Boat dwellers are fighting back against threats to ‘cull’ and destroy their homes

Houseboats on London canal

Boat-dwellers in and around London are facing a new threat to their way of life. A charity claiming to promote “wellbeing” on the waterways has threatened people’s homes and very existence, in what boat-dwellers have called a “cull”.

This is yet another attack on people who live nomadic lives.

Continuous cruisers

At least 15,000 people live on boats on England’s canals and waterways, although other estimates place this as high as 50,000. Most don’t have a permanent mooring, as these are both expensive and limited. Prices in London, for example, soared by 89% in 2019. As gentrification creeps further, canals and rivers are turning into a “leisure pied-à-terre for rich people”. The added twist of the knife is that many people live on boats because rising rents and house prices have pushed greater numbers towards alternative, nomadic, ways of living,

Most inland boat-dwellers pay an annual fee for a licence from the Canal and River Trust (CRT) under the agreement that they move every 14 days – this is known as continuous cruising. But a statement from the National Bargee Travellers Association (NBTA) suggests the CRT looks set to “target boaters without a home mooring… and reduce their numbers”. NBTA explains that a 2020 survey implied “that there are too many of us” and asked “leading questions”. CRT “is proposing changes” to licences that each boat needs, “otherwise it can be seized”. NBTA also explained:

For people who live on boats, these proposed changes vastly increase the risk that their boat licence could be terminated, leading to the seizure, craning out and destruction of their home. We depend on the waterways for our homes and these proposed changes, which will affect some 80% of the UK’s inland waterways, will have a significant and far-reaching effect on us.

According to NBTA, while CRT is a registered charity, it has continued to marginalise and label “boaters without a home mooring as a problem”. This, it feels, is to “cover up their continuing incompetence” maintaining London waterways.

Mere vermin”

CRT claims to make people “feel happier and healthier” around waterways and promotes “wellbeing” for all. However, boat-dwellers tell a different story. NBTA argues that CRT “revels in its success in making the waterways more popular while undermining the wellbeing of boaters”, and it continued:

The increase in boats in the last 20 years has turned the London network from little more than a ditch no one wanted to go near to a vibrant and colourful space, despite the attempts of the navigation authorities and not because of them. This is the wrong kind of popularity it appears; and so boaters, and especially those without a home mooring, will have to pay a price.

In 2018, CRT promised improved facilities and an increase in moorings as part of a London Mooring Strategy (LMS). According to NBTA, CRT failed to implement most of these proposals yet it launched another consultation just two years later. This, CRT claimed, was the result of increased numbers of boats over the past ten years. It also blamed liveaboards for placing “significant… pressure on mooring space, infrastructure and facilities, which were not designed to support this amount or type of use”. Yet, according to NBTA, “the increase in boats is actually slowing”. It also stated:

To CRT, the continuous cruisers of London are mere vermin standing in the way of their attempts to gentrify the canals and monetise the towpaths.

Stop the boat cull!

The attack on London boat-dwellers is well underway. On 17 April, protesters from around London gathered by the Lea River at Broxbourne to protest CRT’s latest “discriminatory policy”.  A petition to “Stop the London boat cull!” explains that CRT plans to implement a “10km ‘water safety zone’”, claiming this will “keep rowers safe”. This will lead to the loss of “up to 400 boat moorings from East London and 150 moorings from Broxbourne”.  But allegedly CRT didn’t carry out a full consultation with boaters and consulted no “stakeholders other than the rowing clubs”. 

CRT, meanwhile, has since acknowledged objections raised by boat dwellers, insisting: “we
value liveaboard boaters equally with our other boaters and waterway users”. However, the safety zones (intended to start in May) limit double moorings in the area, and CRT has threatened boat-dwellers’ licences if they “ignore the restrictions”.

Yet, according to NBTA, the loss of these mooring spaces “will force people into remote and unsafe areas with fewer facilities and no access to schools for those with children, making their lives unworkable”.

Boaters say CRT failed to provide satisfactory evidence to support these changes. They’ve been “left to conclude” that CRT’s motivation for these “manoeuvres” stems from:

underlying prejudice against nomadic communities and that this prejudice will have dire consequences for the London boating community.

The next protest will take place on 8 May at Walthamstow Marshes.

Protect boats that are people’s homes!

In January 2021, CRT published its first report following an “initial engagement phase”. This, it insisted, engaged with “boaters, other waterway users, and other key stakeholders including people living close to the waterways, London Boroughs and the Mayor of London”.

However, a coalition of boat dwellers, including NBTA and “other support organisations”, is currently fundraising for a legal appeal to challenge the consultation process and proposed changes to licences. A letter to CRT’s chief executive Richard Parry notes serious failings in the consultation process. In particular, it points to significant legal breaches (including the Human Rights Act) and the online nature of the consultation.

A significant number of Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller (GRT) communities (which includes boat dwellers) are digitally excluded. Many lack internet access, others face “grave difficulties in dealing with anything online”Completing the consultation was made even more difficult as it launched (and closed) during lockdown, so there was no access to libraries or cafes with internet.

Discrimination

Boat dwellers face other forms of discrimination. A recent report from Friends, Families and Travellers also highlights significant health inequalities linked to nomadic life on the water. Although boaters are a diverse group, common challenges include:

no fixed address resulting in wrongful registration refusal in primary care services; difficulty accessing relevant services whilst travelling; low income and difficulty obtaining benefits; unhealthy and unsafe living conditions; and discrimination from the general population.

People living on boats are classed as a cultural minority – as opposed to other GRT groups who are ethnic minorities. As the report notes, the boat dwelling community includes large numbers of people “priced out of local housing”, many over retirement age and large numbers of people who were formerly homeless and often rough sleeping.

We’re “going to fight back”

A short film called Off the Cut highlights not only the devastating implications of CRT’s power to withdraw licences but also the lack of clarity from CRT itself about continuous cruising. It also demonstrates that these threats extend beyond London, affecting boaters on the Kennet and Avon Canal.

The film shows an increase in the use of Section 8 (British Waterways Act 1983). This enables CRT to remove boats it deems “sunk, stranded, abandoned or unlawfully moored on our waterways”. Section 13 (British Waterways Act 1971) meanwhile gives powers to remove / demolish boats without a licence.

These CRT threats to continuous cruisers also come alongside the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSCB) which attacks the very right to exist for most GRT communities. The PCSCB contains similarly chilling increases in state powers to seize and destroy peoples homes.

From the roads to the rivers, nowhere and no one is safe from attack in 2021.

But solidarity is growing around the country among all GRT communities to challenge these new laws. As two boat dwellers explain:

We won’t just be ridden over roughshod.
People aren’t going to let Canal and River Trust deprive them of their homes. They’re going to fight back.

Main image by Rosie Hughes, used with permission