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Monday, 20 January 2014

A spot of your own?

Journalist Peter Underwood has been turning his thoughts to moorings and here, in the second of his guest blogs he looks at long term moorings and the ways they could change in future. 

It is impossible to argue that there are not boaters who over-stay, so what is the answer, particularly in the so-called 'hotspots'? 

CRT officials have been quick to point out to me the 'problem' areas of the Western Kennet and Avon canal and the London canals. Once again CRT has difficulty in producing numbers showing the extent or otherwise of the problem but it is simple enough. Both are popular areas that have attracted liveaboard boaters who don't want to travel far enough to comply with the latest interpretation of CRT rules as to what's a 'bona-fide journey' as they have work and family commitments in the geographical area. 

Many would happily pay a reasonable amount for a simple, safe canalside mooring where they could live full-time but such moorings are either not available or far too expensive, especially in London.

So why don't CRT provide simple, offside, moorings so that – as in Amsterdam and even Singapore – families can make their homes on the canal, adding to its attraction and diversity?

Doing so would relieve pressure on visitor moorings in popular locations, provide the people concerned with stability and do much to smooth relationships between boaters. That brings us on to CRT's other role – as a provider of moorings – something it mostly does in the form of bankside moorings, although it also has some in small basins and wharves and it owns BWML which has many marinas across the country. 

There are two issues which militate against CRT using its mooring powers to deal with the issues thrown up by liveaboards in popular areas. The first is that instead of growing it's mooring provision as boat numbers have increased it has had a policy of cutting one online mooring for every ten created in a new commercial marina, something seen as a way of boosting marina development but which could now be increasing the numbers of unwilling continuous cruisers as marinas see their high prices resulting in more empty berths. 

The second is the auction system, once again introduced, to 'establish market prices for its sites as it did not have any true measure prior to this,' according to CRT. Head of Boating, Sally Ash, who lost responsibility for the sale of moorings when it was transferred to CRT's estates department, told me more than a year ago that the auction system was being looked at. 

More than 12 months on CRT's press office tells me: “The sales and marketing of our sites is being reviewed but until this has been completed, the auction system is the preferred method for sales.” 

Many boaters have regarded the auction system as unfair to those with a limited budget from the time it was introduced but since the auctions moved away from being a boating function the problems have been exacerbated. Reserve prices in the online auctions have now moved to 90 per cent of the guide price, almost wiping out any opportunity to establish the true market price of any mooring, despite the protestations about competition law. This would seem to distort the market substantially as boaters are unable to indicate that they feel a mooring is worth much less than the reserve price. The result, on the CRT's own figures is that before September 2011 just one in five moorings were not sold when first put up for auction and that has risen to a third unsold since then. 

The auction system is also seriously distorted by accidents of timing as well as by shortages of certain types of mooring, especially residential ones. A classic example is found at the Engine Arm moorings on the BCN, some fairly standard residential moorings in the not especially popular area of Smethwick. Usually there is a regular turnover of boats and the moorings sell at just below £2,000, sometimes having to be listed several times before going. A few months ago a bidding war developed between three or four boaters determined to buy one of the mooring and it doubled in price, returning to the normal level when the next vacancy came up.

Residential moorings in London, commercial or CRT, fetch prices well out of the reach of an ordinary family and CRT seems to recognise something more is called for and has already been in discussions about providing cheap basic moorings in the capital. 

Once again there is a lack of information. I asked whether CRT has figures for the provision of residential berths sold under its auction system and residential berths available in marinas and how they have changed over five years? I was told: “We do not have details of residential berths for sites other than CRT sites. We have created 10 additional residential moorings over the last two years and are actively working on developing approx. 30 over the next 12 months, primarily in London. Sales of residential moorings are rare as many of the London ones have assignability. 

Over the past five years we have had 230 residential vacancies advertised through the auction system, and 64 per cent of these sold above reserve.” Caught up in the apparent demands of being a commercial operation it has found difficulty and now seems to be looking to others. The press office told me: “The provision of long term moorings is not the sole responsibility of the Trust. Indeed it is our policy to promote investment by private and social enterprise in this provision. As both network operator and mooring provider, we are bound by competition law and must not use our dominant position in the market to adversely affect other mooring providers. 

“We do recognise that there is a shortage of supply in the provision of affordable moorings with consent for residential use. The main reasons for this shortage are a lack of available land in areas of high demand and local authority planning policies.” 

Talk to local councillors, especially in cities like Birmingham and you hear almost the exact opposite – they would love to develop floating communities in some of the many small basins but can't get CRT to co-operate. 

So will CRT make up it's mind to dump auctions and even stop reducing online moorings, given that nearly 90 per cent of them are already taken? Watch this space seems to be the answer, with CRT telling me: “We’ll be announcing any changes in due course – I’m afraid I don’t have a timeline.” That hasn't prevented CRT moving ahead with changes in the related visitor mooring system in an apparent attempt to deal with overstaying, allegedly by boaters whose boats are their home, despite the lack of any dramatic statistics to confirm there is such a problem.

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