Steve Haywood: Can our centuries-old system survive the modern world?

London's canals: moving "gently but steadily towards gridlock" (photo: Martin Ludgate)

London's canals: moving "gently but steadily towards gridlock" (photo: Martin Ludgate) - Credit: Martin Ludgate

Steve Haywood is an award-winning current affairs TV producer, journalist and author who has been a boat owner for nearly 40 years

Out in the real world, away from the canals, there’s a war developing between different age groups. I don’t know where you stand, but I’m not unsympathetic to those young people who blame their parents’ generation (ie my generation) for saddling them with education costs they never had to pay, and then blagging all the best jobs, the fat pensions and the big houses, leaving them to live in overpriced flat shares working zero-hour contracts.

There’s something unfair about this distribution of wealth, and all around the country we’ve seen the effects it’s had on our little neck of the woods as thousands of young people – families, couples, singletons - have given up the idea of ever owning a home of their own of bricks and mortar, and taken to boats instead, creating a whole host of problems in their wake.

I blame Pru and Tim. Well, actually, no I don’t. Theirs was just one of many TV programmes that offered people what seemed an effortless and inexpensive route to a dream. More to blame was the old British Waterways Board (BWB) who were the last people to see this rapid expansion of liveaboards coming, or the Canal & River Trust who should have planned for it better once it became apparent it was. I blame people like myself too who’ve written books extolling the canals; and yes, magazines like this one, which have contributed to the idea that living on the waterways is feasible for as many people as want to just come and get it.

Mainly though I blame successive governments for a housing policy that has made living on the water not AN option for the young, but often the ONLY option open to them. And meanwhile as the waterways in London and other major cities move gently but steadily towards gridlock - just one fire or an exploding gas bottle away from tragedy - newcomers continue to arrive by the week, some of them in boats that should have been condemned years ago, and some in sparkling newly-built craft constructed, not for cruising, but as floating homes, totally unsuited to the limited moorings which are anyhow increasingly unavailable to them.

Where will it all end, I ask myself as we move into 2018? Sometimes I feel inspired by this influx of new blood refreshing the DNA of a canal community which has become too smug and self satisfied over the decades I’ve been boating. Other times I feel despondent about the canals, as if I’ve seen their best days and that it’s downhill from here. I am old enough to remember motoring in the 1950s when you could travel at will along empty roads free from yellow lines, parking restrictions and cameras. Look at roads now. Could anyone then have imagined today’s congestion?

I’ve spent my whole life on the cut railing against regulation and pettifogging rules. It seemed to me that the waterways of England were the last place for a free spirit to roam. If only for a week or two a year, you could escape the constraints of ordinary life and imagine yourself in a better world where people weren’t always breathing down your neck. Now though I wonder whether this centuries-old system can survive the rigours of the modern world, starved as it is of adequate funding. I wonder if it can go on the way it is unless we pay substantially more to use it, and unless it is regulated more, with boat numbers limited, and increasing rules to control mooring. I wonder if its current popularity is destroying its solitude, which is its greatest appeal.

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I opposed the transformation of BWB into a charity because I believed then, as I believe now, that the waterways are a national resource that should be state funded, not required to finance itself to its own detriment. My fear, which I voiced at the time, was that without government cash it wouldn’t be possible to generate the revenue necessary to maintain the system without completely changing the culture of the cut. However, I lost the argument; and though the worst of what I imagined becomes ever more the case, it matters not one jot because today C&RT is the only game in town. With the NHS gagging for cash, our schools in disarray and social housing all but non-existent, no government will pay to subsidise the housing of the young any more than they will subsidise the hobbies of the old.

So we somehow have to make C&RT work. I don’t know if it’ll have Happy New Year. It’ll certainly have a difficult one.

Follow me on Twitter @Cutdreamer