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Boat dwellers threaten council with legal action over ‘unreasonable mooring fee hike’

People living in Bristol Harbour claim the lack of consultation over the increase to mooring fees, which is due to come into force in April, was unlawful. 


The dispute over the council’s proposed hike in mooring fees could now play out in the court, because boat dwellers have threatened the council with legal action.

The Bristol Boaters Community Association (BBCA) are seeking a judicial review of the council’s decision to hike mooring fees without enough community consultation. The group sent a pre-action letter on 16 March, and the council has until 4pm on the 30 March to respond. 

“We feel like we’ve been shit on. From a great height,” Richard Rankin, owner of tour company Severn Boats, told the Cable. Under the new system, his annual licensing fees would go up from £16,000 to more than £40,000. “But we are not going to take it lying down,” he adds.  

The fee hike has been justified by mayor Marvin Rees as a necessary move to make the Harbour financially self-sufficient, fix infrastructure and become commercially viable. But businesses like Richard’s would be put under strain. 

And for boat dwellers, mooring fees would go up by as much as 150%. For boaters we’ve spoken to, living in the Harbour was a cheaper alternative to Bristol’s increasingly unaffordable housing market, but they could now be priced out as well. 

“We want to help Bristol City Council to get this right, and we are saddened and frustrated that legal action might be needed to bring them to the table,” said a spokesperson from the BBCA. They, along with Bristol Cruising Club, and Cabot Cruising Club are the parties bringing the Judicial Review, a type of legal proceedings used to challenge the lawfulness of the decision of a public body. 

Represented by Watkins Solicitors, the claimants are bringing the case on the grounds that there was a lack of proper community consultation and not all the relevant materials were bought in the case. They have also launched a crowdfunder to pay for the case. 

Nobody wants this to happen, our backs are against the wall. We have made this decision in order to uphold standards set out by Bristol City Council and in order to safeguard our community’s future in Bristol Harbour

Bristol Boaters Community Association

Bristol City Council have until Friday to respond. The claimants could decide to take the case to court for a judicial review, if the local authority decide not to accept their demands.

So, how did we get here? For landlubbers, the storm brewing into the Harbour may have escaped your notice. And with the proposed fee hike due to come into force on 6 April, the situation has come to a head. The Cable has been following the story for the past two months, here’s why it’s resorted to legal action. 

‘By the time we heard, it was already a done deal’

It was a fateful Cabinet meeting on 24 January, where the Schedule of Fees and Charges to support the Harbour Authority to become financially self-sufficient was approved. 

“The Harbour makes a loss, and we need an investment which can fix the crumbling infrastructure and modernise the facilities,” said Marvin Rees. “The Harbour needs to pay its way, especially given the financial pressures on the council.

“It’s important for the council to be self-sufficient, and benchmarking exercises have been done to bring Bristol in line with other marina’s in the city and commercial harbours,” he continued. “There’ll be plenty of engagement opportunities in the weeks to come.”

“But by then we had no chance to input, it was already a done deal by then,” said Mandy Sharman, head of the BBCA. Speaking to Cable after the meeting, she said they had little time to organise their response, after finding out about the proposed fee hike a week before the council meeting. 

They quickly sprung into action though to lodge a petition which got 2,200 signatures in just five days, as well as 79 public forum statements, and 50 questions. They packed out the public gallery in City Hall, and heckled the agenda item heavily to voice their concerns.  

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Tensions were already running high – after the mayor had published a blog post just the day before describing boaters as a privileged few, abusing the system, which ruffled some feathers. 

The engagement opportunities promised by Marvin Rees came in the form of a series of open information sharing sessions, delivered by the Harbour Review Committee, who the council had delegated to organise fee hike. 

But, according to Sharman, these were “sham consultations”, because “they made it clear that there is no budging on the [fees].” 

Life on the boat: value for money? 

“I was saving for a house deposit but I couldn’t afford a house so a boat was my only option really,” says Sharman, who has lived on a boat for 12 years with her partner and child. At first she had a small canal boat by Temple Meads, before saving money for a bigger one where she lives now. 

“Boat life is hard work, really hard work,” she says. “You’ve got to fill your water tank, I’ve run out of electrics tonight, lumping all the coal and the wood in and out, keeping the place dry, getting on top of the rust as well…” 

“But it’s completely worth it. It’s a fantastic community and you’re in the middle of the city but it’s also quite peaceful and spacious.” 

At the moment, the mooring fees are worked out according to the length of your boat, whether you have access to water or electricity, and whether you’re on a pontoon or on a wall, ranging from £117 per metre to £188 per metre.

At present, many people are living on their boats under leisure licences with no fixed address, which means they can’t register to vote, have post, or apply for housing benefit. Some boat dwellers have said they were happy to make that sacrifice for the cheaper rent. 

With the new licensing model, people wanting to live on their boats will all be required to apply for costly live aboard licences. In addition, there will be no variation in price for different areas, which means more money for no more services. 

The council say prices were calculated by a benchmarking survey done by property company Savills to calculate costs. But the BBCA and others have looked into them, and said it’s not like for like, because it compares Bristol Harbour to fancy marina’s with facilities. 

If mooring fees are to be in line with marina prices, the facilities need to follow suit, says Sharman, including laundrettes, recycling, postal pigeon holes, storage and communal facilities. 

The documents used in benchmarking exercises were not supplied in the Cabinet meeting. In February, the BBCA requested copies of documents as part of the Harbour Review, but were denied. 

Instead the boaters researched and published their own benchmarking study, comparing services and facilities provided in different parts of Bristol Harbour with what is provided in the harbours used in the original its benchmarking exercise. In their legal letter, they argue that their evidence should be considered in any future calculation of fees. 

Failure to consult 

In their pre-action letter to the council, the BBCA say this lack of consultation was unlawful, and that the results of the Harbour Review, which informed the decision to increase mooring fees, have still not been made public.

The letter says that boat dwellers expected to be consulted based on what had been said publicly about the Harbour Review. And more recently, the BBCA say, the council’s ‘drop in events’ after the decision had been made to increase fees were “no substitute whatsoever for thorough public consultation prior to decision making”.

In a statement, the BBCA said: “Nobody wants this to happen, our backs are against the wall. We have made this decision in order to uphold standards set out by Bristol City Council and in order to safeguard our community’s future in Bristol Harbour. 

“We sincerely hope that demonstrating our willingness to defend our democratic right will initiate a genuine open consultation around the new fees. We hope the Mayor’s office will reconsider and hold their decision.”

The demands in the letter are to reverse the fee hike, review the council’s processes relating to the Harbour Review and conduct a public consultation before any increase in fees above inflation. 

A council spokesperson said: “As with all legal claims we are unable to comment.”

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  • The last time the Floating Harbour faced an existential crisis was in the 60s when the council proposed filling in great swathes to situate the M32 roundabout on St Augustines Reach and build major roads across it. Fortunately public protest and the fuel crisis put paid to these plans and instead of a dead centre we have a thriving multi-use harbour.
    Any first year Geography student could tell the Council that the Harbour more than pays for itself in amenity value. If the Council’s current plans come to fruition the Harbour will become yet another generic regeneration/gentrification site with soulless glass and steel high rises and zero character. People will stop coming, businesses will close and it will be another corporate ghost town; buildings way beyond human scale with heavily curated ‘nature’ in tiny boxes. You just have to look at some of the current developments and plans to see this future.
    The people who have lived (with the tacit permission of the Council) and the small businesses who have worked on the Harbour for over 20 years contribute to the rich tapestry that brings people from all over the world to visit this example of successful regeneration. They are important, not only as citizens, but as part of the life blood of the Harbour. Please don’t kill it.


  • Bristol Boaters Mandy Sharman, Sabina Douglas,
    BCC Rent Hike crowd funder with Joanna Booth & Tony Gosling


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