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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Why aren’t working class people living in cities also “left behind”?

The metropolitan elite. Image: Getty.

If you have hammer, everything’s a nail. The hammer for much of Britain’s political class and commentators is Brexit, which is meant to explain everything from social mobility to the north-south divide to attitudes to immigration to public transport investment.

However, a huge amount is lost in this sort of analysis. One particular casualty is our understanding of working-class communities. This is particularly striking in the presentation of London as being a Remain stronghold inhabited by metropolitan elites.

In fact, the reality is that working class communities, especially in cities, have been just as “left behind” as those elsewhere in the UK. Even 72 people dying in the Grenfell Tower tragedy, a preventable fire which happened within sight of Parliament, hasn’t dislodged the dominant narrative of London as a leafy cosmopolitan elite bubble.

The lazy and reductive “London is cosmopolitan elite” narrative extends well beyond the far right. This shorthand gathers into one category people who have a second home in Provence, and outsourced gig economy workers who live in Hackney. By flattening such diversity into catch-all terms, we erase the existence of working class Londoners, ethnic minorities and migrants.

The facts are stark – London has some of the highest poverty, highest pollution, and largest working class community in all of the UK. Seven of the top 11 local authorities in terms of child poverty are in London, while the capital records the highest level of air pollution in the country.

Yet the statistics are airily dismissed because a majority London residents voted Remain in the EU referendum – and remainers, of course, are all elite, especially if they live in London. By such magic thinking, three in four black people in Britain become elite because they voted to remain in the EU, a point that should perhaps give pause to even the doughtiest proponent of the everything-is-Brexit theory.

Despite our national obsession about class, Britain already had an impoverished understanding and narrative on the topic even before Brexit. Why aren’t the ethnic minority and migrant people who live in tower blocks and experience disproportionate levels of child poverty (rising to 59 per cent for Bangladeshi children) viewed as working class? Why aren’t those living in cities, or who die in preventable fires also “left behind”?

One answer is it doesn’t suit a narrative that wants to make everything about Brexit, and that only addresses class when the context is Brexit. Another is that recognising that many ethnic minorities are also working-class is not helpful when your aim is to prosecute a different argument: that Britain needs “tougher” immigration policies.

At its most extreme, this argument ties into the longstanding narrative that only white people can be British or live in Britain. Of course, this is a narrative that divides working class communities and blames ethnic minorities and migrants for all of society’s ills.

It also has a direct policy effect. It is easier to justify cuts to public services if expenditure on those services is associated with “undeserving scroungers” who don’t really count as fellow citizens.

Recent research published by the Runnymede Trust and the Centre for Labour and Social Studies shows the wider effects of this narrative. The report’s title “We Are Ghosts” are the words of Henry, a working-class Londoner in his ‘60s living in Southwark and capture a wider sense of precariousness, neglect and lack of voice in the face of London’s ongoing gentrification.

Henry happens to be white – but his experience of injustice and prejudice is shared by people of colour interviewed for the same research. Where people engaged with public services, especially housing, policing and social care, they felt treated with indignity and indifference.

Decades of blaming the poor and migrant has led to a punitive culture within our public services which affects all working-class people, white or otherwise, as they see their voices and needs  being routinely ignored.

This is one reason why we need more locally devolved services: to strengthen working class, BME and migrant voices. Terms like “co-production” may sound thinktanky, but the aim is a democratic one: to ensure that those most affected by a service – such as housing services – or decision actually have a say in how that service is delivered.

Devolution isn’t just about putting more power in local rather than national government; it’s also about devolving power more directly to people, through community organisations and charities that are often better placed to represent and understand local needs and experiences.

The British working class has been multi-ethnic for centuries. Working class communities aren’t the same everywhere but they do experience the shared conditions of lack of resources, and lack of voice or power.

By always foregrounding Brexit when we talk about class, we not only miss these shared conditions among working class people across the UK, but deflect from the solutions that might actually address them.

If we’re serious about actually tackling race and class inequalities and prejudice, we need to put down the Brexit – or any other – hammer. Instead we need to change how we think and talk about race and class, invest more in the safety net, and redesign public services to provide those using them with greater dignity, voice and power.

Dr Omar Khan is director of the Runnymede Trust