The Canal & River Trust: the local council hiding in charity’s clothing

A boat! Image: Brian Robert Marshall via Creative Commons.

Earlier this year, a 67-year-old pensioner and his dog were made homeless after being turfed out of their houseboat on east London’s River Lea. The man, known locally as Slow Tony, was relatively fortunate: his community rallied and crowdfunded for a new boat.

But not all such cases have a happy ending. In 2013, a mentally ill woman was missing for weeks after being evicted from her houseboat, before eventually resurfacing living in a tent. The National Bargee Travellers Association (NBTA), an organisation that often works with vulnerable boaters, did not wish to go into detail of the woman’s case, but told CityMetric: “It did not end well”.

Both she and Slow Tony had failed to keep up to date with their licence fee payments to the Canal & River Trust (CRT), a charity that has reluctantly become a de-facto council for a large number of live-aboard boaters. In addition to its already gargantuan duty of maintaining the UK’s extensive and very old inland waterways – which require constant attention to prevent a catastrophic failure – the CRT is also tasked with supplying water, disposing of sewage, dealing with rubbish and, if you’re a lucky boater in the right place at the right time, even recycling.

In exchange for these services, the CRT levies a license fee that feels an awful lot like council tax. If you don’t or can’t pay this, the CRT has the power to evict you. Now this could be explained as a grim but inevitable side-effect, but the charity doesn’t offer anything in the way of democratic accountability for their actions. Of the CRT’s 29 council members  – who are, in reality, in strictly advisory roles with only a small degree of influence over the executive –  there are only eight elected positions, of which just four are for private boaters. (Two others own or have owned boating businesses.)

To make matters worse, almost all of those who can vote towards these few seats are in fact “leisure boaters”. Just 23 per cent of private boats in the UK are used as a permanent home – the remainder are owned by people who enjoy the canals for a bit of fun but live elsewhere – meaning full-time boaters are but a small voice in a crowd, with almost no power to influence those who govern the canals. This is in spite of the organisation having direct control over large aspects of their lives. Although it is possible for boaters to complain to the trust, whether or not to act is then ultimately the decision of mostly unelected officials.

I asked the CRT how, with no seats at its council earmarked specifically for them, it can ensure that live-aboard boaters’ voices are heard. The charity told me: 

“Boaters are an extremely diverse group and any decisions are unlikely to please everyone. Our aim is to manage the waterways fairly for all the boating community and we believe that through open communication and working together, we can achieve this.”

Yet this statement failed to address my biggest concern: people whose permanent homes are the canals are not being listened to. For their democratic fix, live-aboards are instead required to join third-sector groups such as the NBTA.

Of the three such organisations working with people permanently living on boats, the NBTA is the only one to focus specifically on live-aboards licensed with CRT as “continuous cruisers”. This licence dictates that the boaters must move at least once every two weeks, travelling at least a 20-mile range over the course of a year. 

This requirement – which the CRT admits that failing to fulfil could cause a boater to “run into trouble when it comes to renewing your licence” – can lead to all sorts of issues. For example, for many families it can play havoc with the school run. Statutory guidance advises that young children should not be walking more than two miles each way to school; yet if you have to move 20 miles over a year, then this obviously isn’t feasible.

The NBTA, along with boaters, lobbied MPs – who in turn forced the CRT to compromise. Yet despite their February 2017 promise to publish adapted requirements, none have been released. With MPs across the house now preoccupied with larger national issues, the plight of the live-aboard families are being marginalised.


As the NBTA told CityMetric, “The CRT is no longer accountable to parliament and Bargee Travellers no longer have a voice.”

It’s worth noting that, while financial contribution shouldn’t be a prerequisite for representation, boaters do help fill CRT’s coffers. In the last financial year the licensing fees from boaters and boating businesses made up 23 per cent of the organisation’s income, a figure the charity itself expects to creep up to a quarter in the coming year. How this money is being spent is completely up to the trust, and transparency is kept fairly low through caveats in the requirements of the 2000 Freedom of Information Act.

The CRT is required to answer questions related to its statutory functions; but this doesn’t include its fundraising, commercial or charitable activities. This blind spot affecting those living on the water began when the CRT inherited the canal system from the publicly owned British Waterways in 2012. Even having been through a big reorganisation ths year – in which it adopted new governance guidelines and rebranded itself as a “wellbeing” charity rather than one focused on the waterways – the CRT has never made any mention of housing, despite directly managing the 15,000 people living on the UK’s waterways.

But the nationwide pressure on housing means this number is likely to rise, particularly in major cities like London. The number of boats registered in the capital has almost doubled in the last six years to over 4000. This is a growing constituency without a voice.

The CRT isn’t an evil organisation exploiting boaters. It’s simply something that we’re seeing more and more of: an underfunded charity trying to do a huge task. But with the power that has fallen to it, to provide essential services and even evict, we should be asking: is it time for live-aboard boaters to have a greater say in how their “council” is run?

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.