1 Lord Trimble debates involving the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Inland Waterways

Lord Trimble Excerpts
Thursday 8th March 2018

(6 years, 3 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Trimble Portrait Lord Trimble (Con)
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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord German, on having obtained the debate. I make it clear at the outset that I agree with almost every word that he said, which is a novel experience for me. I also declare an interest: I have been interested in waterways—in fact, I have been on them, mainly in the English Midlands—for the last 20 years. I am on my second narrowboat; as you buy them they get more and more expensive, so I do not think I will go further than that. Like the noble Lord, I congratulate the Canal and River Trust on its successes. I know that there were worries when it was formed as to whether it would be successful, but it has been very successful. Like him, I am disappointed that we have had the hiccup with regard to the Environment Agency’s waterways coming into the CRT, but in the long run that must happen; if it does not, the problems will increase.

The noble Lord also mentioned the way in which the CRT can continue to help with the restoration and recovery of canals, and I want to highlight a couple of important measures on that point. One would of course be to put in place the link that has been talked of for some time between Milton Keynes and Bedford, which would make access to the Environment Agency’s waterways in the east much easier and would considerably extend the opportunity for leisure use there. I give a more immediate welcome to what is proposed with regard to Daventry. The noble Lord mentioned that it is open to local authorities to use the planning system to generate the money that will create a canal. In Daventry we are talking about only something like a mile and a quarter, but it would enable people who currently go past Daventry on the Grand Union to go in and take advantage of the town itself. That is one of the great advantages that we see from the waterways.

We are dealing with waterways in the United Kingdom, which enables me to bring in those in Northern Ireland. The problem is that there are not that many of them, unfortunately. There were a number of canals but none is active at the moment. The railways in Ireland never made any money, nor did the canals; it has to do with the way in which the population is distributed and the absence of large industrial sites outside the Greater Belfast area. We have a problem there. We have the Fermanagh lakes, the Lower Bann and its great lake, which is problematic in some ways. However, I draw attention to two potential developments in Northern Ireland. The first is the Lagan Navigation, which is this year starting a process of restoration to one of its locks. In fact, it is the first lock that you encounter in Belfast, because the Lagan Navigation goes from Belfast to Lough Neagh. We are starting with what will be the most expensive lock to restore, which is a good first step forward. In that connection, I have to mention that my wife is the deputy chairman of the Lagan Navigation Trust, so I am slightly prejudiced.

I also mention the Ulster Canal, which starts and ends in Northern Ireland but, in between, it meanders through large parts of the Republic of Ireland. That enabled us to choose that to develop as a cross-border co-operation project. I was well aware of the extent to which the Government of southern Ireland had taken a strong lead in the restoration of canals, and have succeeded in putting in place the two major canals that go from Dublin to the Shannon, thus extending greatly the area that can be cruised. I knew that officials in Belfast did not have the same enthusiasm and it seemed to me that, if we put together a cross-border body and exposed them to the broader horizon that their southern counterparts had, that might have a positive result.

I do not know whether what I am going to say is absolutely true, because I am dealing with what other people have said to me, but they have told me that there is an annual meeting under the aegis of Waterway Irelands between the people representing north and south. In the course of this annual meeting, the folk from Dublin said, “Here’s our money for beginning the restoration of the Ulster canal”, and the Northern Ireland representatives hummed and hawed and got uncomfortable as they had not got anywhere. They had not got past the idea that was prevalent nearly 40 years ago that there was no significant market for leisure activities based on canals and had not realised that huge leisure opportunities are developing on canals. From the point of view of Northern Ireland tourism, this adds another niche. Tourism in Northern Ireland is always going to be a matter of niche markets, because we do not have sun and the temperatures that people get in the Mediterranean and elsewhere, but this is an important niche to add. I hope that sooner or later the penny will drop and we will some steps being taken on the Ulster Canal. As it links Lough Neagh with Lough Erne, that would give an integrated waterways network in Northern Ireland, which would generate more leisure activities.