Canal and River Distrust

An article in the BBC’s online magazine (15 April 2016) about a family living on an English canal being forced to ‘keep moving’ raises some interesting issues.

In a nutshell, the family says they’ve chosen to live on the canal because they love the lifestyle. They enjoy the fields and countryside environment. Their young children attend a local school.

But the Canal and River Trust (CRT), the guardians of our inland waterways, say that by staying in one place the family is contravening the waterway rules, which dictate that – in the ‘spirit’ of the legislation – boats should keep moving.

The CRT firmly says it cannot make exceptions this rule, and is in fact in the process of dragging other boat owners through legal processes. Disturbingly the article mentions that two boats have already been seized and ‘destroyed,’ while many other owners are facing court action for not travelling on when required to.

It boils down to the ‘continuous cruiser’ licence, which boat owners have to buy and keep up to date in order to have a boat on the English canals. CRT says the licence is for exactly that – continuous cruising – and that 14 days is the maximum stay time allowed. In certain designated areas it can be a lot less. This doesn’t apply to rented, private moorings or marinas of course; it relates to use of the towpath canal bank for mooring.

So, what this puts in the spotlight is the concept of living on a boat in one place versus having to keep moving; it’s as simple as that. And yet it’s not simple at all.

If we view the canals as ‘roads’, then the notion of keeping traffic moving makes perfect sense. We’d all want to know we could get from A to B and maybe park for a while, without bother or hindrance.

But the analogy with roads isn’t really fair, because on a canal it’s not easy to pull into a lay-by, or turn off up a quiet country lane. There isn’t even a hard shoulder to pull onto. There is permanent parking available, if you’re prepared to pay for it, but moorings are at a premium, especially today as canal boating enjoys a peak in popularity.

What I find worrying is that there’s no grey area. The CRT insists that the legislation is fixed and not open to interpretation, and that’s it: the law’s the law. The family concerned in this story do move their boat on a regular basis, but not often enough or far enough for the Canal and River Trust, so even though the boat does shift, it’s not sufficient. Seemingly the CRT want this family to go on a permanent one-way journey.

I can see this from both sides. The CRT don’t want to allow the family permanent residency as it might open the floodgates for all and sundry to do likewise, and before we know it the canals would be wall-to-wall (or bow-to-stern) with residential boats, and our pleasant jaunts along the waterways would be under threat. Spaces to stop at would become rarer, and – like land-based residents – not all the canal dwellers would respect their environment.

We’ve all seen evidence of what happens when some people decide to ‘occupy’ a patch on the canal; before long the towpath is festooned with unwanted fridges, cast-off parts, tarpaulins, broken buckets, bikes and other domestic detritus.

So maybe we can understand why the Canal and River Trust is more of a Canal and River Distrust. But to assume that all boat owners – all families living full-time aboard – will treat the canal with disdain is to lump everyone in the same boat. Or tar everyone’s hull with the same brush. And that doesn’t seem fair.

A family that relishes the canal, lives on it by choice rather than economy or out of desperation, who values their environment and treats their surroundings with respect, is unlikely to be a problem. The challenge is, how can an authority like the Canal and River Trust make the distinction between those boat owners that can be trusted and those who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a canal? And how do they stop a huge upsurge in occupation of the canal banks if the legislation isn’t enforced?

There is no easy answer, but I suspect enforcing legislation as being non-negotiable isn’t an answer either.At present, CRT staff maintain a watch on boats to ensure they don’t stay in one place too long and don’t breach the rules.

The BBC magazine article notes that, ‘Enforcement officers actively log the position of boats, and those that are not cruising "in good faith" are given advice and warnings.’

Well then, there’s a possible solution. Let me float this idea: If CRT staff are already engaged in monitoring boats to ensure they keep moving, how hard would it be to monitor boats that are not moving? How much more difficult would it be to check on the impacts that a permanent boat and its owners are having on the canal and towpath?

If ‘advice and warnings’ are already given about moving on, what about advice and warnings about the boats’ impacts or effects if they’re determined to be negative?

What about trialling such a scheme, in a designated area for a particular period, over, say, two years or so, just to see how viable it might be? How about introducing – again maybe on a trial basis – a licence option that instead of being continuous, enables mooring up to one full year on the basis that the mooring can be inspected by the CRT at any time and without warning to ensure that the occupancy is not causing any negative impact?

For the purposes of the trial, the number of such licences could be limited, and maybe issued on a ballot basis. It seems to me that that would be a more sensible way of managing the current situation, which assumes that rigidly enforcing continuous cruising is the only answer to a perceived problem of boat owners wanting to live in one location for an extended period.

In the spirit of most canal users, let’s just explore a bit further before we close the gates on this one, shall we?

Not all canal dwellers are bad news


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