We won’t be barged out

Resident boaters say new water safety zones threaten their ability to live on the River Lea

The flotilla protest
All photos by Stephen Furner

Boaters who live and travel along the River Lea are protesting against the proposed introduction of safety zones along the navigation.

The Canal and River Trust (CRT) which manages the waterway wants to pilot two water safety zones (one between Tottenham Lock and Old Fort Lock, and another in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire), over a 12-month period.

It says this is because the waterways have become busier and more unsafe as boaters, rowers and paddle sports clubs compete for space.

Private boat owners say their ability to live on their boats is threatened because the water safety zones restrict their ability to moor in the designated areas. They are concerned about changes to them existing terms and conditions for private boat licences (fees paid annually to the CRT) which currently require them to travel at least 20 miles a year, partaking in ‘continuous cruising’ from one mooring to another, every fortnight. The boaters say the safety zones displace them and their families, potentially putting their licences at risk of seizure or termination.

Last month members of the boating community held a flotilla protest on the Hackney stretch of the Lea, challenging the CRT and defending their right to live on the waterway.

The National Bargee Travellers Association (NBTA) argue that the policy is ‘profoundly ill conceived, particularly in the context of a housing crisis and a pandemic.’ They also state that ‘evacuated canals will turn the towpaths into the danger zones they once were, prior to the growth in the
boating population.’

The CRT claim that the combined water safety zones (10km) amount to less than a quarter of the overall length of the Lee navigation. They say 3324 metres (10,905 ft) of the Lower Lea will be designated no mooring, but there will still be enough space for all river users.

Mychelle Colleary, a project manager who has lived on her boat for two years, refutes this, she said: “The CRT are saying that it’s only a quarter of the Lee navigation – well, it’s only that quarter that most people want to be in. I’d say the other two thirds of the navigation are too shallow, or too dangerous, or too far away from services. For instance, Springfield Marina is one of the only places where there is a working pump out toilet. Once I leave Springfield Marina, its 15 miles and 15 locks before the next working pump out – that takes more than two days travel.

“I like hanging out at Markfield Park when I come into town. I tend to head out from Tottenham, down the whole stretch through Hackney Marshes, Bow, and the Limehouse Cut mile. I like hanging out in the communities − we are a community even though we’re not there all the time.”

Mychelle believes that the CRT have unfairly prioritised the river’s rowing clubs above liveaboard boaters, who were not included in any of the consultations leading up to the safety zone proposals.

NBTA representative Colin Legge says that all meetings regarding the proposals (between 2018-2020) were conducted with rowing clubs only. He states that boaters were not made aware of increased safety issues, and that engagement has only now come about because of recent protests that have “forced [the CRT] into a position where they actually have to do the consultation they should have done in the first place.”

He added: “We want to be consulted properly and for the CRT to come up with proper justification for these safety zones, and we want for them to talk to us about solutions. There are much softer solutions that could be implemented, which just haven’t been explored.

“I think the whole thing is a very biased proposal. […] It’s very difficult to understand it as a safety issue when the data is lacking.”

The CRT say that between 2014 and 2019 there were more than 240 safety incidents within the proposed water safety zones. It states there were 29 incidents between unpowered and powered craft in the Lower Lea section over the five-year period.

NBTA argue that the number of incidents per year on average are very small, and the limited safety data the CRT has provided doesn’t justify displacing the boating community.

Lea Rowing Club is calling for the immediate implementation of the water safety zones, stating that canal boat moorings have ‘halved the usable width of the river’. It says that the proposals will ensure that mooring is ‘more organised and structured’, and claims that without this action from the CRT, the Lee navigation could ‘become unviable as a recreational sports asset.’

The CRT says the timescale for the water safety zones will be confirmed following further engagement. It did not provide Tottenham Community Press with a direct quote when approached.