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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Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.


A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.