The answer to land shortage - yacht houses
One of the quirkier solutions to Britain’s housing shortage is for more of us to live on boats. The canals of England already host about 15,000 houseboats and from this month British Waterways, the body that owns 2,000 miles of canals nationalised in 1948, is reborn as the Canal & River Trust, a new waterways charity with a brief to provide more homes on water.
The Government hopes that rather than receiving an annual subsidy for maintaining docks, locks and towpaths, the charity will become self-financing — in particular by increasing the £29 million revenue from licence and mooring fees.
Boats count as homes
Local councils will need to give planning permission for more moorings but Grant Shapps, the housing minister, says additional houseboats will be considered as new homes when it comes to the grants councils can receive.
This should give councils an incentive to approve more moorings and to use the water-front land that many local authorities own to create extra room for houseboats. The Environment Agency also owns another 600 miles of waterway that could be developed.
“Innovative ways of housing families play an important role in allowing people to live near to their place of work, children’s school, or family, and where perhaps they would not be able to afford to otherwise,” says Shapps.
Alan Wildman, head of the Residential Boat Owners’ Association, lives on a boat near Harlow and says there is a shortage of mooring places. “I think of myself as living in a floating home rather than a houseboat of the type in Cheyne Walk, which are connected to the land with plumbing and electricity,” he explains.
“The itinerant lifestyle suits me, being able to travel around and stay at other moorings for a few days. We have to be mindful of how much power and water we use. The sense of community makes it like going back in time 50 years.
“There is only one reason to buy a boat and that is because you want to. It is not an investment. We are people who want to move out of mainline society but still pay our way. Those who walk along the towpaths are overwhelmingly in favour of more houseboats because of the colour and vibrancy they bring.”
He advises renting a houseboat first — especially to check that you can cope through winter. John Everett lives on a boat at Dove Pier in Hammersmith. He operates the pier as well as Cadogan Pier near Albert Bridge.
“Living on a boat used to be a desperate last resort for divorcees, bankrupts and those facing ruin. But that has changed,” he said. “It is something more people want to do. There is plenty of room on the River Thames but there need to be more piers to make it easier to commute by boat.”
For some, a houseboat offers the chance of home ownership. The mooring fees vary from £1,500 a year to £15,000. As for the boat itself, a modest but perfectly habitable one can cost as little as £17,000. But you have to pay cash rather than have a mortgage and, while the bills are low, you are still liable for council tax.
On the other hand, you can pay a lot. Russell Day, a director of houseboat sellers River Homes (riverhomes.co.uk), says prices are up. “Summer is our busy time,” he says. “We advise people to buy a boat and mooring rights at the same time."
“We have a houseboat for sale at Canary Wharf for £2 million and a three-bedroom boat at Lightermans Walk in Wandsworth at £1.65 million. Typically, we might sell a houseboat with two or three bedrooms at £500,000. As well as pop stars, artists and creative types, we also sell to City executives who want a central London base.”
There is much less red tape involved in buying a boat than a house. But this can be a danger. “We advise using a solicitor even though you don’t have to,” says Day. “If you buy a boat and there is something wrong with it, it’s your problem, like a car. This is caveat emptor territory.”
In terms of rental investment, Day says houseboats have better returns than bricks and mortar. So how many more houseboats will there be in 10 years? Day feels the number of different agencies involved represents a check on progress.
British Waterways says there has already been an increase, with, for example, 40 per cent more houseboats along the River Lea in east London now than four years ago.
Top 10 London houseboat moorings
1 Cheyne Walk
2 Imperial Wharf
3 Cadogan Pier
4 Dove Pier
5 Chiswick Pier
6 Blomfield Road, Little Venice
7 Eagle Wharf, Holborn Studios
8 Kingsland Basin
9 Lee Valley Marina, Springfield
10 Packet Boat Marina, Uxbridge