous figures appear in the Board's Report. For example, in 1965 an increase of 10 per cent. took place in the number of people fishing on the canals. If that rate of increase is maintained in the coming 10 years, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people, many of them youngsters, will be spending their leisure time fishing. It is well known that fishermen are keen, peaceable and contented citizens and that their pastime is entirely beneficial to society. An increase of 10 per cent. is significant, but I hope that the Board will risk a larger investment to encourage more people to fish.

The boating figures are even more significant. The Report states that in 1963 there was an increase of 6½ per cent. in the number of people boating on the canals, in 1964 there was an increase of 8 per cent. and in 1965 an increase of 22 per cent. These increases have been due in large measure to the encouragement which the Board has given, but again I hope that it will give more encouragement than it has given hitherto.

The Report states that a small section of the Derby Canal—which is, of course, of interest to me—has been taken over by the Board. This section joins the Trent system at Swarkestone and has been taken over for recreational and mooring purposes. That will be advantageous, but I look back to a pre-war dream of the greatest of all Derby councillors and aldermen, the late Alderman Raynes, who wanted to clear the banks of the Derby Canal right through the town and down to the Derwent and have beautiful parks and gardens all along the banks, down to Darley Abbey Park. If that dream had been carried through how much more beautiful the town of Derby would now be.

Unfortunately, a small part of the Canal has been filled in. It is required for a road development which, I agree, is long overdue but which, in my belief, is only a short-term expedient to deal with the present acute traffic problem in Derby. However, there remains a lot of the Derby Canal outside the town and I believe that it could be kept open at a very low cost for pleasure purposes, including fishing and boating.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will consider this problem and consult the Stratford enthusiasts who are anxious to take on the job that needs to be done on the Derby Canal. This would be worthwhile, remembering that the borough boundaries of Derby are about to be extended, which will make it a city of nearly a quarter of a million people. It will soon have a university and it is shortsighted to lose the asset of the remainder of the Canal, which could still be of value.

An important subject is the maintenance and reclamation of canals by voluntary labour. The Stratford-on-Avon enthusiasts gave a magnificent example of what can be done, but I agree with the hon. Member for Maidstone that it is not fair to expect these voluntary workers to bear the whole of the burden. I am attracted by the proposal of the Inland Waterways Association that there should be a national waterways trust which would be entitled to receive legacies and money under covenant; and that, when reconstruction or maintenance work was necessary, it could call on the Government for the help of troops or prison labour, and why not?

I admire the Report of the British Waterways Board, but regret that on many points it stresses its ardent desire to reduce expenditure, to cut down manpower—remembering that this may have a devastating effect on proper maintenance—and to reduce the number of concrete piles produced at its two establishments. This cheeseparing policy of trying to save halfpennies instead of looking broadly at what might be done for the development of the system which it controls is regrettable. The Board would do well to believe that in the coming decades the waterways system should be expanded, as is happening on the Continent and in most countries which are fortunate enough to have canals.

The Board should direct its attention anew to the great advantages of moving goods by waterway. It should also ensure that the future of individual waterways does not depend on local reviews but on an overall national review. The over-riding need is for a long period of security of tenure, which was advocated by the Bowes Report and which ought now to be established. It is quite unrealistic to stick to this five-year plan. In the waterways we have a great national asset. They should be developed for the greater welfare of the nation as a whole.

1.10 p.m.

Sir Spencer Summers (Aylesbury)

Anyone who has faith in the future of the canals cannot but be delighted to have heard the speech to which we have just listened. I hope that the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mr. Philip Noel-Baker) will not misunderstand me when I say that I am not quite so keen to go to Derby itself as I was before he spoke, but if he ever gets the Derby Canal improved so that some of the traffic which now goes by road then goes on water, he would be pleased.

I am glad that this debate has been staged and to have the opportunity to make a short contribution, because I was one, with a number of my hon. Friends, who sought to detach the canals from the railway administration in order that they should be untrammelled by consideration of railway politics. The results which have accrued, as shown in the several Reports since then, have confirmed the view that separation was entirely right. I am glad that the Government have reinforced that policy. Incidentally, if I am not able because of another engagement to be present to hear the winding-up speech, I hope that I shall be acquitted of discourtesy.

I am also glad that this debate is taking place because of a constituency interest in canals. The Aylesbury Arm, although very short and expensive to maintain, can be made much more economically viable. In 1959, it was virtually derelict but, thanks to private enterprise, it has obtained a turnover, which can be improved, of no less than £40,000 a year. I join with my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster) in congratulating the Board on its improved financial results. At a time of increasing costs and increasing interest rates to have reduced the gross deficit to half in three years and substantially to have reduced the total deficit deserves marked commendation.

I also add a word as to the value of the document to which a number of references have been made already, "The Facts about the Waterways." It has enabled a much more realistic approach to be made, but that needs to be qualified. A number of people, knowledgeable in the use of waterways, do not accept as facts some of the statements made in this document. I refer particularly to paragraph 118, where the narrow boat, as a commercial proposition, is virtually condemned. I could quote, but I do not know that this is the opportunity which should be taken, a number of instances where but for want of security in the future satisfactory commercial arrangements could be made, but which because of the uncertainty cannot be made.

Comparison is made between the economics of operating a narrow boat with the economics of operating a lorry. A few paragraphs further on, when accommodation on boats is discussed, two boats going together are deemed to be the norm, but when the economics of boats v. lorries are contrasted, a single boat carrying only 30 tons is the element taken into the calculation. This results in the narrow boat being twice as expensive as the lorry, but, if two boats operated by one team were taken into account, a completely different picture would be presented. I am not competent to say how far the faith of those now operating commercial boats is justified, but I enter the caveat that although the document is called "Facts" a number of people would dispute the validity of that term.

The document was published in December, 1965, very nearly a year ago. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary seemed rather surprised when we protested that he was not prepared to announce any policy today. He referred to the need for consultation before policy was framed. That is quite right, but he seemed somewhat surprised that some of us were not familiar with the statement issued calling for those consultations. I have a copy. I understand that it was issued in October, 1966. Why need we have waited for nine months after the facts about the waterways are published before beginning to collect information on which a final judgment is to be based? The impression given is that there is no sense of urgency in the mind of the Government in reaching a stage when an assured future can be given to those concerned. The longer the uncertainty goes on, the worse it is for all concerned.

In his speech, the Parliamentary Secretary quite properly drew attention to the difference between the rôle of this Board in providing a track only and the Railways Board, which provides the track and vehicles to use it. He emphasised how dependent this Board is on the use of its track by others. All the more important, therefore, that those others should be put in a position to reach constructive decisions as soon as humanly possible.

I re-echo the objection taken to the five-year review of the whole system of canals. The hon. Gentleman said that there is a degree of stability introduced by this assurance of five years. He may think that his Government are assured of a five-year tenure of office. He may think it is longer, but let him be quite sure that we on this side of the House take a quite different view. The stability for this Government, in the view of those on these benches, is confined to five years. Do not let him tell the world that assurance for the future is provided, because there may be a complete change in so short a time as five years.

The hon. Gentleman appears to look puzzled. I put it in simple language. A period of five years is just no good in terms of stability. Investment will not be made if there is a risk that the future is to be only of five years' duration.

Mr. John Morris

I understand the hon. Member's difficulty. We have put forward our proposals in the White Paper that there should be a period put in so as to relieve the present uncertainty. What the hon. Member does not seem to accept is that putting in a term of five years is an improvement on the existing situation in which there is continuous uncertainty. Of course there is argument about what the period should be. I am open to argument on that issue, but the hon. Member must accept that a period of five years is an improvement on the present situation.

Sir S. Summers

I am, naturally, very grateful for any improvement but in the context of encouraging investment of a variety of kinds, a future of five years is not enough. I reinforce the plea made by hon. Members on both sides of the House that if confidence is to be engendered in the future of the canals an assurance of not less than 25 years must be forthcoming.

I want to make the analogy where the coin was reversed and certain branch lines were closed. It was thought wise— and I am sure that this was right—to announce decisions about certain branch lines when the facts were available and a decision could be made without waiting for all the branch lines to reach the decision-making stage. I cannot see why a similar technique should not be followed with the canals. I do not see why decisions on certain waterways whose future is of great concern to certain people should not be announced in advance of the last decision on some other waterway.

There is, of course, a relationship between one waterway and another, and through traffic, be it pleasure or commercial, has a big bearing on the future assessment of canals. Nevertheless, I hope that when the necessary consultations are being made the Government will not wait for a decision on the last stretch of waterway before making announcements which will be of value to many.

In the context of investment made possible by an assured future, reference has been made to shops. No doubt this is a valuable aspect. But there are other aspects. Public houses may very well play a part in improving the amenities of those who enjoy the canals on holiday.

Reference has been made to water supplies. I know of a case in which a contract for the sale of water was not entered into because there could not be sufficient continuity of supply owing to the uncertainty about the future of canal investment. Every feature of the canals —whether it be the craft, the commercial facilities or facilities for tourism and the like—is affected by lack of confidence in the future. Therefore, even if this point is being made many times today, I can only hope that repetition of it will convince the Government of the need to take early decisions in these matters.

The right hon. Member for Derbyshire, South quoted the figure of £600,000 and said how small it was in contrast with many other figures. But that is not the figure which is in question. That is the figure which will be spent whatever policy is pursued. It is a figure little over half of that which is in dispute. When one contrasts that figure reduced by the prospects for canals with the cost of one mile of motorway or the cost, which we were told, of maintaining Hyde Park, can there be any need to dwell long before deciding whether to give confidence in the future, by producing the paltry sum of £350,000?

In considering whether we should give this confidence, it is important to note that the facts in these reports are derived from a period of uncertainty and that in considering the lessons to be learned from those facts attention must be paid to the point that they will be altered once confidence in the future is assured.

I wish to make a small point in passing. There is no means of assessing the contribution made to the Board's finances by its cruiser fleet. The commercial carrying boats are dealt with separately and lessons can be learned from that. Although the cruiser fleet is comparatively small, the view is held that it is not only losing money but is likely to be replaced to the detriment of those who are encouraged to invest money and to develop the use of cruisers by private enterprise.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has told us that in the interests of the balance of payments holidays should be taken at home. I wonder what steps are being taken by the Waterways Board to ensure that those who follow his advice are provided with the necessary facilities and encouragement. I should like the Board to take on a marketing manager to seek fresh outlets for the use of the canals and encourage fresh investment, be it in terms of facilities or contracts, and in that way play a part in bringing about the development which so many of us wish to see.

Not enough is made of the contribution which our canals could make to the tourist trade. Some years ago, I took some young people with me to Holland. We hired a cruiser and spent the best part of three weeks seeing Holland by way of the back door. No better way, and probably no cheaper or more agreeable way, could be devised than to see another country by hiring a boat and going hither and thither through the waterways away from the orthodox tourist-ridden centres and seeing how life is lived in the country through which one passes. I believe that a great deal more could be done to encourage the use of canals as an important way of assisting the balance of payments.

This debate seems to be one of those occasions when the same thing is said in somewhat different words many times. If the rest of the debate conforms to that pattern, the very fact that there is such unanimity among those on both sides of the House interested in this subject should provide great encouragement to the Government to listen to that advice, to hurry up with the consultations, and, as soon as they are complete, to act and tell the House what encouragement for the canals they propose to give.

1.29 p.m.

Mr. Alan Lee Williams (Hornchurch)

Perhaps I should start by declaring my interest in this subject. I am a freeman of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. My family have earned their living on the River Thames since 1514. Therefore, I do not speak in this debate without some prejudice.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker

Or knowledge.

Mr. Williams

I hope that I speak also with some knowledge.

One cannot possibly talk about the canal system without referring to our great rivers. It is undoubtedly true that the River Thames, being one of the largest waterways in the world, has contributed greatly over the years to the traffic which sails on the canals. We have seen in the last fifty or more years, and certainly very quickly in the last twenty or so years, a decline in the lighterage transport system on the River Thames. This has had an effect on the canal systems.

I should like to question this trend from the point of view not simply of my own interest but of the interest of the users of water transport generally. It is still true to say that water transport is the cheapest and safest means of transport. Therefore, I ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether he will provide me with reasons why Brentford Dock in the upper reaches of the Thames is to be closed completely.

I know that the Greater London Authority is anxious to develop Brentford Dock for housing purposes—a very laudable reason—but I question very much whether it is a sensible idea to close Brentford Dock, because it will clearly mean that the cargoes carried by the lighters on the canal from Brentford will presumably now find their way on to the roads. Of course, it is true that some of the cargoes will also go on to the railways. I therefore wish to question the decision behind the closure of Brentford Dock.

I also wish to refer to the under-utilisation of the River Thames generally. Many people neglect the pleasure craft industry on the River Thames. It is a great wonder to me having visited many capitals overseas, how they utilise their river systems in their capital cities. We fail completely to do this in this country. It is not only the upper reaches of the Thames at Oxford which are beautiful; the lower reaches are beautiful as well. When one sails up the River Thames, as I have done on many occasions, one sees the potentialities of this kind of transport.

I should like the use of the Thames greatly increased for cargo as well as passenger transport. Here I believe the hovercraft has some part to play, because the speeds at which hovercraft can travel are as fast as rail transport and I see no reason, given the passage of time and further perfection, why hovercraft could not be used as effective passenger transport from the lower reaches of the Thames to the City of London, so easing the congestion on the Southern Railway and other railway systems on both sides of the Thames.

A commercial aspect is involved here. When we go into the Common Market I think this will give an added incentive to the development of our river system. Again hovercraft could ply easily from the Continent to the Thames and could find exit points at the lower and upper reaches, perhaps using the canal system as a feeder to the northern half of the country.

I hope the drafters of the White Paper have analysed deeply the potentialities of river transport. I remain firmly convinced, apart from my family associations, that the River Thames is greatly under-used and that, with imagination, it could be used effectively to improve the overall transport system of the country.

1.34 p.m.

Mr. John Smith (Cities of London and Westminster)

I was interested to hear what the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Alan Lee Williams) said about the river which washes my constituency, and in particular that his family were apparently plying their trade on it at a time when I do not think I had any family at all.

I have been concerned with and about inland waterways for many years—not so many years as my hon. Friends the Members for Nantwich (Mr. Grant-Ferris) or for Aylesbury (Sir S. Summers), but certainly for 15 years. Also I should declare a small interest as an owner of waterside property. I originally became interested because it seemed to me that canals gave one access to a secret world, to a world that was solid, unaffected, remote, harmonious and tranquil, with its own inhabitants. I wanted as many people as possible to share this world.

Unfortunately, canals also give access to a world of controversy; these still waters are strongly laced with arsenic. To stir them up at all is to stir up the wildest of passions. Far from being remote, harmonious and tranquil, my connection with the waterways has involved me in more rows per square minute than anything else that I have ever done.

However, one has made good friends where I did not know good friends existed. For example, there was the late Mrs. Pearl Hyde, the Labour Lord Mayor of Coventry. With her I had many nocturnal consultations in boats. No one who knew her would mind my saying—and I know that she would not—that it was always necessary to ask her to sit on the centre line of the boat. Also Mr. Chuter Ede and Dr. Barnett Stross were good friends of the canals, and Dr. Barnett Stross contributed most generously from his own pocket. Finally there is Mr. Robert Aickman, whom I must mention because he has done what is occasionally necessary for a movement, namely, to damage himself very greatly in order to keep the movement alive. It is true of him to say that, had it not been for him, there would have been no canals to debate this afternoon. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

I have also had the experience which is seldom given to a Conservative, of engaging in a conspiracy. I know what it feels like to be like one of the Red-shirts of Garibaldi and to have had companions who were cheerful and successful campaigners. However, that is in the past.

I should like to deal briefly with a subject which has not yet been dealt with, namely, the capital part of the accounts. The deficit is in two parts. There is the working deficit plus the overheads of about £600,000. It happens to be the same as the other figure which we have been discussing. Then there is the interest on capital of about £900,000. I hope the Minister will allow British Waterways to reorganise its capital structure. The annual interest on capital is not only dispiriting to those who work in the enterprise; it is also unrealistic.

There is a somewhat tortuous analysis in "The Facts about the Waterways" which produces a more realistic capital value than the original value, but I feel the way to regard this matter is: what would be the value of the enterprise in a liquidation? "The Facts about the Waterways", puts a figure of £13 million on the net assets. It also throws up this figure of £600,000 for the continuing and inescapable liability. I feel that this continuing liability should be taken into account when reassessing the capital position of the waterways and the interest on that capital which the Board has to pay. If we were to pay someone to take away its liability, which is what we would have to do in a liquidation, it would cost about £10 million. That is a £10 million capital loss which the country cannot escape, and I feel that British Waterways should be relieved of it. It will be left with a more realistic capital with which it could show good figures and encourage its own people.

I was also very glad to see in the accounts the decline in British Waterways' own pleasure fleet. This enterprise was a false analogy with the railways which should never have been started, and it led British Waterways into competing with its own tenants and so damaging the rents it could receive from its own premises. I hope further that the lower deficit which has been achieved, in spite of a 9 per cent. increase in ware rates, does not mean lower standards of maintenance.

Lastly, on the question of the accounts, I wish to say a word about commercial carrying, although that is not what interests me about this problem. It seems that there is here a marginal form of relief to other modes of transport. It is very marginal and figures were given in the Bowes Report to show how very marginal it is, but marginal things make all the difference. On the roads it is the marginal traffic which makes the difference between free flow and total seizing up.

According to its figures, British Waterways kept 130 million ton-miles of traffic off the roads in 1965, and that deserves a little encouragement. It is true that waterways are an exceptionally inflexible means of transport, more inflexible than the railways, which are inflexible enough, but I am disappointed that there is no thought of expansion. The reasons given are that there is not enough water, although it certainly never feels like that, and that the mountains are too steep and the canals much too heavily locked. To hear this view, one would think that this country was like Switzerland or Tibet, whereas canals on the Continent, such as the Rhine-Marne Canal, are much more heavily locked and that Canal has been improved since the war.

However, and this is the great thing about this particular set of accounts and about "The Facts about the Waterways" which preceded it, British Waterways has at last expressed not what each canal is costing to keep open but how much more it costs to keep it open than to close it. The figure of between £300,000 and £340,000 has been mentioned today. I think that this can be reduced, but how much is £300,000? It is the cost of paying and servicing, that is to say, providing with an office, heating, lighting and cleaning, 150 civil servants a year, and we all know what additions have been made to their total lately. It is also the cost of maintaining just one of the public parks in my constituency. For that £300,000 we get another park, a national park, and it is a national park of a particularly valuable sort in that it is linear, it occupies no space. Nothing could be of more value in this bunged-up island; and it is, moreover, a park providing a very special form of recreation.

Much has been said about this, but it is worth emphasising that boating on canals is one of the very few outdoor activities that a complete family can enjoy together. Practically everything else involves leaving some one out. Secondly, it is extremely cheap, and therefore—a point which one must make in an age which considers such points— it is absolutely classless. It is also extremely healthy. One is out of doors every rain-free minute and there is mild exercise at locks and less mild exercise if something goes wrong.

It is also an activity which takes people off the roads. If they were not in a boat most people who go in for this sort of thing would most likely be in a caravan. It provides the last escape, with one exception, from the bedlam of the roads. It is the supreme escape and tranquilliser of our time. All these things are offered where they are most needed: because of the date at which they were made, canals are most numerous where the population is densest. I have been to Smethwick, Tipton, Aylesbury and Wolverhampton, but only by boat.

Canals stretch green fingers into the blackest towns. Moreover, and this has not been mentioned, they have very great educational value. This is an age both of visual and social education. Because of television and photography it is an age when the best way of getting at people's minds is through what they can see, and the canals are the finest means of providing both these kinds of education. On the canals was floated the industrial revolution, and the finest understanding of that revolution is gained by following in its wake.

The canals, with their elements of water, stone and iron—the solid elements —were made when, for the last time, beauty and utility were unselfconsciously combined. Furthermore, the rise of the locks, and the tunnels, gives a real feeling of the rise and fall of the land, of the grain of the country and the river valleys. The system enables one to see and understand England as it should be seen and studied, which is at walking pace, but with the added advantage that one does not actually have to walk.

This is what we are told we can have for £300,000 a year. I firmly believe that we can have it for less. The irreducible £600,000 is likely to increase. I hesitate in putting forward this argument, because it may make the Government wish to spend it while they can still do so cheaply, but when it is done in a few years' time the irreducible costs will clearly be higher. Further, although this is not a particularly important point, those costs were calculated with interest rates at 6 per cent., and that is not now a truly realistic rate. That would make a marginal increase in the case of those waterways which will actually be eliminated, which is, however, a very small proportion of them.

But the revenue from pleasure boating will undoubtedly increase, and to achieve this it is essential not to reduce the network. I would not go to the stake for every arm of canal. For example, I would not go to the stake for the section of the Sheffield and South Yorkshire navigation above Rotherham, a dolorous region which would cost £11,000 a year to keep open. But it must in the main be kept as it is.

Indeed, "The Facts about the Waterways" recognises this. At paragraph 191 it says: How dynamic the revenue potential is depends in significant measure on how much of the system is kept open to pleasure craft If only little bits here and there were left open the situation itself would be static and the possibilities of growth correspondingly small. If a lot is kept open it is reasonable to assume that over the years the revenue will significantly increase—especially perhaps where (as in the case of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal)— this was presumably inserted because the Minister of Transport's constituency is on it— there is obvious room for expansion. Later, in paragraph 193, it says: … they— that is, the users— pay for the ability to take their boats over many hundreds of miles of canal. They may not do this very often; indeed, they may never do it. But they like to know that they could; and part of the attraction of the canal system is the belief that next week (or next year)— it was most imaginative of the Board to put that in— they are really at long last going to undertake that 400 or 600, or 800 mile round trip which they have so often discussed with their friends. In addition, we must leave room for expansion of the number of boats. The number of boats as distinct from the revenue from pleasure boating is increasing at about 6 per cent. per annum. This is in line with what has happened in the United States, and, however much we may be surprised by some aspects of American life and use of leisure, the same things invariably happen here. We must leave room for the boats which will increase the revenue from pleasure boating.

The British Waterways Board says in "The Facts about the Waterways": There is no evidence that pleasure cruising revenue will continue to multiply as quickly as it has done over the last decade. When I read that, I thought that it was a gloomy prognostication which I had heard before. I remember that the Bowes Report, which appeared about seven years ago, had had something to say about it: It might be safe to assume an increase of 50 per cent. during the next five years in income from pleasure boating". In fact, this 50 per cent. increase which it was thought safe to assume was achieved and exceeded before the Bowes Committee had time to publish its Report. I think it quite likely that the same will happen again. Those who run the canals have always underestimated the growth of pleasure boating. At the present rate of growth, even allowing for the effective increase in charges which occurred in 1965, it will take only 12 years to produce the £300,000 needed to balance the books from pleasure boating alone. But the smaller the system retained the smaller is the capacity and the less likely is it to be eventually viable.

Now, a word about the five-yearly review. I quite understand that no Government would wish to tie their own hands or their successor's hands, but I believe it to be essential not to have a five-yearly review. We all know what commercial property in streets looks like when it is occupied at the tail end of leases or on five-year leases. Who will develop a business with only a five-year lease? A boat itself lasts a great deal longer, as has been said. The British Waterways Board recognises this. In paragraph 46 of "The Facts about the Waterways" it says: Security of maintenance for a reasonable period is essential. If investment is to proceed; if firms are to put their businesses by the water … if new craft are to be … purchased … by the independent carriers who play so vital a role; if business is to be retained and expanded—then there must be security The lack of security in the past has been responsible for a significant part of the … traffic decline of many miles of waterway…. We think it is vital that there should be an assurance that these waterways will remain open to navigation for a long time (say 25 years).. This security will maximise"— a dreadful word— the chances of more intensive use and so it will increase the prosperity of the waterways concerned. I have chopped bits out of that paragraph to keep it short, but the meaning is in no way destroyed.

The Board is there talking of the so-called commercial canals, but pleasure is commerce and, moreover, it is the commerce of the future. Why cannot this sort of commerce have the same 25-year guarantee as the other? We are bedevilled in this country by the inheritance, perhaps the Puritan inheritance, of the idea that if we are enjoying ourselves there must be something wrong and it ought not to be encouraged.

Now, the matter of confidence. Confidence itself will reduce the deficit. I believe that users of the canals, people who have bought their boats, will accept an increase in licence fees in exchange for a lengthening of the guarantee. Confidence is tricky stuff. One end of my constituency runs on it. Having five-yearly reviews will be like constantly opening the oven door while trying to make a soufflé. The canals have already been bedevilled by a long series of interim periods.

Finally, to reduce the cost to the taxpayer—and this is my most important point—it is essential to introduce an element of public service, an element of charity. I use the word "charity" for lack of a better, though it is not strictly applicable here. I do not suggest that enthusiasts should be given management or control, but it is essential to harness the voluntary spirit. The Government recognise this, saying in paragraph 128 of their White Paper: At the same time there will be scope for voluntary effort. There are many people who have given of their time and resources to working on canals to fit them for recreational use and also to advocating their cause. This energy and enthusiasm should not be wasted. This is the point. The Government proposes, therefore, that the Waterways Board shall be empowered to enter into agreements for the development of waterways for recreational purposes by suitably organised bodies which can raise the necessary resources of finance and labour by voluntary effort, without any additional burden being imposed on public funds. That approach is hopelessly patronising. It is like having the parents present at all the meetings of the youth club. It is not the way to get the maximum use of the voluntary principle. A lot of people, no doubt wrong-headed and insufficiently public-spirited but people, nevertheless, with whom one has to deal, will not see the fun of toiling free of charge for British Waterways. Moreover, a task of this magnitude— hon. Members, notably on the benches opposite, have said that it is a large task—cannot be performed through a mass of local societies of enthusiasts. They often have neither the money nor the network for raising it or the leadership locally available. The Stratford-on-Avon Canal is an interesting example. There was already a Stratford-on-Avon Canal Society which had been trying to do the job for some time, but it was essential to have a larger body involved, a national body. To start with, the paper work alone took three years. It took all my spare time and a lot of my employer's time for three years. The task involved two Bills and a Petition as well as numberless agreements with obdurate authorities.

These things cannot be left to local bands of enthusiasts. I shall not delay the House with detailed suggestions as to how it should be done because it must be done in a way which suits British Waterways, but what we need is the introduction of a national and charitable body into the control of the amenity waterways. This may well fit in with the notion of the consultative body which has been mentioned.

I have no possible quarrel with British Waterways. Indeed, the fact that there is no longer much of a quarrel with them has rather taken the steam out of the entire controversy. The Vice-Chairman, Admiral Parham, is one of the noblest characters that I have ever met, and typical of the type of friendship which is brought about by this pursuit. But British Waterways are responsible to the Minister of Transport, and must concentrate on those activities which are allied with transport. These also happen to be rather easier, and rather more profitable, and human nature being what it is, we cannot expect British Waterways to have the same head of steam for amenity that we would find in a national and charitable body recruited for this purpose. They may be useful as safety valves for controlling the head of steam, but they will not have it themselves.

The Government themselves have said in paragraph 173 of the White Paper: The commercial waterways will be reorganised in a group separate from the amenity and other waterways; all will, however, remain under the management of the Waterways Board. That is excellent. Why cannot this amenity group continue to be managed as described but, since it is to be separated from the others, be brought under a charitable body controlled jointly with British Waterways?

That is the way in which many industrial firms help the allied activities of their employees and staffs. In many firms there are trusts which are separate from the company, but which carry out things which the employees wish to have carried out, in the provision of playingfields, and so on, and are helped by both company and employees to do so. It would not involve any increase in administrative costs. It would simply involve the same people, but it would release energies and resources which are simply not available to British Waterways.

Perhaps I might give a practical example. The Pilgrim Trust contributed handsomely to the restoration of the Stratford Canal, but it is precluded from contributing to anything but a registered charity. Similarly, the Historic Buildings Council cannot contribute—I am not sure that I am up to date, but when I was trying to get grants for various monuments on canals this was so—and it would feel much more able to do so if it was contributing to a body to which it had already contributed so much, such as the National Trust.

The necessary sums of money can be raised, but they must be raised nationally. The National Trust raised £50,000 for Stratford, and could have raised a great deal more. We prepared an elaborate campaign which we estimated would take three years to raise the money, but in fact we raised it in a few weeks simply by asking for it. Again, the Upper Avon Navigation Trust, which is trying to continue the work down the River Avon from Stratford, raised £500 in a week recently, and lower down the river the Lower Avon Navigation Trust has raised more than £50,000 and completed its job.

A charitable body can draw on the activities of its members, of prisoners, and of troops, whereas the use of such people by other bodies presents considerable difficulties. All this is a nuisance. Enthusiasm is always a dreadful nuisance. It is much easier to pay people and boss them around. Enthusiasts fall into buckets of cement, and their work is patchy. But it gives all these people the chance, the incentive and the reward of taking part in a great work, and I think that this is what my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Summers) had at the back of his mind when he said that it is this sort of enterprise which harnesses and takes the steam out of hooligans.

The Stratford Canal is a tremendous example of this. We had a programme to get to Stratford in four years. As a matter of fact, our slogan was that we must get to Stratford before the Russians reach the moon, and we did. We did it in three years by the use of prison labour —erring bricklayers from all over England were transferred to Winson Green—and troops who were bored and unable to use their equipment did a great deal of the heavy work on the canal.

At the end of the day the achievement was celebrated by a party lasting a week which, as canal travellers know, is the only way of baffling the weather. The party was attended by Her Majesty the Queen Mother, the Home Secretary, and the prisoners who were dressed in what I took to be their best clothes, with broad striped shirts. There was an anxious moment when they were mistaken by the entourage for a contingent from Chelsea.

That this can also be done elsewhere has already been proved by experience on other canals such as the Stourbridge Canal. This is remarkable because it is heavily locked. It joins the Severn effectively with Birmingham and climbs out of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal through the Black Country. There is the Chesterfield Canal, which runs into the Trent, the Kennet and Avon Canal, which is a headache in itself, as big as the rest of the system, the Lancaster Canal, and the Caldon Canal, to which I hope the hon. Gentleman's colleague the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler) will bend his energies. It descends into the Valley of the Churnet, one of the most beautiful river valleys in England, and within a few miles of the potteries. If for no other reason, such a trust would be worth it for the human spirit which would be released.

It is interesting to note that in one of the last debates on this subject, on 4th December, 1959, nearly every hon. Member on both sides of the House called for the introduction of a national charitable body, which in those days was called a conservancy, a word which I noticed the hon. Gentleman used, and which I hope he has in his head.

I think that there is a great chance here for the Minister of Transport to poach in other Minister's fields, in education, which I have mentioned, in recreation, in the field of the so-called Minister of Sport, in amenity, which covers both Public Building and Works and Housing. The right hon. Lady has a canal of her own in Blackburn. Indeed, she is distantly united to me by a narrow navigable thread of water which stretches from Westminster to Blackburn.

Her canal at Blackburn, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, which is one of the greatest of all engineering monuments in this country, took 46 years to build. The right hon. Lady may not be able to drive, but surely she can steer? She must have navigated the canal down to Wigan. Blackburn and Wigan are not resorts in their own right, but the country between them is some of the most beautiful in that part of the world.

The right hon. Lady must have been up the cut to Burnley. Anyone who has not seen Burnley from the great embankment preferably at night has no understanding of what the industrial history of England is about. Has the right hon. Lady never crossed the Pennines in an open boat? Unfortunately, I cannot do much for the hon. Member for Aberavon (Mr. John Morris), but the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme has the Trent and Mersey Canal and the Caldon Canal, and the Valley of the Churnet, as I have said.

The right hon. Lady and her colleagues must be susceptible to these things. If she will abandon the idea of five-yearly reviews and establish or encourage a national charitable body with all the advantages of such a body—perhaps it could be called the Rose and Castle Trust which is the traditional form of decoration on canal boats—to administer in conjunction with British Waterways the amenity group of canals, she would be performing a great social service which in the ordinary way her Ministry would not give her the opportunity to perform.

Quite apart from anything else, I hope that the right hon. Lady and the Parliamentary Secretary and everyone opposite will remember that boaters are growing in numbers. They are energetic and young and resourceful and they do not want any more soothing opacities on this subject. They want this Waterways Trust. And, boaters, I must remind hon. Members opposite, are floating voters.

2.11 p.m.

Sir Eric Errington (Aldershot)

I wonder whether the shade of Sir Alan Herbert has been over our proceedings today and whether he would not have been pleased to think that the young ones were getting on very well. This document of the Waterways Board, "The Facts about the Waterways", is one of the best I have seen published by a nationalised body. I am interested in the subject primarily from the point of view of my constituency and constituencies adjoining it, but I want to say a few words about the general position.

I am perfectly satisfied that it is vitally important that there should be a lengthy period which will make quite clear the policy, without intervention and alteration, which will be adopted by the Government towards the waterways. They have to take what I am told is now called a long hard look at these matters. They ought also to consider what I believe to be one of the most important developments in transport. I had the opportunity of seeing it at work in the United States of America, although not on canals.

This development is the use of containers. A container has immense value in that it provides security, cuts losses and if there is machinery for placing a container on either a vehicle or a canal boat, there is an immense saving of time and money. It may be necessary to spend some money first to get the necessary machinery, but I hope that the Government will not abandon the possibility of the use of containers on canals. I hope that they will give careful consideration to other developments which are bound to come.

I find myself this afternoon in a rather strange position, having to deal with a canal which is in my constituency, the new Basingstoke Canal, which runs through Basingstoke, although not running very much, and through Aldershot, Woking and Chertsey. I hope that the Government will seriously consider dealing with this situation.

Although the canal was once used, for some years it has ceased to be a canal as such, in many cases. Its condition is now mixed. Some parts are satisfactory for some purposes while others are not; and it is getting steadily worse. My colleagues the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald) and the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) agree with me on this subject. It seems a pity that a great deal of money and consideration should be applied to other canals while 33 miles of this canal, much of it containing sufficient water, is being inadequately maintained.

As far as I know, nothing can be done to give assistance to the area unless steps are taken to prevent active pollution, which could be taken by the river boards, but that is a defeatist attitude. This situation is rather nicely put on page 53 of the Report which refers to minor rural canals and says: There will be certain cases where elimination would not be necessary and where the canals could be allowed to sink to a gentle 'existence' level". I am not sure that that expression very much commends itself. These cases, however, are few. A number of conditions have to be fulfilled; for instance the original construction must have been such that there are no special land drainage or embankment problems; the general area must be extremely rural, otherwise a decaying canal will become a nuisance. But a decaying canal is as much, if not more, of a nuisance in a populated area as it is in a rural gentle existence area.

In my constituency, as in Woking and Chertsey, we have the problem of a considerable explosion of population. What used to be charming rural areas, which would meet the needs of my hon. Friend the Member for the Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. John Smith), who likes to go about in a canal boat rather than walk, and which had many other attractions, are now becoming built up all around this canal. There is an element of possible danger if there is an open place which is sometimes used as a depository for old beds and even an occasional motor car, or parts of it, which has seen better days. That is the dangerous side of the picture and the Government ought to consider what they are prepared to do about it.

We have discussed trusts and a trust might be helpful in this regard, because we want someone who is technically qualified and who knows what ought to be done with eight or more miles of canal in an area being built up. This is a possible opportunity to make a recreation area. It will involve expense, but that would be comparatively small for something like this. I am never certain whether my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells) is right when he says that a boat helps someone to fish. I have always thought that it was a disadvantage to have a stream of boats passing when one was trying to catch a tiddler. It is surely possible to divide up the canal so that it can be used for recreation, either fishing or boating.

These are the sort of things in which the Waterways Board can help. Money is a question for consideration. No doubt, in view of the amount of money which we spend generally on recreation and on young people's exercises and interests, it would be worth while spending a small amount to do something good in this highly populated area. If that is wrong, the technical advice essential to tackle this proposition—it cannot be dealt with piecemeal—has to be given over the whole area. It is no good saying that a local authority might decide on something, because its neighbouring authority might want to do something else. We must get someone who knows how to advise upon this matter.

It could be valuable, but the Government must put fairly and squarely on the Board the responsibility to advise, if not finance, so that we do not have to have an unfortunate intervention by a Member of Parliament who is tired of seeing a canal in a most unimpressive and undesirable state. Although the canal is privately-owned, it offers a problem which may occur in other places, although I do not know of them. It should be dealt with by a Government decision about how best the Waterways Board can deal with it, even if the canal does not belong to the Board.

No other body I know of can give the essential advice and help. The private individuals who get together, provided that they are sensible and accept advice and are prepared to do their stuff and press on, are valuable. I agree with paragraph 128 of the White Paper. I believe that, subject to the question of finance, which should be carefully considered by the Government, a suitably organised body which would be able to raise the necessary resources of finance and, equally important, the necessary resources of voluntary labour, could achieve much. Something must be done and no one can do it better than with the experienced advice of the Waterways Board.

2.25 p.m.

Mr. Grant-Ferris (Nantwich)

We have had a fascinating debate. I congratulate the Parliamentary Secretary on the splendid way in which he moved the Motion. I think that this is the first time in history that any Front Bencher on the Government side has taken anything approaching an hour to speak on this subject. It is interesting to note that it is now seven years since we have had a debate on this subject. Fascinating and important though many of us regard it, it is a minute part of the responsibilities of the hon. Gentleman's Ministry. Therefore, it is extremely difficult for Ministers to give the time and thought to these matters which we enthusiasts, with the cause at heart, think they should. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on how he gave his time and thought to this matter.

I had intended, if I had been called earlier, to speak for longer than I now will. So much has been said already that a long speech from me at the end of the debate would not enhance our proceedings. We heard a brilliant speech from my hon. Friend the Member for the Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. John Smith), one which many people not here today, and certainly masses outside, will read with the utmost interest and enjoy. I was delighted to hear the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mr. Philip Noel-Baker), with whom I have never agreed before in the 30 years that we have been in the House together. Yet today, I agreed entirely with everything he said.

Of course we ought to have done more than we have to develop our waterways. We have not shown an enterprising spirit. I had intended to speak at length on the way in which the White Paper is written, but I will say only that I think that it is not well written. The approach is wrong, because it is shaped pessimistically in the beginning, where the tone is set. The situation does not warrant that. The information given to us in this remarkable document, "The Facts about the Waterways", shows that we have nothing to be pessimistic about and that we can, for a very small sum, ensure something which will give a great deal of joy, pleasure and help to a large number of our fellow countrymen.

The White Paper was couched in the wrong terms. It is difficult to say what I want to say, but I think that the hon. Gentleman will understand that I do not intend to cast a slur on his assistants. He is very busy, and so is his Minister. Time is precious and these things cannot always be done in the way in which they would if proper time was given to them.

May I crystallise for him three points which displease me about this report? The first is the failure to recognise the inviolability of through routes. I do not mean that anybody will take a dog-in-the-manger attitude about certain stretches here and there which are not needed and which would be better eliminated or closed, but the principle of through routes should be acknowledged, and it is not so acknowledged. This is one of the points with which we quarrel.

Secondly, and probably the most important of all, is the five-year inspection period instead of a 25-year guarantee. We have heard much about that this afternoon. I have a feeling that the hon. Member and his Minister will look at this again and will see that if the waterways system is to prosper there must be better terms, for the very good reasons which other hon. Members have explained much more ably than I could hope to explain. I believe that he will look at it again and that a little later we shall have a better answer.

Thirdly—and I think that this has not been touched on this afternoon, although it may have been—I very much regret the idea of the introduction of closures of canals by statutory Order rather than going through the normal procedure of a Private Bill. The hon. Member knows quite well what happens in statutory Orders. They are laid on the Table and they can be prayed against, but often this is at a late hour, the Whips are put on and that is an end to it. For a Private Bill it is a very a different matter.

The procedure takes place upstairs and there is an abundance of opportunity for both sides to be represented by counsel and for the subject to be discussed and argued properly. Often it never reaches that stage, because it is settled outside. This is the third point to which we take great exception—the use of statutory orders. These are the three points in the White Paper which are detrimental to the cause which I think the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has at heart and which, indeed, we all have at heart.

May I turn to another subject which has been touched on but about which I want to make a very special comment. I refer to angling and anglers generally. I have had a certain amount of experience about this because in the days when the Bowes Report was first published, about 1958, we pointed out that a great deal was said in the Report about the development of angling and what could be done to develop it. I then made a point of seeing heads of the angling societies and federations and talking to them about the possibilities of co-operation. In all fairness, I am bound to say that I did not have a very easy time. Many pleasant things have been said about anglers today, and very good chaps they are, but they are not the easiest people with whom to negotiate, especially when one talks to them as a body. They think that if they have to pay an extra fee they might not get anything back for it. We need urgently and at once to have a new look at the problem.

My view—and I have some support for this—is that the British Waterways Board ought to introduce a new inland waterways fisheries division as part of the Board. In addition, the Board should introduce bailiffing and hatcheries and should make efforts to see that from the fisheries point of view, we can be proud of the waterways. Very little has been done about this. As anyone who travels the canals must know, there are certainly one million fishermen, and it may well be that there are more. If everyone fishing on a canal had to pay a small amount it would not be very long before the £340,000 about which we have heard so much this afternoon was swallowed up completely in the money which was forthcoming. I ask the hon. Member to look at this problem urgently and in a very special way. I am sure that a great deal can be done in this respect, and it ought to be done, because this is the way in which the money can be found to reduce the loss. It is a very small sum indeed.

Much has been said about the amenity angle, but I cannot leave the subject without paying a great tribute to the wife of the President of the Board of Trade. She and the committee of which she is chairman—of the G.L.C. Amenities Committee—are going to revolutionise the canal aspect in the London area. I hope that other places, particularly Manchester, where this is needed more than anywhere else and where the opportunities are immense, will take a leaf from her book. She has done splendid work to improve our canals, and it will undoubtedly be an inspiration to other people.

The reasons why those of us who love the canals are so keen to see this done is that we know that in our waterways we have something really good to offer. Next year, when the hon. Member gets out on these canals, as I am sure he will, I hope that he will take with him his advisers from his own Ministry and, even more important, people from the Treasury, too, and will let them see what a good thing they have and for how little money. Let us not leave this matter hanging about for years more. We have been at it long enough. We have had reports and Bills and discussions for years and years. Let us settle it, and let us realise that we have something priceless in these waterways. Let us set about keeping it and putting it on a proper footing.

2.37 p.m.

Mr. John Morris

May I, with the leave of the House, reply briefly to some of the points made in the debate. As I expected we have had a most interesting debate and I am grateful for the speeches which have been made. If I do not reply in great detail to all that has been said, perhaps I shall be allowed to write to hon. Members. I do not wish to detain the House unduly at this hour.

We had a very interesting speech from my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mr. Philip Noel-Baker), who has great experience, running back over a number of years, both in ensuring that there are amenities and in the transport aspect. We had an interesting speech from the hon. Member for the Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. John Smith). He made a most thoughtful speech which was not only valued in the course of the debate, but, as the hon. Member for Nantwich (Mr. Grant-Ferris) said, will be read by many people after the debate. In addition, he came to the House at a late hour to participate in a short Adjournment debate, which was not his Adjournment debate, which showed his very great interest in the matter. I know that he also has had practical experience in these matters over many years.

Others who have a keen interest include the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells), the hon. Member for Nantwich and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. Carol Johnson), who, unfortunately, was unable to be here today. From the conversations which we have had, I know the interest which they have taken in this subject. I hope that there will be further consultations so that we may go in more detail into their views before a final decision is made as to the structure which we should have.

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster) asked a number of questions and I will try to deal with them. He took us, first, on a "Cook's tour" of the Minister's activities. I was not able to follow him in detail on this. I sometimes suspect that not only is there a transport problem before the House, but there is a problem in respect of the Transport "shadow Minister". The hon. Member must beware not to trespass unduly on the reputation which the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galbraith) enjoys among some of the weightier commentators having regard to his last performance in a transport debate.

It is a pity that he spent so much time on the question whether we should be able to bring in legislation in time, especially when he knows full well the great part he played in the last Transport Finances Act, 1966. We will not go into the history of that Act save to say that I can give him the assurance which he wanted in that the Bill as enacted by the Houses of Parliament extends the statutory powers to the end of 1968. We hope in the fullness of time and in good time to bring in the necessary Transport Bill—in the next Session—which will deal with all these matters comprehensively.

Nor could I follow the hon. Gentleman entirely in what he said about interest charges. For the record, interest on the commencing capital debt accounts for £726,000, and of the £863,000 which has been mentioned the balance is interest on the borrowing since the Board took over. Paragraph 122 of the White Paper makes it clear that we recognise the need for a more realistic capital structure. We are going into this most carefully, taking into account an analysis of the suggestions made in "The Facts about the Waterways".

I endorse wholeheartedly the point made by my right hon. Friend earlier this year that the present capital structure of the Waterways Board—its inheritance under the Act of 1962 is quite unrealistic. So that the Board might have a decent yardstick, it must have a decent capital structure. These conversations are proceeding.

On the issue of whether or not we accept the figures concerning Cooper Bros. of net maintainable revenue, quoted in "The Facts about the Waterways", we recognise that an historical approach to a new capital structure is useless. This is explained in detail in Appendix 1 of "The Facts about the Waterways". We welcome the publication outlining the facts, and we are having these discussed with the Board in detail.

The hon. Member asked about the future projection of this year's current results, which are not to hand. I would be out of order if I went into detail in this, because we are discussing only the White Paper and the accounts of the Board as presented to the House. From what we know already, and the year is still current, some things seem to be going up, but others are not. The increase in pleasure cruising is unlikely to be as much as the 20 per cent. of 1964–65. I do not think that I can help the House by giving more details, as I do not have them in any sufficient depth.

The crux of the debate, as stated by the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells), is the difference between £600,000 basic and £340,000. This, of course, ties up with the request made by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare regarding consultations. That is why I began the debate by saying that I could not today outline any further details of policy other than those contained in the White Paper. The White Paper was published in July and, as soon as possible, a Press statement was sent out in the autumn so that we might have the necessary consultations in good time before the next Bill was introduced in the House.

I have here details of the number of people who have been consulted and of the number who have replied. I do not think that it would be useful to the House if I were to go through them in detail, save to say that the replies are still coming in.

Mr. John Wells

Will the Bill, when it is forthcoming, be an Inland Waterways Bill only, or a sort of poor relation tucked into the general Transport Bill?

Mr. Morris

I hope that it will not be a poor relation. The general intention is to introduce a major Transport Bill during the next Session, which, I hope, will cover many facets of the transport field.

Unless the House wishes, I need not go into all the bodies which have been consulted. Consultations are still proceeding, replies are still coming in, and we will do our best to encourage further replies. I am sure that we shall receive from this a great deal of useful information which will be a guide. I am particularly interested in the type of consultative machinery which can be set up in order to harness the enthusiasm of the people who serve in it.

Sir E. Errington

Would it be possible to apply that information and enthusiasm to non-nationalised canals?

Mr. Morris

We are dealing with the reorganisation of the Waterways Board. It is with regard to the responsibilities of the Board that we have asked for these consultations.

Sir E. Errington

The Parliamentary Secretary has been speaking on behalf of the Government, of the Government's past views and views on the future. Does not the hon. Gentleman, representing, as he does, the Government, consider that the independent cases of canals is of such importance that some advantage should be taken of this enthusiasm and the voluntary effort?

Mr. Morris

A large portion of the hon. Gentleman's speech dealt with the canal in his constituency, and which, he revealed, is a private canal. I appreciate his point. If the hon. Gentleman has any facts which might be useful and of interest, I would welcome them.

Sir E. Errington

It is not a question of something being useful for you. It is a case of the Parliamentary Secretary being useful to this private canal.

Mr. Speaker

I always try to be useful.

Mr. Morris

I am sure you are, Mr. Speaker.

I have tried to outline that we are concerned with the future of the canals as it affects the Waterways Board. We are concerned with ensuring that the Board has the right financial and managerial structure and the right responsibilities. If the hon. Member wishes to extend that responsibility, then I am open to any suggestion he might wish to make. I am sure that he would not want me to commit myself at this moment to doing anything further.

The hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Alan Lee Williams) referred to the history of Brentford Dock. That is a disused British Railways Dock taken over by the G.L.C. The British Railways Board found it redundant and far too costly to operate and it is now to be used for housing. The Waterways Board has an excellent dock of its own at Brentford, with large warehousing facilities, which is used a good deal by lighter traffic to and from the Thames, which adjoins the Grand Union Canal. The Board could handle more trade at Brentford and would greatly welcome it. If I have not dealt adequately with the point raised by my hon. Friend, if he will get in touch with me I will deal with it in more detail.

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare also mentioned the Caledonian and Crinan Canals. I do not wish to go into detail on the history and mileage of those canals or the kind of traffic, commercial and non-commercial using them. The Highland Transport Board and the Chamber of Shipping have been consulted and, as envisaged in the White Paper, consideration is being given to the future of these canals in the light of the special needs of Scotland.

I will now deal with what is worrying hon. Members more than anything else, which is the period of five years as envisaged. That is the heart of the debate. That is the main issue which I should face, leaving on one side the many other less important points which I have tried to traverse.

I said, in reply to the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Summers), that at the moment there is continuing uncertainty. This is a situation that I would accept immediately as doing no good to the industry. On the other side of the coin is the very necessary Government interest. I would be the first to concede that there is a Treasury interest in all this whatever Government are in power, wherever public finance and public spending are concerned.

In the debate on the Second Reading debate of the Transport Bill, the right hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples) said: This means that for the first time the nationally owned canals are to be under a single Authority with an express duty of turning them to the best account. I must make it clear, however, that the new Authority's duties may well involve the closure of canals or their conversion or disposal if, thereby the burden on the taxpayer can be relieved."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th November, 1961; Vol. 649, c. 939.] That situation has continued and is continuing, and it is important that we should clarify as soon as possible the kind of mileage required.

That comes back to my earlier point, that the user will obviously be a very important factor, and we hope to get details of it in the consultations. I agree that five years may not be long enough for investment, but on the commercial side the considerations may well be on the other side. If a person has invested on the commercial side, he may be able to protect himself by normal contract with the Waterways Board as to his user of the canal in return, perhaps, for security of tenure. That is a normal commercial transaction.

I am sure that before an eventual policy is decided—

Sir S. Summers

Will the Parliamentary Secretary accept that there are cases where attempts are being made to renew leases but that the people are being told that for want of a decision no answers can be given.

Mr. Morris

That underlines my point about the need for certainty as soon as possible. If the hon. Member has particular cases in mind he will doubtless raise them in the first place with the Board in an effort to get satisfaction. The sooner the issue is settled the better, and the amount of mileage involved will emerge from the consultations. I am sure that representations will be made on the lines of this debate on whether or not five years is long enough, but we shall look at the whole picture so as to try to ensure that the best possible use is made of this great national amenity.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House takes note of the British Waterways Board Annual Report and Accounts for 1965 and of Chapter VIII (Inland Waterways) of the statement on Transport Policy (Command Paper No. 3057).