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‘The Olympics is an opportunity, but it is also a huge monster’ – a boater talks.

April 8, 2011

The London boating community have attracted a considerable amount of attention recently. New regulations proposed by British Waterways, intended to come into effect before the London Olympics could significantly increase the cost of living on the canals and the River Lea in London. A campaign has been launched by London Boaters to fight the new regulations. Their facebook group is here.

This Guardian article from March this year contains a rather harsh quote from a British Waterways spokesperson.

‘But we have to control the number of boats, which have increased by 40% over the last four years on the Lea. The only way we can do this is through price, and some people will have to suffer.’

I spoke to a campaigner to find out more.

What have these new regulations got to do with the Olympic Games?

British Waterways say that these regulations have nothing to do with the Olympic Games, as the Olympic Waterways inside the park are not yet open to boaters. The waterways around the Olympic site will be subject to security measures, with only one-trip boats having permission to cruise the River Lee. All other boats will be removed to an exclusion zone which is only just now being defined as planing applications from the Park are being submitted – this is also news to British Waterways who are kept almost as much in the dark as anyone else attempting to find out and plan ahead for what is to be imposed.

The suspicion is that ‘tatty’ boats (boats in various states of disrepair, with perhaps building materials on their roof) would be unsightly and that either British Waterways has decided for itself, or pressure has been brought upon them to remove these boats from the immediate vicinity of the Olympic site – away from cameras. It is also suspected that British Waterways are using the timetable of the Olympics to push the reforms through.

Aren’t they responding to legitimate concerns about security though?

No one is going to argue with security issues. British Waterways have planned to make mooring sites available for a charge for visiting boaters during the Olympics. Some of these moorings are regularly occupied by continuous cruisers (live-a-boards without a permanent mooring). The legality of British Waterways  charging for moorings for the Olympics is dubious. However they will need to accommodate up to 800 extra boats and provide facilities for them, and this is how they have decided to approach it

Are these regulations just a natural consequence of more people living on the water? Surely there must come a point when there are just too many boats on the river…

The fact is that the choice to live on a boat is one that more people have been making, particularly in some urban areas like East London. This is a response to the high cost of housing in the Capital, and as an alternative to a capital based lifestyle which seems to be more or less imposed by the mainstream consumer led culture. So there is a demand for living on water – but no proper framework for accommodating and meeting that demand. Residential moorings has to involve planning permission from local councils and it can be difficult to persuade them to give the ok.

There is plenty of space that could be developed into suitable moorings if British Waterways created the incentives for investment, or if they responded to individuals who want to bring moorings into service..

My view is that the demand should be seen as a positive thing and ways explored and created to meet that demand – providing low cost housing with a strong community ethic should be encouraged, and could be seen as a social asset – not a problem. It could herald the redevelopment of more run down urban waterways, but in an affordable way – not just to create over priced waterside housing developments or exclusive marina moorings. I guess it is a question of values, and maybe even of prejudice against one chosen form of lifestyle – those of low impact living and the traveler.

Who will be the prime beneficiaries of the new regulatory system?

The objective is that these regulations will keep people moving more frequently, with the intention of freeing up visitor mooring spaces in hotspots. They are also designed to discourage any further increases in the number of people choosing this as a lifestyle in London. They are also designed to generate a revenue through overstay fines, which it is intended will fund the policing and enforcement of these regulations. So on the face of it British Waterways should benefit through fund raising for enforcement staff, and occasional visitors to London should benefit by there being more spaces at which they can moor.

In reality no one is likely to gain any real benefit from the regulations as they are currently drawn up. They are unenforceable, have unintended consequences if people attempt to comply with them, such as more boat movements at the weekend – the busiest time for rowers and canoeists on the Lee. They will be met with deep and prolonged resistance which will be costly to deal with, one boat at a time. Better to reassess the issues, deal with the practical aspects which can be sorted out by some creative positive solutions, and open up the thinking regarding the future use of the waterways, particularly the urban waterways.

If they are passed, how would the new regulations affect you personally?

I am starting a trading business on the London Waterways. These regulations will not affect us directly. They will affect the community of people living on London’s waterways. This community is part of what gives the waterways life and meaning. It is the mystique of that chosen lifestyle and the presence of that community which creates added interest in the canals in the eyes of visitors, both local residents and definitely foreign visitors.

What proportion of boaters will be affected?

Estimates around 200 boats in London and up to 400 in the area affected by the proposals (my guess).

If the new regulations come into force, how do you think the experience of walking down a towpath will differ five years from now?

The canals is one place where a diverse group of users from all sorts of backgrounds and income levels manage to get along reasonably well, help each other out when in need, and all because of a shared love of the waterway environment, its heritage, boating life, and valuing simplicity and being close to nature, even within a city. The canals could change into a ‘gated’ community of marinas for those who can afford the high mooring fees. Fewer boats would be able to comply with the new regulations while maintaining their current responsibilities and activities, and therefore have to abandon this lifestyle. Boat resale prices would be affected locally, as a boat would be almost worthless without a mooring to go with it. The canals would become an exclusive gentrified environment and not a vibrant creative alternative one. It would loose its soul and the social and potential economic asset of a living community would be lost.

How many people support your campaign, how many people do you need to support it?

In the hundreds at the moment, In the thousands is what is needed

What’s special about the Olympics?

The Olympics is an opportunity, but it is also a hugh monster that is disrupting so many institutions, businesses and people’s lives. It is also full of promise but finds it difficult to deliver those promises down to the people for whom it is ostensibly there to benefit. It is not allowed to fail or to be seen to fail in any way because the world’s media is on it – so it will be an inevitable media success – even if that is staged, and things get trampled on in the process. I am attempting to negotiate this opportunity and create something out of it that will be of real benefit to local people (see Social Enterprise London – conference on the Olympic legacy). The waterways and the life on it is the key.

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