Boat licence discrimination

Published: Thursday, 02 November 2023

THE National Bargee Travellers Association (NBTA) accuse Canal & River Trust (CRT) of making continuous cruisers moving targets and states:

This time with its excuse being financial—the weight of its budget shortfall is to be somehow paid for by surcharging the licence of boaters without home moorings known as ‘continuous cruisers’, an escalating surcharge which will double the cost of their licences over five years.

Only 2% of CRT income

The association points out that with only 2% of CRT income coming from boaters without home moorings, these new surcharges are relatively inconsequential for them, but potentially life changing for a largely marginal community of travelling boaters, some of whom face being priced off the waterways they call home.

Dividing boaters into multiple sub-groups, and setting us against each other on who should subsidise the other, doesn’t raise finance, but rather helps them rid the waterways of the undesirable, financially insecure travelling boaters that they resent having to accommodate. Boaters are coming together, resolved to defend our way of life and demand the continuation of one licence for all.

Are CRT serious about its finances, or the canals, at all? It is simply not feasible or financially sound, for boaters without home moorings to subsidise canal use for those who can afford home moorings. To illustrate the short-sightedness and imbalance of this proposal, an alternative annual 1% increase above inflation across all boat licences would generate more income—and without heartlessly and knowingly driving many pensioners and low-income earners who live on boats without home moorings into hardship and poverty.

In fact, it’s more likely that this initiative will lose money on balance. Unaffordable licence costs will lead to more defaulting, unlicenced boats, whichvia the criminalising of their inhabitants and costly Section 8 ‘canal eviction’ proceedingswill cost CRT £10,000 in each case by latest estimates.

We believe this discrimination

A brief look at the past suggests that this CRT plan for a licence surcharge is part of a longer history of discrimination. For decades, waterways management have been trying to rid the navigation of itinerant boaters (those without a home mooring):

• In the Bill which became the British Waterways Act 1995, British Waterways (the state-owned predecessor of CRT) wanted it to be a criminal offence to keep a boat on the waterways without a home mooring.
• In 2002 in an attempt to encourage itinerant boaters onto moorings, they proposed a licence for boats without home moorings at 2.5 times the normal licence price.
• Enforcement strategies to make boaters travel 120 different lock miles every three months without turning back were entertained in 2003.
• In 2005 the proposed increase for boats without a home mooring was 147%.
• In 2008 proposals to increase the tariff by £150 were again successfully challenged.
• Rather than implement an increase in 2017 which would be 'fairer and less complicated' in charging us more, CRT halved the early payment discount, put a surcharge on wider boats and have been replacing miles of moorable towpath into chargeable moorings and introducing over-zealous ‘safety zones’ ever since.

Why have CRT’s efforts always failed? Because, aside from being discriminatory, impractical and unpopular, they are also unlawful. Section 17(3)(c)(ii) of the British Waterways Act of 1995 enshrines in law 'the right of all licence holders to use and live on a boat without a home mooring'. The licence comes first, not the circumstances in which you use it.

CRT have had more than enough time, and knowledge to prepare for their financial situation. They’ve always known their government funding was going to end, and they’ve had much longer than plannedand more fundingto transition to a self-sustaining model. Instead of using the time to make best use of their sizeable endowment from the state, they have mismanaged and wasted their resources by outsourcing key functions at massive cost, asset-stripping, and prioritising aesthetically charitable initiatives that don’t make financial sense, such as public volunteering and failed fund raising schemes. Using the upcoming reduction in funding and their inability to respond ethically to rising boat numbers on the canals, they’re disingenuously playing the victim, and using it as pretext to turn on their old punch bag yet againitinerant boaters.

Unsubstantiated claims

CRT are making unsubstantiated claims about the impact of our way of life. Claims regarding itinerant boaters enjoying 'greater utility in use of the network'  and 'greater impact on ageing infrastructure' are not backed up by any evidence, and do not reflect real experiences of the waterwaysdemonstrating further CRT’s disconnect from the realities of the public infrastructure that they are responsible for.

There is no proof that itinerant liveaboard boaters put more strain on the network’s facilities than other boaters. In fact, seasonal and leisure boaters with home mooringsand to a greater degree holiday hire boaterslikely have an equal or heavier toll on facilities and infrastructure, as they lack experience and treat the waterways as someone else’s problem when things aren’t looked after. Many also travel further, and with more people on board, which also takes its toll.

In additiondue to inconsistent availability and frequent malfunctioning of CRT facilitieswe often use private facilities for water, waste disposal and rubbish. We are not enjoying the services we already pay for, and are aware of proposals to reduce services further.

An asset to the waterways

We’re an asset to the waterways in ways that CRT refuse to acknowledge. Evidence and simple logic suggest facilities are better off with us using them year-round (such as preventing the wood in lock gates drying out and cracking and steel mechanisms rusting during winter) and regularly reporting wear and tear, and often even doing maintenance ourselves (such as removing fallen trees or cutting back foliage in under maintained areas).
Looking further back, much of the waterways network was un-navigable in the 70s and 80sit was predominantly itinerant boaters who opened it up and now keep it moving.

We bring safety and community to previously no-go areas of cities and the countryside. We’re a unique feature of canals across the UK, and a part of the ecosystemwithout us the canals would be desolate and falling into disrepair.

They hide behind public misunderstanding of their ‘charitable’ status, and manipulated data from a flawed public survey. Data from their own ‘consultation’ survey which they used to justify this licence surcharge showed that despite the biased and misleading way that questions were phrasedstill a majority of 60% of boaters choose options which did not include charging boats without home moorings more. They have manipulated results to make a case for a discriminatory fine on our way of life and expected us not to notice.

What do they really want?

CRT (and BW before them) seem to wish to socially cleanse and curate the waterways for luxury, leisure and affluent mooring cost premiums, especially in urban areas, turning them into un-navigable leisure resorts. This in the context of wider social dispossession, underfunding of public services, and widening inequality - with the poor and marginalised subsidising the rich and secure.

What do we want?

Our community would like recognition of the value that itinerant boaters contribute to the waterways, decent services for the money we already pay, and one set of increases applied equally and fairly to all.

Ought to be within the remit

Generating finance fairly ought to be within the remit of a charitable trust. The proposed surcharge and its rationale are insincere political manoeuvres designed to segregate and marginalise travelling boaters, with no serious concern for canal management finances at all.

Pamela Smith, Chair of the NBTA, comments:

“CRT’s latest attack on the travelling boater community is discriminatory, unpopular, financially illiterate and quite possibly unlawfulnone of which comes as a surprise given the trust’s increasingly chaotic mismanagement, and desperate attempts to distract from it in any way they can.

"This time, however, they’ve only strengthened the resolve of many in the boater community - both with and without home mooringsto resist their attempts to eradicate our whole way of life and demand one licence for all. Hundreds have actively joined the campaign of resistance so far, and anger with the Trust is at a fever pitch. The NBTA are helping to channel this energy, and to ensure thatjust like every other time CRT or British Waterways before them have tried to get rid of our communitywe stand united, strong and victorious in our opposition.

"We encourage anyone who cares about the boating community and wants to hold the CRT to account to attend our protest at CRTs central offices in Birmingham at midday on 25th November, and to join or find out more about our campaign by emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. "