Undercutting London’s boaters

London’s waterways have received significantly more attention and usage of various forms in more recent years. Following decades of decline, London’s boaters have played a significant role in the reclamation and revitalisation of these spaces. However, this contribution seems increasingly undesirable by the authority that manages the waterways.

Since 2012, the Canal & River Trust (CRT) have assumed guardianship of 2000 miles of the UK’s canals and rivers from the state-owned British Waterways (BW). As a not-for-profit charitable trust, the CRT have placed an increased emphasis on wellbeing in their agenda for their waterways’ users.

There has been a notable increase in and heterogeneous uses of the River Stort, Lee Navigation, Regent’s Canal, Hertford Union Canal, and the lower Grand Union Canal. Cyclists, walkers, joggers, rowers, and kayakers are all user groups that the CRT appear happy to see using the waterways in increased numbers, but not all increases in usage seem to be so welcome.

The general trend of increased usage has brought a range of advantages, including an increased diversification of users of the waterways, yet this has occurred during a period of increased economic and social strain for many living in London. London’s housing crisis has led a relatively small proportion to search for viable living arrangements away from the increasingly unaffordable rental costs ‘offered’ by the housing market, joining the existing communities of liveaboard boaters on the cut.

According to the CRT’s National Boat Count, boat numbers were rising for a period in the London area. However this increase in use appears less welcomed by the CRT when compared to the increase in leisure uses of the estate they manage, despite liveaboard boaters paying licensing fees to the CRT, yielding them a growth in income revenue from boaters.

The CRT do not have legal powers to stop or restrict the number of licensed boats on the water, and as such are seeking “creative solutions to help manage growing boat numbers […] to address [the] challenges” this brings them. In lieu of the limited powers the CRT possess, it is difficult to envisage any “creative” solutions that would be equitable across the wide range of boaters that live on London’s waterways, such as introducing surcharges or fees for certain uses of the canals. However, this is occurring in spite of the CRT’s own 2020 data showing a 2.2% reduction of boats in the region.

The apparent need to manage the volume of liveaboard boats in London is not a new struggle for boaters. Back in 2010, BW said that were “more boats moored along the Lee than are desirable” and attempted to zone London’s waterways into “neighbourhoods”. Due to the anger and push back from boater communities, this plan was eventually dropped.

The National Bargee Travellers Association (NBTA) has described the CRT’s 2018 London Mooring Strategy (LMS) as “a strategy to help clear London’s waterways of boat dwellers and turn it into a London waterway leisure and business park. It is the perfect recipe for gentrification of the waterways.” Amongst other issues, the LMS includes a reduction of mooring time available for boaters at 22 sites, with increased surveillance and enforcement on the sites with reduced time limits.

The LMS has not been completed, yet the CRT are currently conducting a new survey to help them strategise new ways to manage the “very high and increasing” boat population. However, the CRT are yet to provide supporting information for the assumed problems caused by the volume of boats, or substantiating data on the apparently negative efficacies of an increased liveaboard population.

The current survey appears flawed in a range of ways, particularly as it is strewn with leading questions. As an example, they ask “In your own words what would you want the Trust to do to manage boat numbers in busy areas?” This assumes that the volume of boats is a problem, but are more boats a problem? More boats means more boaters, and as such a more vibrant and neighbourly community, helping to increase safety for all users of the waterways. Framing an increase in the number of boats as a problem evades other opportunities for the CRT to support thriving liveaboard communities by increasing the facilities offered.

It is also noteworthy that the majority of the survey is collecting qualitative data. This is welcome, as it provides an opportunity for participants to offer detailed, subjective understandings of their experiences of living aboard. However, whilst by no means impossible, such rich data can be difficult to generalise from in the development of an organisational strategy, and can lead accusations of cherry picking data and quote mining.

The global pandemic has created further tensions for the CRT and their wellbeing agenda. The initial lockdown saw posters erected to encourage “local” usage of towpaths, without any clarification of what that meant, causing confusion and anxiety for cyclists, walkers, and boaters alike. As soon as the lockdown was lifted, new posters replaced the old ones, and these actively encouraged the use of the use of towpaths for leisure purposes.

However, much of the towpath is difficult or impossible to navigate whilst staying two metres- or even one metre- from other users and boats. This exposed people to unnecessarily high risks, particularly moored boaters that were enduring the increased risk while remaining aboard their homes.

As with so many other examples of authorities exerting their political agenda in the dehumanising process of managing properties and estates, the lives of those impacted by this ‘management’ are treated with neglect and disdain. As the CRT seeks to offer leisure facilities and develop greater commercial enterprise on the waterways, the lives and rights of liveaboard boaters are treated as an unfortunate hangover of the historic canals of London.

The London branch of the NBTA continues to fight the increasing gentrification of London’s waterways and is planning further action to protect liveaboard boaters and to ensure that the waterways remain for the use of everyone, not just for those with access to resources or for business to expropriate money from a public asset.


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