Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Residential Boat Owners' Association (RBOA) (AFH 18)


  This paper will introduce you to a form of affordable housing you may not have thought of. The potential is limited in absolute numbers but removing some of the barriers to this form of housing could ease housing problems in some areas or at some stages in people's lives.

  We will also illustrate the difficulties encountered in trying to sustain imaginative housing solutions in the hope there may be something to learn for other housing ideas.


  We are a not-for-profit organisation run by unpaid, elected officials and many volunteers amongst the ordinary membership and their friends and families. We represent anyone who lives on a boat on the inland and coastal waters of the British Isles. Our income is derived entirely from members' subscriptions, sale of publications and donations.

  We were established in 1963 and are the only national body focused on representing residential boaters.

  The objects of the RBOA are:

    —  to safeguard existing residential moorings and to increase the number of residential moorings throughout the country;

    —  to maintain the variety of liveaboard lifestyles;

    —  to encourage high standards of boat ownership and residence to at least the standards laid down by the relevant navigation authority;

    —  to promote good relations between members and their landlords;

    —  to negotiate with national, local and other authorities whenever necessary in the interests of the Association and its members; and

    —  to encourage craft to cruise.

  The RBOA believes that residential boats and moorings can be an asset to their surroundings. They improve the safety of other users and the security of unoccupied boats and waterside premises and as an integral part of the economy, culture and heritage of the waterways, they generate life and interest.


  "Housing" is generally used to mean "house" or reality of some sort. "House" is used but "home" would more inclusive. We suspect it is ignorance not malice that causes this but it does lead to all manner of difficulties and exclusions.

  A boat is legally a chattel. You can elect for a boat to be your main residence for income tax and, when mortgage relief was available, you could claim tax relief on the interest for a loan to buy a boat if it was your home. However, you can be made homeless if you have legal costs awarded against you because it is houses that are protected, not homes that happen to be chattels. We won't bore you with the fun and games boat dwellers have with welfare benefits as we are sure you have the imagination to envisage the difficulties when a complex system is faced with an unanticipated set of circumstances.

What is a Residential Boat?

  Any covered vessel can be a home. The static pontoon with a small building sat upon it associated with the term "Houseboat" is very much in the minority. Usually, residential boats are indistinguishable from pleasure craft and their needs are no greater.

  Many live-aboards on inland waterways navigate regularly or even continuously. It is a common retirement dream amongst pleasure boaters (often realised) to sell or rent their homes and move on board.

  Live-aboards are not restricted to the inland waterways. A significant number live on sea-going vessels in estuaries, harbours and ports and travel around Britain and abroad.


  Living afloat is not necessarily a cheap option but it is an attainable aspiration for many people who cannot afford to occupy houses generally available on the open market. It does therefore fall within the scope of affordable housing.

  We are not suggesting that waterway authorities become housing providers but we see no reason why a system of grants and/or loans should not be available, perhaps through the Housing Corporation, to lease areas of land or waterscape and to construct residential moorings. Developers of adjoining land could also be required by planning agreements or conditions to provide residential moorings available at controlled rent levels.

  Residential moorings may be particularly appropriate where land or money is scarce. A boat often occupies less space than a house, and residential mooring can be provided at a fraction of the cost of building a house or flat. Possible locations where residential boats could ease the supply of affordable housing encompass rural areas as well as premium city waterside neighbourhoods.

  Living on a boat is often a life cycle choice for just the sort of people who are generating the pressure for additional housing—young singles, young couples, separated and divorced people, retired people. Partial boat dwelling with the boat in use as pied-a-terre during the working week is increasingly popular in London and Birmingham.


  We are diverse not only in location but in occupation and behaviour. A sociologist's study adjudicated us "not a sub-culture". We are however happy to be considered a "linear village" extending along the waterways, and around the coasts of Britain and beyond.

  The RBOA committee of the last five years has included an accountant, an architect, a journalist a bus driver, a lexicographer, a masseur, a youth worker, a consultant immunologist, a surgeon, a shop worker, a building restorer, a police officer and only one artist!

  An indicative survey carried out a few years ago indicated that there could be around 15,000 people living on boats in Britain.

  Some live-aboards stay put in immobile houseboats, many more, especially on canals, travel as much as their other commitments permit. Others fantasise that they are free spirits but never quite manage to complete that engine re-build!

  Many non-residential boaters could be regarded as living on their boat when they go on extended cruises.

  Many boaters aspire to retire and live aboard.

  Many could not enjoy boating if they had to afford house and boat.

  Those working in waterway-related businesses find it convenient and appropriate to live aboard.


  On the inland waterways, it is appropriate for use of the bank to be regulated for all moorers through mooring agreements that set standards in keeping with the location.

  We don't need much by way of facilities. Most boats have all necessary services and can be moved as necessary to take on water or dispose of rubbish and sewage. Power comes from batteries, gas, diesel or solid fuel, all of which can be stored on board. Water is kept in built-in tanks, sewage in tanks or portable toilets.

  On canals and non-tidal rivers, we need a reasonable depth of water so we can tie to the bank. Mooring rings or bollards are nice but we can usually hammer in mooring stakes.

  On tidal waters, rise and fall pontoons are marvellous, but rings fixed to runners on posts in proximity to the shore are adequate.

  Welcome us! Re-train waterway and planning officials to treat us as valued customers and put aside any personal prejudices about people pursuing an unconventional lifestyle.

  Low mooring fees are a major incentive. Why not offer free mooring for a limited period and kick start a new project with "pioneer" boats.

  There is a market for more luxurious facilities such as on-site water, sewage disposal, connections to mains electricity and telephone. These are welcome if not over-priced but are not essentials. We can travel for the first two, buy inverters to run power tools and computers and communicate by mobile 'phones, pagers, e-mail and the good old "snail mail" postal system. A dry dock may be valued more than an on-site laundrette!

  Some new mooring schemes would not be viable from a number of aspects (security, caretaker accommodation, financial) without there being a group of residential boats present.

  Residential boats can help safeguard wharves required for freight operations by generating an income and providing security. Boats can easily be moved when the wharf is required for freight movement.

  Waterways attract considerable interest from the general public. The presence of residential boats improves the safety of visitors and other waterway users (walkers, rowers, cyclists, anglers, holiday boaters) and the security of unoccupied boats and waterside premises. Residential boats are integral to the economic and cultural life of waterways, generating activity and underpinning essential businesses. By restoring old vessels that would otherwise lack a viable future, residential use helps to preserve both boats and boat building skills that are an important but often neglected part of our heritage.

  Because of these attributes and the ability to introduce them to a locality almost overnight, residential boats and moorings are uniquely suited to become "pioneer" communities in regeneration schemes. The RBOA already works with several waterway and planning authorities to increase awareness and encourage appropriate provision for our varied lifestyles. We believe this co-operation could and should be extended to many more areas where there are waterways.


  We responded to the proposed revisions to Planning Policy Guidance Note 3 (PPG3) on Housing. We begged for the eight words "Boats can be a form of affordable housing" to be inserted in the paper.

  We made several representations and eventually were granted an audience with a civil servant. We spent a frustrating time having every point we made carefully noted but blocked without reason. The expense of taking time off work and travelling to London to see someone who had clearly been instructed to reject any of our ideas was also annoying and not the best use of our resources.

  All we wanted was for local authorities, via the Guidance, to be given permission to consider us. Without a mention in the Guidance local authorities can just reject us out of hand as they have no policy framework to link us to.


  Birmingham City Centre needs residential boats to provide boats all year round on the waterspace, to draw attention to the historical and current use of the canals and to provide "safe ties on quality routes" for visiting holiday boats. Just think how often the boats at the Worcester Bar are photographed. People live at the Worcester Bar. People stop and stare and ask lots of questions when boats manoeuvre and tie up in the area.

  The canal would not attract that interest it does without boats and you won't get boats mooring and moving round a city centre area without the security of a permanent local live-aboard community. The waterways are a dynamic environment. It is vital that the elements that make them so attractive to so many people in so many ways are not lost through a careless failure to understand how the components come together.

  Both British Waterways and Birmingham City Council are very positive about residential boats and recognise the many benefits they bring. Despite this, live-aboard boaters often feel their existence is threatened. It is often not a case of anyone doing anything wrong, there is sometimes a lack of thought that may or may not be spotted and rectified. It must also be remembered that until very recently (1995), British Waterways at national level wanted residential boats to leave the waterways under their control. BW now have a national policy that welcomes residential boats.

  Many residential boaters have a lingering fear that they are not welcomed, merely temporarily tolerated. There is a view that the various authorities would prefer to remove us. They are just biding their time, thinking of ways to get us!

  It is vital that residential boats feel valued, not threatened, and are not enticed away or pushed out. Regard them as a fragile species, upset the local conditions too much and you'll lose them.

  Please find below a few recent examples from the boaters' perspective:

Redevelopment of Gas Street

  Gas Street used to have, pre-regeneration, the finest collection of working boats in the country. Most were lived on and many were worked from time to time. For a variety of reasons, the existing community was broken up and dispersed. This can be attributed to thoughtlessness, lack of good communications and the introduction of hefty mooring fees in addition to a change in the environment so dramatic and fundamental that it no longer suited many.

There is a persistent rumour that all the boats are going to be evicted from Gas Street. In just the last year (1998-99) because of . . .

  Proposal from British Waterways to construct Chinese-style Junk G8 conference—note there was no talk of evicting bank dwelling residents Rosie and Jim.

Hockley Port

  The original proposals for the expansion and redevelopment of Hockley were to evict all existing boats. Luckily residents discovered this in time to negotiate being allowed to stay. The unrest did result in a significant proportion of the existing community leaving.

Mail Box

  Boats at Granville Street Wharf have been removed. Boats at Holiday Wharf have gone. The developers were not informed by BW or the Council that there are moorings with residential planning permission at Holiday Wharf and that there have been residential boats at Granville Street Wharf for quite long enough for a Lawful Development Certificate.

Sherborne Street Wharf

  Persistent rumours that the wharf will go for up-market flats and boats will be evicted. Fear that people in the new flats overlooking the canal will resent living so close to cheaper dwellings and complain leading to harassment. Fear that mooring charges will be increased and non-residential boats permitted only.

Cambrian Wharf

  Residential moorings under threat from Rosie and Jim.

Icknield Port Loop

  Temporary but regularly used (especially as a sanctuary) moorings under threat from Rosie and Jim.

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