Guardian accuses BW of 'socially cleansing' boaters from Olympics area

Using an unfortunately emotive headline, The Guardian has accused BW of ‘socially cleansing’ live-aboard boaters from moorings near to the Olympics site. Unfortunately they haven’t provided a section to allow readers to comment.

In response, BW have issued a statement which says that ‘the consultation for the River Lee Navigation is in response to a 40 per cent rise in the number of boats on the river which has increased pressure on waterway facilities and impacted on all river users‘.

In consultations with boaters in the area, BW have acknowledged that they should have reacted earlier to a rise of that magnitude and their press release points out ‘We would need to address these issues with or without the Olympics, however less than 5 per cent of the area we are looking at will be affected by the Games and these rivers will, in all likelihood, be controlled by the security services during the Olympics.`

The Guardian reports that River Lea residents fear licence fees could rise from £600 to £7,000, but from Waterway Watch understand, such charges will only apply if the current rules applying to continuous cruising are not followed. Having said that, the going rate for a residential mooring in London can be as high as £9,000 pa so if these forecast increases are related to charges for mooring overstays, then we might be seeing more London boaters occupying visitor mooring spaces!

Some observers have suggested that local authorities and BW should work together to provide more residential moorings and while that wold solve part of the problem, I suspect that would not be a solution for some boaters, many of whom don’t want a permanent mooring and for whom the main issue is that they cannot afford such fees.

As BW points out: ‘ The draft plan is not a change to the rules, instead, it proposes to enforce the existing conditions in a way that allows those who bona fide continually cruise to continue to do so without incurring any extra charges.

They add: ‘We have publicly committed to work with all interested parties, including live-aboard boaters, boating organisations, local clubs, councillors and MPs to find a solution that has minimum impact but maximum benefit for all.’

Sally Ash, head of boating at BW, denied the proposals were an assault on the “live aboard” boaters. “We want to encourage councils to support more residential moorings.

“But we have to control the number of boats, which have increased by 40% over the last four years on the Lea. The only way we can do this is through price, and some people will have to suffer.”

But she accepted that with feelings running high among river Lea residents, British Waterways would have to take account of the plight of those who feared losing their homes. It would consider “transitional arrangements” for existing residents and explore ways to mitigate hardship, she said.

“We will have to do something we prefer not to, and unwillingly accept that we must consider a person’s housing position. We are a navigation, not a housing body – but we have to send the message that in future, living on the river will not be such a cheap lifestyle option.”

Let’s face it, this is not just a problem on the Lea, it is an issue that needs to be addressed in a number of popular locations around the waterway network, and not just on BW navigations. A similar problem has been building up on the Thames and the River Thames Alliance has made progress by forming alliances with local authorities. It is a complex issue that has in part been aggravated by the absence of a clear policy on residential boating from central government. This has left local planning authorities able to ignore the guidelines that do exist.

I think it is fair to say that until the current financial crisis, BW have been reluctant to enforce the cruising & mooring guidelines. It seems that attitude has now changed and I personally think that the concept of community mooring strategies is the best way forward – albeit likely to be painful in places. Having said that, I do question the strategy of launching policies on such large areas as the Kennet & Avon and the Lea & Stort without first working a with a handful of smaller community-based projects.

8 comments to Guardian accuses BW of socially cleansing Olympics area

  • Marmaduke

    That numbers of boats on the Lee has risen by 39% in the last 4 years may well be true. However, that is the only statistic used in order for British Waterways to justify such a draconian policy of pricing out the poor.

    There have been no studies, to my knowledge that show the carrying capacity of the canals and waterways (please point me to it if it exists). One should certainly be carried out by an independent body before such measures are proposed. How does anyone know that more boats could be a bad thing, and couldn't be managed properly?

    There are issues that many continuous cruisers would agree exist. However, these could easily be remedied. For example, a few more taps in strategic areas would go a long way to thinning out populations. Official visitor moorings, (just a bit of yellow paint and some signs) near services for boaters passing through, would ensure all get to moor in "hot spots".

    If this isn't about social cleansing, then why not try the less controversial, cheap and alternative methods first? 14 day rule anyone?

  • Marmaduke

    I take your point that the increase in the number of boats could be seen to be out of context in terms of what the potential capacity is for transport and moorings.

    However, isn't the root of the problem that there aren't enough residential moorings to meet the demand? And isn't this compounded by the reality that if there were enough residential moorings, a lot of boaters couldn't afford the cost of locations like London?

    As BW have not enforced the rules in the past, a false market has developed where boaters have naturally been attracted to the idea of using visitor moorings. As I am sure you realise the problem with that is it results in the visitor moorings not being available for use by other boaters with the result that instead of behaving like a community of boaters, our loyalties are split by the self-interests of both sides of the argument.

    The shortage of residential mooring hasn't been helped by many local authorities being unwilling to help solve the problem (or even recognise that it exists). This doesn't apply to all local authorities and a good case in point is in Birmingham where the City Council is actually in favour of building more residential moorings and, fortunately, as there are a number of unused arms on the BCN and groups like the BCN Society working on the problem, I think we will see progress in the next few years.

    Like you, I am aware of a number of continuous cruisers who recognise the issues and have ideas of how they might be resolved. I know that NABO and RBOA are actively addressing such matters and I could put you in touch with senior level people if you thought that might help (in fact, there are two former committee members of SOW that drop in here on occasion and they might respond to this thread). Otherwise I would be happy to set up a dedicated area, public or private, for you on this website in our Forum section where you could refer other continuous cruisers to discuss options.

  • Mark Walton

    Will – I think your last point is the critical one for me. The problem is the way that policy is being made.
    British Waterways developed a proposal in private over a number of months based on informal conversations, opinions and concerns from some stakeholders with whom they have a close working relationship. At their own admission they can offer no formal evidence as the basis for it.
    Good policy development would engage others early – especially the group most likely to be affected.
    Even at the very first public meetings called by BW it was clear that the proposals risk creating many more problems than they seek to solve. Since the meetings local boaters have responded constructively and practically focussing on how to engage meaningfully with other users of the waterways, identify what the issues are and how to work together to address them – without the imposition of additional draconian, complex and unenforceable regulation.
    If community mooring strategies are to work they must be developed and implemented with the consent of the community. British Waterways should be acting as a facilitator, bringing interested parties together to identify issues and agree solutions.

    • Will Chapman

      The policy was developed in consultation with members of waterway user groups such as (I don’t know who was involved but I would guess) the IWA, NABO, RBOA, etc. and probably other members of BWAF (British Waterways Advisory Forum which comprises experienced representatives of ALL waterway stakeholders). Don’t dismiss this too readily – the members attending BWAF meetings are very knowledgeable and would certainly include boat owners with many years of experience and, in addition come with a wide variety of professional expertise. I sit on BWAF (but didn’t take part in this consultation) and I know from first hand experience how seriously they take the process of consultation. Also, don’t under-estimate the change that the very process of consultation is going through; we are in the process of transition from a waterways that is run by a Public Corporation owned by DEFRA and run by a Government appointed Board to a charitable organisation controlled by a board of Trustees that will be appointed by a Members Council made up of our representatives. That is a massive change in culture for all of us.

      I agree that it is often better to start off by involving small groups of people who represent special interests to ‘tune’ sensitive parts the policy before launching an area initiative. Having said that, I think we have to realise that everyone is new to this process; NWC is a brave new world that will be upon us before we have time to make all the prudent cautionary sideway glances that we usually make when crossing such major roads.

      Personally, I am encouraged by the number of new groups that are popping up and, as you point out, the constructive way they are approaching the issues. In the end, I believe that is the only way that we will get these difficult issues resolved.

      Again, on the subject of community mooring strategies, I agree with you. My task is to be the catalyst of a number in Staffordshire and we are starting slowly. Get one or two started and then expand as we gain experience. I’m not sure that BW has the manpower to be facilitator – I’m more inclined to think that they should find people to whom they can delegate the role of facilitator. For example, regional and local branches of IWA, local canal societies who by definition have a knowledge of local waterway issues. I accept, however, that such groups may know all about the issues concerning local waterway users, but not necessarily have the skills to deal with highly charged issues that Sally Ash and her team are facing on the K&A and the Lea & Stort. But that is just part of what we all have to face together over the next 12 months whilst we help the transition of BW to NWC.

      • Mark Walton

        Sorry – misunderstanding – I'm talking about the Lee and Stort policy – I think you're talking about the national mooring policy? Locally the pre consultation on the current proposal seems to have been more anecdotal. If it was formal I'd expect there to be some documentation of it but this doesn't appear to be the case.

        I think you're right about BW's capacity to facilitate. I meant in the sense of enabling the conversation – I think ideally it would be independent – but certainly delegated.

        It has always been my belief that the issues – which can indeed be highly charged – are much better resolved locally and between the different stakeholders. Otherwise it's too easy for everyone to duck responsibility and just blame BW (or the NWC or….)

  • Mark Walton

    My second issue is that BW insist they are ‘not a housing body’ as the legislation “does not include specific instruction about providing residential moorings or contributing to the nation’s housing stock”. However their own industry body, AINA, advise that “Residential use of waterways is a form of housing and residential boaters are recognised by Government as a specific household group.”

    I’d argue that by issuing liveaboard licences BW is, de facto, a housing body. It should therefore manage the position it finds itself in by taking a more proactive role in ensuring that residential boats are recognised as an affordable sustainable housing solution – especially in urban areas where need is high.

    Year round off-grid living is not an easy option. It takes a huge degree of commitment and shouldn't attract charges equivilant to renting a decent north London flat.

    Instead of characterising liveaboards as “exploiting a cheap lifestyle option” BW has an opportunity – should it wish to take it – to position itself as a leader in this field by working in partnership with its resident population of eager off-grid, low impact, citizens.

  • Apologies Mark, I seem to have missed this point in our earlier exchange.

    I am in favour of BW/NWC not taking on the role of being a 'housing body'. The implications of having such a responsibility would misdirect their efforts away from their prime statutory responsibilities as defined by the Transport Act 1968 which require BW:

    1. To maintain the commercial waterways in a suitable condition for use by commercial freight-carrying vessels
    2. To maintain the cruising waterways in a suitable condition for use by cruising craft, that is to say, vessels constructed or adapted for the carriage of passengers and driven by mechanical power.

    Given the chronic shortage of funding, I really can't see any benefit to burdening BW with anymore responsibilities for housing other than those concerning houseboats that are covered by British Waterways Act 1995 (c. i).

    On the other hand, the Housing Act 1985 appears to me to place the responsibility for housing with local authorities along with the power to assess community charges and issue planning permission for residential mooring.

    If that is a correct interpretation of the various Acts, it seems logical to me that part of the role of a Community Mooring Strategy group should be to engage with local authorities with a view of resolving these issues. I am sure that such an approach will prove more difficult in some communities but I am aware that some — notably around Birmingham – see the advantages of actively encouraging more residential boating.



  • Guardian ‘clarifies’ its ‘social cleansing’ article — Waterway Watch

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