Here’s why canal boat dwellers find it so hard to vote

Oooh, a boat. Image: creative commons.

‘Not my problem’. This was, in essence, the response received by worried boat owners when they reached out to Bethnal Green & Bow MP Rushnara Ali following a spike in crime along east London’s canals. The boaters had contacted Ali after one particularly bad night when eight of the forty-odd boats moored along Victoria Park were broken into, but they struggled to foster much sympathy.

“Unfortunately, per strict parliamentary protocol, Members of Parliament may only make enquiries on behalf of those living within their constituency.”

Forced to move every two weeks, boaters rarely have a postal address in the area they are moored; instead usually having their post delivered to places of work or to long suffering friends. This means that, in the slightly Kafkaesque logic of parliamentary democracy, should boaters run into trouble, MPs can’t offer much help – despite them technically living in the constituency, albeit only temporarily. Although the postal problem can be resolved with an arbitrary local Amazon Locker, it highlights the issue of representation for communities not fixed to a particular area.

Registering to vote is a challenge but not one insurmountable. For anyone with no fixed address, whether they are homeless, living in a boat or part of one of the larger travelling communities, a ‘declaration of local connection’ must be filled out. As you’d expect from the name, this shows the electoral services that an individual has a particular affiliation with a constituency and therefore is warranted to vote as part of that area.

Engagement is another problem entirely. In 2012, a representative for Roma Gypsies in the south of England estimated that as few as 10 per cent of Gypsies or Irish Travellers vote. As with most demographics that have a tendency to avoid the ballot boxes, politicians give little concern for their problems or worse, use them as a target to gain votes.

Campaigns like Operation Traveller Vote are trying to turn this around. As you would expect for the name, the movement aims to encourage traveller communities to register to vote and then turn up on the day. They hope politicians may actually listen to the traveller communities should the 350,000 members around the UK start flexing their democratic muscles.

And although it’s hard to know whether it bears any relation to such campaigns, it’s worth noting that last year’s Labour Manifesto pledged to protect the rights of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.

Having no fixed address may make it more difficult to engage democratically, but it’s not impossible. Far trickier is encouraging such communities to vote in a system that has long ignored them. But as soon as political parties start engaging directly in a positive way, just as Labour has begun to do, then there’s no doubt that those who are usually constantly moving will be increasingly heading for the polling stations.


 

 
 
 
 

Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.