Kennet and Avon Canal boaters fear new charge 'could make people homeless'

  • Watch Imogen McGuckin's report.

People living on the Kennet and Avon Canal in Wiltshire say rising licence fees for boaters "could make them homeless".

The Canal and River Trust is raising the cost of licences, above inflation, from April 2024, with a new surcharge for itinerant boaters, who are known as "continuous cruisers".

It follows what the trust called "significant cuts" to its government funding.

As itinerant boaters use facilities like locks more often than those with home moorings, the trust says they should pay more towards the maintenance of the waterways.

They will be hit by surcharge on top of the standard licence fee, which will rise to 25% over the next five years.

Many boaters believe this will disproportionately impact disabled people, those on low incomes and pensioners.

Martha's lived on the Kennet and Avon Canal for three years.

Martha McCarron, 22, is currently moored near Bradford-on-Avon. She is a continuous cruiser, which means she has to move on every 14 days.

Since 2015, Canal and River Trust guidelines have stated that continuous cruisers must travel a range of 20 miles within their licence period, which could be a year or six months.

Martha said: "It doesn't really make sense to me. They tell us to move more, and so we do, and now they say we have to pay more, because we move more. I just don't think it's very fair at all."

Impact on poorer boaters

An equality impact assessment carried out on behalf of the Canal and River Trust found that 52% of continuous cruisers who responded said that "finding a more affordable way to live"motivated them to take up their lifestyle.

According to the 2022 boater census, three quarters are aged over 55, and 33% with a mental or physical disability.

Pamela Smith, chair of the National Bargee Traveller Association, is moored near Devizes. She said the increasing fees would hit poorer boaters the hardest.

"People will not be able to afford the increases. I'm due to retire at the end of this year so after that I'll just be on a pension.

"I don't know how I'm going to be able to afford the increase, when it gets to a 25% surcharge, or whether I'll be able to carry on living in my home beyond the next five years."

Pamela Smith retires next year and is worries she'll have to give up her boat.

In the equality impact assessment, the trust acknowledged that the added cost of an increase in the boat licence "could be a contributing factor" to boaters' ability to continue to boat or to continue to live aboard their boat.

It also said: "The increase would have a greater impact on those boaters living aboard their boat; for those who could no longer afford to live aboard their boat, this could lead to homelessness and the need to seek housing provision from their local council."

Martha added: "They are going to make people homeless and they're saying that we need to go to our local councils and seek housing provision.

"There is a housing crisis going on in this country and there is no housing for us. And the main point is we already have a home."

Martha (right) and her friend Rob (left) say boaters are getting less for their money every year.

Run-down facilities

Martha's friend Rob Child has lived on the Kennet and Avon Canal for seven years.

"He said that despite rising licence fees, facilities for boaters - like toilets, water and Elsan points - were more run-down than ever.

"They're just closing the facilities all around so everyone has to go further, and further, and further.

"We're getting less and less for our money and the money goes up and up and up. It's just not right.

"I'm quite happy to pay my licence fee, but what I object to is the fact that the facilities that we're paying for within that fee just aren't available," Rob said.

Matthew Symonds (right) says the increased fees are necessary to keep the canals open.

Waterways at risk of closure

Matthew Symonds, national boating manager for the Canal River Trust said: "There's a real danger that if we don't maintain the waterways and can't secure the funding to do that, our canals will go into decline and they won't be there in future for boaters to use and for other people to benefit."We'd say to anyone who's concerned by the extra fees to get in touch and our welfare team can help identify funds to help you. If you find any facilities out of use, and we'll make sure we get them fixed as quick as we can."