6 Jun 2008

Canal vote: millstone or flagship?

Last night was the fullest public gallery I have seen in Stroud District Council's chamber - 70 or 80 members of the public turned out to the 'Extraordinary Full Council Meeting' looking at the canal. The motion to support the next step of the canal was voted through with 3 abstentions and 3 no's. I was one of the abstentions and I would like to say a little more about that here.....excuse the hurried notes but have been at work and am rushing out now...

Firstly Thrupp Councillor Martin Whiteside, summarised the Green group's views ahead of the meeting - he said: "Canal regeneration could bring great benefits to the District, but it depends on the detail; when Councillors vote to spend Council Taxpayers money on canal regeneration we must be told what we will be getting for the money - will some of the housing be affordable? Will jobs will be lost or gained? Will the housing numbers in Brimscombe Port be excessive? Will it cause more traffic? How much water will be put back into the Port? How will it benefit the traders in Stroud Town Centre? These are not details to be worked out later - they are vital factors in our decision making."

Sarah Lunnon, Leader of the Green party District Council also noted: "This canal project remains an exciting opportunity for Stroud District, but Greens have concerns about the growing risks and the benefits it will bring. We have a number of key issues where we have so far been unable to get guarantees or even an understanding of the hoped for benefits. Rising oil prices and falling house prices will, for example, impact on this project's costing yet we have not seen the analysis. We will be seeking reassurances at Thursday's meeting to the series of questions we have raised."

Last week the Green group met to discuss the canal. It was a lengthy discussion and led to scribblings on Sunday and then to the production of the paper enclosed below which went to all councillors at the beginning of this week. These points are in addition to those raised by the Council's paper - that covers additional concerns about legal and financial considerations.

This is not the first time we have made such comments and over the last months I have had a growing frustration that we have not had answers - of course answers cannot come to all the points raised but I fail to see how we can vote on a project without such information. The Green group made many of these comments during the evening and more. Of course I welcome the fact that no decision to support the project can be made without returning the decision to Full Council. Indeed in many ways we have to wonder about this vote's importance - it is about saying we will go forward and agree to take over the bid money that was going to go to British Waterways - clearly those folk want to see united support but it is not the final decision.

Greens at the Council were by no means alone in their concerns - councillors of all colours raised concerns - the majority wanted to see the project go forward but some sounded a little carried away with the 'glory' or 'ego' of the project...I hope (and am sure) the handful of abstentions, nos and comments raised by all, mean that the questions raised will be taken seriously - indeed if we do not have answers to questions when it returns to Council then I will not be able to vote for it.

This is a potentially an exciting flagship project - there is no question about that! It is important to be prepared to take risks in order to deliver real benefits, but as I've said already I do not consider that councillors have had the information needed to make a decision on this project. It could turn into a seriously heavy millstone if we are not careful. Which other projects for example will suffer if funding is targeted at the canal? Will we see further delays on improvements to waste collection? Can we afford to be diverted from focusing on tackling climate change, peak oil and it's impacts like fuel poverty? There are still no satisfactory answers about who is responsible for the costly maintenance of such a project? Or what impact rising fuel prices will have on construction?

The Environment Agency report of 10 March 2008 said ‘It should also be noted that there is no guarantee that full restoration to Lechlade is sustainable, desirable or possible.’ Are the expected benefits still likely if we end up with a 6 mile landlocked waterway - or pond as some have said? The Environment Agency also apparently say that along the canal corridor SDC plans for minimizing flooding, and for improving water quality for aquatic wildlife, and improving the environment generally other wildlife – as well as people – falls well below expectations. Is this right? Why? Etc etc.

Apols this is a bit of a ramble - and many more questions - anyhow here is that briefing - I would also welcome others thoughts on this...

Canal Regeneration Realism

- a brief report by the Green Group of District councillors


The canal regeneration provides a tremendous opportunity for bringing social, environmental and economic benefits to Stroud District. Council officers and the administration deserve credit for keeping this project alive in the face of severe set-backs. It is also important to be prepared to take risks in order to deliver real benefits, and so the Green Group supports the principle of ‘canal regeneration’.

The benefits accruing from canal regeneration will depend on whether key outcomes are achieved, such as high quality development, provision of affordable housing, a suitable balance of housing and employment land allocation, connectivity to Stroud and Stonehouse town centres, biodiversity enhancement, a high quality multi-user trail etc. Depending on these issues, regeneration could deliver significant benefits, minimal benefit or indeed a detrimental impact overall given the financial risk and ongoing maintenance liabilities.

Clearly difficult decisions will have to be made, and these have been made more difficult by the funding shortfall for Phase 1B, the downturn in the property market and the inflationary effect of global oil prices on the construction industry.

Tameside have provided an independent verification on the cost side of the project. However there has not been a similar verification of the benefit side of the equation – particularly in relation to a regenerated canal that is either landlocked or a spur of the national network. Tameside (6.3.2) notes that “Some of the anticipated outputs/outcomes seem very specific and very ambitious”

Moreover the financial calculations include figures for ‘Development Land Receipts’. We presume that these estimates have been made in relation to some assumptions in relation to the final use of the land, however it is not clear what these assumptions are[1].

Greens believe that Councillors and the public should ‘know what they are getting’ before committing Council Taxpayers money to this project. Although a lot of work has been undertaken on this project by SDC there is little information readily available in the members room, for example GCC proposals for the A46 roundabout or the results of any consultation already undertaken (Capel Mill). This should include transparency over the assumptions made in the calculations for the development receipts.

Key questions

1. What mooring facilities at Wallbridge and connectivity to Stroud and Stonehouse Town Centre have been included in the cost estimate.

2. What standard of multi-user trail has been included?

3. Given that SDC has disagreed with BW’s cost estimates, has it done an independent check on BW’s benefit estimates[2]? Does it know what allowances have been made for a landlocked or a spur canal in the estimation of benefits[3]?

4. It is noted that the project construction costs were calculated in 2005 at £13,900,000, with £4,500,000 allowed for inflation. Have these inflation calculations been revisited since the beginning of 2008 to take into account the new volatility of global oil prices, and the current economic climate?

5. What if it takes 10 years to reach Saul Junction, will SDC be liable for maintenance of the restored 6 mile stretch (Brimscombe to Ocean). Flooding at the Brecon and Monmouthshire canal has left BWB with a £15M repair bill.

In relation to assumptions made in estimating the £7.567 million Development Land Receipts budgeted for Brimscombe Port[4]:

1. What area of land currently allocated for employment has been assumed to be converted to housing? How many housing units is this likely to represent?

2. What area of land within the Brimscombe AAP has been assumed to remain as employment? How many jobs is this likely to represent? How does this compare with the existing number on jobs on these sites? Is this balance in accordance with the Regional Spatial Strategy?

3. What percentage of affordable housing was included in the land value assumptions?

4. Were any additional[5] energy efficiency standards included in the land value assumptions?

5. What % of the original water area in Brimscombe Port was this value calculated on?

6. What allowance has been made for the recent downturn in property values in the receipt estimates?

Green Party District Councillors 3.6.2008


[1] We note however that Tameside expressed concern over whether the ‘higher value’ uses (mainly residential) may currently fall below the required £1.170 million per acre (Tameside Report para 8.4.2)
[2] According to the Partnership website by 2014 the restoration of the Stroudwater Navigation between Stonehouse and Brimscombe Port will:
· Attract 215,000 extra visitors to the area each year (that is 580 per day).
· Create 21 new permanent jobs in tourism
· Generate £531,000 of additional income from visitors in the local economy each year
· Create 13,800m2 of new work space
· Attract £83 million in private sector investment
· Create 600 new permanent jobs in the private sector
· Conserve 30 historic structures, including bridges and locks
· Help protect rare species including bats, water vole and native crayfish
· Create a 10 mile multi-user trail, enabling all members of the community to benefit from this project
[3] The source material for many of these estimates seem to be from fully connected canals.
[4] Council Papers for 5 June Meeting , Appendix 2, p13.
[5] Additional to the current legal minimum and perhaps in line with the aspirations of the District’s Environmental Strategy.

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