WHY A LIFE AFLOAT MIGHT HELP SOLVE LON­DON’S CHRONIC HOUS­ING CRI­SIS

▶ Nar­row­boats of­fer the ben­e­fits of city liv­ing with­out the crip­pling costs of rent­ing or buy­ing

The National - News - - BUSINESS -

In Lon­don, which suf­fers from one of the most ex­pen­sive prop­erty mar­kets in Europe, thousands have found al­ter­na­tive hous­ing for less than the cost of a park­ing space – although it helps if you can re­pair an en­gine or plug a leaky hull.

Nar­row­boats, which are not much wider than a king-size bed, have gained in pop­u­lar­ity for those will­ing to sac­ri­fice space and some crea­ture com­forts. Moor­ings on the city’s 160-kilo­me­tre canal net­work can be had for about £1,000 (Dh4,713) a year. The water­ways criss-cross the me­trop­o­lis, al­low­ing boaters to live in posh ar­eas such as Prim­rose Hill and St John’s Wood at a frac­tion of the cost paid by their land-based neigh­bours.

Even with Brexit hold­ing down price in­creases, Lon­don homes av­er­aged more than £609,000 this month, about 20 times the cost of a se­cond-hand 18-me­tre nar­row boat. The city is now home to up­wards of 4,200 canal boats, more than dou­ble the num­ber of a decade ago. Au­thor­i­ties are scram­bling to cre­ate ad­di­tional moor­ings to avoid the same kind of jump in liv­ing costs that drove peo­ple to the wa­ter in the first place.

Liam Mertens, 28, a self-em­ployed artist, strug­gled to qual­ify for a mort­gage and de­cided to try canal life. He and his part­ner spent £83,000 for a 18-me­tre nar­row boat. About two thirds of the price went to cover a cov­eted per­ma­nent moor­ing where they can re­main con­nected to the power grid, get wa­ter and deal with sewage. “We were in a rental sit­u­a­tion and we didn’t re­ally have the job sta­bil­ity to get a mort­gage and we wanted to stay in Lon­don,” he said. “It was the best way to have our own space and stay.”

The cou­ple set about fix­ing up the boat, rip­ping out the walls and re­do­ing the bed­room and the bath­room. Mr Mertens honed his plumb­ing skills and learnt about elec­tric sys­tems and mo­tors, crit­i­cal knowl­edge on the canals, where many prob­lems can’t wait for a con­trac­tor to ar­rive.

“There are mo­ments I felt like cry­ing, for sure,” he said. “Now, I feel it’s un­der con­trol.”

Mr Mertens is one of the for­tu­nate ones with a per­ma­nent moor­ing. Prices for the spa­ces have been ris­ing, given the grow­ing de­mand. Some of the choic­est moor­ings now cost more than £12,000 a year and have been sub­ject to an­nual in­creases of 15 per cent.

Partly be­cause of the ris­ing costs, most of the new de­mand is for per­mits al­low­ing “con­tin­u­ous cruis­ing”, which can be had for a frac­tion of a per­ma­nent berth. But there’s a catch: boaters can only re­main in one spot for two weeks be­fore mov­ing on. To keep their li­cence, they are ex­pected to travel within a 32-kilo­me­tre ra­dius through­out the year.

Cruis­ing re­quires a lot more plan­ning and nav­i­ga­tion skills. The boaters must be mind­ful of load­ing up on wa­ter and deal­ing with waste dis­posal at the sta­tions sprin­kled across the canal net­work. Nav­i­gat­ing the canals means pass­ing through locks, which are man­u­ally op­er­ated and gen­er­ally re­quire at least two peo­ple to open. The con­stant change of ad­dress com­pli­cates com­mut­ing or get­ting chil­dren to school.

“There is a much younger de­mo­graphic of boaters than we have in other places,” said Matthew Sy­monds, na­tional boat­ing man­ager at the Canal and River Trust, which man­ages the canal net­work. “It’s more af­ford­able, if you don’t mind liv­ing in a slightly smaller space.”

An an­nual con­tin­u­ous cruis­ing li­cence costs about £1,000 for a typ­i­cal nar­row boat. The trust es­ti­mated in 2018 that the num­ber of boats in Lon­don could in­crease by more than a third, or al­most 1,700, by 2022. The group ex­pects as much as 70 per cent of those to be con­tin­u­ous cruis­ers.

Mr Sy­monds is lead­ing the Canal and River Trust’s new moor­ing strat­egy that if im­ple­mented would add 1,800 me­tres of long-term moor­ing, or about 100 new spa­ces, and im­prove the net­work of tem­po­rary berths. Main­te­nance of the age­ing sys­tem is a con­stant chal­lenge for the trust.

The bulk of the net­work was de­vel­oped in the 18th cen­tury to link the man­u­fac­tur­ing heart­land with Lon­don, and the canals were cru­cial to the UK’s rise as an in­dus­trial power. Ex­pand­ing train and road trans­port even­tu­ally made the net­work ob­so­lete, and it fell into a long pe­riod of ne­glect and dis­re­pair. Restora­tion in the 1970s for leisure pur­poses helped ex­pand canal liv­ing as

ris­ing prop­erty prices made nar­row­boats a cheaper and bu­colic al­ter­na­tive to city life.

Boaters are free to roam the en­tire 3,200km na­tional canal sys­tem, which stretches to Manch­ester and Leeds in the north. A trip that far would take about four weeks, given that the boats don’t move much faster than some­one walk­ing along the wa­ter­way.

The River Thames is not part of the net­work, but also al­lows for wa­ter liv­ing with much more space and com­fort than on the nar­row canals. Mike Leitch got hooked on the life­style after keep­ing a nar­row boat in a gritty in­dus­trial area of West Lon­don for week­end get­aways while work­ing in Ger­many as Euro­pean di­rec­tor of Piab Group, an au­toma­tion and ro­bot­ics com­pany.

“It was an in­dus­trial area, but if you are look­ing down and up the canal from the boat, it was just stun­ning,” he said. “There were beau­ti­ful sun­rises and sun­sets and the swans are there. You could imag­ine you were liv­ing in par­adise.”

Upon his per­ma­nent re­turn to Lon­don in 2016, he wanted to be back on the wa­ter but had some­thing a bit grander in mind. He bought a 37-me­tre, 100-tonne barge in the Nether­lands and sailed it across the English Channel and up the Thames. He now moors in Bat­tersea, where the berth alone cost as much as a small apart­ment – about £500,000. The ves­sel has an eat-in kitchen, two bed­rooms, a liv­ing room and a re­tractable sun­roof.

Life on the Thames with fer­ries ply­ing the river and a he­li­port nearby is not as peace­ful as the canals, but Mr Leitch still loves be­ing on the wa­ter. “Every time I walk down the pier, I say to my­self, you’re a lucky guy,” he said.

We didn’t re­ally have the job sta­bil­ity to get a mort­gage. It was the best way to have our own space and stay in Lon­don LIAM MERTENS House­boat res­i­dent

Ris­ing hous­ing costs in Lon­don have fu­elled a surge in the num­ber of peo­ple seek­ing cheaper ac­com­mo­da­tion on boats. Main pic­ture: River Thames house­boats at low tide

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