News / 15 December, 2014

No moor room: canal boat families fight for their own stretch of water on River Lea

Hackney Boating Families seek to create ‘community moorings’ in Lower Clapton

Members of Hackney Boating Families: Cecilia Bonilla and Jason Makepeace. with Laser, Agatha and Santia. Photograph: Eleonore de Bonneval

It is not just a cheap way out of the housing crisis,” says Damian Walsh as he points towards the linear village of canal boats snaking up the River Lea towards Stratford on a damp wintry morning.

“If you get it wrong, you’re sitting round a candle with no power or walking down the towpath with wheelbarrows full of wet logs.”

Damian lives on ‘June’ a lovingly restored wide-beam canal boat currently moored in Hackney, with his partner Giuilia Di Patrizi and their 6-year-old son Morgan.

They are part of Hackney Boating Families, a group of seven ‘continuous crusier’ boats holding licences which mean the boats must be moved every 14 days.

Once content with this nomadic lifestyle, these boaters are now seeking to create a community moorings – a home moorings managed as a cooperative – on the River Lea.

The group made an application in June to moor permanently on the offside (non-towpath) of a stretch of river at the bottom of Daubeney Road in Lower Clapton.

The land is owned by Hackney Council and the water by the Canal and River Trust (CRT) – the year-old charity which controls over 2,000 miles of waterways in England and Wales.

But the application has made little progress. The CRT says the site is already being bid for by another group, Daubeney Green Mooring Project, but Hackney Boating Families claim the CRT is “dragging its heels” and that communication has broken down.

Damian Walsh on his boat ‘June’ currently moored in Lower Clapton. Photograph: Eleonore de Bonneval

Damian Walsh on his boat ‘June’. Photograph: Eleonore de Bonneval

Figures by the CRT show that since 2011 the numbers of boats without home mooring has doubled on Regent’s Canal alone. In 2011 there were 120, in March this year it surpassed 250.

CRT’s London Liaison Officer Sorwar Ahmed says the increase in boaters is putting undue pressure on waterways “not really designed to accommodate floating communities”.

The families say the increase in boaters has brought stricter enforcement of the 14 day rule. Jason Makepeace, a seasoned boater with over 10 years experience said the authorities used to be “far more lenient”.  “I need a space to moor my boat, where I don’t keep getting text messages from CRT telling me to move on,” he said.

Boating groups have also criticised the CRT for their “aggressive” enforcement. Pamela Smith, chair of The National Boating Travellers Assocation said that Hackney Boating Families should not be “harassed into taking permanent moorings”.

Canal children

Raising children on a floating home is not easy at the best of times but constantly moving the boats makes life difficult for families with children who need to attend school.

“Don’t let the heat out”, instructs Giuilia Di Patrizi as she ushers me into her boat. She explains that having nowhere to moor makes family life hard.

“Hackney Wick was tough,” she says, “There was only one small supermarket, expensive cafes where two pancakes cost £14, noisy late night canal-side bars and a lack of facilities”.

Cecilia Bonilla and her daughter Agatha. Photograph: Eleonore de Bonneval

The crackdown on continuous cruisers has contributed to higher-than-ever demand for permanent moorings – and in a crowded market, they’re not cheap. The CRT sells its mooring vacancies to the highest bidder through an auction system.

Ian Shacklock, Chair of Friends of Regent’s Canal said he was “horrified” when he found out how the moorings were allocated: “Apparently anyone can just wade in with enough money and gazump the others. It will come down to who will pay more.”

Word on the Water, London’s only floating bookshop, recently lost out on a home moorings near Paddington in favour of an application from wealthy real estate company British Land.

A canal boat in front of Daubeney Fields where the boaters hope to secure a moorings. Photograph: Eleonore de Bonneval

Sorwar Ahmed said that while the CRT wants to find ways of embracing proposals like that of Hackney Boating Families, at the moment it “cannot differentiate” between social and commercial projects.

Down on the Lea, the boating group feel that the CRT is struggling between its new identity as a charity and its more familiar guise as a transport authority responsible for issuing notices, fixing leaks and mending bridges.

The charity says its priority is to continue to “make the experience of living on the canal and using the waterways as good as can be.” But, adds Ahmed, “we are not a housing authority and housing is not one of our charitable objectives”.

“Yes, to some extent the facilities haven’t kept pace, but to what extent should all these facilities be keeping up with demand when actually it is a housing need, not a boating need per se?”

However, the boaters are unconvinced. “They look me in the eye and say ‘we are an environmental charity, we are not landlords’,  says Giuilia, poking her head through the hatch on her barge, “but is this is so then why is the nearest rubbish bin in Hackney Wick?”

“The canals are filthy. The seaweed will wrap around your propeller, there are sofas, springs, car seats, large saris… the amount of rubbish is insane. You only want to provide services fine, provide them.”

Giulia insists that collateral damage of an oversaturated houseboat market will fall on the CRT regardless:

“The CRT are going to have to face the problem as lots of new families are going on to the river. Their answer can not just be ‘tough luck’.”

/ 15 December, 2014
  • Theresa

    These canals were not built for homes. Why complain about rubbishs bins and expensive cafes? Go somewhere else. Where did you come from? the canal used to be peace and quiet, now these filthy things are making thE water even more dirty.

  • Tam

    Theresa I don’t think you’ve understood the context of the comments made. Boaters pay a license fee to the CRT (which makes up a huge amount of CRT’s income) and the provision of facilities is included in that fee. This is not something that has been upheld whereas they are still issuing new licenses without providing more services.
    This part of towpath has been bickered over for the last few years. I tried to moor there and was shoo-ed away by someone playing saxophone loudly and badly.
    From being a community this area has become a squatting point. I can understand it’s difficult to have a family on the canal but this shouldn’t take precedence over other boaters.

  • London boater

    Surely all boaters should be working together to secure better rights rather than dividing into small groups.

    I am really concerned that these people imply they deserve special/extra rights over other boaters who don’t have children.

  • I don’t understand this. These people they have a CCers licence so they don’t have to buy a mooring else where. A condition of the licence is that they move on every 14 days. Their circumstances change so they expect CRT to change their rules, rules which are enshrined in Law (1995 Act). It is not CRTs problem. Why should these families be singled out for preferential treatment. As soon as this one ‘community’ is established it will open the flood gates and The River Lea will become one big floating housing estate.

  • Sorwar Ahmed is not as informed as he should be… CRT has, as one of its charitable objects, to promote the use of boats that are lived on. CRT may not be a housing authority but it is a de facto landlord. Its own data indicates that there are many thousands of people living on their boats within its jurisdiction.
    London is not overcrowded – but there are “hot spots” with congestion. This is caused in particular by long lengths of towpath-side that is not dredged properly and of which the towpath has been concreted over but no mooring rings put in. Both of these prevent mooring: if rings had been put in and dredging was done effectively then the congestion even at “hot spots” would dissipate. The Lee (where the Hackney Boating Families want to establish the moorings) is not one of these. There is no question that CRT always want the highest bidder to come home but in fact CRT wants all live-aboard boaters gone from London. This is well known within the boater’s groups that support live-aboard boaters. Finally Pamela Smith is the Chair of the National Bargee Travellers Association (NBTA). I am the Secretary.

  • Mary D’Angelo

    Hold on. Isn’t this a lifestyle choice? These people have chosen to live on thier boats as continuous cruisers. The rules say that you can only stay on a mooring for 14 days. That is a licence condition so they know what they were letting themselves in for. There are huge numbers of boats looking around to find somewhere to moor for 14 days – and plenty of them with families and/or social need. So what happens here is a whole stretch of canal is effectively privatised and becomes unavailable to other boaters? And please why are people blaming the CRT? They are not landlords, they are not a housing authority, they are a charity that maintains the waterways for all boater and the general public. If you have a housing need, go get a house.

  • Mary D’Angelo

    I’m sorry Hackney Wick is tough for these families and that pancakes come in at £14 a pop. Maybe they should console themselves in the fact that they don’t pay council tax and have their children educated for free.

  • Mary makes an interesting point about council tax…

    Council tax makes up less than 50% of the councils income.

    Council tax is not the only source of funding for local services and facilities.

    A narrow boat would only class as a Band A property. Formal agreement for residential moorings would be subject to council tax…

  • Mary D’Angelo

    I agree with your point Skippy. I guess any residential mooring would attract the tax whether or not it is run by a ‘community’ or not. My point is though that here we have a group of people who’s lives are changing. They are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain their boating lifestyle with the requirement to give their children a decent quality of life. So their answer is to privatise a stretch of canal (the words ‘family’ and ‘community’ are there just to dress it up) – so that they can have a residential mooring and escape the enforcement of continual cruising that CRT have a duty to perform The council tax point is just an illustration of their middle class hypocrisy.

  • Mark

    A few points I would like to make.
    1 a percentage of the licence fee go’s toward council tax.
    2 working boats which the canals were built for were also people’s homes.
    3 there is no legally defined distance you have to move after 14 days.

    It would be nice if people found a balanced view
    10 years ago these stretches of the river were no go zones and have been made a safer place only by the boating cumminty now on the river.
    Also the lower lea is one of the filthiest rivers in Europe and this is the responsibility of CRT to keep clean, blaming boats for the mess is quite misquided.

  • Ian McDowell

    Statutory education is funded from central funds, not council tax. to imply that people who do not pay CT are getting a “free” education for their children is a herring of the reddest tint.

  • No matter how hard I try (I am not changing my name to starbucks) I have yet to find a way to avoid income tax or VAT.

  • Joe wright

    Theresa ,what makes your lifestyle any more valid than these peoples,I don’t know where you live but what about knocking it down and building a nice peaceful park there?

  • Roger

    CRT operate in a perfectly open and reasonable manner. The choice is with the boater. No one is allowed to moor anywhere on their system for more than 14 days unless it is on a permanent/approved/paid for mooring site. If boaters decide not to have a permanent mooring, they are issued with a ‘continuous cruising’ licence. This requires them to be undertaking a bonafide continuous journey around the system. In the winter CRT offer such boaters the option of taking ‘paid for’ winter mooring in certain identified places.
    The choice is theirs. Pay for a permanent mooring, [of which there are some vacant in the CRT London Region] or keep moving every 14 days, as their licence terms require.

  • Gareth

    What’s the difference between boaters who hang around for months – or even years – at one spot despite having only a 14-day continuous cruiser licence, and a bunch of ‘travellers’ who set up camp on a farmer’s field uninvited and are still there a year later? I’ve every respect – and a certain envy for! – people who want to lead a nomadic life; just as long as they do so, and actually travel. If these boaters aren’t very careful they’ll find themselves going the same way as the much-maligned, genuine travelling people did in this country, and being legislated out of existence.

  • We’re more than happy to work with Hackney Boating Families, it’s simply that another group (which also wants to create community moorings) got in touch with us here at the Trust about this specific location first, so we are working with them. But we’re definitely happy to look at other options with Hackney Boating Families.

    Also, just to clarify, none of the boat licence fee goes towards council tax – this is a common misconception.

  • John

    By way of disclosure, I own a CRT-licensed canal boat which is in a paid mooring.

    If the rules were to be changed for this group (which I don’t believe they should), the rules would have to changed for everyone. And if the rules were to be changed for everyone, there would be no motivation to have a paid mooring and it would be chaos on the canal system.

    With all of that said, the CRT needs to step-up and really define the rules for continuous cruisers. The CRT must decide what distance they need to travel after leaving a 14 day mooring (i.e., five miles) as well as the period of time they must wait before returning to a previous mooring (i.e., three months). If you have elected to be a continuous cruiser, you need to be continuously cruising.

  • Mary D’Angelo

    Mark: you are wrong. No percentage of council tax goes to the CRT as Sorwar has said. Secondly you make an assertion that 10 years ago the canals were no-go zones and now they are safer.

    Where is your evidence for that? Please point me to somewhere online where there are some comparative figures.

    Thirdly yes there is a responsibility for CRT to keep the water clean as much as there is a responsibility for polluters not to pollute.

    I guess if people actually stopped dumping cooking oil and who knows what in the river you would have no complaint.

    And also what sort of a boating community do you mean? From Bow to Tottenham all I see is a load of floating junkyards.

  • PeterScott

    I agree with John “If you have elected to be a continuous cruiser, you need to be continuously cruising.” The maximum 14-day mooring is ONE of the requirements signed-up-to by those applying for a licence-without-mooring: they also agree to be doing a proper journey around the waterways network during the year.

    Had a (summertime) conversation with a new boat-licence-holder heading for London with boat: “choice was between boat and motor home. But you can’t park a motorhome in someone else’s front-drive or in the council-carpark next-to-the-shops, because you will soon get moved on”. Boater also had a school-age child, and had an understanding of impossibility of schooling from a motorhome-within-the-rules, but not of the similar difficulties from a mooring-less boat. _sigh_

  • Ian McDowell

    John, they are not officially called Continuous Cruisers anymore, so there goes that.
    I don’t believe that CaRT have the power to define “place”, so it follows that they cannot demand a minimum distance between 14 day stints. Furthermore, I don’t believe that the Act demands that boaters without a home mooring actually cruise the whole system!
    Why don’t you ring CaRT and tell them what the minimum distance and no return rules should be? Ask for the “Boaters with moorings who feel hard done by because they pay for a mooring” department. You might be on hold for a little while.

  • Mary D’Angelo

    Ian, Im sure that the CRT are utterly cowed by the non-legality of 14 day stints or cruising the system and that is why they are obviously not doing anything at all anywhere about enforcing their rules.

  • Ian McDowell

    Mary, please take the time to actually read what I said. No mention of “non legality” of 14 day stint. Please don’t put words into my mouth.

  • Kate

    The river was always going to be a short-term solution to the housing crisis. The amount of space is limited, especially if people’s original motivation was to find a cheap way to stay in central London. It’s a sympathetic article, but I can also see the point of those who characterise this as privatising the river bank along the Lea.


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