The freedom and tranquil bliss of canal networks are attracting young people to take up a transient life on the water. With a comfortable, live-on-board narrowboats averaging between £20,000-£30,000, its clear life afloat is cost effective. And it’s a global trend, everywhere from Silicon Valley to Northern Europe. Nowhere is it more true than the center of world finance, London, England.
A report from Swiss Bank UBS says London is “less affordable for locals who wanted to buy than any city except Hong Kong” https://www.theguardian.com/money/2015/oct/29/london-house-prices-most-overvalued-world-ubs. Foreign investment and enticing buy-to-let schemes have made it near impossible for young Londoners to even contemplate owning their own home in the future.
Walking along the Regent’s Canal between Haggerston and Islington, it is easy to see what attracts people onto the water. The life of houseboat residents is idyllic. Moorhens, swans and mallards drift alongside the porthole of your bedroom and as the sun sets on the bow of the boat, the bars and restaurants that line the canal are just outside your front door.
Its a sustainable life on the canals. Residents are well stocked up with firewood for their wood-burners and a stalwart part of the top deck is the 25kg bag of coal. Water buts for excess water are used as storage on most boats. The main supply of water is procured from pumping stations along the canal. Similarly, waste is disposed of at sewage stations. Many houseboat residents have large sacks of compost and soil in order to grow small vegetables and herbs on the roof of the boat. Whilst passing by one delightful canal boat one mile from Angel I was welcomed by the face of Jeremy Corbyn. The inhabitants of this particular boat had planted a Support Corbyn poster outside their vessel. There is a sense that the younger members of the canal community are a left leaning group who were seeking to define their own water based sub-culture. A warming sight whilst strolling along the towpath were two men, back from work, enjoying the evening on the water. They had speakers set out on deck, a crate of beers, and a PlayStation linked up in front of them proving you can still get hold of all the home comforts you desire.
I spoke to Daisy, a 27 year old Londoner who will be moving onto her houseboat in early February 2016. Having spent her early twenties moving from rented flats in east to west London and a brief stint in a woodland commune in Surrey, the housing crises in the capital caused her to consider narrowboat living. When she came into some inheritance, the first thing that came into her head was to buy a canal boat and with her boyfriend’s carpenter expertise they set about renovating there £30,000 boat over the course of a year. Solar panels are fixed onto the roof and will provide the majority of their electricity. Calor gas drums have been purchased and an aerial is fixed onto the roof. The bicycle is to be their primary mode of transport when stepping out into the city. With the canal side towpath providing a picturesque commute around London, the journey to work will be sans sardine packed tubes, silent shoe-staring and the mass exodus out of the underground sweatboxes. Kentish Town’s section of the Regent’s Canal is where they hope to initially moor.
Daisy explained to me that it was the canal’s sense of freedom that was of great appeal to her and her boyfriend. The term self-sufficiency cropped up regular during our discussion and the idea of no longer being at the mercy of the utility companies and stamp duty, appeared to be bliss. Daisy was looking forward to not only living in different parts of London with transitory status, but also the surrounding counties. However, if one is to consider moving from the standard four-walled, tiled roof, all amenities house into a 7 foot wide, 50 foot long, floating home, they need to ask themselves: is this a viable option and how much is it realistically going to cost?
Here’s a breakdown of the costs of living on a narrowboat:
Purchasing the narrowboat – £20,000 – £30,000 for a suitable and comfortable boat.
Canal and River Trust (C&RT) annual cruising license – £900 for a 50ft boat.
Mooring cost – £4000 per annum (Poplar Dock Marina 2010.)
Initial Maintenance – £500.
Fuel/Diesel – 35-40p per litre/£300 -£350 per annum for intensive cruising.
Insurance – £300
Variable costs include toilet emptying, which if done five times a year would cost about £70. Maintenance upkeep can cost around £150 a year. Four bottles of gas will cost about £70 and 15 bags of coal around £85.
However, lifestyle changes can reduce these costs. If you are a continuous cruiser and have no fixed home mooring, constant movement can mean that you don’t have to apply for a fixed mooring. Although, recent redevelopment of the C&RT rules are blurring what constitutes a non-fixed abode. According to the C&RT towpath mooring regulation, ““Place” can only be defined within a local context. That’s why we’re trying to develop local mooring plans in true cooperation with all sections of the boating community”. In a nutshell, the guidelines state that:
• The boat must genuinely be used for navigation throughout the period of the licence.
• Unless a shorter time is specified by notice the boat must not stay in the same place for more than 14 days (or such longer period as is reasonable in the circumstances).
• It is the responsibility of the boater to satisfy CRT that the above requirements are and will continue to be met.
Loose rules appear to be in place that mean in order to not have a fixed abode, one must cruise more than 30km during their license period. See here for all the FAQs on mooring regulations: https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/media/library/2305.pdf.
There is also no local property tax . And if solar panels, wood and coal are used to run amenities, electricity bills have the potential to become non-existent. Living outside London will also dramatically diminish the cost of mooring if you want to be considered a fixed-abode boater.
Meanwhile, back on dry land the UBS bubble index puts London in extreme danger of losing its status as a city of homeowners. Fundamentals such as growth and liability saw a surge in property investment as the economy began to improve post-crash. A loose monetary policy during this period initiated a herd instinct that has led to housing price increases of 40% since the start of 2013. This culminated in the Land Registry declaring that the average price of a London home was nearly £500,000 with inflation running at 9.6%.
Resolution Foundation conducted a survey as to why Briton’s aren’t getting on the housing ladder https://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/property/house-prices/12057861/Millions-give-up-on-home-ownership-as-house-prices-soar.html. They discovered that depressingly 11% of 2,000 people never expect to buy in their lifetime and 46% said they could not afford “up-front costs such as deposits, stamp duty and estate agent fees”. Exactly a third said that mortgage costs were unaffordable and with bonuses not being taken into account, middle earners were struggling to meet mortgage requirements. UBS continued their critique of London’s housing situation with the realisation that it will take a “skilled service-sector worker approximately 14 years of average earnings to be able to buy a 60 sq m dwelling; the expense of buying a flat is comparable to renting it for 30 years”.
All in all, in the long run, living on the canal and river networks of Britain is an extremely viable option due to the nightmarish nature of the housing market. Not only is it possible to own your own home but one will achieve a sense of freedom that many struggle to find, especially in a sprawling metropolis like London. Rather than returning after work to a box room amid the noise and bustle of the high street, one could find themselves enjoying the sounds of the river. Think Wind in the Willows but with bistros, jazz bars and art galleries just round the river bend.
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