Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The river, a steam railway, but no road

What with Easter and everything I forgot to post last week's House Points column. Mind you, a lot of it can be found in an earlier posting on this blog.

There is more about the reopening of the canal to Uttoxeter here. And Chris Huhne's campaign is here.

Rural rants

Agricultural subsidies are the very devil. They impoverish the third world while ruining the countryside. And that is when they are working properly.

Our government has added to this damage an inefficiency all its own. As a select committee report published last week found, Margaret Beckett’s handling of the Single Payments Scheme was an "embarrassing failure", but neither she nor her senior officials have been held accountable for the money squandered.

The Foreign Secretary writes: "The dogs bark but the caravan moves on."

We saw more of the damage that this failure has inflicted during a Westminster Hall debate held about the time the committee report came out. It concerned canals in the West Midlands and was initiated by Charlotte Atkins, the Labour MP for Staffordshire Moorlands.

The revival of the inland waterways has been one of the quiet triumphs of the past few decades. My family used to take canal holidays when I was little, and I remember reading then of the Rochdale and Huddersfield Narrow canals – waterways that once crossed the Pennines but were now lost beyond recall. Today both are open to boats again.

But this success is under threat. One of the ways the government is paying for the Single Payments fiasco is by slashing the funding for British Waterways. Chris Huhne has been running a Canal Cuts Are Nuts campaign to protest against this policy and cavalcades of boaters have been mounting demonstrations across the canal system.

In her debate, Charlotte Atkins made it clear just how bad things may become. She spoke of the Caldon Canal, which was reopened by volunteers in the 1970s and of the threat that the same people would live to see it closed again.

If the Caldon is lost, it will be a tragedy. It begins in the centre of Stoke-on-Trent and ends in the beautiful Churnet valley. Parts are so remote that the canal is accompanied by the river, a steam railway, but no road.

Another generation of volunteers would like to reopen the remainder of the canal past Alton Towers to Uttoxeter. But government inefficiency and the way it concentrates rural funding on agribusiness means this may never happen and threatens the survival of the existing waterway.

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