Tristram Hunt MP, supported by Co-operative Party MPs, last night called an adjournment debate on the future of British Waterways. Tristram used the debate to highlight our policy, backed in Labour’s manifesto, for the organisation to be run along mutual lines with the property to be held in trust to prevent asset stripping. As Tristram alluded to yesterday in his Financial Times article, there is pressure for the canal system to be sold off, risking urban regeneration and the fabric of our industrial heritage and recreational open space. A mutual model would safeguard this while giving all those with a stake in the canals to have a voice in its management.

I would like to say what the Minister should not do, which is listen to the Adam Smith Institute, which is keen to privatise British Waterways, and in the process hopes to realise £400 million-a rather low price, I think, for the centuries of heritage as well as the property assets. 

There is no doubt, however, that a change in governance is needed. Currently, the nation is underspending by around £30 million a year on its waterways, and, in the words of British Waterways’ chairman,

“without the required spend on canal maintenance and repairs the overall physical state of Britain’s waterways will once again go into decline.” 

As my right hon. Friend makes clear, the Labour party fought the last general election on precisely that message of reform.

In December 2009, the then Government published details of its asset portfolio and promised

“to consider alternative models for the British Waterways business as a whole, such as mutual or third sector structures.” 

That is what my right hon. Friend has described as the National Trust model, whereby British Waterways’ property endowment will be placed in a charity-locked mechanism to fund future maintenance. But this means more than just establishing an effective financial footing. It also means mutualising the governance system by extending democratic control to waterway licence holders, employees, volunteers, partner organisations such as local charities and the lottery, as well as members of the general public. That third sector model will give energy, activism and public buy-in to the sector. We in the Labour movement call it the co-operative principle.

So it was with great delight that I read in the coalition agreement that the Government

“will support the creation and expansion of mutuals, co-operatives, charities and social enterprises, and enable these groups to have much greater involvement in the running of public services.” 

I was equally impressed by the Minister’s statement on 21 June where he highlighted the role of civil society in creating what the Government call the big society, and his commitment to look at a third sector model for the future of the waterways.

Tristram was supported in his promotion of the ‘co-operative spirit’ by the Co-op Party’s parliamentary chair Meg Hillier MP and fellow Co-op MP Alun Michael, Chair of the All-Party Group on Waterways, and was able to extract a commitment from the minister to continue the work towards mutualising our canals.

Read the debate here or watch it below.