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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 560 - 579)



  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.

Dr Ladyman

  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.

Mr Benn

  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 opportunity—and in many cases they are the trigger for the regeneration opportunity—which 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 that.

  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 consider?
  (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 wider benefits?
  (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.

Mr Bennett

  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, Madam Chairman.

  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.

Mr Bennett

  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 is this?
  (Lord Whitty) We set up a study group to make sure the decisions we take are well-founded, sensible and will work.

  577. When?
  (Lord Whitty) Certainly in this regard—I could not possibly comment on other study groups—we 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.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 5 April 2001