Published: 13 December, 2013
DAVID Copestake has rightly pointed out that moored narrowboats can add colour, life and safety to the canal (Narrow boats make canal towpath safer, December 6).
The towpath is indeed home to a wide range of overlapping communities, both static and mobile, from nearby and afar.
I agree with David that the canal in Islington hardly resembles a floating caravan park at the moment and this is because there are still a lot of open spaces along the towpath where walkers can admire the reflections in the water.
But for how much longer? If recent trends continue then by the end of the decade we could witness bumper-to-bumper parking of houseboats along the entire length of the Regent’s Canal. The canal’s bi-centenary celebrations in 2020 could be a flop if the waterway becomes invisible from the public walkways.
The reason for these trends is that boats are perceived as a viable alternative to buying or renting a home. Yet they are viable only for boat owners who feel passionate about boating and are prepared to follow all the rules and undertake regular maintenance of their vessels. It is certainly not a soft option in harsh winters.
Inexperienced government statisticians might jump to the wrong conclusion that the waterways can solve London’s housing shortage. This is extremely short-termist because the footprint is finite and there are no options for building upwards. In short, houseboats are an attractive alternative for certain hardy characters but they can never accommodate London’s housing shortfall.
A balance needs to be struck. There are many types of user on today’s canal and they need to co-exist sensibly. Visiting boaters have different mooring requirements from boaters based within London and that’s why we need short-stay visitor moorings in key locations.
Moving boats need turning circles and places to pause, hence the need for “No mooring” stretches. Walkers make good use of the towpath and they like to see wildlife as well as boats, so the canal will lose its value as a green corridor if every available parking space is filled.
The Canal and River Trust (CRT) has started to address the London mooring problem and is adapting its rules to protect existing boat dwellers who adopted their lifestyle while its predecessor, British Waterways, was caught napping. It will try to educate or deter newcomers who would otherwise have been unprepared for water-borne life. These ideas seem sensible and fair on paper, but how will the public react?
I fear that an authority like the CRT will struggle to win public support for its plans without referring to independent groups like the Friends of Regent’s Canal. This is because the public will draw comparisons with the hugely unpopular parking policies that have toppled council leaders, harmed businesses and penalised vulnerable citizens. But with the canal it is very different because members of the public are victims of canal congestion and they should welcome a degree of parking control.
It is our open space and we all need to take a balanced interest in protecting it.
Chair, Friends of Regent’s Canal