Flotilla of protest against ‘water safety zones’ to sail from Walthamstow to Hackney Wick

A narrow boat moves along the River Lea. Picture: Gareth Fuller

A narrow boat moves along the River Lea. Picture: Gareth Fuller - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

A flotilla of protest will stretch from Walthamstow Marshes to Hackney Wick in June, as boaters continue to voice concerns over plans for ‘water safety zones’.

Protestors fear the controversial zones could displace families and livelihoods and “decimate boater culture". 

The so-called safety zones under consultation by the Canal & River Trust (CRT) would be designated areas of the waterway in Broxbourne and Hackney with additional signage and restrictions in palace, in response to what the CRT argue are safety issues being caused by “very high or competing waterway uses". 

However, the National Bargee Travellers Association (NBTA) has accused the CRT of using the question of safety for canal users as a “fig leaf” for a policy which they say lacks firm data and could have the greatest impact on families, who are more likely to double-moor boats together.

An NBTA spokesperson said: “They are limiting moorings in one of the safest stretches of the Lee, and forcing people into less habitable parts of the river. There are much higher crime rates north of Tottenham and south of Hackney Wick."

The flotilla, the second in three months with one already having taken place at Broxbourne in April, will see a large collection of boats moving down the canal towards the Wick, with music and chanting both in a celebration of boat culture and to draw attention to the issue.

Responding to the charge of a lack of firm data backing up the policies, the CRT pointed to 28 serious on-water incidents which had taken place in 2019 according to the Lea Rowing Club’s incident reporting system.

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The organisation also cited 90 safety incidents on the river across a three year period between 2016 and 2019 resulting in three injuries and twelve incidents of boat damage, according to the Broxbourne Rowing Club’s incident reporting system.

A CRT spokesperson also provided an anonymous quote of a boater who had been involved in an accident on an unknown date, which describes a collision between two boats and subsequent damage.

An extract from the quote reads: “My boat broke in two and I clung on to the front fender of the narrowboat. If I had not been strong enough to do so the outcome could have been even worse.”

When quizzed by the NBTA, through freedom of information requests on the methodology behind its data, as well as whether the number of rowers as opposed to boaters had increased along with the rowers’ involved training, experience and location on the canal at the time of incidents, the CRT responded that it did not hold this information.

An NBTA spokesperson added:  “It is shoddy and irresponsible policy-making. They haven’t investigated any of the incidents to understand contributory factors. And they haven’t sought low-impact solutions first."

Boaters are now accusing the CRT of carrying out a “land grab” with the safety zone policy, adding: “We think the long-term rationale behind this policy is to clear out the undesirables in order to monetise something that should be available to all.”

Quizzed about the potential disproportionate impact on families with children who may be forced to move by the policy, the CRT moved to reassure that “there will continue to be significant mooring and we do not believe anyone will be forced to move out of the area,” while accepting that those with wider boats would need to moor elsewhere “where they will not impede the navigation.”

A CRT spokesperson said it "appreciated" concern over the safety proposals: “We are committed to preserving moorings where it is safe and appropriate to do so, and genuinely believe that the impact of the zones on mooring will be minimal.”

Responding to the NBTA’s charge that the policies are driven by prejudice against boaters, the CRT added: “We recognise that the proposed zones have led some boat owners to feel that their views or choice to live afloat is not respected by the Trust. This has not been our intention, we value liveaboard boaters equally with our other boaters and waterway users. 

“We will continue to seek to balance the interests of boat owners with those of rowers and other users and manage the water space safely. It is important that in the context of the growth of traffic on the river, we find ways to safely share the water space."