10,000 People Live in Houseboats on London’s Waterways

High rent prices have driven Londoners onto the water

Thames Houseboats
Thames Houseboats Spixey

Housing in a city as congested London is hard to come by, which is why some Londoners are taking to the waterways in an effort to save money. A recent report by the Greater London Authority found that there could be as many as 10,000 people living on the rivers and canals of London. The houseboats have even become a tourist attraction.

Three percent of London is covered by water. It's relativley calm, and an inviting prospect to people looking for alternative housing. Rent for a room on a barge can hover as low as a few hundred pounds. But it isn’t always an idyllic existence. Writing for the Guardian, Sam Forbes described what life was like for someone who rented space on a barge in London:

Everything takes longer, and requires more work to do: fetching water from a mile downstream, lugging your clothes two miles to the launderette, boiling kettles to wash up and buying perishables every day because you have no refrigerator. You're always cold in the winter and rarely completely clean. Basic survival becomes exhausting.

The Greater London Authority report found that there were very few facilities for boaters in the city: “There are only five water taps for boaters in central London, four rubbish and toilet cassette points, and three pump-out facilities.” 

Despite the struggles, there are many people who genuinely enjoy living on the water. Costs for licenses remain relatively low, and there are many who own their own boats.

From the Independent

Kelly has been on the water for five years. "The appeal is very personal," he says. "I always say freedom. It's mine. The chances of me owning a flat in London would be non-existent. Plus there's the most incredible community on the water. Being on a continuous cruiser, in one sense, means it's always shifting, with different boats at different moorings at different times. But in another sense we know everybody. I refer to it as the longest village."

But the largest concentrations of boats can cause tension with people who live on the land or want to use the water for other activities. Boats can be moored three or four deep, congesting the already narrow waterways and limiting access of rowing clubs and other craft. And there have been accusations that developers are trying to get rid of moorings to improve the view of new apartment buildings.

But, even with the tensions, London’s community has inspired other cities, like Edinburgh, to try pilot programs increasing the number of moorings available. 

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