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Last Updated: Sunday, 26 November 2006, 14:42 GMT
Not messing about on the river
Nick Watson
Nick Watson
The Politics Show
West Midlands

Canal boat
Regeneration has brought new life to the canals in the centre of Birmingham

A flotilla of narrow-boats and pleasure craft is due to plot a course for the centre of Birmingham this weekend as part of a nationwide protest.

It is happening because the boating community are not happy with Defra's plans to cut "grant-in-aid" budgets to British Waterways and the Environment Agency.

The Inland Waterways Association, which is organising a series of protests and blockades up and down the country, say the cuts of up to 15% are happening because of what they call the "calamitous mismanagement" within Defra over payments to farmers through the Rural Payments Agency.

IWA say the result, could lead to the delay or abandonment of some waterway restoration programmes, the closing of waterways, job losses and an increase of up to a third in boat licence fees.

Failure

Canal boats at moorings
For many, this idyll will be shattered if funding cuts are implemented

And the link with farming payments?

The IWA says the cuts are being made in budgets elsewhere within Defra because the department must pay a large fine to the European Union for its failure to make prompt payments to farmers via the Rural Payments Agency.

"Little did we expect when we planned our Diamond Jubilee celebrations (which are this year), that we would have to mount a campaign of this magnitude to fight for the very waterways saved by members over the Association's life," said IWA chairman John Fletcher.

Ivor Caplan, who represents the Birmingham Black Country and Worcestershire branch of IWA added: "We do have a 200 year old canal system which is very frail and there'll continually be problems arising.

"And if British Waterways don't have the money to do their continual maintenance to the system we'll suddenly get the point where there'll be a major engineering problem and there just wouldn't be the money to put it right."

Budget cuts

Ivor Caplan of the IWA
Ivor Caplan of the IWA not happy with cuts

Defra admits that financial pressures have meant cutting their budget by 200m across the department but they have defended their record on the waterways.

"Over the past seven years, British Waterways has been a tremendous success story," said a spokesman.

"It has restored more than 200 miles of canals and waterways and reduced the backlog of maintenance by a huge investment programme of 180m.

"This has only been possible because of the substantial investment by government of 524m since 2000. The cuts must be seen against this backdrop," he insisted.

Nearly 200 MPs have also signed and supported the Early Day Motions tabled by Charlotte Atkins, the Labour MP for Staffordshire Moorlands and Dave Drew MP asking for the reinstatement of funding.

MPs also addressed a number of questions on the subject to ministers in the House of Commons earlier this month and there have been numerous written questions to ministers on the funding cuts, so the issue is not going away.

Our Political Editor Patrick Burns has been out onto the Midlands waterways to find out more.

Also in the programme...

The Academy

Schoolchildren studying
Is the academy route the right one for their future?

Opposition is growing to plans for seven new academy schools in Birmingham.

Ministerial approval was granted for "Birmingham's 21st Century Education Vision" earlier this year with promises of 1bn of investment to transform schooling in the city over the next 15 years.

The Birmingham Academies scheme, as it is known, will involve transforming schools across the city - The Heartlands High, Nechells, The College High, Erdington, Kings Norton High, Kings Norton, St Alban's, Highgate, Sheldon Heath, Sheldon, Shenley Court, Selly Oak and Harborne Hill, Edgbaston.

Cllr Les Lawrence (Con) said the academies will provide "world class facilities to match world class teaching".

They will be partly funded by donations of 2m from benefactors and provide education which will equip pupils with skills they will need in the workplace.

Concerns

But some parents and teaching unions have serious concerns.

The National Union if Teachers Executive member, Richard Hatcher, is against the idea of city academies or the Birmingham variant.

He says that even though the council claim sponsors would not influence the curriculum, there is no guarantee.

He says the current education system is not working, but the academies plan is not the answer.

Reporter Julie Peacock takes a look at both sides of the argument.


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Join the Politics Show team... Sunday 26 November 2006 at 12:00 GMT on BBC One.

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