Canals take the strain of Londons housing crisis

Posted: 05/05/2015

In response to rising property prices in London, more and more people are forced to buy or rent canal boats to live in. This is putting huge pressure on London’s water ways as the growth of people living on the water rises. In Hotspots such as East London, boat numbers have increased by 85% and in the past 5 years there has been a 36% rise overall in London.

In 2007 there were 2,175 canal boats on the rivers but now there are more than 3,000 and numbers are continuing to increase. London’s waterways are struggling to manage according to the Canal and River Trust, which looks after more than 100 waterways across Greater London including the Grand Union canal and Regent’s canal.

Joe Coggins, a spokesman for the trust, said:
“The waterways weren’t built to have boats back to back all the way along. The increasing number is a cause for concern as there is growing pressure on the system.”

The trust, which has taken on further staff and volunteers to cope with the rise in people living on waterways, also manages the movements of the boats. Most boat owners in London have continuous cruising licences, which means boats cannot stay in the same place for more than two weeks.

New guidelines mean boats need to travel a minimum of 20 miles a year to ensure they don’t stay in the same popular areas. Some of the newer members of the boating community don’t always follow the rules according to Mr Coggins therefore, an enforcement team is employed to keep track of movement on the canals.

Despite being cheaper than purchasing a house, there are many hidden costs to living on a boat. A second-hand one-bed narrow boat costs between £15,000 to £30,000, although they can go for much more depending on the size and model. A new boat is about £1,000 a foot and in addition, the cost of the licence which ranges from £510 to £1,100 a year. Owners need to allow for insurance, gas, batteries, wood or coal and maintenance. Water tanks have to be replenished and toilets have to be emptied.

For many new boaters, the lifestyle has been a sharp learning curve. Dave and Sanna Jonsson Buttery bought their boat 18 months ago after becoming fed up with living in rental properties and realising they would never be able to afford to buy a home of their own. Sanna, a landscape architect, and Dave, a nursery teacher, could only afford to live in a shared flat after they got married.

Dave said:
“It’s ridiculous that two professionals – and we’re not on benefits and we don’t even have low-paid jobs – had to live in a shared house despite being married. It was shocking. Saving up for a deposit when you’re paying £1,000 a month in rent is impossible even for two professionals.”

Sanna explains:
“When we bought the boat it was October, so just at the beginning of winter. There was quite a lot to get used to and learn, like how to get the stove going overnight and how to change the batteries.”

Their most awful experience so far was when the engine broke and they were stuck in Hemel Hempstead with no electricity or showers for three weeks. “It was like camping but it was winter,” Dave said.

So far they’ve avoided the rising tension between new boaters and those who have been boating for years. Dave said: “I can see why the older boaters get annoyed. They used to be able to move quite freely and now they have to fight for a spot.”

75 year old Keith Duffy who lived on boats for 18 years says:
“Many of them are living on boats because they can’t afford to live anywhere else and they aren’t always interested in learning about them. I’m on something of a crusade to get people to learn about their boats. I feel really strongly about this. Those canals were built by a lot of hard-working people and people died building them. They were built for boats to move on, not for people to doss on or look for somewhere cheap to live.”

Would you consider living on a boat to avoid renting in London?

Eve Blakemore, Pali Ltd

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