Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the Residential Boat Owners Association (IW 53)



  The waterways are a dynamic environment. It is vital that the elements that make them so attractive to so many people in so many ways are not lost through a careless failure to understand how the components come together.

  Residential boats and moorings have a key role to play in the conservation and development of Britain's waterways. Areas where a significant contribution can be made include safety, regeneration and heritage.

  We were surprised that residential boats did not get any mention in Waterways for Tomorrow. We estimate that around 15,000 people make their homes on the inland and coastal waterways of the UK in a wide variety of navigable vessels and other floating structures. We appreciate that it can be difficult to know quite where to slot us in to a report but we are a significant feature of past, present and (we hope) future waterway life.

  We note (6.46) that bank side housing is recognised but not existing floating housing. We note that this very detailed document does find space to mention virtually every other existing and potential use of our waterways. We are concerned that the omission denies legitimacy to our homes and lifestyle.

  We are in the AINA strategy "Steering a New Course" and our Association (established in 1963) is well known to waterway authorities. In "Renaissance"—the BW/Heart of England Tourist Board strategy document for the BW Midlands region—residential boats are regarded as essential to provide "safe ties" on "quality routes". As mentioned in our covering letter, we petitioned as an organisation against some clauses in the 1995 British Waterways Act, as did two individual residential boaters. We participate actively in the meetings of the Parliamentary Waterways Group. We are routinely consulted as a user group by waterway authorities. In recent years, we have had considerable success in working with waterway authorities and in having our contribution recognised (see minutes of questions and responses of both British Waterways and Environment Agency 1999 AGMs). Both British Waterways and the Environment Agency have policies welcoming residential boats.

  In addition to our role within the inland waterways, we feel our lifestyle challenges many assumptions of space and resources required for housing. We could of great interest to DETR as part of the wide debate on sustainability.


  Any covered vessel can be a home. The static pontoon with a small building sat upon it associated with the term "Houseboat" is very much in the minority

  It is not necessary for planning and waterway authorities to get bogged down in defining what constitutes a residential boat and devising onerous conditions concerned with the fact of residence. Usually the only difference between a residential boat and a pleasure boat is its more frequent occupation (planning decisions have confirmed this). Residential boats need little more in way of facilities than non-residential boats.

  On the inland waterways, it is appropriate for use of the bank to be regulated for all moorers through mooring agreements that set standards in keeping with the location. Where a navigational obstruction is caused, a towing path cluttered or facilities used selfishly, regulations need to be applied even-handedly to whichever boats are causing the problem. The fact of residence should not be an issue in itself.

  Many live-aboards on inland waterways navigate regularly or even continuously. It is a common retirement dream amongst pleasure boaters (often realised) to sell or rent their homes and move on board.

  Live-aboards are not restricted to the inland waterways. A significant number live on sea-going vessels in estuaries, harbours and ports and travel around Britain and abroad.

  We are diverse not only in location but in occupation and behaviour. A sociologist's study adjudicated us "not a sub-culture". We are however happy to be considered a "linear village" extending along the waterways, and around the coats of Britain and beyond. An indicative survey carried out a few years ago indicated that there could be around 15,000 people living on boats in Britain.

  The RBOA committee of the last five years has included an accountant, an architect, a journalist, a bus driver, a lexicographer, a masseur, a youth worker, a consultant immunologist, a surgeon, a shop worker, a building restorer, a police officer and only one artist!

  Some live-aboards stay put in immobile houseboats, many more, especially on canals, travel as much as their other commitments permit. Others fantasise that they are free spirits but never quite manage to complete that engine re-build!

  Many non-residential boaters could be regarded as living on their boat when they go on extended cruises.

  Many boaters aspire to retire and live abroad. Our largest number of enquiries comes from people thinking of retiring onto a boat.

  Residential boats and moorings are an unvalued asset. Work with us to create a climate where we can live openly, not furtively and enhance the waterways for the benefit of all.


  Canals were built and river navigations enhanced for boats. Boats give meaning to the waterways. Canals in particular become dull ditches without the dynamism and interpretation of boat movement. Canals would not attract the interest they do without boats and you won't get boats mooring and moving round a city centre area without the security of a permanent local liveaboard community.

  Residential boats are integral to the economic and cultural life of waterways, generating activity and underpinning essential businesses.

  Residential boats and moorings are uniquely suited to become "pioneer" communities in regeneration schemes and can be introduced almost overnight. The RBOA already works with several waterway and planning authorities to increase awareness and encourage appropriate provision for our varied lifestyles. We believe this co-operation could and should be extended to many more areas where there are waterways.

  A community of boats can offer site security during redevelopment projects.

  We receive a considerable volume of enquiries from people seeking affordable, flexible housing in the London region. We suggest that there are many areas where residential moorings could be created as part of the regeneration of an area and to generate income. We are surprised that this use does not feature strongly in London Docklands for example.

  Residential boats help to reduce the housing pressures on those who live on land.

  Existing communities of residential boats are vulnerable to riparian development. New adjoining land uses can result in the loss of access and services to the waterside making it difficult to re-establish a boat community. Businesses that are essential to the waterways and depend on income from residential moorings may be forced to close.

  We need appropriate planning policies and sensitive development control to ensure that boating communities are encouraged, maintained and reinforced.

  Living afloat is not necessarily a cheap option but it is an attainable aspiration for many people who cannot afford to occupy houses generally available on the open market. It does therefore fall within the scope of affordable housing. We were unable to persuade the relevant civil servant to give us a line in the green paper BUT we have had a letter confirming that we can be regarded as a form of affordable housing.

  We are not suggesting that waterway authorities become housing providers but we see no reason why a system of grants and or loans should not be available, perhaps through the Housing Corporation, to lease areas of land or waterscape and to construct residential moorings. Developers of adjoining land could also be required by planning agreements or conditions to provide residential moorings available at controlled rent levels.

  Residential moorings may be particularly appropriate where land or money is scarce. A boat often occupies less space than a house, and residential mooring can be provided at a fraction of the cost of building a house or flat. Possible locations where residential boats could ease the supply of affordable housing encompass rural areas as well as premium city waterside neighbourhoods. Boats can provide convenient housing for those who in work in waterway businesses.


  We don't need much at all. Most boats have all necessary services and can be moved as necessary to taken on water or dispose of rubbish and sewage. Power comes from batteries, gas, diesel or solid fuel, all of which can be stored on board. Water is kept in built-in tanks, and sewage in tanks or portable toilets.

  On canals and non-tidal rivers, we need a reasonable depth of water so we can tie to the bank. Mooring rings or bollards are nice but we can usually hammer in mooring stakes.

  On tidal waters, rise and fall pontoons are marvellous, but rings fixed to runners on posts in proximity to the shore are adequate.

  Welcome us! Re-train waterway and planning officials to treat us as valued customers and put aside any personal prejudices about people pursuing an unconventional lifestyle.

  Low mooring fees are a major incentive. Why not offer free mooring for a limited period and kick start a new project with "pioneer" boats

  There is a market for more luxurious facilities such as on-site water, sewage disposal, connections to mains electricity and telephone. These are welcome if not over-priced, but are not essentials. We can travel for the first two, buy inverters to run power tools and computers and communicate by mobile "phones, pagers, e-mail and the good old "snail mail" postal system. A dry dock may be valued more than an on-site laundrette!


  Waterways attract considerable interest from the general public. The presence of residential boats improves the safety of visitors and other waterway users (walkers, rowers, cyclists, anglers, holiday boaters) and the security of unoccupied boats and waterside premises. Residential boats are integral to the economic and cultural life of waterways, generating activity and underpinning essential businesses. By restoring old vessels that would otherwise lack a viable future, residential use helps to preserve both boats and boat building skills that are an important but often neglected part of our heritage.

  Residential boats improve the security of unoccupied boats and waterside premises. This is recognised by British Waterways (BW) in their moorings pricing mechanisms. Private boatyard operators also like to have residential moorings at their premises, not only for their income, but for the security they provide at night.

  A mix of residential and non-residential boats is ideal. The live-aboards provide security, the intervening pleasure craft afford additional privacy to the residential boats.

  The mix can vary from site to site and indeed throughout the year. For example from April to October, a site could have one or two residential boats and many short-stay moorings for holiday boaters. During the quieter months, there could be more residential moorings and one or two short stay moorings. On BW waters, visitor moorings are provided as part of the navigation licence. Renting out visitor moorings for longer stays during winter could provide additional income from a facility that exists anyway.

  In "Renaissance"—the BW/Heart of England Tourist Board strategy document for the BW Midlands region—residential boats are regarded as essential to provide "safe ties" on "quality routes".

  Live-aboards improve security for all waterway users. A survey carried out by our Cambridge members revealed that walkers would make use of an area of common land if the residential boats were there.

  Live-aboards are first on the scene, mobile "phone in hand, for emergencies.

  Residential boats provide interest to all waterway visitors. There is enormous affection amongst the British public for the waterways. People are invariably fascinated when they discover that you live on a boat. Residential boaters thus frequently act as informal educators and ambassadors for the waterways.

  Many boats of historic or engineering interest have been saved because they have provided someone with a home who has been able to carry out the necessary and often costly repairs. Wooden boats are especially vulnerable and deteriorate rapidly without regular attention. Boats sink more often through neglect. Residential use protects both the boat and the skills required to keep it in good repair.

  Residential boats can re-colonise regenerated water space, drawing attention to its historical use and creating interest.

  We are the culture and community of the waterways.

  People have always lived on boats. Whilst the reasons may vary over the history of our waterways, current live-aboards are the latest link in an unbroken chain of evolution.

  We are the lateral thinkers' approach to integrating waterways into the community!

  Some new mooring schemes would not be viable from a number of aspects (security, caretaker accommodation, financial) without there being a group of residential boats present.


  Having a boat as your residence creates a smaller global footprint than the combination of dwelling house and leisure boat. The more restricted space of a boat reduces consumption. Whilst not averse to a bit of luxury, boat residents are generally thoughtful about green issues and are piloting a different way of utilising resources.

  Because live-aboards are about much of the time, they notice changes in water quality, report problems early and provide information and pressure for regulation authorities to act.

  We could be used to log and monitor wildlife activity, saving the need to send a waterway official to visit an area.

  Ducks, geese and swans seems to welcome our presence—they nibble the weed on our hulls and soon beg for bread. Fish are reputed by anglers to enjoy the shade and shelter offered by our hulls.

  An example of how residential boats can improve the environment and enhance wildlife is the development at Three Mills, Bromley-by-Bow. Please ask if you would like more details on this scheme, including our brief biology report.


  It is for others to comment in detail on this but it is worth pointing out that residential boats can help to safeguard wharves required for freight operations by generating an income and providing security. Boats can easily be moved when the wharf is required for freight movement.


  A difficulty we have experienced is of establishing exactly what policies a waterway authority has in force. This precedes any concerns about interpretation or establishing a hierarchy for policies. We would suggest a review of all waterway authority policies would be useful to authorities, government and users alike. Whilst flexibility to meet local conditions is generally desirable, we have found that explanations for actions have sometimes been incomplete and unconvincing. For example, an answer to a question we once put requesting the legal basis for levying a charge was "we do this elsewhere".

  Our detailed submission to the Waterways Ombudsman on the British Waterways proposal to construct a five-storey restaurant in the water at Gas Street Basin, Birmingham might make an interesting case study for the inquiry. We were surprised to discover that BW policies that we had been led to believe were in force had never been formally adopted by BW and thus had no status. Whilst excellent guidance documents exist within BW their exact status remains uncertain, even amongst senior managers.

  Most staff, within most organisations can explain their reasons for taking decisions by reference to the law, their organisations policies, the policies of their professional or technical body and finally the fine-tuning of these by their professional experience. This does not seem to be the route taken by waterway authorities.

  We have experience of the British Waterways complaints mechanism and have taken two complaints to the Ombudsman with some success. Whilst we have every admiration for the work of the Ombudsman, we have come to the conclusion that the complaints procedure is not a mechanism for on-going review and improvements. It is of most value in rectifying specific financial loss. Waiting for something to go wrong then complaining is retrospective and negative. We would prefer to see a way of identifying, sharing, encouraging and if necessary, enforcing, best practice. We welcome 6.72 and 6.73 in this context and hope that the practice could be extended to operational matters as well as one-off projects.

  It is worth noting that whilst we welcome AINA (we were invited to make a presentation in their first year of formation), it is not an organisation that has been in existence for very long and is a forum for discussion amongst waterway authorities rather than a body with authority over waterway authorities. Obviously, voluntary co-operation is preferable to coercion, AINA has an important role to play and the commitment and ability of its members is demonstrated by the production of its strategy document. We just wonder if its current structure and membership will be appropriate for all that might be asked of it by government. Perhaps an independent Chair might be needed at some point, for example.


  We are concerned about the issue of accountability. The waterways are a public asset but opportunities for meaningful consultation and for full accountability to the public are often limited. Whilst the income that a move to more public/private partnership brings is very welcome, control by the public becomes more diluted. We are concerned that there is often no overarching policy for waterway authority employees to refer back to, no framework for decision making that provides guidance where conflicts arise within the agencies. Issues of heritage and wildlife can easily be in conflict with property development, to give an easy example. Again we suggest our detailed documents submitted to the Waterways Ombudsman might serve as a useful case study.

  We feel that it would be appropriate to establish a regulator for the waterways. This could be done on a pilot basis if necessary. This should provide demonstrable independent guidance to all waterway authorities.

  It might be appropriate to separate roles between different agencies rather than the current arrangement of separation by region, waterway type and history. It would be a shame however if this led to innovation being stifled, particularly the opportunities for the generation and prompt implementation of ideas offered by smaller navigation authorities.

September 2000

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