Our President secures a debate in the House of Lords on the future of our Inland Waterways – March 2018

Lord German…

” My Lords, I start by thanking all noble Lords who have joined us today for this debate. I declare my interests as a member of the Inland Waterways Association and honorary president of the Monmouth, Breconshire and Abergavenny Canals Trust.
There are currently 4,700 miles of navigable waterways across England, Scotland and Wales—plus, of course, the waterways in Northern Ireland—and a further 1,800 miles of unusable waterways, 700 miles of which are proposed for restoration. The ownership and control of these thousands of miles of waterways rests with more than 100 navigation authorities. The largest manager is the Canal and River Trust, which looks after 2,000 miles, followed by the Environment Agency, which manages 650 miles.

Our inland waterway network is a unique and precious national asset, which has the potential to transform places, enrich lives, improve mental and physical health, support communities and promote economic development. More than half of the population live within 10 minutes of a waterway. Because of their historical role as the motorways of the past, waterways pass through not only wondrous countryside but also the heart of our conurbations. Take a few steps from Paddington station or the Birmingham International Convention Centre and you are immediately on the canal and towpaths of a country-wide waterway network. Unlike the grand places that are among the primary assets of the National Trust, which are often tucked away in some glorious piece of countryside, our waterways pass through some of the most deprived communities in our land. My purpose in this short debate is to shine a light on the value of our waterways, to examine the economic potential that they can unlock and to put to the Government a range of issues where government action can make a difference to realising the waterways’ full potential.​

I start by concentrating on the economic potential that waterways provide. Analysis and research of this impact are somewhat sketchy, but they suggest that the value of land and property alongside a navigable canal is some 10% greater than comparable land alongside a disused canal; so values rise where working waterways exist. This rise in value is a vital tool for local authorities up and down the country where there are disused canals. The potential for planning gain should be of great interest to local authorities seeking to promote economic development. Planners have long used development potential to fund public goods such as roads, schools and other forms of community infrastructure, so applying some of this development gain to the restoration of the canal would be a wholly appropriate use for the public good.

The question I pose to the Government is: where is the economic planning policy that would drive this enhancement to our communities, and what steps are the Government taking to encourage local authorities to think carefully about the link between economic development and canal restoration? Another consequence of restoring canals is increased tourism spend. I know that my noble friend Lord Lee will expand on this later. My challenge here is to ask the Government what they are doing to encourage this economic potential.

Like other noble Lords, I should like to have a better understanding of the recent decision by Ministers to put on ice the transfer of the Environment Agency’s navigable waterways to the Canal and River Trust. Perhaps the Minister can tell us where these discussions are at the moment. Has the Minister met with the CRT to explore its offer to take over the operation of these waterways? Can the Minister tell us whether the department is looking for an improved offer from the CRT? If that is the case, can the Minister tell us what more the CRT can do to improve the merits of its offer?

There is some speculation that this is related to the large structures on the waterways that are controlled by the Environment Agency. Of course structures of that size also bear a risk of failure or decay. The Government presently stand behind the Environment Agency as the guarantor for dealing with any damage or consequence of an event to those assets. If an asset of that sort were to be passed to the CRT, there would obviously be a need to either crystallise the risk into a form of payment or to back it with some form of guarantee. Can the Minister let us know whether this issue is one that needs to be resolved and, if so, what is the timescale?

The Canal and River Trust can leverage funding in a way that the Environment Agency cannot. As Environment Agency budgets are squeezed, so its ability to maintain structures and the assets that it manages for government becomes equally restricted. Its ability to restore and repair is reduced. These were precisely the reasons why the CRT was established, and why there was always an expectation that the Environment Agency waterways would eventually be included in the transfer to the Canal and River Trust. The CRT has guaranteed government funds through to 2027, which enables it to borrow and lever additional funds and invest in the longer-term future of our ​waterways. It produces a return which far exceeds that which the old British Waterways could provide. The sad state of canal closures in Scotland demonstrates the value of the trust structure that we now have in England and Wales.

If our waterways are to maximise their full potential, the Government must engage and appreciate their worth. There is some feeling—I have experienced it—that the Government, having passed on much of the work to the Canal and River Trust, have stood back from promoting the worth of our waterways which, after all, is not necessarily an economic issue for government but it is something that government can promote. It would be reassuring if the Minster could tell us the number of visits that he and other Ministers have made in their official capacities to see our waterways in action. It is not just Defra Ministers who need to engage. Waterways provide access to millions of people; they touch many of our most deprived communities; they can address health inequalities; and they reduce physical inactivity, obesity, diabetes and poor mental health. Through adoption by local people, they can help to build strong, resilient communities—more than 200 community groups have now adopted a stretch of waterway and that number is rising by 20% each year. Beyond that, waterways support learning and skills, covering such diverse areas as natural science, engineering, heritage, arts, technology and mathematics. They help to restore natural habitats and protect endangered wildlife species—and so the list goes on.

Waterways play a role that spans so much of the life of our country, be it in education, health, leisure, sport, local government, tourism or the environment. In reality, this spans many government portfolios. What role is the Minister’s department playing in co-ordinating the government overview of the impact of our waterways on life in our country? It is so important for joined-up action in the promotion of the role that waterways can play. Our waterways are our asset on the doorstep. They need to be nurtured, treasured and—most importantly—used to the full, and the Government have a major role to play in providing that support…”

The full debate can be seen here.