I’m contributing anonymously here, being one of the ‘harassed boaters’ Autumn mentioned in a recent post. What I’m going to share are a list of things that I believe to be true about what British Waterways does and how it works.
British waterways sells boat licenses to people who own boats. If you have a boat on a canal or river in the UK, it is a legal requirement to have a boat license.
If you do not live on your boat, you need something called a leisure mooring for it to be at when not in use. If you do live on your boat, you cannot live on a leisure mooring because there is no planning permission for it to be residential. There aren’t many residential moorings out there.
So, if you live on your boat you may be tempted to call yourself a continuous cruiser and move about every 2 weeks, complying with British Waterways’ rules on what constitutes continuous cruising. You have to move from one ‘place’ to another, where place can be a village, hamlet, neighbourhood or something else. You cannot return to a place in under 48 days. That bit is clear. Overall you have to move over ten miles, but there’s a big, grey area in between, and it is not clear.
British Waterways monitor the movement of boats, and tell you if you are not moving enough. If you do not either then move enough to make them happy, or buy a mooring, they can refuse to license your boat, or, I believe, take your license from you. You are then breaking the law and they can apply to the courts to have your boat taken out of the water. The boat that you live on, and have paid for. It does happen.
If you pay for a mooring – and let’s just say again that the odds are you won’t legally be able to live on said mooring – all is well. By a strange coincidence, British Waterways owns a significant percentage, if not the majority of available permanent moorings. The theory of a ‘home mooring’ is that it keeps your boat safe and off the towpath when not in use. Except if you live on your boat, of course your boat is always in use. And, if British Waterways declares a bit of the towpath as available for permanent mooring, and you pay them to be able to use it, it magically becomes safe to leave your boat on the towpath, in one spot, all year round. Even if you don’t even visit it. I assume that British Waterways have staff who attended Hogwarts and who can charm magical pixies to protect your boat, should you end up with a permanent mooring on the towpath side. Isn’t it amazing?
As for the enforcement argument (ie laws must be enforced) British Waterways do not pay much attention to boaters living on leisure moorings without planning permission. I am sure it’s just a coincidence that there would be no financial gain for British Waterways in taking that sort of boater to court. If they took away licenses and took boats out of the water over people living on moorings without planning permission, they would lose money. But I’m sure there’s a perfectly good reason why they don’t feel this issue needs keeping an eye on. Equally, they don’t seem terribly interested in the speed of boats even though big wakes damage the material fabric of the canal. The biggest, fastest boats tend to be those plush, plastic jobs owned by rich people with leisure moorings, so perhaps they’re just too good to be kept an eye on, and damage to the canal doesn’t matter. They don’t police environmental damage in the form of fuel spills, I know, I reported one, and nothing happened. They don’t even have the gear to tackle such things round here. They have no interest in boaters being the victims of crime, nor do they do anything to prosecute littering in the canal area. Big, abandonned boats just sit in the canal, untouched. Perhaps they even belong to British Waterways, I don’t know. Where a liveaboard boater cannot remain more than 2 weeks in one place, an abandonned boat that will only cost money to sort out, not bring in money, may stay put for years on end, based on observation. Nothing is done about them. In fact, the only aspect of law I have ever seen British Waterways seek to uphold, is the one that enables them to make money. Perhaps I’ve missed something.
Let’s do that again. They police the system. They decide if you move far enough. If you don’t, you either have to pay up for a mooring you cannot use, or they take your licence so that you are breaking the law, and then they can take your boat and make you homeless. If you don’t like it, well, British Waterways has a complaints system, which I’m sure you can take comfort from. I am not aware of any substantial checks and balances in this system, or any point before going to court when any other body gets a look in. And of course, by the time you get to court you’re the proud owner of an illegal, unlicensed boat and haven’t got a leg to stand on.
Who else has the right to police and prosecute, and interpret the law, and choose which laws to uphold, in a system where they get direct financial benefit from the power this gives them? The actual police do not benefit directly in terms of financial gain from law enforcement, eg around car licensing. The BBC cannot refuse you a TV license because you watch too much ITV, and then take your home away because you’re breaking the law. What other body has the right to take people’s homes from them in this manner?
So, who’s going to be donating money to The Canal and Rivers Trust, if this kind of thing continues when British Waterways morphs fully into a charity? Who wants to support the first UK charity that goes around threatening people with homelessness?
You can bet I won’t.