HC Deb 02 July 1971 vol 820 cc884-96

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

3.52 p.m.

Mr. Ray Carter (Birmingham, Northfield)

Over the past 10 years the call to improve our environment has grown to a point where the Government have had to recognise its importance by establishing a Ministry with the title "Department of the Environment". One hopes that during the lifetime of the Government this will have rather more than an aspect of public relations about it. Even though the Government have recognised that the call to improve the environment is a strong one and contains arguments which must be listened to and acted upon, there is still a great deal of dispute about how we should tackle the problems of improving the invironment and how we should order our resources. The Government can be sure that in the coming years the demand will grow from those living in the countryside and in the towns and cities for a better environment in which to live and to enjoy their free time.

The rape of our country from the Industrial Revolution onwards must be remedied. We want slag heaps removed, old broken-down factories knocked down and refashioned and the quarries filled in. We want new methods to be used in industry and in commerce and local government, so that the desolate state of the countryside and the cities can be remedied. In short, we want a better and a cleaner environment in which to live.

However, some aspects of industrialism are worth retaining, and it is one part of them that I have been fortunate enough this Friday afternoon to bring to the attention of the House, namely, Britain's canal system. The canals have grown up over the past 200 years, principally in the first instance as commercial and economic undertakings. With the passage of time they have assumed other importance and other aspects which we shall be principally considering this afternoon.

In my opinion they are of the greatest importance in our cities and large urban conurbations which are to be found throughout the length and breadth of Britain, and they are so important because they offer water space which, were it not for the existence of the canals, those areas would be almost totally without—and without the facilities and the amenities which canals provide.

The most important part of our environment is, in my opinion, that part in which we live, and, frankly, I get rather annoyed with that section of the environmental lobby which seems to believe that it is only the countryside which is important. That is not the case. If in working out our priorities we have to come down on one side or the other, if only for economic reasons, I should come down very heavily on the side of putting our resources into that part of the environment in which we live. Any contribution which can be made to improving urban living I believe to be worth while, and the canals offer such a contribution. One can boat on a canal; there is angling in canals; along a canal one can observe wild life. I am not an expert in this, but I have seen the part which canals can play in the total design and structure of a city and urban life, and I have seen it particularly in Birmingham, a city which I have the good fortune to represent.

There is nowhere in the country where the presence of canals is of greater importance than it is in the Midlands. We have very little natural water; the rivers we have are very small and they are highly polluted. So it is essential, in my opinion and that of many others in the Midlands, that we retain as much of our canal system as possible. The Midlands, I think everyone would agree, have been more scarred by industrialism than probably anywhere else in the country, with pits and quarries and all kinds of industrial development over some 200 years, so that the environment for many who live there I regard as squalid. To go through the Black Country, and certain parts of Birmingham, through to Stoke is, if one takes the wrong path, a nightmare journey. I speak this afternoon principally for those people who have to live in that environment and to whom canals offer, if they are retained in sufficient number and are improved, a little bit of variety within an environment which probably for another 50 years or more will remain rather dull and not up to the standards which we expect, and know to exist in other parts of the country.

The particular point I would put to the Minister is this question of the remainder of the waterways. In the Midlands there are more than 100 miles of waterway in a very poor state. Although I appreciate that negotiations are going on between the local authorities and the British Waterways Board to find a means whereby these canals can be brought into better use, I should like the Minister to tell us precisely what the Government's position is—

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Carter

For how long is the Minisster prepared to guarantee the future of these remaining waterways? Can the three years given by the previous Government be extended to ensure that nothing will be done to jeopardise the position of these waterways? Those who take a great interest in the canal system are waiting for a firm promise on this point.

The negotiations are bedevilled by the question of money. Where does responsibility lie? If the British Waterways Board had all the money it required, it would not be necessary for it to enter into negotiations with the local authorities. It could go about its business in the right way, and, given sufficient money, solve all the amenity problems. However, the Board does not have that money. From the Board's accounts one sees that since 1963 the grants from central Government have been sufficient only to cover the deficits. If the Government believe in the job that the Board is doing, they should make a careful review of the way in which the canal system is financed. While I am not ruling out the possibility of larger contributions from local authorities, I believe that central Government should provide the bulk of the cash required.

One can understand the difficulties of the local authorities in working out how much each should pay when one realises that a canal will pass through the areas of several authorities. While one authority might be extremely generous, its neighbour might not be so generous. It is therefore essential to look at the problem centrally. The obvious body to look at this centrally is the British Waterways Board, which if it had enough money, could deal with the problem. I should like the Minister to look carefully at the way in which the Board obtains its finance and, having done that, to come forward next year with a bigger contribution.

In considering solutions to the problem of the remainder waterways, I wonder whether, apart from the overriding environmental, amenity and recreational values of our canal system, the Minister will look closely at its hidden economic benefits. In the Midlands, local authorities would be put to considerable expense, running into millions of pounds, if they had to find the money to pay for the drainage which would be needed were the canal system to be run down or, at worst, closed. This is an important economic aspect in urban areas, and even in the countryside farmers gain a great deal of benefit from the land drainage facilities which are provided in connection with canals. If the cost is able to be quantified, surely those in receipt of the benefits should "cough up".

I believe that central government should pay the lion's share of the upkeep and improvement of our canal system, but there is also a part to be played by local authorities. A better solution would be provided if the authorities made their contributions to the British Waterways Board. There is also the possibility in future that our canal system will be called upon to play a bigger part in moving water from surplus areas to areas of deficiency. There is a big problem on the horizon in this respect and there is a need to retain an adequate water supply for urban areas. It is possible that the canal system can make a vital contribution.

There must be some means of making an economic assessment of the situation and one hopes that central government will try to put a figure upon it. I urge local authorities to come to terms with the problem as quickly as possible. I should also like them to try to persuade industry to give assistance since at present industry gets a valuable service for next to nothing. The Parliamentary Secretary frowns at that, but one sees from the accounts of the British Waterways Board that industry does not make much of a contribution in return for the drainage and effluent facilities it gets from the canal system. This is the position as I understand it.

I should like to ask the Minister this afternoon to deal with the problem of the remainder waterways and to look at the matter in the light of the great potential offered by the canals to the urban areas of Britain, and in particular the West Midlands which is probably a bigger problem area than any other since it contains such a considerable length of remainder waterways.

Finally, I would urge the Minister to look closely at the relationship between the British Waterways Board and the function which it asked to perform and the attitude of the present and previous Government to the problems of the environment. If we sincerely wish to solve the problems of the environment, are we not wrong to ask the British Waterways Board to carry on the business of preserving this vital part of our environment and yet at the same time to ask it to run its affairs in a strictly businesslike way? Admittedly, it must to some extent be a commercial operation which looks at the profit and loss side of the business, but I would ask the Government to concede that in regard to the urban areas any water which exists is worth preserving. The problem of the remainder waterways must be solved quickly. If we can be given an answer this afternoon that would ease the minds of those people who take an interest in the problem and would assist the people in certain areas who are in desperate need of improved facilities.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I understand that the Under-Secretary of State would like to get up at twenty minutes past four. Three hon. Gentlemen want to speak, which gives them three and a third minutes each.

4.10 p.m.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Speaker.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Carter) on his awakened interest in this most important matter, and declare my interest as a member of the Inland Waterways Advisory Council. He is right to stress the need for improvement to the remainder waterways, but one must look at the realities. Costs are going up the whole time very sharply while revenue is only creeping up.

I am glad to say that the Board, by good management, has increased what one might call "pleasure revenue" by 9 per cent. last year, but the increase in revenue on estate management was well over 12 per cent. Sir Frank Price and his strong team of distinguished people—including people such as Colonel Siefert, a well-known architect—and all their employees, are doing their best in estate management. However, one or two activities of the Board are still worth re-examining.

For example, is it wise that the Board should continue to run its hire cruiser fleet? I have grumbled at Ministers both in this Government and the last about this. It is impossible from the Report and Accounts to find out the true position of this fleet. I would like it abolished. It would be better in the hands of private enterprise. I do not complain about the "Lady Rose of Regents" and the larger pleasure boats, which do superb publicity work for our waterways, which is most important.

Speaking of the Regents Canal and Little Venice, it is worth congratulating Mr. John James on the twenty-first year of his tremendous success. He has made about five million trips and that is a tremendous number. They have been people from all over the world interested in inland waterways and he is deserving of congratulations.

But we must look to the local authorities, particularly in the urban areas. When we were considering the Mersey Docks and Harbour Bill the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Simon Mahon)—I apologise that I have not warned him of this—and I had a disagreement. I said that the canal concerned was being used. He pointed out that I came from a constituency a long way away and said that the canal was not used. I have asked local boat owners to give me a report so that we can resolve our differences. The fact remains that an unused canal is a source of danger to children and the more people who can use it the better. Local authorities are responsible for safety, through local safety committees, and I hope that they will consider this matter from the point of view of safety.

We must also look at the report and accounts in another aspect. The hon. Gentleman said that the remainder waterways were in urgent need, and I agree. But we must look at the great increase in tonnage dredged out of them in the past year. Dredging has increased nearly 50 per cent., so the Board is not dragging its feet. There are many other activities. I certainly congratulate the Board, but I believe that we must look to the local authorities to assist it and that we must urge the Government to give such aid as they can as soon as possible. Costs are rising and in addition, of course, the longer the canals are left the greater the costs become. The bull point is that the longer this situation is left the worse it will be.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Carter) on raising this very important subject. He has a special interest as a Birmingham Member, since the Birmingham canals are of great importance to the urban environment. My interest is as a member of the Inland Waterways Association.

My hon. Friend referred to the speech by the Lord Chancellor in the House of Lords. I understand that this was an undertaking not of the Government but of the Inland Waterways Board. I understand that I may quote a Member of the Government in another place. On 8th October 1968, the Lord Chancellor said that this three-year gap would provide time for local authorities in the areas concerned to decide whether they wished to provide financial assistance for restoring these waterways in exercise of their new powers under Clause 111."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords. 8th October, 1968; Vol. 296, c. 1027.] I emphasise "restoration". I understand that it means that a local authority could provide the capital sum required to bring the canal to an operating and satisfactory condition. It was not necessarily the whole sum; it was "assistance". There was nothing in the Lord Chancellor's speech about providing for its continued maintenance. This is important. If the restoration is done to a high level, which I understand it is, the extra cost of maintenance will be less. Unlike my hon. Friend, I think that the maintenance charges might best come under the British Waterways Board because one local area might have a lot of waterways from which a neighbouring area can benefit although it does not have many waterways.

This is a national responsibility. Indeed, the last annual report pointed out that many of the remainder waterways provide water for other waterways which are now the cruiseways of today. Therefore, the whole network is, in hydro-logical terms at least, one unit. In my view, to break it up in terms of liability for maintenance would, from the management point of view, be very difficult to operate and would make local authorities less anxious to put in the capital because they would know that they had a continuing responsibility. That might slow things down considerably.

I hope that the Minister will tell us about the future. I understand that there have been some difficulties on these points. It might be a good thing if the Minister allowed the Board another few years for the schemes coming along, such as the one at Slough and the Kennet and Avon, which is an important link in the Birmingham canal navigation system. Quite a lot of voluntary work is done. We must not under-estimate the importance of voluntary help.

I understand that the income from the sale and use of water is £898,000, of which the remainder waterways contribute £345,000. As their maintenance is not much more than that, sales of water almost cover their maintenance.

I hope that the Minister will give us some assurance that this guarantee of a breathing space will continue while negotiations go on. We hope that the local authorities will be given every encouragement to contribute to the capital costs of these remainder waterways so that they can become an asset not only to the urban areas but also to the adjacent rural areas.

4.19 p.m.

Mr. Peter Rost (Derbyshire. South-East)

I, too, am grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Carter) for allowing me a brief intervention in support of his case, particularly for the remainder canals.

I should declare an interest. I am a member of the Erewash Canal Preservation Society, which is one of the more formidable volunteer organisations created three years ago when the Erewash Canal, which runs between Trent Lock and Langley Mill in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, was declared a remainder canal. At that time it was derelict and unnavigable. This volunteer association has put in a tremendously enthusiastic effort. With the help of many workers it has again restored the canal into a good navigable condition and, with the co-operation of the local authorities and the British Waterways Board, has done a first-class job. It now holds rallies on the canal and is beginning to gather increasing local support.

I therefore make a plea that, as the three-year period has now come to an end since the Transport Act, 1968, these remainder category canals are given a new lease of life. I suggest that those which have already done enough work to justify upgrading into the cruiseway standard canal or the amenity network canal system should be allowed to be promoted and given every encouragement to continue the good work.

We all appreciate that some of the disused canals are beyond repair. One such canal in my constituency is the Derby Canal. This will not be made navigable nor has it been in-filled. In the Long Eaton area it is causing a considerable annoyance and is a health hazard. Rats breed there in the winter and mosquitoes in the summer. This is a high density population area. I urge the Minister to examine this and cases when in-filling will obviously cost a great deal of money but when it is necessary to prevent health hazards and danger to children.

The canals are a unique national heritage from the Industrial Revolution and I urge the Minister to get on with the job of restoring them so that as their popularity increases more people can take advantage of the leisure facilities which they provide.

4.21 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Eldon Griffiths)

The House is grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Carter) for raising this subject. It is one in which increasing interest is being shown by more and more people. It is not one on which there is a great division between the two sides of the House.

The canals were built 200 years ago, primarily for the carriage of freight before there were trains or lorries. Nowadays unhappily, perhaps, the rôle of the canals in transport is very small and rapidly diminishing. Even those waterways which were categorised as commercial waterways in the Transport Act, 1968, look in many cases less and less like commercial undertakings. It is plain that the main rôle of the waterways nowadays and for the future will primarily be connected with land drainage and water supply on the one hand and on the other with their use for recreation and amenity.

The hon. Member has concentrated on the remainder waterways, as have other hon. Members. I want to say a word about these but I also want to mention the cruising waterways. As for the remainder waterways there was the so-called three-year undertaking by the previous Lord Chancellor. As the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) said, it was an undertaking given by the Waterways Board to the then Minister of Transport and it said in relation to certain remainder waterways that the Board would not, without the Minister's consent, take any positive action during a period of three years from the coming into operation of Part VII of the Act which would make impossible the restoration of these waterways for navigation.

Its purposes as stated by the then Lord Chancellor were first, to allow ample time for local authorities to decide whether they wished to provide financial assistance for restoring them and secondly to allow local authorities and other bodies to decide whether they wished to put forward proposals for taking over some of the waterways. Thirdly, it was to give full opportunity for all these waterways to be considered by the I.W.A.A.C.

I understand that the British Waterways Board has considered in detail, in conjunction with the local authorities concerned, all the remainder waterways covered by the undertaking. I understand that the I.W.A.A.C. is shortly to publish a report on all of these waterways. I feel that the undertaking has achieved its purposes. It has been possible for the local authorities to consider what they wished to do and I can assure the House that as soon as the I.W.A.A.C. report is available the British Waterways Board will be reaching some conclusions on that basis.

I turn to the cruising waterways. It is primarily to assist the cruising waterways that a good deal of grant-in-aid is paid to the Board and is used by the Board—very well, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. Wells) has said—to maintain an extensive network of local waterways.

On this subject it is right to record that a note of warning was struck in the previous Government's White Paper. This said: Obviously the funds available for this are not unlimited and the grant, like any other Exchequer subsidy, will have to be kept under review as part of the normal process of national housekeeping. It went on to say—and I agree—that What this means is that the future of the cruising network must depend pretty largely on how far people take the opportunities for leisure and recreation which it offers. How far those opportunities have been taken up is best indicated by the figures of revenue received by the Waterways Board from amenity and recreational uses of its waterways. This revenue—as my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone, with his great knowledge, said—has shown a fairly steady increase over the past five years, from £152,000 in 1966 to £228,000 in 1970. The Board has thus had a considerable measure of success in promoting increased recreational use of the canals.

The canals, indeed, have shared in the current boom in all forms of water sport and recreation. I am glad to say that the Board reports an increase in the numbers of powered craft licensed on its network from 5,600 in 1966 to over 9,000 in 1970. I welcome this water sport boom, but at the same time we have to recognise that owing to the falling off in use of the commercial waterways the deficit incurred by the Board has wiped out many times over the modest increase in revenue which the Board has received from recreational users, so that its deficit overall has shot up from £940,000 in 1966 to £2.3 million in 1970–and that deficit is expected to be considerably greater in 1971.

Even at this level of expenditure the Board is hard put to it to maintain its 1,400 miles of commercial and cruising waterways in the conditions required by statute. The Government grant-in-aid to the Board has now reached a level of £2.5 million for 1971. This situation must give rise to concern. I can assure the hon. Member and the House, however, that we are anxious to maintain the use of the waterways for recreation and amenity. But there must be some limit to the rising burden on the taxpayer.

The greater part of the Government subsidy represents a contribution towards the unavoidable minimum cost of running the waterways—drainage, conservation and water supply. But there is with- in it a sizeable element—a contribution towards the cost of maintaining the cruising network in a navigable condition. That subsidy must be recognised as substantial.

On the basis of the calculations used by the Board in calculating the total extra cost of providing for pleasure cruising it is reasonable to suppose that in 1970 about £500,000 of last year's Government grant went for that purpose. I remind the House, because I have some wider responsibilities here, that the total amount of central Government grant for all sport and recreation in this country is about £3½ million. That is for all sports. From that total, the amount going to water sports of all kinds is a little over £200,000. There is the contrast; about £200,000 for all water sports bar pleasure cruising on waterways, and about £500,000 for pleasure cruising on waterways. The contrast speaks for itself.

The Government wish to see the amenity and environmental advantages of the canals made use of, but there has to be some limit on the taxpayer's responsibility. I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone that local authorities can play—and in my view should play—a larger part in this. I should like to see other cities and towns following the example of the hon. Member's own city of Birmingham, in the imaginative residential development schemes completed two years ago at Farmer's Bridge, where the Corporation and the Waterways Board collaborated in making the canal and its surroundings an attractive feature of the city centre scheme. To sum up, we are anxious to see the waterways continue to be used to the maximum extent for recreation and amenity.

The Question having been proposed at Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Four o'clock.