Flotilla of protest against ‘water safety zones’ to sail from Walthamstow to Hackney Wick

Lee Navigation. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons.

A flotilla of protest will stretch from Walthamstow Marshes to Hackney Wick in June, as boaters continue to voice their concerns over plans for ‘water safety zones’ which they fear could displace families and livelihoods, “decimate boater culture, and force us off our boats.”

The so-called safety zones under consultation by the Canal & River Trust (CRT) would be designated areas of the waterway in Broxbourne and Hackney with additional signage and restrictions in palace, in response to what the CRT argue are safety issues being caused by “very high or competing waterway uses.”

However, the National Bargee Travellers Association (NBTA) has accused the CRT of using the question of safety for canal users as a “fig leaf” for a policy which they say lacks firm data and could have the greatest impact on families, who are more likely to double-moor boats together.

An NBTA spokesperson said: “They are limiting moorings in one of the safest stretches of the Lee, and forcing people into less habitable parts of the river. There are much higher crime rates north of Tottenham and south of Hackney Wick.

“It is a question of livelihoods, of people having their lives based in London. This policy essentially says the convenient and comfortable part of London is not for you. You need to shift yourselves out to the less comfortable parts.

“Because there appears to be no data to support the policy, we have to question the motivation behind the policy. We asked for the data six weeks ago and have received none. If the data supported the policy, why would they not use it to refute our claims? If the evidence isn’t there, what is the true rationale? It smacks of social cleansing. 

“We feel as if the question of safety is a fig leaf – a strategic argument that is hard to argue against.

“There is no contractual relationship between boaters and the CRT through which we can demand certain provisions. We can only make ethical arguments, as opposed to contractual arguments. We are appealing to moral authority.”

The flotilla, the second in three months with one already having taken place at Broxbourne in April, will see a large collection of boats moving down the canal towards the Wick, with music and chanting both in a celebration of boat culture and to draw attention to the issue.

A programme of further engagement through an independent facilitator aiming to “bring together different waterway stakeholders for an open and constructive discussion” was announced following the initial Broxbourne flotilla, with the NBTA accusing the CRT of being “disingenuous” to suggest that any consultation had taken place ahead of the announcement of the plans earlier in the year.

Responding to questions from the LDRS, the CRT pointed to the three-year old London Mooring Strategy as the first announcement of the safety zones plans, which it said “involved extensive stakeholder engagement over a two year period,” while accepting that many who now live on the water “may not have been involved in that process.” 

Responding to the charge of a lack of firm data backing up the policies, the Trust pointed to 28 serious on-water incidents which had taken place in 2019 according to the Lea Rowing Club’s incident reporting system.

The organisation also cited 90 safety incidents on the river across a three year period between 2016 and 2019 resulting in three injuries and twelve incidents of boat damage, according to the Broxbourne Rowing Club’s incident reporting system.

A CRT spokesperson also provided an anonymous quote of a boater who had been involved in an accident on an unknown date, which reads: “I saw a narrowboat moving in my direction. I was travelling on my station, to the bank side of centre. The narrowboat was also on my side of the river. 

“I yelled “Ahead!” and took evasive action towards the bank. My actions were not enough, and the narrowboat struck my sculling boat causing my boat to rotate violently clockwise so that it was at right angles to the narrowboat, being carried forward at speed. 

“My boat broke in two and I clung on to the front fender of the narrowboat. If I had not been strong enough to do so the outcome could have been even worse.”

When quizzed by the NBTA, through freedom of information requests on the methodology behind its data, as well as whether the number of rowers as opposed to boaters had increased along with the rowers’ involved training, experience and location on the canal at the time of incidents, the CRT responded that it did not hold this information.

An NBTA spokesperson added:  “It is shoddy and irresponsible policy-making. They haven’t investigated any of the incidents to understand contributory factors. And they haven’t sought low-impact solutions first. 

“We don’t even have any idea as to whether there is genuinely a problem. They have told us that there are ten incidents per year on average and yet they haven’t spoken to anyone involved to understand the conditions at the time.  Rather, they have impressionistically settled on a ‘solution’ that suits an existing agenda.”

Boaters are now accusing the CRT of carrying out a “land grab” with the safety zone policy, arguing that boaters themselves “made the canals nice for everyone,” with the policies being suggested an attempt to “capitalise on an asset that our community made valuable,” adding: “We think the long-term rationale behind this policy is to clear out the undesirables in order to monetise something that should be available to all.”

Quizzed about the potential disproportionate impact on families with children who may be forced to move by the policy, the CRT moved to reassure that “there will continue to be significant mooring and we do not believe anyone will be forced to move out of the area,” while accepting that those with wider boats would need to moor elsewhere “where they will not impede the navigation.”

A spokesperson said: “We appreciate that there is concern among some boaters on the river that the proposals will affect their ability to moor in popular areas. We are committed to preserving moorings where it is safe and appropriate to do so, and genuinely believe that the impact of the zones on mooring will be minimal.”

Responding to the NBTA’s charge that the policies are driven by prejudice against boaters, the CRT added: “We recognise that the proposed zones have led some boat owners to feel that their views or choice to live afloat is not respected by the Trust. This has not been our intention, we value liveaboard boaters equally with our other boaters and waterway users. 

“We will continue to seek to balance the interests of boat owners with those of rowers and other users and manage the water space safely. It is important that in the context of the growth of traffic on the river, we find ways to safely share the water space.

“We have committed to continue to engage with boat owners and other waterway users to make these busy parts of the river safer for everyone. We will be bringing together representatives of boating and other stakeholders from the Lee to discuss how the Water Safety Zone trial is taken forward.  This will provide an opportunity for all concerns and issues to be discussed in a constructive environment.”