Meg Lee Chin

As Continuous Cruisers we are at a pivotal point in history. Our actions today will have repercussions for years to come. How we choose to act will determine not only the future of liveaboard canal boating for our successors but will also affect the shape of public services in Britain as a whole.

By an act of Parliament (s.17(3)(c)(ii) of the British Waterways Act 1995) boaters without a home mooring were granted rights to cruise and live on the public waterways of Britain provided they use their boats "bona fide for navigation" and do not "remain continuously in any one place for more than 14 days or such longer period as is reasonable in the circumstances". It is believed that the definitions of "bona fide for navigaton" and "reasonable" have been left deliberately ambiguous in order to protect the diversity of the boating community.

However British waterways have long sought to interpret these terms in a manner beneficial to their commercial interests and it now appears their successors the Canal and River Trust (CRT) are following in their footsteps. On February 13, 2015 the CRT announced draconian new changes to our licensing agreements. The 1995 Act only requires we move every 14 days. But CRT new plans are to deny licenses to those who "do not move far enough" or who do not keep moving in one direction. If left uncontested, these changes could establish a dangerous precedent for an erosion of our legal rights. CRT's new policies appear an attempt at gentrification of the liveaboard community under the guise of alleviating congestion.

CRT's CEO Richard Parry blames London’s housing crisis as the catalyst for congestion and cites increasing numbers of boaters migrating onto the canals for "cheap housing” as the main problem. But basic maths reveal that this cannot be the entire story. According to the "Friends of Regents Canal" group, there has been a 50% traffic increase of boats on London’s canals over the past 5 years. However residents in the area around Caledonian Road claim there is currently closer to a 300% increase.

This makes no sense until you look at the bigger picture. In 2012 the Olympics brought an exodus of boaters due to the closure of the entire Bow Back Rivers. To date these rivers have not been reopened to continuous cruisers. Since then moorings London-wide are being removed faster than they are replaced. There has been privatization of areas around Springfield and Broadway Market. Areas in Camden, Islington and Caledonian Road have had mooring rings removed. Spaces around Islington, Hackney and Little Venice have been limited to 7 day stays. Double mooring has been prohibited in some areas. Mooring rings lost through damage or deterioration do not get replaced and the space remains unavailable. There are no new waterpoints or trash/elsan dumping facilities. Furthermore vast areas of the canal are unavailable to boaters due to the lack of dredging which makes mooring impossible.

The problem is not one of space. London has 100 miles of towpath space. Additionally there is another 100 miles of private space on the other side of the canal (the offside). Cities like Hong Kong and Amsterdam make our canals seem empty. The problem is the lack of facilities and loss of mooring places. Understandably boaters tend to cluster in the more popular areas where there are mooring rings, waterpoints and trash/elsan dumping facilities.

But in their Operating Plan 2012-2015 we can see that Parry has allocated less than 1% of their budget to towpath expenditures and mooring rings. In contrast he is spending 18% on customer services and 12% to "Costs not attributed to other activities". Parry is allocating next to nothing to boater facilities whilst concurrently hiring more enforcement officers and PR staff.

Once the issue is examined more fully, a new picture begins to emerge. It then becomes clear that the problem is not newcomers seeking “cheap rent” but that London is severely lacking in facilities and maintenance. As usual the poor are scapegoated and left to take the blame. Parry’s answer to congestion is to hire more enforcement officers and strictly enforce the 14 day rule. But like a game of musical chairs, more movement does not create more places . What it does create is more wear and tear upon boat engines and locks, more use of fuel and more hardship on a demographic whose members are already stressed due to the ever diminishing places to moor.

There are many ways to provide cost effective incentive instead of expensive enforcement to encourage boaters to spread out and alleviate congestion.

⦁ Invest in waterpoints, mooring rings and dumping facilities in less popular areas
⦁ Dredge the canal in these areas.
⦁ Allow boaters longer stays in these areas.
⦁ Allow commercial service boats (who provide water, fuel, shopping, books, 2nd hand clothing, creches, laundry, etc. ) permanent stay in these areas. This would attract not only boats but the general public who would no doubt be attracted to the colorful floating boat markets.
⦁ Replace some enforcement officers with events co-ordinators to undertake fundraising for boater facilities.
⦁ Lower the fees demanded from private landlords of offside space. Currently CRT charges 50% of the cost of the next closest private marina (which they have a financial stake in) Were they to charge 10% there would be a lot more private landlords offering space. 10% of something would be better than the 50% of next to nothing which is what they currently receive.

Boats on the towpath create a safer environment for joggers, cyclist, walkers and other visitors. The police have confirmed that their presence deters crime. More boats bring more visitors and CRT desperately need more visitors. Last year CRT fell short of their new visitor targets as required for their government funding. But they could reach these targets simply by encouraging boaters to spread. So instead of demanding enforcement, enforcement and more enforcement, why does Parry not offer incentive, incentive and more incentive for boaters to spread out by providing mooring rings and waterpoints in the less popular areas?

Explanations given have been somewhat unconvincing. The presence of high power cabling under the towpath is often cited. But engineers deal regularly with high power lines under concrete. Another reason offered is that some paving stones have historical significance and are thus protected. But although this means increased bureaucracy, it hardly seems insurmountable.

Perhaps the more likely explanation can be found within the underlying financial issues and politics surrounding this "charitable trust". It has been reported that last year the money spent on fundraising exceeded what the actual proceeds were worth. Hence they are failing to justify their charitable status. CRT have been entrusted with the responsiblity of maintaining the canal for navigation. But their 2012-2015 financial account reveals that they are spending only 85% of the amount required to prevent the canals deteriorating as a "Steady State". Hence our waterways are currently deteriorating and will continue to do so until more money is acquired.

In contrast Richard Parry seems to spare no expense pretending to be a charity. Events have been organised and there is now a dedicated widebeam boat purporting to be aimed at "engaging the boating community". But upon closer inspection these turn out to be merely PR exercises aimed at recruiting volunteers to clean the canal. The cost of these activites exceeds that of simply hiring someone to drive one of CRT's expensive cleaning boats. These boats seem to spend most of their time stationary doing little more than taking up precious space. Our volunteer hours lend credence to CRT's charitable facade. Parry has concentrated efforts upon convincing us to volunteer at the expense of the job he has been entrusted with, which is to maintain the canal. It appears CRT not only want to kill us off, but they want us to dig our graves first.

Currently we continuous cruisers pay about £800 annually year for our license fees. The cost of a permanent mooring in London is a minimum of £9600 (plus license fees). Here we have the same space commanding 13 times the income. Hence it's easy to see why CRT might want to see continuous cruisers culled with most of the space converted to permanent moorings.

So has the congestion been deliberately engineered to force us into higher priced permanent moorings? Is it a clever tactic to generate more income? Has Parry deliberately neglected the canals with hopes he can get the work done by volunteers and lend credence to their raison d'etre as a charity? Why is Parry fueling congestion and pushing to redefine the law instead of simply providing incentive for boaters to spread? Is he deliberately engineering a divide in the community by pinning the blame for all of our ills on newcomers, the poor and vulnerable? Does Parry believe that quadrupling prices on a smaller more manageable number of boaters is the best way to maintain the canal or is it simply part of a wider political agenda?

Whatever his true motives these new policies have boaters pointing fingers at each other for "overstaying" or "not moving far enough". There is even talk of "naming and shaming" becoming regular practice on Facebook. But we must not allow CRT to divide the community. Many believe this new agreement is not targeted at them but at newcomers, trustafarians, cheap housing seekers, overstayers, lazy people or some other group they are not a member of. However the pressure won't end with these groups. Instead it will continue until CRT's shortfalls are covered.

Some boaters believe if they hang tight the newcomers will disappear and the canal will revert to how it was. Unfortunately once CRT has successfully quadrupled prices nothing will prevent them expanding the higher priced marina model. CRT needs income. Their facade as a charity is not working. The writing is on the wall. Unless boaters act now they will not only suffer a deterioration to their quality of life today, but also destroy it for future generations. Boaters cannot accept CRT's narrow interpretations of the 1995 act. For to do so would be to go down a slippery slope which is difficult to reverse. Should boaters accept their terms it will become the standard yardstick by which all will be judged in the courts.

Boaters are mistaken to believe "This won't affect me". AS a hybrid public charity and private company, CRT are a Tory pilot scheme which is being watched carefully by ministers. If successful we may be looking at the model for other public services throughout the UK. So far boaters have received no charity nor do we even reap the benefit of choice which we would expect from the private marketplace. Imagine the NHS as a "charitable trust" like CRT....perhaps they'll ask the public to "volunteer" clean up after heart operations?

As continuous cruisers perhaps the most defining characteristic we hold in common is our love for variety, change and freedom. But CRT's latest plan would turn us into cardboard cutouts moving through the canals as if on a factory floor. Not satisfied with the power to dictate the pace of our travels, CRT also seem to want to micromanage our travel plans by imposing minimum distances and patterns of movement. By attempting to rigidly interpret "bona fide for navigation" within a narrow spectrum, CRT are effectively engaging in a cleansing of untold numbers of boaters from the waters. Those that remain will be faced with substantially higher prices and more constrictive rules.

Boaters come in many sizes, shapes and flavors. Not all are independently wealthy, uber boaters with no ties to the land and perfect shiny boats. Liveaboard boating is a lifestyle choice not an olympic sport. We boaters must not tolerate the erosion of our rights. Once done, there is little chance of turning back the clock. Allow CRT to bully newcomers and tomorrow you're next.