Examination of Witnesses (Questions 560
WEDNESDAY 29 NOVEMBER 2000
560. You have been accused by witnesses of deliberately
and knowingly instructing the building of the new Midlands Motorway
in such a way that it will make the regeneration of the Lichfield
to Hatherton Canal impossible. Do you accept that as a charge?
(Lord Whitty) I think there is a problem here which
we should not encounter again.
561. Does that mean you do accept it but you
will not do it again?
(Lord Whitty) We accept that when the contract was
signed, which was a long while before my time, there was no provision
in that for providing for the canal. We are locked into that contract.
The decision taken by the Secretary of State was based, in 1997,
on the state of preparedness of the proposals for those canals
at that time, and as far as the Lichfield end of the canal is
concerned we did make some provision but not at the other end.
That was the decision letter and that is not unravellable in law.
I think were we to be faced with a similarly large project, which
is unlikely, which cuts across a known and identifiable potential
canal project, we would look at it somewhat differently. Indeed,
the way in which the planning advice is now being re-jigged under
PPG 13 and in other places would indicate to the planning authorities
they should look at the potential for canal regeneration when
they are looking at projects such as roads.
562. So you have a problem, you have a commitment,
and the problem and the commitment at this point are not compatible.
How are you squaring the circle?
(Lord Whitty) I am not sure I would say I would prioritise
the Lichfield and Hatherton Canal in any case. The argument is
whether, by building the road in this particular way, we are blocking
off all long-term decisions on it. The answer to that is that
at present it would appear to be we have, but the decisions were
taken a long time ago in relation to the contract and on the basis
of the information available at the time of the consideration
by the Secretary of State of the inspector's report. That is,
I am afraid, not reversible.
563. Some of our witnesses and other organisations
I have spoken to, including the British Marine Industries Federation,
believe regenerating that stretch of canal is absolutely key to
the future of inland waterways. Are we going to ignore that and
allow this road to be built in this way?
(Lord Whitty) I do not think anybody thinks that the
proposals on that stretch of the canal are sufficiently well advanced
or funded to be in a position to be delivered within the kind
of short timescale you are talking about, and we are starting
work on the road very shortly. I think it is a distinct exaggeration
to say that that canal is essential to the future of inland waterways.
Nevertheless, I do not think it is a situation we should have
found ourselves in. We are in it and I do not think there is any
way out in the sense you are suggesting, and our concern is that
we do not get into that situation again.
564. So others who have said they are in discussions
to try and find a way out of this problem are incorrect? There
is no way out of this problem?
(Lord Whitty) No, I did not say there was not a way
out. There is not a way out which Government can instruct. British
Waterways and the trusts are discussing with the concessionaire,
MEL, whether there is a way around it. What I thought you were
asking me was, can I unravel planning decisions, the answer to
which is no.
565. You have said this is a problem which should
not have happened and it would not happen in the future, what
changes have been made within the decision-making structure to
ensure this cannot happen in the future?
(Lord Whitty) The references in the Planning Guidance
will make it clear in relation to local authority schemes, and
we as a Department through Waterways for Tomorrow and internal
instructions will make sure Highways Agency road schemes get into
the situation again.
566. The British Waterways Board is told, on
the one hand, to manage its non-operational assets for the wider
public benefit and, on the other hand, is required to dispose
of property at the best possible overall return. When it comes
to regeneration, particularly in city centres, do you think there
is a conflict between those two bits of advice?
(Lord Whitty) No. I think British Waterways, and our
whole policy on inland waterways, has a number of objectives.
For the bulk of the riparian land it is very important that the
prime consideration is that it is open to everybody as far as
possible and to all users within reason, subject to environmental
considerations and so forth. In areas where there is the regeneration
possibility, it is important that we bring those assets as part
of that regeneration opportunityand in many cases they
are the trigger for the regeneration opportunitywhich in
the medium term will greatly improve the quality of life within
that city or town, or in some cases rural locations. So I do not
think there is a conflict though one is rather more medium and
one is longer term, but the same objective is there. The objective
is to do the best for the public as a whole.
567. Yet when I asked the British Waterways
Board when they gave evidence earlier today whether their involvement
in regeneration would be assisted if those financial memoranda
under which they operate were to be changed, they said yes it
would. Now that would appear to suggest that they think in some
way it does inhibit their involvement in regeneration schemes.
(Lord Whitty) I am not sure I follow the logic of
568. To me they gave the impression that they
felt under some constraint, because of the requirement to get
the best return, in some cases in entering into regeneration schemes
because that might involve handing over a property to someone
at less than the return you might get for other, more commercial
uses. They seemed to be saying to me they felt that was a constraint
and they would welcome a change to the guidance. My question to
you is, in the light of that is that something you are going to
(Lord Whitty) I would certainly consider any such
representations but we do not recognise this as a significant
problem because the 8 per cent is an indicative return, were the
totality of a regeneration project seem to us to be sensible,
then we have flexibility within that. So I do not think in practice
it is quite the problem you are suggesting.
569. But if the British Waterways Board say
to you they think in some circumstances it can be, then you would
be prepared to look at it?
(Lord Whitty) I think the best way of doing that is
to look at it on case by case basis. We do need for public accountability
and other reasons to have some general indicative rate of return
on the commercial operations of every public body, but we do operate
that very flexibly and I think particularly flexibly in relation
to the regeneration prospects because of the huge social and economic
return you get from that more generally.
570. It is a bit sad they do not seem to know
that, is it not?
(Lord Whitty) I think they do appreciate that, they
may feel more inhibited than I had hitherto thought the management
of British Waterways felt.
571. We all like British Waterways to be inhibited
but they are not showing any great vigour in proceeding with regeneration
schemes, so it may be this is because they think they are required
to give a much higher return. Would it not be a good idea to clarify
for them your desire to be helpful where particular projects produce
(Lord Whitty) I think in general terms British Waterways
understand that, and if there is any misunderstanding I will certainly
undertake to discuss this with them forthwith. As to whether they
are being inhibited on regeneration projects, I would not accept
that. I think they are being very rigorous in identifying such
projects and approaching potential partners and local authorities,
and many of those which have been developed already pay tribute
to their activities in that regard.
572. I think earlier you mentioned a study group
for freight on canals, can you tell us any more about it?
(Lord Whitty) It has been set up to look at freight
facility operations. Its terms of reference, if you have not seen
them, are basically to identify freight traffic suitable for inland
waterways; to examine the barriers and inhibitions to that; to
look at the freight facilities grant schemes, as I have said,
and see how that can be made more flexible and attractive; to
look at integration issues in relation to various other public
bodies; and to look at the promotion of freight traffic; to report
on that and, if necessary, do research in that. Those are its
terms of reference. It therefore is designed both to identify
potential and to promote that potential.
573. How many study groups has the Department
got at the moment?
(Lord Whitty) A lot.
574. Could we be slightly more specific, my
Lord? A lot?
(Lord Whitty) I will need notice of that question,
575. We can give you at least 24 hours, you
can always let us know.
(Lord Whitty) Study groups may not be a huge list
but this is the study group on the earlier part of this questioning.
576. The cynic says you have set up a study
group to put off making decisions. The alternative view is that
you set up a study group to get decisions made quickly. Which
(Lord Whitty) We set up a study group to make sure
the decisions we take are well-founded, sensible and will work.
(Lord Whitty) Certainly in this regardI could
not possibly comment on other study groupswe want them
to report very quickly.
578. What do you call "very quickly"?
(Lord Whitty) They will report on some aspects of
it within months. They will have a continuing role.
579. Is this going to solve the problem of tolls
on some of the canals for freight?
(Lord Whitty) One of its terms of reference is to
look at the inhibitions, and if tolls prove to be inhibitions
they will identify that, yes.