HC Deb 13 February 2001 vol 363 cc147-8
7. Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield)

If he will make a statement on improvements to British waterways. [148447]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

British Waterways has made tremendous strides in delivering the targets that we set it during my hon. Friend's period as waterways Minister, turning what had been a liability into an extremely important asset. We have significantly increased public investment in British Waterways. It expects to eliminate its safety-related backlog by 2004 instead of 2006. The document "Waterways for Tomorrow" reported on British Waterways' initiatives to work with the voluntary sector and to establish new public-private partnerships in telecommunications, property and water transfer.

Mr. Meale

I thank the Government for their continued commitment to British Waterways, and I pay particular tribute to the strong leadership of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. Is the Department any nearer to achieving a single navigational authority for all the waterways in Britain, which would help modernisation?

Mr. Meacher

I pay a warm and well-deserved tribute to my hon. Friend for his close interest in British Waterways and for the fact that, under his stewardship, the inland waterways were turned into the much more dynamic and successful enterprise that they are today. There has been a huge increase in funding—it has almost tripled since 1997—and a long history of under-investment has been reversed. "Waterways for Tomorrow", which the Deputy Prime Minister launched last June, considered several options, including the one to which my hon. Friend drew attention. That is still under discussion with the new, dynamic chairman and chief executive of British Waterways, and we hope to make an announcement before long.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

Many of us have unexpectedly acquired waterways in our constituencies, as I have in Redbourn, because of flooding and burst mains, and the only improvement that we want is to return those waterways to roads. That is held up by a shortage of tankers. Will the Minister investigate the possibility of releasing tankers from the emergency services to supplement those provided by Thames Water and the county council?

Mr. Meacher

I think that that question goes rather wide of British Waterways. It is a pity that the right hon. Gentleman, who inherited this important asset, was unable to persuade his Government to end the huge under-investment that went on for 20 years. However, the point that the right hon. Gentleman made is sensible, and I shall investigate it and write to him.