(By James Meikle & Phil Maynard/Guardian) “You have to be very aware of the batteries, power, how much water you have got and where the nearest water point is. Certainly emptying the toilet every week is not everyone’s idea of bliss,” says Emily Morus-Jones, one of the growing number of people choosing to live on the canals in London.
The 28-year-old, who is looking to make her way in the entertainment business, says the community of the canal has been a lifesaver. Currently sorting the consequences of a bilge-pump failure that flooded much of her boat, Awol Again, in Camden, she admits the lifestyle is not for everyone. “Especially if you are working nine to five, you might find one day of your weekend is taken up doing all the boaty things,” she says.
“If you are the kind of person who likes creature comforts, it is definitely not for you. If you like earthy people, you will enjoy it a lot.”
With house prices and rents soaring, a growing fleet of narrow boats and other craft is carrying workers into the capital. But the trend is bringing its own problems, including a “fleet versus street” conflict between boaters and those whose properties border the towpath.
In Islington, those living on the water have been accused of being inconsiderate neighbours and jumping the queue for affordable housing. Leisure boaters are not happy either. The influx of a new generation of canal users in a city where there are now sometimes 3,000 boats chasing 2,000 moorings means there is a shortage of places to stop. Overstaying in sites where moorings are officially limited to up to 14 days, sometimes fewer, is a regular occurrence, but when a rarely available permanent mooring in the city can cost a five-figure sum, boat owners are regularly pretending that a journey of a few hundred yards satisfies the continuous cruising requirements as stipulated on their licences.
The Canal and River Trust (CRT), the charity that manages 2,000 miles of waterways in England and Wales and issues boating licences, acknowledges the problem has also hit other parts of the network, including around Bath, Milton Keynes, and in Hertfordshire. Although figures are hard to quantify, nearly a third of boaters in surveys suggest they live onboard, so there could be more than 11,000 people living on trust waterways.
Andy Thorneycroft, a freelance camera technician who has his own boat, had his fill of renting in London. “People are using this as a viable alternative, a viable way to live in London and not spend £300,000 or £400,000 on a one-bedroom flat. Financially it makes sense.”
But their neighbours don’t always agree. Hilary Norris, who has heart disease, and her partner Steve, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, live in a flat near the canal at King’s Cross, where boats are often parked two and sometimes three abreast. They are among residents who have complained about noise and pollution metres from their homes. “The waterways are meant for free flowing of traffic,” says Norris. “If they are stagnant with what appears to be a floating bungalow site out there, other boats can’t get past.
“A great number of people are affected by noise, air and water pollution. It’s the sheer number of boats which is the problem. So we wish to limit the boats to one line of mooring to minimise the effect.
“If they were to build a new village of 1,000-plus homes, they’d have to follow very strict guidelines concerning the environment. Allowing this number of boats to moor along here is the equivalent, but we have no planning, no infrastructure, and the impact is huge.”
Local councillor Paul Convery accuses boaters apparently wanting “a zone-one location to live, work and play” of opting to live on boats instead of finding housing in lower-cost locations. “Boaters use public services provided by councils but do not pay [council] taxes towards those services. A few send their kids to Islington schools claiming they live in the borough and a few dozen have even registered to vote,” he said.
Some insisting on an alternative lifestyle disregard basic rules over mooring, smoke and pollution, says Convery, and the CRT is failing to control them.
Richard Parry, the trust’s chief executive, says: “Canals are almost linear villages, you have services and communities growing along the canal. We have to make sure it is done legitimately and doesn’t become an impediment to other users. We have been wrestling to come up with the right response.
“We have limited legal powers and actually we don’t want to be belligerent and to make the experience of using the waterways insufferable. If you adopt not to have a home mooring, provided that you move regularly, you can live that way.”
Over the past 18 months, he says, the trust has appointed more “towpath rangers” and volunteers operating “caretaker” boats – “encouraging good behaviour, making sure people do not stay too long, promoting mutual respect”. But Parry concedes that “the seemingly inexorable growth in the numbers of boats heading into London is putting pressure on services, pressure on moorings, much as other aspects of London life are experiencing stresses and strains”.
The city within a city growing on London’s waterways is presenting other problems. The CRT has also seen an increase in the number of vulnerable people, often older than the new water commuters, and has appointed its first welfare officer to help ensure they do not slip through the social safety net.
The growing group of vulnerable people along the canals include some who live on boats after marriage breakups and other life crises, former soldiers, and those who have spent redundancy packages on a new life in retirement, only for it to not work out.
Parry says: “We don’t want to have individuals in some sort of downward spiral and end up with having to take enforcement action against them because they don’t have a licence or they are sitting in some popular spot when actually they are obliged to move.” CRT staff have tried to behave sympathetically, helping people address medical and other problems.
“We are not going to become a welfare charity, an organisation that has the capacity or ability to care for people in that way. We cannot solve the country’s housing problem either.” Instead, the CRT is strengthening relationships with other parties more expert in the field.
These include the Waterways Chaplaincy and homeless charity Thames Reach. Kirsty Lowe, of Thames Reach, says: “We are finding individuals who are rough sleeping along towpaths, in unkempt shrubs, and wasteland. Some are in tents; some are known, some unknown, to services. We have also worked with three people with very unusual makeshift boats, one was a man who was sleeping on a dinghy and had attached a shed on top of another dinghy. It was a real concern, it was so unsafe.”
But the waterways, like the cities that often surround them, are a diverse community. Back on the canal, Yan Yates, 34, who works in entertainment media as well as being a keen musician, insists people like him will become “part of the fabric” of a river community.
His 55ft home cost £22,000 some years ago, and outgoings include £880 a year for his licence, £90 every three months for gas, £120 per full fuel tank, and an outlay every two years of up to £1,500 to lift the boat out of the water for maintenance.