Living on the Kennet & Avon Canal - a slippery slope to eviction?
Bargees living on the Kennet and Avon Canal near Marlborough say the canal authorities are making their way of life impossible and will join a protest organised by the National Bargee Travellers Association (NBTA).
The Canal and River Trust (CRT), which manages the canal system in England and Wales, has toughened up its interpretation of the rules governing how far owners without permanent moorings must move their boats every two weeks. Failure to comply could mean bargees being turned off the canal and losing their homes.
The result according to local barge dwellers, like Kara Dhyan, is to make it almost impossible to access local services like schools and doctors or to hold down a job.
Kara has lived on the canal for 22 years with her three children. Two of the children have now left school but one, who was born on the boat, is at a local primary.
Kara runs a horse therapy business near Bedwyn, and volunteers for Riding for the Disabled: “If we have to travel further, it will make it very difficult to get my son to school."
It can be a hard life. Water, gas cylinders and rubbish have to be carried along the tow-path sometimes for up to a mile. Possessions have to be kept to a minimum to squeeze everything on board - though the boat is 54 feet long it is only 12 feet wide.
Kara says it is quite warm thanks to a wood burning stove and that the compensation of living right in the middle of the countryside more than makes up for any discomfort: “I can open the side hatches on my barge, and look straight out at the fields”.
What she also loves is the sense of community with other 'live aboards'. But this, she says, is threatened by the new way the CRT is interpreting the licence conditions bargees need in order to keep their boats on the canal.
She gives the example of a woman with cancer who is supported by other boat dwellers who help with shopping and regular visits to her doctor: “We are really worried about how she is going to cope if we all have to move on."
She fears that the CRT is trying to get rid of permanent canal dwellers to make more room for tourist boats. She points to the proposed new marina outside Hungerford which will accommodate boats for hire: “We don’t mind tourists if they love the canal as much as we do, but we need better facilities too - like more moorings and water points."
Bargees have always had to change their moorings regularly. This is partly a hangover from the time local parishes feared they would become financially responsible if bargees settled within their boundaries.
Under the 1995 British Waterways Act, licences can only be given to boats which are used 'bona fide for navigation throughout the period for which the consent is valid without remaining in any one place for more than 14 days or such longer period as is reasonable in the circumstances'. That last phrase - 'reasonable in the circumstances' - has always been open to interpretation.
Until recently bargees have been able to get away with cruising up and down for about ten miles. This made it possible for them to register with a doctor and put their children into schools.
But the CRT now has a different interpretation. It says the boat owners must be 'continuously cruising up to 20 miles a year in any one direction.' For Kara that would mean travelling as far as Reading which is miles from her son’s school.
In March, the CRT announced it was toughening up the implementation of these licence conditions. Failure to comply will mean bargees will only be given a six month restricted licence instead of the usual yearly one.
If they still break the conditions, owners will be evicted from the canal. The trust says that since May 2015, it has been dong all it can to provide greater clarity to boaters without home moorings.
For example, it has been sending messages to over-stayers to see if they need any help. Mike Grimes, the CRT’s head of boating, said in a press release that over the last year half those issued with three month licences - and nearly two-thirds of those on six month licences - had 'improved their cruising pattern' and were then offered further licences.
Ms Dhyan says what is particularly worrying is that the licence conditions are so subjective and that everyone is now on edge - fearing eviction: ”They are so arbitrary. Two boats doing exactly the same journey can be treated differently."
"The CRT writes to you and tells you they are starting proceedings to evict you because you haven’t travelled far enough. When you ask them how far they require you to travel, they freely admit that they cannot tell you how far to move. It’s crazy."
A recent meeting between members of the NBTA and the CRT brought only limited clarification. For example, the CRT confirmed that boaters are not required to engage in a 'progressive journey', which would appear to suggest that it is all right to go up and down rather than in one direction, but it also said that a ten mile range was not enough, though it did not make clear what was sufficient.
The barge owners also said in their report of the meeting, that the CRT is not prepared to give any leeway to boat dwellers with children, and would only agree 'reasonable adjustments' for finite periods of time to boaters with disabilities.
Mr Grimes said the Trust, supported by its welfare officer, would approach each case sympathetically. He urged any boater in difficulties to talk to the Trust as soon as possible.
Pressure for moorings is increasing all the time as more people who cannot afford to buy a house, move onto the canal. In the last ten years the number of licensed boats has increased from 25,745 to over 32,000. Around 20 per cent do not have home moorings which means they have to move regularly.
On some waterways, particularly in London, this has caused considerable congestion. The CRT says this is made worse if boats sit on their moorings too long, and others are prevented from tying up.
The CRT is currently carrying out enforcement proceedings on 45 owners.
Kara says living on a boat was once a peaceful way of life, but it’s getting increasingly stressful. But I wouldn’t give it up without a fight. We have got to stand together."
So on May 10 she will join other bargee protestors at the CRT’s headquarters in Milton Keynes.