Live Aboard Narrow Boats And City Centres

Is there a problem with our city centre canal networks? Is over population of the canal network becoming an issue? What are the problems facing the boating community?

I stumbled across an article this morning and it grabbed my attention too much to not comment on it. I’ll start with a quick disclaimer, we don’t travel along the London network, never had the desire to, from everything we have read we understand it to be almost as congested as the M25 and as our life centres around the Midlands these are the areas we choose to navigate. When an article discusses an element of your lifestyle, you’re bound to have an opinion on it, and that’s really what I wanted to delve into here.

You can read the full article on the Guardian here, firstly it was brilliant to stumble across a boat related article which wasn’t the standard ‘Live mortgage free, couple buys boat for £2.50’ drivel. It was more balanced and focused on actual issues around the lifestyle, which is much more welcomed from me, what wasn’t welcome was some of the attitudes expressed in it. It is truly fantastic to see wider social issues being discussed and highlighted in this way, as the article mentions the number of annual constant cruising licenses issued has risen 246% in the last seven years. Boat life is becoming more prevalent, particularly in our cities, so it’s only right that the issues around it are represented.

Looking at the article the first thing which rang out was the overcrowding of the capital’s waterways. We don’t have the need or the desire to venture that far down! It’s the capital city guys, overcrowding is everywhere, there is pressure on everything, the road networks, public transport, infrastructure, two-bedroom houses with fifteen people crammed in. This pressure is unfortunately bound to overspill, the rise of the Daily Mail mortgage free articles hasn’t helped this either … are you starting to appreciate how much they annoy me yet?

It is also speculated (I see no hard evidence referenced) by live aboards in that area that the CRT are selling up a lot of moorings as permanent moorings for astronomical sums. I’m going to come back to a point I’ve made a couple of times, which can prove a little bit controversial to the boating community. We are a drop in the murky canal network in the CRT’s eyes, whilst our license fees may seem high to us as individuals, they account for a mediocre percentage of the CRT’s annual income. Whilst they are in place to carry out maintenance and improvements to the canal network I think we, as boaters, do need to realise we’re not really owed anything from them. They need to generate the income to maintain the network, and if this is the way they see as being able to get money from boaters to put into improvement on facilities boaters rely upon, and that a number of boaters are willing to pay, I don’t really know what more there is to say. Would we prefer that all our licenses go up even higher? It’s similar to arguing that I don’t like that a flat a two-minute walk from Paddington is for sale for millions of pounds, when it used to only be thousands. Perhaps some form of congestion charge would be more appropriate for those who do operate in our large and overstretched cities. Again, I’m sure this would be met with outcry. The point remains the sums must work, and sadly this will always mean that someone, somewhere feels the effect of this. Whether that effect is in paying out or moving further out of the centre.

As the number of continuous cruisers increases the competition for mooring spots is bound to increase, particularly in these city locations. I don’t honestly see a way around this, the current system works in a way which I believe is fair to everyone, allowing up to two weeks at one mooring spot. As the number of people turning to live aboards increases these are going to come under more pressure. It’s bound to happen, and I can’t see what anyone can propose to improve this. I struggle to believe that still having the moorings that the CRT has elected to offer as permanent moorings would make the blindest bit of difference. If they did it would merely be a sticking plaster as the numbers afloat continues to escalate. So what does the article suggest? A test system to allow the purchase of a narrowboat? A lottery to allow you to reside in the centre? Amazingly no solutions are offered, it appears to be a general moan, wishing things go back to how they once were.

I entirely appreciate it may not be easy for everyone, but we don’t wish to deal with living in city centres and as such choose to stay well away and commute to our respective work locations. If you decide that you must locate in city centre regions, I think you must be prepared for the added pressures this creates. The waterways have been lucky to remain so accessible to people, when looking at the inaccessibility of traditional housing in these areas.

“You don’t have the diversity you did before.” Now Mr Trower, this infuriated me, steam from my ears and fire from my nostril’s infuriation. Throughout this piece I couldn’t help but feel those quoted simply hated any change. I understand we can all be a little adverse to it. One thing you absolutely must appreciate as a boater is that you have zero control over where you reside. That’s a drawback of life aboard and is something that we appreciated quickly. A lock staircase near us closed last summer, was it annoying for us? Yes. Was there anything we could do about it? No. Would incessantly moaning about it change anything? No. Whilst I agree we must stand up for what we believe in we must also appreciate things which are out of our control. But having the audacity to argue that the waterways are less diverse, despite the fact a whole new generation is being attracted to them and using them is lunacy. I can’t help but assume it’s simply that these people don’t fit with this boater’s opinion on what boaters should be. Tosh! As I argued our license fees contribute a very small percentage of the total income of the CRT, and that’s now, the ‘back in my day’ ideology contributed even less. As boaters we should praise the increased use of the waterways network, it’s what keeps them maintained, albeit sometimes shoddily, it’s what continues to provide us a home. I recall an article that discussed the high probability of Scotland’s waterways being closed to boats as the costs of maintenance for their governing body were not sustainable against income. We should praise the waterways being successful in the UK and thank our lucky stars that they are becoming busier, particularly with younger generations.

I feel I have thus far been very down on the article and it’s contributors, so for a bit of balance I’m going to agree with something. The crackdown on stoves, or ‘Eco-Friendly Zones’ is a difficult argument for me. We tow the line and only use smokeless coal, which still has an odour, still gives off a smoke (albeit minimal) and is still a pollutant. Unfortunately, boats don’t have the advantage of their chimneys being 35ft up in the sky, our effect is ever visible. Unlike traditional houses we rely so heavily on these stoves, their use can be literal life or death, no exaggeration. In very few cases are they added for purely cosmetic reasons, as with so many houses. Perhaps it is that new boat builders should be doing more, or regulation should be considered which forces alternative heating methods to be an option. For those of us who rely on those systems I feel all we can do is tow the line, use smokeless fuels as we should and perhaps grants or something of that nature are considered for those willing to trade systems I don’t know what else can be done. If pollutants emitted from stoves are as bigger issue as we are being led to believe (The reports I have read suggest otherwise) then it needs to be tackled across the board, that includes in Victorian terraces who want to restore some ‘charm’. If we’re not seen to do our bit then we’re only making things more difficult for ourselves, I urge us all to use smokeless fuels to tow the line before any further clamp downs are required.

Now onto businesses on the canal network. They are bloody fantastic, no argument in my mind! Do I care that they take the space of a continuous cruiser? Absolutely not. They bring far far more. My main argument throughout this post has been our contribution to the CRT as boaters. For us to remain welcome on the waterways, for maintenance which allows us to navigate them to be carried out there needs to be pennies in the bank. A big part of that is in getting wider canal users ‘foot fall’ if you will to recognise the canal network and spend time and more importantly money on it. Walkers are the biggest users of the canal network, converting this into donations is what the CRT must focus on, if business helps to do this then hooray all round. As a child I remember the inner-city canals being a place to be feared, as adults navigating them, we’ve had the odd chav throw a cray fish at us. But repurposing these places and transforming them from no go areas into buzzing business prospects is fantastic. It maintains the culture of the network, promotes it and encourages further improvements, from towpaths to lighting.

Apologies that this post has become one great big rant, I’m so happy to see that this kind of issue is making it into papers and giving us the opportunity to discuss this more widely. But I did feel the need to offer my opinion on it, because I must admit I struggle to agree with a lot of the sentiments it contains. I completely appreciate other people’s rights to argue the opposite, and of course I imagine when you are dealing with these situations daily they will have a greater impact on you. I had to weigh in with my thoughts on this, whilst I’m sure it has the chance of upsetting a lot of the boating community, I couldn’t just read and run when I found myself disagreeing so heavily with the sentiments of this article.


A diary of live aboard life

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