This is something I’ve written recently for The Floater, an infrequent London boater periodical.
The Canal and River Trust have recently made a further move towards enclosure of the London waterways, by attempting to define “place” with the use of boundaries and labels on maps. Intended only as “guidance” for continuous cruisers who may be unsure of how far they need to move every 14 days in order to be using their boats bona fide for navigation. Many new boaters may agree that this is a useful tool to help them stay on the right side of CaRT, but the more seasoned continuous cruiser may argue the necessity. Within a short while of living on the cut and moving around in our floating coffins, one gets a clear sense of locality. An ethereal definition of “place” emerges naturally as the sum of our individual experiences.
The definition of “place” is highly controversial, and there is a great deal of history around this issue, particularly with regard to the British Waterways Act of 1995.
In the early 1990s British Waterways, the Canal and River Trust’s predecessor before the Coalition’s bonfire of the quangos, proposed a private bill to parliament. The bill was brought about mainly to tackle safety issues on the water by using a legislative framework to ensure higher standards. The bill in its original form was poorly put together and attracted much outrage from various stakeholders, none of which were consulted. Consequently there were many petitions to members of parliament over various controversial clauses. It took 4 years for the bill to be debated into an acceptable form, as Labour MP Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) describes in a parliamentary debate on May 17th 1993:
“It is a great pity that the Bill was introduced in such an unacceptable form. All sorts of fears and reasonable alarms were created. The Bill has been massively modified. British Waterways would have been better advised to consult more broadly before it introduced the Bill.”
Some of us may remember British Waterways’ 2011 attempt to tackle “congestion” in London, where the proposals were so extreme (requiring movement of vast distances every week) that even if boaters could follow the unlawful rules, British Waterways would fail spectacularly (as they continue to do now) to enforce them. Ms Short’s lament is one boaters are familiar with.
Many MPs believed that this ill-considered bill was a thinly veiled ruse for the privatisation of the waterways. Here’s Ms Short again, from the same debate:
“Many people are concerned about the danger that the Government may privatise British Waterways. I listened carefully to what the Minister said. He said that the Government have no plans so to do. Before the election, the Government told us that they had no plans to increase value added tax, but we know what has happened in relation to domestic fuel. We know that the Government are planning to privatise the forests and railways in Britain, so I am sorry to say that I am a little suspicious about what the Minister said. Will he give us an absolute commitment that in the lifetime of this Government there will be no move whatever to privatise any part of British Waterways?”
There was a lengthy response by a Mr Baldry to reassure the Honourable Lady. Ms Short was not alone in her fears though, as David Hinchliffe Labour Member of Parliament for Wakefield also had words to say on the matter. From the same debate on May 17th, 1993:
“Despite the Minister’s categorical assurance today, I believe that privatisation will be the next step and that the Bill is a thinly disguised paving measure. I hope that I am wrong, but given the Government’s record, and the direction of almost every measure that they have introduced, I see no reason to believe that privatisation will not be the end result. I suspect that I shall be proved right. It is clearly the Government’s intention to commercialise the BWB (British Waterways Board) even further, to enable it to pull out even more from state funding of the inland waterways system. That saddens me, but it comes as no surprise. Even more worrying is the fact that the Government have no coherent political strategy for the use of our inland waterways, and the immense potential offered by our rivers and canals.”
Most of these fears were barely imagined tolls to access the towpath, which seem awfully cute when compared to the transformation of British Waterways into to the Canal and River Trust, i.e. privatisation with a needy smile.
There was also much concern about how the bill would negatively affect boaters in regard to moorings. In the early draft of the bill, British Waterways wanted all craft to have a mooring. Mr Andrew Bennett, Labour MP for Denton and Reddish sheds light on why this stipulation was not included in the final draft. From the second reading of the bill on January 19th, 1994:
“My second point concerns people with houseboats on the canals and the problems that exist, particularly for people on low incomes. There is a substantial difference between people in the south of England, who generally have a reasonable income, and people who live on canals in the north and are on extremely low incomes. They enjoy owning boats and travelling around the canals more slowly than people having a fortnight’s holiday and wanting to travel a substantial distance.
“Those people like to travel for a few months around the canal network and then stop and find employment for a few months. They feel under pressure because of the sensible concerns about safety. I hope that when the Committee considers the issue we will be assured that people on low incomes will not be penalised if they do not have permanent moorings, and that if they progress around the canal system and do not need a permanent mooring they will not be in difficulty.”
That particular concern Mr Bennett aired is what should concern us boaters in the present day. The vagueness of the legislation that was eventually agreed upon for the British Waterways Act of 1995, was designed so with intention. It was left “loose” as a concession to those who feared the worst for boaters who may not have the means to comply, for whatever reasons they might have.
If we take a look at the critical piece of legislation from the bill that is still active today, one can see how vague the requirements are. From Section 17 of the British Waterways Act:
(3) Notwithstanding anything in any enactment but subject to subsection (7) below, the Board may refuse a relevant consent in respect of any vessel unless—
(a) the applicant for the relevant consent satisfies the Board that the vessel complies with the standards applicable to that vessel;
(b) an insurance policy is in force in respect of the vessel and a copy of the policy, or evidence that it exists and is in force, has been produced to the Board; and
(i) the Board are satisfied that a mooring or other place where the vessel can reasonably be kept and may lawfully be left will be available for the vessel, whether on an inland waterway or elsewhere; or
(ii) the applicant for the relevant consent satisfies the Board that the vessel to which the application relates will be used bona fide for navigation throughout the period for which the consent is valid without remaining continuously in any one place for more than 14 days or such longer period as is reasonable in the circumstances.
Those who use these maps that the Canal and River Trust have created should do so with extreme caution and in the above context. Any materials of guidance the Canal and River Trust publish are exactly that, guidance, and do not have any basis in law. Boaters would do well to remember that every word, comma and full stop of Section 17, that is so pertinent to the continuous cruiser, has been gone over with a fine tooth comb and then some.
It is no accident that we have the law on our side.
More information on the maps: