Previous SectionIndexHome Page

7.12 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. For the record may we clarify the fact that all four Tellers in tonight's vote are opposed to the war and that it was a procedural issue that demarcated them as Tellers?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I think that that will be evident. If there is any doubt about it, individual hon. Members can undoubtedly make it clear in the usual way.

It being after Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed.

1 Nov 2001 : Column 1106

Cotswold Canals

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Dan Norris.]

7.13 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I am pleased to move this Adjournment debate and I know that others wish to say something about this important canal network, so I shall be precise.

This is an important issue and I immediately declare a non-pecuniary interest as a vice-president of the Cotswold Canals Trust, like the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown). Although we draw no benefit from it, other than of a helpful kind, it is important to put that on the record.

I wish to speak almost exclusively about my part of the Cotswold canal system—Stroudwater—which goes from the Gloucester-Sharpness canal to Stroud and slightly beyond. Obviously, if and when we see the completion of this network it will link the Severn to the Thames, which is an important statement in terms of our ability to see how waterways can be opened up properly.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. There is not time to make a speech and I shall not delay the House. Does he agree that an important part of the network is the Wilts and Berks canal, which will join the two canals together to create a genuine network around the area?

Mr. Drew: I am more than happy to agree, because we are here in the true spirit of co-operation to ensure that we get the whole canal opened up, although I shall highlight particular problems that make that more difficult.

I am, as always, grateful to several people who helped me to prepare information, particularly those in British Waterways: chief executive David Fletcher and regional officers Chris Mitchell and John Lancaster. I am pleased to have met Roger Hanbury, chief executive of the Waterways Trust, several times recently. He is a good choice to ensure that we get the new organisation up and running so that it is as effective as possible.

Last but not least, I pay tribute to those members of the Cotswold Canals Trust who have, over many decades and through their voluntary and earnest efforts, kept alive the dream of reopening the wider canal network and the Stroudwater canal in particular. I must refer to Bruce Hall, Neville Nelder and Ken Burgin. Many more people are worthy of a mention, but we are short of time.

The debate is opportune, because it comes on the back of two important documents. The first, which is entitled "Waterways for Tomorrow", was released by the Government a couple of years ago. It is a stimulating read. For a long time, people thought that canals came on the back of every other form of transport and were of the past. However, the document proves that canals can make a difference to our overall integrated transport programme and, more particularly, that they have a vital role in tourism, recreation and economic regeneration. I shall say more about that later.

It is important to put it on record that professionalism increased as our effort to open up the canal network gathered pace. I have paid tribute to people, so I must

1 Nov 2001 : Column 1107

do likewise to organisations. British Waterways has exercised increasing influence and it took the network under its wing. Both it and the Waterways Trust are committed to the attempt to reopen the network.

I must also refer to the recently released report on the feasibility of restoring the Cotswold canals, which was produced by British Waterways and commissioned by the Waterways Trust and which shows that reopening, rather than being a long-held aim, is an eminently deliverable concept over time. The Minister might like to say how we can get funding and help.

I want to go over the key issues, of which there are several, and we cannot but start with technical matters. There is an understanding that the canal is historically important, as it dates back to the end of the 18th century, and we know that there were technical problems, because of water transference and because physical obstacles had to be overcome, not least the Sapperton tunnel, which remains in place and which will no doubt still cause difficulties if and when we get the canal open.

In the meantime, we must discuss the practical problems in my neck of the woods. Unfortunately, the canal system goes under the M5 and the A38. It also merges with the River Frome. None of those problems are insuperable, but in their own right they are a headache and we need to recognise that that is why the £82 million cost suggested by the report commissioned by the Waterways Trust is a fair estimate. I would argue that the goal is achievable. We will create a win-win situation in terms of reopening the canal and the tourism and recreation benefits that come on the back of that. We will also get the benefit of economic regeneration.

There are other issues. Of course, funding is important in its own right. I would like to think that the Minister can give us a steer and tell us how we can raise the money. It will not come from a single sector. A genuine relationship between the public and the private sector is needed, combined with the voluntary endeavours of those who have done so much to keep the spirit of the canal alive.

I would highlight the role that must be played by the south-west regional development agency, which is certainly in favour of reopening. Again, we must consider carefully how it can raise money. Obviously, we would be grateful for any help from central Government. We will also be looking for lottery funding. We understand that the Government cannot influence that, but I want to ensure that the matter is put on the table during this debate.

Planning and land ownership issues are involved and I will not pretend that the reopening of the canal has universal acclaim. Some individuals are disturbed by the thought that it will reopen—I and the other hon. Members present know them well. I understand the problem and that is why, in principle, I am concentrating on the western part of the canal, where there are not the same land ownership issues. We cannot avoid those issues, however, which must be sorted, and we must do so through dialogue. People must feel that they are being taken into the loop of discussion and we must ensure that they are listened to.

There are also planning issues. I will not wax lyrical on those, as I have received various rejections in written answers to parliamentary questions. I have raised the issue

1 Nov 2001 : Column 1108

of Ebley wharf in my constituency, which is being funded on the back of a private development. I see that the Minister is laughing. He knows that I am slightly at variance with the way in which that matter has been handled.

If we do not get a proper balance between public, private and voluntary sector funding, the danger is that the canal trust must consider potentially conflicting development. That is what people in the area I mentioned feel, which is a shame. Some of the good will that has been built up over generations could evaporate if people see that the canal restoration is being funded through unnecessary and undesirable development. I will pass on quickly from that issue, but we must be aware of it.

On the western side, thankfully, land ownership is concentrated largely in the hands of the Company of Proprietors. I must mention the late Fred Rowbotham, who was the chairman of the company for years and wanted to see the reopening of the canal. Further east, many individual owners are involved, which will make reopening more difficult.

Water management is an important issue and we underestimate it at our cost. One can raise revenue through the movement of water and, if we can reopen the canal, we can move water. The Gloucester-Sharpness canal provides water for the Bristol water service, so the canal could raise revenue as it would allow access to drinking water. It could also act as a means of flood relief. Given the Minister's particular responsibility, he might wish to allude to that.

I touched on the rationale for reopening this canal network. It could be used for leisure-inspired activities and there may be a freight use, which I would not want to underestimate. Waste movement has also been mentioned.

Regeneration is another key argument and it is one of the factors that unites everyone. It is the factor that has driven me to pursue the matter as it is key in my constituency. Reopening the canal could regenerate the areas alongside it. It is not the key reason, perhaps, why Stroud will regenerate as a town, but if the project can be engineered it can only help that regeneration. I want it to happen sooner rather than later and many of my final conclusions will be based on the time scale involved. Fund raising can seem like an endless activity unless we can put a definite time scale on it. More and more people are becoming aware of that and thinking hard how to do it.

I am pleased that the keynote approach is one of partnership. The Conservative Members here tonight, whom I am pleased to see, represent areas that are part of the partnership. The canal system passes through countless local authorities as well as the other organisations to which I have referred. Many individuals also want to play a part.

Realistically, the only way in which we will reopen this canal system is by phasing the funding and engineering. It would help if we could get the project team up and running as soon as possible, and there is the will to do that. This is about maintaining momentum, building partnerships and making sure that the current style of leadership continues.

In conclusion, I have some questions for my hon. Friend. To me, the most important single organisation is the south-west regional development agency. How can we engage with the agency to ensure that it can lever in resources and work with the Waterways Trust? How can

1 Nov 2001 : Column 1109

we resolve some of the land ownership questions? They are tricky and we will have to face up to them sooner rather than later.

On a more general note, how can British Waterways borrow money? I have seen some material in formal Government publications and elsewhere. I asked a question for written answer about what degree of freedom British Waterways, as a public corporation, has outside Treasury rules. It would be fair to consider that opportunity.

There are the issues about navigability and whether British Waterways subsumes some of the activities currently undertaken by the Environment Agency and other organisations. I should be grateful for anything that my hon. Friend has to say about that.

How can we keep expectations rolling along in terms of deliverability? Finally, restoring the canals and regenerating the land alongside them is a genuine way for rural regeneration to link into transport and the use of brown land. The sooner we can deliver that, the better.

Next Section

IndexHome Page