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?
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