The number of Londoners choosing to live on the water in mobile homes is rising. Whilst total house boat numbers have remained more or less static since 2012, the number of boats without a home mooring, the so-called “continuous cruisers”, has grown year on year – in part a response to property prices that are increasingly out of reach. Last year Greater London saw a 34 per cent increase in continuous cruisers, bringing the total in England and Wales to 4,904.
Under the terms of the 1995 British Waterways Act, a boat without a home mooring must move location every 14 days and be used “bona fide for navigation.” It is a licence that recognises that the canals have been used for hundreds of years by working, migrant families.
But recently the Canal and River Trust (CRT), the authority that manages 2,200 miles of the waterways in England and Wales, announced new plans to crack down on those boats without home moorings that it deems to be violating their licence by not moving “far enough or often enough”.
There is nothing in the Act that defines how far a boat should move, or how long a boat must remain away from one place before returning. As such, many continuous cruisers who live aboard move just far enough to keep their place of work, their children’s' school and their community within reach.
Journeys are dictated by the water-points and other amenities where boaters fill their tanks and empty their toilets, and the fortnightly navigation can take several hours, with queues for locks and other facilities. It can be a tough existence, especially in winter; but the freedom of the lifestyle, with a strong community at its heart, has made it an attractive option, particularly in cities where high rents and the anonymity of neighbours feel increasingly oppressive
CRT have long debated the interpretation of the phrase “bona fide for navigation”. Analysis carried out several years ago by British Waterways, as CRT was known before 2012, showed that half of continuous cruisers on the canals moved between two points less than 10km apart over the course of their annual licence. CRT's proposed minimum distance of 30km was dropped in response to these findings, as it was seen to be unrealistic to place half of all boats into the enforcement process. In the same document, then head of boating Sally Ash admitted that setting a minimum distance would be an overreaching of their powers.
Now, however, the Trust is looking to bring in the 30km target all the same. On 6 March, a day after saying that no such document existed, the Trust published an article on their website under the heading “How far is far enough?”. In it, it stipulated that “it is very unlikely that someone would be able to satisfy us that they have been genuinely cruising if their range of movement is less than 15-20 miles [24-32km] over the period of their licence. In most cases we would expect it to be greater than this.” Pamela Smith, of the National Bargee Travellers' Association (NBTA), who represent the interests of boat dwellers, called such a specification of distance “unlawful”.
Richard Parry, CEO of the Canal and River Trust, says that the authority has a responsibility to be enforcing the laws of the waterways; complaints about congestion on certain parts of the system, in particular in London, have brought the need to take action to a head. Smith disagrees. “There's enough space for everybody,” she says. “Just because there are more boats in a place than there used to be, people react as if there's enormous congestion, and there isn't.”
"Issues around provision of housing are not our responsibility. It would be a mistake for us to step into that space."
If and where congestion is a problem, she says, it would be better solved by shoring up collapsed banks, and putting extra mooring rings into towpaths, allowing boats to spread out. (A lot of these rings were lost when banks were concreted over to lay fibre-optic cables several years ago.) Many feel the increase in boats has brought the waterways back to life, clearing them of rubbish and making the towpath a safe place to walk at night.
Nonetheless, as of May, boaters who fail to satisfy CRT that they have been genuinely cruising will be refused a renewal of their licence, unless they take up a residential mooring. But permanent moorings in London, which can cost 10 times more than a continuous cruising licence, are hard to find – especially ones which have the planning permission required for boaters to live on their craft year round.
CRT’s Parry accepts that there are “issues” with such a policy – “but that's the landscape as it stands. You can't uninvent that by asserting that you want it to be different, any more than you can say, 'I wish that it was cheaper to buy a house in London, or I wish I could get a better paid job.'”
If boats are being used as a response to the housing crisis, says Parry, it is not CRT's concern. “Issues around provision of housing are not our responsibility. It would be a mistake for us to step into that space.” He suggests that if people are finding it problematic in London then they might think about taking their boat elsewhere.
Yet many continuous cruisers, some of whom have lived on the water for decades, are worried that they are facing eviction, with little idea of what they need to do to satisfy CRT's requirements. Whilst the 15-20 mile target on the website gives some indication, it remains unclear what pattern of movement is expected within these parameters, or indeed what counts as far enough.
“I'm telling you that we believe, clearly, that it has to be more than 15 to 20 miles,” Parry has said. “How much more we'll be debating forever.” But such distances will make it increasingly difficult to maintain ties with work, school and community on land.
And an open letter published by the National Association of Boat Owners has claimed that many of its members are being alienated by CRT's communication strategy. One extract reads:
A typical comment we have received is: 'I'm not against the rules for [Continuous Cruising] or CRT trying to enforce them, but they really do not have the information to make fair and reasonable decisions, and there is a lot of assumption where there are gaps in the data. I suspect many people who are following the rules will end up with enforcement notices due to the enforcement attitude which appears to be guilty unless proven innocent.'
“This is all a completely manufactured problem,” says the NBTA’s Smith. “CRT has sufficient enforcement powers to stop boats overstaying in one place. It could just enforce the 14 day rule fairly and consistently, making it clear that repeated overstaying without good reason could lead to non renewal, without any threats about terminating a licence if you don't travel far enough, and not telling you what far enough is.”
Parry says that boaters who enter into a dialogue with CRT find that they have nothing to fear, and that many boaters have welcomed these attempts at clarification. But Smith describes boaters as being “frightened and panicked”, and a petition against CRT's proposed enforcement has gathered almost 15,000 signatures. “I feel worried about my future living situation,” said Ulli, a musician who has lived on the canals for five years. “I want to protect and support the life on the rivers and the tradition of continuous cruising, but I find that CRT does not prioritise this huge part of UK history. They only see it as a problem.”
Another boater, who asked to remain anonymous, described the stance as “threatening and vague.” “I don't understand what the problem is,” he said. “In Amsterdam it's seen as a tourist attraction and a way of life. Here they are just trying to get rid of us.”
Adam Weymouth is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in wide variety of newspapers and magazines, including The Guardian, The Atlantic and Lacuna. He lives on a boat on the River Lea. His website is here.
This article was amended on 19 March to correct Sally Ash's job title.