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Life On The Canals Living the dream? London’s housing crisis takes to the canals and rivers

Sky-high rents and diminishing wages are pushing many Londoners into narrowboat living, but far from being an idyllic lifestyle, boat-dwelling is fraught with problems. JULIAN VIGO reports

OVER the past few years there have been numerous articles in the British media about living on narrowboats across the 2,000 miles of  rivers and canals in England and Wales, especially those waterways specific to London

Some look to living on the water as an alternative lifestyle with anecdotal evidence of the ostensibly open community to support their shift from land. 

Most of those moving to the waterways today, however, choose this lifestyle for pragmatic reasons, namely London’s housing crisis, which is affecting both prospective house buyers and renters.

The Canal & River Trust (CRT) reports that the number of constant cruising licences increased from 4,400 in 2012 to 5,400, with east London bearing an 85 per cent increase in boaters.  

Certainly the enticement for Londoners to move onto narrow or widebeam boats is the cost of living in London which is more prohibitive than ever before.

For many, rather than face homelessness, the obvious choice is to move off-land.

During my time living on a narrowboat in London, I came within close quarters of London’s most economically disenfranchised, despite many having a living wage in the rest of the country.

The sombre reality for most Londoners today is not only finding a job that pays enough to survive but to earn enough to pay exorbitant rent often while flat-sharing with many others.

Even among those who are in well-paying professions, the verdict among most is that London’s salaries are far below those of other cities such as San Francisco and New York, two extremely expensive metropolitan centres where salaries of developers, for instance, are double those of the UK. 

Thus, the next best thing to finding a job that pays a living wage is to find a living situation that will not bleed the wages dry given that UK rents are increasing at a far faster pace than inflation and have been for well over a decade. 

Worse, rents in the UK are expected to increase at a higher rate than house purchase prices over the next five years. 

This speaks volumes to the devaluation of human life in a society where money matters more than physical or mental well-being. 

The fallout from the housing crisis in London especially is tremendous with a growing population living from pay cheque to pay cheque and unable to save enough for a deposit to procure rental contracts.

The numbers of Londoners living in the rough has risen in 2017 for the sixth year in row

The requirements to get a rental contract are getting harder and harder, with many landlords requiring credit checks and large deposits today.

There are many young renters who have no line of credit as well as older renters who need credit restoration just to rent a flat.

There are even charities devoted to helping the homeless reach financial viability in the fight against some of the institutional structures responsible for homelessness.  

Between the low salaries, high cost of living and paucity of jobs, more and more Londoners are facing the prospects of homelessness.

So some turn to the cheaper option of the narrowboat, but narrowboat rental over the past two years has come to be quite the moneymaking “profession” since so many of those desperate to get on a boat don’t actually have the money to buy one.

So they enter into the burgeoning “boatlord” culture, a practice frowned upon by the CRT, the agency which oversees the inland waterways in much of the UK. 

Boatlords are individuals who have purchased several boats, usually for a very low price, after which they outfit them modestly, turning the boat into, at the very least, a precarious to semi-liveable vessel.

Then they rent them out at extortionate prices to those in need of shelter. 

And more often than not, most of these renters know nothing about living on narrowboats as the boatlord collects their monthly rent and hangs these folks out to dry should things go sour, to include the regulation for constant cruisers to move their boats every fortnight. 

It is more and more the case in London that people living in boats do not know how to operate them. 

In response to the spike of buy-to-let boats — in London especially — the CRT has changed its approach to what it previously deemed an illegal practice, although nothing was ever put into writing on this matter.. 

Recently, the CRT has begun to offer a special licence specifically for boat renters.

Still, many boaters are outraged by some of the policies of the CRT which categorically targets boats under “shared ownership.”

But what many do not understand is that “shared ownership” has become a scam used by boatlords, who charge excessive rents and do not tell the CRT that they are renting as their agreement with the renter states that they have bought a £1 share of the boat. 

This in turn allows the owner to claim that the boat is not rented, also allowing him to bypass the much stricter licensing, safety certificate and insurance, all of which are far more expensive. 

Now that the CRT has defined what legally constitutes shared ownership, boatlords are being held to a higher standard of care under what is the recently implemented Static Letting Licence

The CRT is aware that many non-static (boats which are not moored) are being let illegally and are introducing measures to handle this mounting problem.  

Additionally, the temptation for people to move off-land and obtain a constant cruising licence has been offset by the vague terms of this licence. 

For instance, the CRT does not specifically set out a minimum distance that constant cruisers must move every 14 days, yet there is the “recommendation” that one must move “neighbourhoods.” 

How one defines “neighbourhood” is, of course, subjective and many boaters complain as a result that such a definition is “too vague.”

Others claim that the CRT takes advantage of the vague language of “neighbourhood” to refuse to renew boaters’ licences for a full year. 

Yet all the boaters with whom I have spoken thus far have admitted to not having moved their boat very much. 

Some have valid reasons for this, such as engine troubles or sickness.  

From my experiences, however, the CRT is less the problem than the overall boating “community.” 

When I moved onto a narrowboat several years ago, almost immediately I  found this “community” to be a challenge. 

Having been a land dweller for most of my life, I was accustomed to the troubles of leaky roofs, termites, obnoxious neighbours, and of course the noisy pub

I had come to learn about life on the canals through some lovely friends for whom this lifestyle seemed rather relaxed and fun. 

Sure, I was forewarned about the problems of toilets, heating and water tanks

But none of this fazed me given the simple lifestyle I lead, my ability to take two-minute showers and, despite Londoners telling me how “cold” the boats get, I found it quite warm compared to the winters of -40°C which I was used to in North America. 

My entry to the boating scene was not so difficult to adjust to in terms of boat life itself, but it was in terms of the “community” often venerated in conversations.

The on-land housing crisis is being translated to water with the influx of new boaters clogging the canals of larger cities like London. 

And as many boaters are coming onto the water, many are opting to leave given the current conditions for finding two-week mooring which can make living on the waterways more time-consuming than years before. 

And many boaters who have need to be in specific parts of London are likewise pushing back against what seems to them a draconian system of enforcement where special situations means that living in the canals and waterways might, one day in the not too distant future, become a lifestyle only for those individuals who do not have families or who work part-time.  

While some debate the cost-effectiveness of life on a narrowboat to include the various pros and cons, one thing is certain. There is no consensus about any aspect of life on the rivers and canals. 

In the end, the larger agreement among boaters is that boating should not be a choice for those seeking cheap housing given all the work involved in owning and maintaining a boat.

However the flip side of this axiom is the reality of vast housing crisis in Britain and the fact that today moving off-land is more often than not a decision driven by need more than by desire. 

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