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Session 2000-01
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft British Waterways Board (Limit for Borrowing) Order 2001

First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 12 March 2001

[Mr. Peter L. Pike in the Chair]

British Waterways Board

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Robert Ainsworth): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft British Waterways Board (Limit for Borrowing) Order 2001.

Section 19(3) of the Transport Act 1962, as amended by section 1 of the Water Act 1981, limits to £30 million the outstanding debt that the British Waterways Board may hold at any one time, in respect of the principal of any moneys that it has borrowed and its commencing capital debt, when taken together. The order would raise the borrowing limit to £35 million.

The board has asked for the limit to be raised to facilitate the purchase of a number of properties from Port of London Properties, which will, in part, require a loan from the national loans fund. Ministers' approval has been given to the purchase, which will bring valuable operational benefits to the board by enabling it to maximise use of the water space and to cut a new canal to provide a new waterway link. Access to the waterfront will be opened up to provide facilities and entertainment for the local community, visitors and those working in the area. That will help in the regeneration of surrounding areas. The total cost is £18.88 million. The board will pay £6 million from its own resources, and the balance of £12.88 million will be met with a loan from the national loans fund.

The board has outstanding national loans fund loans of £16.736 million. The new loan would increase that to £29.616 million. The board also has a £3 million overdraft facility, which, even if it is unused—as is normal—must be shown in the board's accounts as being capable of accommodation within its borrowing limit. The order would have the effect of bringing up the board's borrowing total to just under £33 million. The order is required to enable the board to enter into a commitment to purchase the additional properties while remaining within its statutory borrowing limit. I commend it to the Committee.

4.33 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): I shall be extremely brief. The British Waterways Board—in many ways a vast property company—has something in the region of £300 million worth of property. It has had difficulty for several years in having the resources to realise the potential of that property. In recent years, there have been some partnerships to lever capital in to several developments. My main question is whether the borrowing figures relate to subsidiary companies, in which the board has a shareholding with property companies, or relate purely to the principal functions of the board. Secondly, is the Minister satisfied that the increase in the order will meet the objectives that he has outlined and that he will not, in the not-too-distant future, have to return to ask for additional funds under section 19(3) of the Transport Act 1962, as amended?

4.34 pm

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): I, too, shall not take long. I was put on the Committee partly because I did not step backwards, but also because I am vice-president of the Macclesfield Canal Society, the relevance of which will shortly become apparent. The Macclesfield and Peak forest canals thread through my constituency, which contains one of the seven canal wonders of the country in Marple locks and aqueduct. If the Minister would like to visit at any time, I should be happy to show him that.

I welcome the increase in the borrowing limit and am pleased that the British Waterways Board is being given the freedom to exercise its powers as far as the Port of London Authority is concerned. My comments echo those made by the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) about whether more powers might be necessary. I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that I and others are urging the board to develop a heritage centre at Marple, on the Peak forest canal, to exploit that facility. If the ceiling on borrowing is as tight as the Minister has indicated—the current loans amount, if I understood him, to £29.61 million, and the ceiling is £30 million, which the order would raise to £35 million—is there enough head room for the board to take on other imaginative projects, such as the one in my constituency?

4.36 pm

Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster): I have a past interest to disclose since I was once a solicitor for the Port of London Authority and acted in that capacity for Port of London Properties. I do not do so now. To what properties in the Port of London area does the order relate? Does it relate to the former enclosed docks or to Port of London properties along the tidal Thames?

4.37 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I became a convert in favour of British Waterways after serving for a year and a half on the board. Four Members dealt with a private Bill, and the quorum was three. We had to turn up to deal with it once a week for a year and a half. Anyone who thinks that the Committee can deal with this matter lightly, in about 20 minutes or so, should reflect on the punishments that may lie in store when the usual channels have it in for a particular Member of Parliament.

I have two serious points. First, what other funding sources were investigated for the Port of London project? Alternative sources of funding are being investigated for a project in my constituency, such as lottery funding. I should have thought that the Port of London project might have been eligible for some European objective funding. Will the Minister tell us what sources of funding were examined?

Secondly, I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) about the project in his constituency. There is a big project in the pipeline in my constituency between the Thames and the Severn, for which lottery funding was investigated. I do not expect the Minister to be able to tell us today about that, but I, too, wonder whether the order provides enough head room to allow the board to borrow to develop its many excellent facilities. Canals provide leisure for a huge number of people: in addition to those who use them directly, some 7 million people a year use the toe paths of British Waterways canals for fishing, walking and other pursuits. I am a dedicated supporter of British Waterways, and I wish the order well.

4.39 pm

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): Are the Government taking any parallel action in relation, for example, to the Birmingham northern relief road, where a canal soon to be built is being put at risk by motorway building? Are the Government acting to ensure the best possible use of the funds referred to today?

4.40 pm

Mr. Robert Ainsworth: I can tell the hon. Member for Poole that the order has nothing to do with partnership arrangements, but relates to the principal functions of British Waterways. The land to be purchased is between the enclosed docks and the river Thames. The site is Wood wharf and the cannon workshops, with which my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) is indicating he is familiar, even if I am not. Hon. Members should be aware that British Waterways has responsibility for waterways and for practically no land alongside them. Considerable dereliction remains on that site, and the funds will give the board the opportunity to facilitate the return of the land to use by providing a canal to provide access to the enclosed dock, access to which is currently restricted because of an antiquated system for getting in and out of the water space. That could provide an opportunity for use of the property by the waterway and could considerably offset British Waterways' costs of maintaining the waterways and other costs.

On whether the order provides British Waterways with enough head room and money for other imaginative schemes, I can say only that it provides funds for the purchase of certain facilities and land in London docks. Some of the funding will not be required and will be moved on. We cannot yet say what the proceeds will be or how quickly they can be moved on, but existing debt should be reduced and the exploitation of facilities in the dockyard areas should also improve revenues, increasing British Waterways' ability to do the work that hon. Members clearly want both there and elsewhere.

As far as the canal adjacent to the Birmingham northern relief road is concerned, I have no information to hand, and no inspiration appears to be winging its way towards me. As that matter is not directly connected with the order, I offer to write to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) to clarify the position.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I asked a direct question about the project referred to in the order. Were all alternative sources of funding investigated?

Mr. Ainsworth: British Waterways has access to the national loans fund as well as its own operational resources. It is not able to fund the project from its own resources. Either we grant it some head room or it will not be able to go ahead with the scheme.

I hope that the Committee will endorse the increase.

Question put and agreed to.

        Committee rose at sixteen minutes to Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Pike, Mr. Peter L. (Chairman)
Ainsworth, Mr. Robert
Brake, Mr.
Clifton-Brown, Mr.
Colman, Mr.
Darvill, Mr.
Efford, Mr.
Hughes, Mr. Kevin
McDonagh, Siobhain
Mackinlay, Mr.
Rooney, Mr.
Shepherd, Mr.
Spicer, Sir Michael
Stunell, Mr.
Syms, Mr.
White, Mr.
Winnick, Mr.


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Prepared 12 March 2001