Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 540 - 559)

WEDNESDAY 29 NOVEMBER 2000

LORD WHITTY, MR JAMES BRADLEY AND MR COLIN JONES

Mr Stevenson

  540. This is my last question, I promise, Chairman. Evidence is emerging, is it not, that if we are to create investment in our transport infrastructure in the railways in particular then there has to be substantial public funding to lever in the sort of thing you are talking about. It does bother many of us, I think, that there is nothing specifically identified to do that. Indeed, according to the information we have, over the ten years there is £2.2 billion for other transport, that is block, and yet I understand that block contains ports, shipping, road safety, cleaner vehicles, aviation, strategic transport and transport security. Of the money that has been identified as "other transport", which is a small amount of the total, it is difficult to see how much of that £2.2 billion is going to be left for the objective of freight on our waterways when there are so many other competing causes.
  (Lord Whitty) In terms of the Ten Year Plan, you are certainly correct to say that public money for the waterways is included in that other transport figure. What I am saying is the other intention would be that levered in a fair amount of commercial income which British Waterways would identify. In the immediate period over the next three years, the Freight Facilities Grant of itself is £14 million.

  541. But you are not able to indicate to the Committee what proportion of that £2.2 billion will be earmarked for this water freight activity?
  (Lord Whitty) Beyond the first three years I am not in a position to do that, no.

Miss McIntosh

  542. Minister, you said that most of the increase of freight will relate to coastal shipping. Why was coastal shipping excluded from Waterways for Tomorrow?
  (Lord Whitty) Because Waterways for Tomorrow is about inland waterways. We have just in the last few days issued a different White Paper relating to ports, and there are other policy developments relating to shipping. So we separate it out that way.

  543. Forgive my naivety but would it not have made sense to link the two together? The evidence we have heard from a number of parties is that it is the link between the waterways and the coastal shipping that needs to be developed, it is that infrastructure which the Government should actually be supporting.
  (Lord Whitty) That is partly true but it is also, of course, true that much of the policy on ports, for example, is in relation to cross-sea shipping, and coastal shipping has to be also seen in the context of cross-Channel shipping, so there are linkages all the way across here. The inland waterways are primarily not a transport facility. Inland waterways' prime business, if you can put it that way, is in recreation and conservation and regeneration. Transport is a relatively small part of the inland waterways portfolio. We believe it can be a larger part but it is pretty small in relation to the modal balance, and even the optimum modal balance, of carrying freight in general. So we looked at inland waterways in all those contexts, not necessarily as part of transport policy.

  544. Could I turn to regeneration? You said in paragraph 11 of the submission from the Department, "The inland waterways provide a catalyst for regeneration and are increasingly forming an integral part of urban regeneration ....". Could you tell the Committee how and what level of funds you intend to allocate through the various bodies? I notice in paragraph 12 you do refer to the funding bodies—the Lottery bodies, the Regional Development Agencies and other funding agencies—are you saying there will be no new Government money, you just expect the partners to suddenly cough up new money for regeneration?
  (Lord Whitty) We would expect British Waterways' engagement in regeneration projects to give them a return, but it is a return on assets which hitherto are not operational. Waterways go to the centre of so many of our cities and until very recently have been regarded as, if you like, the backside, if you will excuse the expression, Madam Chairman, of many of our urban landscapes, and the cities have turned their backs on canals. What we are finding now is that they can be the focus for regeneration, and warehouses and land by the canals can be a major asset to be brought by British Waterways, or whoever owns the land beside the canal, to regenerate our city centres, and we have seen some fantastic examples of that—Gloucester, for example—

  Chairman: I do not think we want to go through every regeneration scheme, my Lord. I think you are being asked something more pointed.

  Miss McIntosh: Can I be more blunt, Madam Chairman?

  Chairman: Yes, that might help.

Miss McIntosh

  545. If this was trailed by the Government as a regeneration programme, would that be incorrect?
  (Lord Whitty) If what was trailed?

  546. The Waterways for Tomorrow document.
  (Lord Whitty) A significant part of Waterways for Tomorrow is the contribution that waterways and their assets can bring to the regeneration of our cities and in some cases rural centres as well.

  547. What is the Government's contribution to that?
  (Lord Whitty) The assets of British Waterways, and in some cases other public bodies such as RDAs.

  548. So you are not adding anything new?
  (Lord Whitty) The RDAs are new. The regeneration funds have been greatly enhanced but it would be a public/private partnership in most cases with the local authority strongly involved as well. It is therefore bringing assets which were not operational, were not earning a return for British Waterways, to provide something which is essential if you are looking to regenerate that part of the city.

  Chairman: What we are looking at as a Committee, my Lord, is some indication of the strategic thinking of the Department. The freight facilities grants, for example, are entirely reactive. What we want to know is what strategic thinking is there within the Department about the ways we can carry these things forward? If you are producing a new drawn-together document which says, "These are all the bits which are available but we do not actually intend to do a very great deal other than say that", then it would be helpful for us to know that. That is my idea of being blunt.

Miss McIntosh

  549. Thank you. I will take my lead from you, Madam Chairman.
  (Lord Whitty) I thought this was slightly more than a nice drawing-together document, I thought it did actually reflect a strategy. One part of the strategy which is certainly a major pre-occupation of those who manage our waterways must be their contribution towards regeneration projects, and regeneration is a key element of the Department's broader strategy. In many situations, British Waterways' assets can be a catalyst which delivers regeneration and provides the starter for regeneration. It would not happen were we not to bring those assets to the attention of developers and local authorities and others, and British Waterways management is very much apprised of that and regards it as one of their top priorities.

  Chairman: We might want to come back to British Waterways' priorities.

Miss McIntosh

  550. Freight facilities grants. In paragraph 26 it says, "The Government proposes to encourage greater use of inland waterways for freight by promoting their use through the revised PPG 13." How?
  (Lord Whitty) PPG 13 is being revised so that planning authorities would take a more positive view of proposed commercial use of the canals in general, including the freight side. We have broadened the scope, or will have done when the Transport Bill is complete—a delicate issue today, sorry—and the freight facilities grant is being made more flexible in terms of allowing revenue relating to capital expenditure to be supported through the grants, it is also being made more flexible in relation to short sea shipping. So we are providing the legislative backing for more development on waterways in general.

  Chairman: I think we will want to come back to some aspects of that.

Mr O'Brien

  551. How did you become involved in the Wakefield project on the River Calder?
  (Lord Whitty) It was brought to my attention. This is primarily a relatively small scheme which British Waterways were getting involved in with the local authority and other developers in the Wakefield area. It was drawn to my attention that things were not progressing well and relationships were breaking down. I therefore intervened, not in any executive role but in my role as peace-maker or peace-keeper, and brought the various bodies together—Wakefield Council and British Waterways. Although there are a number of objectives which they still have to sort out, I now understand that relationship is working better. It was in that role rather than being directly responsible for it.

  552. Who approached you as Minister?
  (Lord Whitty) I think originally I got a letter from an individual, we then checked with Wakefield Council, and Wakefield Council then wrote to me. It came that way round. The MP wrote to me as well.

Mr Olner

  553. Minister, perhaps I could press you a little more because the Government seems to have put its finger right on the button in its Waterways for Tomorrow document. In that document you state, "This fragmented approach has created difficulties for users and held back the development of the system as a whole." I think the Chairman asked the question, what you are going to do about that?
  (Lord Whitty) We have encouraged and required both the Environment Agency and British Waterways, who account for the vast bulk of the navigation of the canal system, to work closely together. That is now working. We have encouraged AINA, the Association of Inland Navigation Authorities, which brings in all the smaller authorities as well, to develop in terms of advice and oversight of what is going on in navigation authorities in general, and, as I said, it is possible a review of the Environment Agency's functions will look at this again. My belief is that the decision which was taken by ministers two years ago did lead to an increasing collaboration and we ought to give time for that to work.

  554. Yes, but if we are going to move forward—we are now in a new century—we have surely got to have one body which is going to reflect all the users of inland waterways to support everything together?
  (Lord Whitty) We are talking about very different navigations in some senses; I know there is an overlap but we are talking about very different navigations. The Broads, for example, is the third largest navigation area, it has a very particular function and it does not seem sensible to absorb that in a wider body.

Chairman

  555. It is, of course, the one which is always quoted. One does wonder whether a rule which applies to only one exception is a good rule.
  (Lord Whitty) There are three big authorities—British Waterways, the Environment Agency and the Broads—after that we do have a lot of small navigation authorities, both public and private, who are there for historic reasons, and it is important they are brought together and the regulations which apply are imposed without favour by the Environment Agency who have that responsibility. So there is a lot of pulling together already. Of course, overall it does come back to the Department which has a responsibility for the totality of the network. To have another intervening body between those who are responsible for the management of the networks and the Government seems to me is not proven. As I said at the beginning, if we were starting from scratch, we would not be—

  Chairman: That is a Scottish interpretation we do not use on this Committee actually, my Lord.

Mr Olner

  556. Given the historic reasons are now proving to be historic accidents, surely the best way to move forward is to rationalise what is there? It is all right saying to people, "Talk to each other and you will be all right", but we should be looking for a better legal framework on how we run our inland waterways. Surely that is not too much of an ambition for a Government to want to achieve?
  (Lord Whitty) No, but it does require, however, a pretty hefty piece of legislation but legislation is not the main issue. It is operational. There are some problems about the legislation, I would not deny that, particularly in terms of the classification of the different sorts of canals and how we deal with them, there are problems about the institutional structure but we think we are overcoming that in informal ways. The main issue is, are we managing them properly, not what the institutional arrangements are.

  557. But surely—and I had it down as legislation which was 30 years old, not 32 years old—do you not now think it is opportune to revisit that?
  (Lord Whitty) I think the main operational questions can be dealt with without revisiting the legislative framework. I would like, as no doubt every minister who appears before you would like, to have a slot on legislation on waterways at some point but that is out of my hands, I fear.

  Chairman: You could always have another Transport Bill, my Lord!

Dr Ladyman

  558. I would like to explore with you your commitment to expanding the network, so let me start with the obvious question, do you have a commitment to expand the waterways network?
  (Lord Whitty) Yes, although our priority is ensuring that the current navigable canals are kept on a restored and efficient basis. We have a long programme—and there are a lot of things still to be completed—of major schemes in improving the amount of the canal network which is navigable, and Rochdale is an example, and the Kennet and Avon relatively recently, and there are others coming up. There has to be a priority on which you do first and, by and large, we believe British Waterways and the Environment Agency are following a sensible priority in this respect. Some of those canals, non-navigable canals, are in the hands of other trusts and other bodies and we do have to look at whether we can support some of those as well, and Rochdale is one of those.

  559. But where there is a general agreement that a particular waterway should be either regenerated or a new waterway built, and there seems to be a good economic case behind it, the Government would be supporting that?
  (Lord Whitty) We would have to prioritise. We would have to look at where the finances were coming from.


 
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