5 ways London’s waterways will be shaped by the Canal & River Trust’s new mooring strategy

People gather on the banks of Regent’s Canal, undoubtedly to complain about the CRT service facilities. Image: Getty.

Anyone without a vested interest in the canals, bear with me here; I’ve got big news. The Canal and River Trust (CRT) has released its new mooring strategy for the London area. I accept this may sound super boring but trust me, it’s not.

Even if you don’t have one foot in the water, so to speak, the canals are a public asset and CRT’s report affects everyone's access to them. The plans will shape the way the capital’s waterways are used for the foreseeable future.

The CRT is the completely-not-unwieldy privatised charity that took over from the erstwhile publically owned British Waterways. It is hoping to address the fact that the number of boaters using the canal network has ballooned over recent years, placing new stresses and strains on a vast and largely neglected network.

 
CRT’s figures for boat numbers in London, taken from the Mooring Strategy.

With the CRT predicting a further 1,500 boats on London’s waterways by 2022, this report attempts to prepare the 100-mile network for the foreseeable future.

Having sifted through the benevolent buzzwords such as ‘fair sharing’, ‘balancing’ and especially ‘vision’, which one three-page supplement managed to use ten times, here are five things we’ve learnt from the CRT’s 2018 London Mooring Strategy.

1. The New Space Race

There’s a perception of a zero-sum equation when it comes to usable space along the waterways, leading to fears that this surge in boat numbers will lead to London’s canals clogging up.

Matthew Symonds, the CRT’s boating strategy and engagement manager, warned of the “enormous amount of pressure on what is, after all, a finite space.” The report stated that “If numbers continue to rise in line with recent years it will be to the detriment of all users of the waterways.”

But is there really a lack of space? While the central London and East End canals have seen huge increases in the number of boaters, there has only been a slight swelling in west London. West of Kensal are miles and miles of canals (with convenient transport links) that remain unmoored most of the time.

 
Numbers of boats in different areas of London over time. Click to expand.

Within a short walk of Tottenham Hale station, one of the best connected stations in London, there is about a mile of towpath that is un-moorable due to underwater obstructions.

If the CRT was so concerned by space, you would think more energy would be put towards making proper use of existing space – rather than fearmongering that something (or some boaters) is going to have to give

2. The elephant in the room that’s probably going to mug you

Long unlit urban paths are always going to be a safety nightmare. On one night earlier this year, eight boats around Victoria Park were broken into. Last winter there was a particularly long spate of muggings along the Clapton stretch of the Lea. With similar stories heard across London you’d be forgiven for expecting that the CRT would suggest some sort of solution.

Yet in literally the last sentence of the report it merely suggests founding a “Canal Watch”, apparently oblivious to the fact that such a scheme was set up by boaters following the east London break-ins.

Nobody’s asking for the CRT to start arming hordes of retiree volunteers, but some sort of proposed anti-crime battle plan would be nice.


Canal Watch. The grass roots one, not CRT’s. Image: author provided.

3. It’s not all rubbish

If you’re looking for a way to strike up a conversation with a boater in London, just start complaining about the CRT service facilities and off they’ll go.

Key talking points include trickling water points, broken sewage pump-outs, and overflowing bins. And when there’s rubbish strewn across towpaths and in canals, it’s about time the issue was addressed.

Luckily, nine new rubbish disposal sites are being brought in across the network; with more water points, better sewage disposal facilities and even waste oil disposal facilities.

While this looks promising, only time will tell if these will be delivered effectively or will even be sufficient.


4. Innovation on the canals

For a charity and local council partnership, you wouldn’t imagine innovation to be top of the agenda, yet there are some interesting schemes to be piloted.

A patch of “eco-moorings” are intended to address on-going issues with pollution from boats and their trusty solid fuel stoves. This will see greater policing of boaters in the Kings Cross/ Angel area, which is coincidentally right by some of the most expensive canal-side property on the network. But that is definitely just a coincidence, right?

The CRT has rightly taken notice of the new types of industries flourishing on the canals, from bookshops to bakers, and ice cream boats to community spaces like the formidable Village Butty, a floating village hall.

New permanent business moorings are to be setup across London, but more interestingly ‘Roving Trader’ moorings are going to be tried out so travelling canal boat businesses can ply their trade in the big city.

5. Opening up the canals

The CRT is gunning hard to ensure “access to the water for all”. Although this sounds like a crowd-pleaser, it’s controversial among boaters; when you’re trying to steer an unwieldy 15 tonne barge through London’s narrow waterways, the last thing you want to worry about is kamikaze kayakers getting tangled in your propeller.

The CRT will be encouraging more spaces for water sports and fishing by imposing restricted moorings on certain areas of London, which, despite being at the expense of boaters, will probably be worth it if it brings more of the public to the canals.

But one things for certain from the report: the CRT’s move towards being a “wellbeing” charity as well as one that actually manages the waterways is being treated with healthy amounts of scepticism after it blew £60,000 on a rebranding that included a significantly inferior logo. So we’ll just have to see how this plays out.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.