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Canal and River Trust wades in as smoke row heats up between boaters and their Stamford Hill neighbours

PUBLISHED: 15:38 20 December 2017 | UPDATED: 16:33 15 March 2018

Matthew Nicholls outside his boat, where he burns smokeless fuel. Picture: Emma Bartholomew

Matthew Nicholls outside his boat, where he burns smokeless fuel. Picture: Emma Bartholomew

Emma Bartholomew

Emma Bartholomew visits Watermint Quay by the River Lea in Stamford Hill – where neighbours say smoke from boaters’ chimneys is getting up their noses in more ways than one

Some of the boats pump out smoke pollution. Picture: Erika Jones Some of the boats pump out smoke pollution. Picture: Erika Jones

“Do you really think with all the s*** everyone is kicking out all over the place in London that a few people on boats with some chimneys are making any difference?”

Boater Matthew Nicholls is robustly defending a claim that smoke from barges on the River Lea is getting up neighbours’ noses.

“It’s no good persecuting us because we are trying to live on our boats. Why don’t you go out on the streets and persecute all the diesel trucks?”

Erica Jones says she expected such a response, which is she’s got in touch with the Canal and River Trust and Hackney Council’s pollution team.

Her complaint is about the fumes wafting into her flat in Watermint Quay, Stamford Hill, from the vessels moored outside.

The scientist claims she is being “choked” by the smoke emanating from their chimneys as they burn wood and coal, despite having all her windows shut.

“I’m trying to not get cancer,” she tells Matthew, who walks past and hears her conversation with the Gazette.

“Well, I can’t afford a flat like you,” he retorts.

“How are you going to feel if I get lung cancer?” Erika asks him.

"Why don’t you go out on the streets and persecute all the diesel trucks?"

Matthew Nicholls

“Cancer is an inevitability for all of us,” he replies. “The boaters are just a small population.”

“But your impact is so severe and extreme,” she hits back.

Erika says her “lungs hurt” and she’s been up coughing for hours this week and had trouble sleeping.

“Boat smoke” is at its highest levels for years, as “continuous cruisers” take advantage of the temporary moorings along the strip.

The health effects of indoor air pollution – including higher rates of cancer from solid and biomass fuel – are well documented by the World Health Organisation.

“Two years ago, few people moored here,” Erika tells the Gazette. She has lived there for six years.

“It was a bit dangerous with people being mugged along the towpath, but like everywhere else, with gentrification, the canals are becoming more crowded.”

She has given a presentation at the Royal Geographical Society about continuous cruisers, saying their numbers have gone through the roof because of the housing crisis in London.

“That wide beam might cost £100,000,” she said pointing to Matthew’s boat. “It’s like having a beautiful one-bedroom flat in London for £100,000, and one-bedroom flats start at £400,000 these days. Or you can get a boat that barely works for a couple of thousand pounds – it’s one of the cheapest ways to live in London.”

"I’m trying to not get cancer"

Erika Jones

All the same, she wants action.

She is calling for the CRT to remove the temporary moorings outside the flats, and says the council has a legal duty to enforce the provisions of the 1993 Clean Air Act, including the emission of “dark smoke”.

The Gazette meets her neighbour Sue, who agrees.

But Matthew doesn’t believe he is part of the problem and says 95 per cent of those on the water are “discerning people” who buy smokeless fuel like he does.

His neighbour is one of them, and also has a solar panel that makes a lot of electricity in the summer. He’s even hoping to get a wind turbine for Christmas.

But he says not everyone is as conscientious as he is.

“There are probably about a dozen or two dozen different varieties of coal,” he explains. “You will buy one and it won’t smoke, but you buy another and it doesn’t get hot enough.

“People burn anything and everything basically. If I’ve got excess wood I will burn it, but it it’s got any varnish or it’s covered in paint I won’t burn it.

“I like to think I’m ecologically friendly, and it is an oxymoron because a lot of people that live on boats like 
to think so too, but a lot of people have these awful diesel engines.

Erika Jones. Erika Jones.

“Some people don’t have eco or green sources of energy, so they are going to burn fossil fuels, to put charge into their battery.”

A spokesman for the Canal and River Trust said the body had already written to boaters asking them to be considerate and use smokeless fuel.

“London’s waterways have got much busier in recent years and it’s more important than ever to be a good neighbour,” he added.

“If specific cases of pollution are reported to us we’ll pick up the complaints with the individual boaters concerned, and we’ve asked residents to contact Hackney Council first of all.”

The council’s safety chief, Cllr Caroline Selman, said all residents must comply with the 1993 Clean Air Act.

“Those who do use stoves that are compliant with the law must be considerate in their use by using dry, smokeless fuels and not burning any type of rubbish,” she said.

“If we find residents are in breach of the law with regards to smoke and fumes we will take enforcement action. A letter has been sent to all residents on the River Lea in the Stamford Hill area reminding them of the law and council officers will be investigating emissions in this area.”

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