Since January 2023, when extortionate new mooring fees were announced, Bristol’s boat dwellers have been locked in a fight with the council.
Having tried to engage with the council since 2019 about this issue, among others, the news came as a total surprise and sent a shockwave of panic through my community.
We sprang into action, filling the public gallery at City Hall demanding answers and running a media campaign to counter the mayor’s own – in which he, a wealthy property owner, labelled boat dwellers the “privileged few”.
Legal action by the Bristol Boaters Community Association (BBCA) against the fee hike is in the pipeline this autumn, based on boat dwellers and other community members not being properly consulted. But in the meantime the council has gone ahead and published new harbour licences, which by banning wood burners and other stoves look set to plunge many people living on boats into hardship.
An insecure arrangement
My decision in 2020 to try and get a foot on the property ladder in Bristol’s impossible housing market by buying a boat, placed me in a new community which, according to Rees, is now “damaging the city’s ability to manage the harbour for all”.
People have long lived on boats in the harbour under leisure licences. A vaguely worded local byelaw says they cannot “reside onboard” for more than 14 days – but does not forbid them to return for another 14 if for instance they stay away a single night. The Harbour Authority is under no illusions as to this reality, with one employee telling me that as long as I didn’t “hang out my laundry or have too many potted plants outside”, I would be OK.
This arrangement has historically worked reasonably well for all. But it naturally has a lack of security, and you are essentially at the mercy of the harbour master as to whether or not your licence is renewed.
In 2018, Bristol City Council announced there would be a review of Bristol’s harbour, part of which would include a public consultation. My neighbour, Amanda Sharman, who founded the BBCA, wanted security for her family and our community and so set up the association to try to secure a future for boat dwellers within this context.
Rees even congratulated her personally on forming this group, just before his re-election campaign. In an email on 26 April 2021, he said it was “positive you have formed a group to represent people living on boats in the harbour”, that he “would of course meet and discuss further” and that the council hoped “to be able to work with you and other harbour users and local residents”.
The BBCA never heard from the mayor again following this email, but over the coming years kept knocking on the door, trying to claim its seat at the table. When January 2023 rolled around and the news was suddenly in that the Harbour Review was complete – and we were due to pay up to 177% more in fees – it was a bitter pill to swallow.
We launched a successful crowdfunded legal campaign and have a court date set for 4 October to apply for permission to challenge the legality of the council’s process under a judicial review. Despite our legal challenge already being in motion, on 7 July, Harbour Review Committee leader Jonathan James issued new licences, charged at the contested fees.
On offer are a leisure licence – which will be limited to 104 days’ staying onboard annually, and monitored – and, thanks to our hard campaigning since January, a more widely available ‘liveaboard’ licence, limited in number to 70. The liveaboard licence is highly desirable – but unaffordable for many.
A Bristol Harbour shower facility.
On a suitably stormy evening in June, the community gathered on the floating Greenshank café bar, to discuss these new licences and to raise our concerns about their contents – and how they might impact us. Aside from the cost, highest up on the list of shared concerns was a newly introduced clause to ban multifuel stoves and other fuel-burning heaters for liveaboard boaters.
In its current form, this has the making of a winter fuel crisis here in the harbour. Most boats will be fitted with either a wood burner or a diesel/kerosene heater. This is the most cost-effective way to heat our homes.
Many boats in the harbour don’t have access to electricity, and the nature of a boat requires good ventilation – meaning a constant flow of heat is necessary. The sole use of electric heating simply isn’t cost effective.
Without permission to use their burners, the choice for boat dwellers in Bristol harbour is: lose your licence or freeze. This is before we get to the double standard set by introducing this ban for boaters while permitting the use of Defra-approved wood burners in bricks-and-mortar residences.
There is no suggestion as to how the council plans to facilitate retrofitting boats, none as to whether we will be provided with a suitable alternative – at bare minimum, the guarantee of an electric hookup. I have reached out personally to Kye Dudd, the cabinet member for climate, ecology, waste and energy, alerting him to this pending crisis but am yet to receive a response.
One attendee of our June meeting, a man in his sixties, told us he had lived on his boat for 20 years. He said there are days, after being told of the new licences, where he “simply wants to dive overboard and end it all”.
This is a result of being made to feel like a criminal when he is simply living his life on the water. The feeling was understood and held by the group, and we rallied around him as a community, to reassure that if the fight with the council ever turns nasty, we will stand together and do whatever it takes to protect our homes.
This situation shows why proper public consultation is crucial in planning decisions, particularly those affecting a community with such specific needs as boat dwellers. When I first moved onto my boat, I had no idea what I was doing. A year and a half in, I’m still regularly presented with challenges in understanding how to live like this.
My community has been right there to lend me their guidance and support, a windlass or a spare rope. Bristol City Council has not. And for them to impose new rules upon us, without even speaking to us, this was always going to be a disaster.
And here we are, with a winter fuel crisis looming, the “privileged few” with no guaranteed access to heat, no input in how our community is shaped and no place in the future Marvin Rees has decided for us.