Not my usual topic or style, but after nine days holiday and in the midst of this brutal referendum campaign, I was keen to write something gentle.
When I launched my blog four years ago it was called “Voting and Boating”. The idea at the time was to blog about my two passions in life: politics and Britain’s wonderful inland waterways. Over time the balance has swung heavily towards politics, inevitably as I spend much more time in the office than I do traveling our canals and rivers.
This last week however I have travelled the entire length of the navigable freshwater Thames, from Lechlade in Gloucestershire to Teddington on the edge of Greater London. 135 glorious miles through 45 locks, with overnight stops at Oxford, Abingdon, Goring, Henley, Windsor and Weybridge. In the fog of the EU war and the cruelty of blue-on-blue, this journey was nourishment for the soul; evocative of childhood adventures with new places to visit each day, and bucolic scenes of such beauty and magnificence that they made one’s heart leap with joy.
By way of change, I am using this week’s column to write about our waterways, the people who have made them their home and the opportunities they can provide.
Some readers will know that my partner and I live on a boat. Home is a 60ft Dutch Barge, moored on the River Medway at Rochester. Living in a boat was a matter of choice. We love the sense of community which still exists on the water, the idiosyncratic lifestyle and the sense of freedom it provides. There are other advantages too; we never arrive at our holiday destination and chastise ourselves for forgetting to pack a corkscrew…the corkscrew, camera, cooker, fridge and every other household appliance (as well as our cats) come with us!
The Residential Boat Owners’ Association has 15,000 members, but this in no way reflects the true numbers of people living on Britain’s waterways. My estimate is probably nearer to 50,000, and these fall into four main categories:
Residential moorings with full planning consent: these are like hens’ teeth, especially in London and the South East. Local authorities are reticent to grant planning permission as applications of this nature are “unusual” and there are understandable concerns from the Environment Agency and the Canal & River Trust over waste disposal, especially sewage. Where permission is granted (such as the boatyard where we moor, where there are perhaps 60 residential boat owners) these are often historical and come with bizarre conditions such as how many hours each day the boat is in water!
Non-residential moorings which in reality are. Almost every marina I know has a significant number of permanently-occupied boats, even if there is no planning consent. The usual vagaries in planning law makes enforcement almost impossible. Whilst you might not be able to use your boat/mooring as your main home, staying on your boat for prolonged periods is quite legal (provided your main home is elsewhere – often a son or daughter’s house hundreds of miles away!) The problem with this ad-hoc arrangement is it provides little security for the boat owner, no Council Tax receipts for the local authority who provide the services, and the ever-present threat of investigation for the marina owner. Most marina owners are only too pleased to have a number of residential boaters; they can be charged a higher mooring fee, they provide security in what are often rural places and they help build a sense of community. A simple change in planning guidance could improve this situation to the benefit of all concerned with relative ease.
Permanent Cruisers. I suspect these are the biggest single group. Often retired, they have sold their large family home and used the proceeds to buy a small flat (often in warmer climes) and some of the balance to buy a modern high-spec narrowboat or barge. They spend the spring, summer and autumn months on the inland waterways, going wherever takes their fancy – staying a day or two here or a week in some busy or favourite town, before moving on. I am covetous of their lifestyle and look forward to being able to join them (though I still need to convince my other half).
Permanent Cruisers who technically aren’t. There are, however, a large and growing number of people who claim to be “permanent cruisers” but clearly are not. These are people who have often been forced onto boats through circumstances of life. They may have a job locally or children at local school and need to be resident nearby. They habitually stay the maximum permitted time before moving a mile or two along the river. Then a few days later they are “moved on” again and return to their original location. On this week’s journey we saw more of this than ever before. It was difficult to find mooring space in several popular towns and this causes irritation for local traders who feel they are losing visitor revenue as well as for visiting boaters who cannot find a place to moor.
Oxford is a prime example. The popular stretch of river east of Folly Bridge provides the town’s main mooring facilities, but these have been occupied by “permanent cruisers” for at least 12 months. The Council has applied for a summons to move them on – but to where? Moving the problem a mile along the river doesn’t really solve it, and impounding the boats and evicting the residents would result in making them homeless and in need of rehousing. Perhaps a solution is for each major town and village to identify a stretch of river bank which could be turned into semi-permanent moorings for those who need them. This would help manage the situation, ensure access to the support services and facilities they need, whilst freeing-up valuable town centre short-term mooring for the purpose intended.
Living on a boat is not for everyone. There are constraints and inconveniences which many would find intolerable, but for others these niggles are a small price to pay for the beauty of light on the water, the gentle movement of the tide, the regular visits by ducks, geese and swans and a sense of community which is now almost extinct in much of urban Britain.
It is also fair to say that buying a boat is much easier and cheaper than buying a house. A perfectly serviceable boat can be bought for low thousands whilst higher-spec boats run into hundreds of thousands. The provision of more residential moorings could provide an opportunity for thousands of people to have a home of their own whilst saving for a deposit. It would also provide security for those presently living on the borders of homelessness and ensure they paid their fair share towards the community in which they live.