The housing crisis no one's talking about: London's canals are getting dangerously over-crowded

Little Venice in 2011. Image: Getty.

When I moved on to a canal boat, 20 years ago this summer, it was not a particularly popular thing to do. The canal was sparsely populated and most London boaters had permanent moorings, which in my case meant mains electricity, a telephone line and cable TV.

This was the good life, living cheaply in central London in a fair degree of comfort, with long-term neighbours who provided the sort of ready-made community rarely found in central London, or indeed in any modern city.

The boating experience today can be very different. Urban canals are overcrowded and increasingly populated by transient communities. Some residents move between temporary moorings every two weeks and live in boats that often lack the most basic facilities, such as running water or heating. These aren’t far off being floating slums – yet another result of the housing crisis that has made living in a floating metal shack with no water the only affordable option for many.


I’m no longer a boater, and when I took a walk around the canal recently, I discovered that London’s canals have hundreds more boats than before, many in temporary moorings – constant cruisers that have to move every two weeks. Twenty years ago, you could walk from Little Venice to the Sainsbury’s at Kensal Green and barely see a moored boat. Now, they are two abreast almost the entire way, on both sides of the canal.

In Bow and Hackney, the overcrowding is extraordinary – every berth is filled by a bewildering array of boats, possessions spilling out over the towpath in a mess of wooden planks, oily rags, coal bags and disposable barbeques.

This is not going down well with locals. Anglers say the water is increasingly polluted by the washing up liquid, shampoo and soap (sinks and showers empty directly into the canal). Walkers say they can’t walk down the towpath without tripping over somebody’s belongings, or being knocked over by a boat-dwelling cyclist. Local residents complain of being choked by diesel fumes or kept awake by electricity generators.

Even older boaters bemoan the newcomers. “The newbies don’t understand the etiquette and bylaws, sometimes there are boats four or five deep,” said one. The speaker recently steered one of the big trip boats that take tourists and partygoers up and down the canal, and frequently found it impossible to manoeuvre thanks to poorly moored boats.

Nobody knows exactly how many boats have arrived in London in the last ten years but the number of constant cruisers is believed to be rising by 30 per cent each year; in parts of East London this can be closer to 90 per cent, as people buy boats in the Midlands and North and then relocate to the city.

The reasons why are pretty obvious – this is a cheap and fun way to live, especially if you are young and can handle the discomfort and uncertainty about where you will be living next week. But the Canal & River Trust are increasingly concerned, threatening crackdowns to ensure constant cruisers cruise constantly.

Regent's Canal, 2014. Image: Getty.

“In the last few years we have seen growth in numbers of people who don’t want to live outside of an area so choose not to move very far, which isn’t acceptable,” Richard Parry, chief executive of the CRT told the Financial Times last year. “It’s become a problem that impacts on the enjoyment of other users of the waterways.”

It is difficult for the CRT to enforce the constant cruising 14-day regulation. But nonetheless boaters, who feel they have solved the problem of London housing, fear increased rates or having their licences removed. All along the canal, notes are taped to windows explaining that a boat has overstayed its 14-day welcome because of engine problems or missing parts.

And this points to the thing that really astonished me about so many boats: they were in appalling condition. I spoke to people – some with small children – living on boats that had no beds, running water, heating, fridges, cooking facilities, working engines or electricity. Boaters seemed blasé about this, but I was shocked – as an ex-boater I’ve gone without hot water or a cooker for a few months, but never seen anything on this scale. For some, the boat was clearly just a floating shell that protected them from the elements and gave them a place to sleep and keep their belongings. They moved around the network every two weeks, trying to stay within easy distance of work or schools, but unable to put down any permanent roots and living without the sort of basic requirements most of us take for granted like heating or water.

Boating has always required a certain degree of weathering hardship, but this was another level. And as more and more inexperienced, already impoverished people are forced on to boats, it’s going to get worse. 

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More than 830 cities have brought essential services back under public control. Others should follow

A power station near Nottingham: not one owned by Robin Hood Energy, alas, but we couldn't find anything better. Image: Getty.

The wave of cities worldwide rejecting privatization is far bigger and more successful than anyone thought, according to a new report from the Transnational Institute, Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation. Some 835 cities in 45 countries have brought essential services like water, energy and health care back under public control.

The persistent myth that public services are by nature more expensive and less efficient is losing its momentum. Citizens and users do not necessarily have to resign to paying increasingly higher tariffs for lower standard services. The decline of working conditions in public services is not an inevitability.

And the ever larger role private companies have played in public service delivery may at last be waning. The remunicipalisation movement – cities or local authorities reclaiming privatised services or developing new options – demonstrates that cities and citizens are working to protect and reinvent essential services.

The failure of austerity and privatisation to deliver promised improvements and investments is part of the reason this movement has advanced. But the real driver has been a desire to meet goals such as addressing climate change or increasing democratic participation in service provision. Lower costs and tariffs, improved conditions for workers and better service quality are frequently reported following remunicipalisation.  Meanwhile transparency and accountability have also improved.

Where remunicipalisation succeeds, it also tends to inspire other local authorities to make similar moves. Examples are plentiful. Municipalities have joined forces to push for renewable, climate-friendly energy initiatives in countries like Germany. Public water operators in France and Catalonia are sharing resources and expertise, and working together to overcome the challenges they meet.

Outside Europe, experiments in public services are gaining ground too. Delhi set up 1,000 Mohalla (community) clinics across the city in 2015 as a first step to delivering affordable primary health care. Some 110 clinics were working in some of the poorest areas of Delhi as of February 2017. The Delhi government claims that more than 2.6m of its poorest residents have received free quality health care since the clinics were set up.


Local authorities and the public are benefiting from savings too. When the Nottingham City Council found out that many low-income families in the city were struggling to pay their energy bills, they set up a new supply company. The company, Robin Hood Energy, which offers the lowest prices in the UK, has the motto: “No private shareholders. No director bonuses. Just clear transparent pricing.”

Robin Hood Energy has also formed partnerships with other major cities. In 2016, the city of Leeds set up the White Rose Energy municipal company to promote simple no-profit tariffs throughout the Yorkshire and Humberside regions. In 2017, the cities of Bradford and Doncaster agreed to join the White Rose/Robin Hood partnership.

Meanwhile, campaigners with Switched on London are pushing their city to set up a not-for-profit energy company with genuine citizen participation. The motivations in these diverse cities are similar: young municipal companies can simultaneously beat energy poverty and play a key role in achieving a just and renewable energy transition.

Remunicipalised public services often involve new forms of participation for workers and citizens. Remunicipalisation is often a first step towards creating the public services of the future: sustainable and grounded in the local economy. Inspiration can be found in the European towns and villages aiming for 'zero waste' with their remunicipalised waste service, or providing 100 per cent locally-sourced organic food in their remunicipalised school restaurants.

Public services are not good simply because they are not private. Public services must also continuously renew themselves, grow, innovate and recommit to the public they serve.

The push for remunicipalisation in Catalonia, for example, has come from a movement of citizen platforms. For them, a return to public management is not just an end in itself, but a first step towards the democratic management of public services based on ongoing civil participation.

Evidence is building that people are able to reclaim public services and usher in a new generation of public ownership. The momentum is building, as diverse movements and actors join forces to bring positive change in communities around the world.

You can read the Transnational Institute report, “Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation”, on its website.