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Removing boat dwellers could leave London’s most dangerous stretch of canal more perilous for cyclists

Joseph Delves
15 Jun 2021

Numbers living in boats set to be reduced along section notorious for violent attacks on cyclists

The Canal and River Trust is currently consulting on whether to reduce moorings for people living on boats along the River Lee in Hackney, London and Broxbourne, Hertfordshire.

The towpaths alongside the river and navigation are extremely popular with walkers and cyclists. This is partly due to their picturesque and traffic-free nature, but also due to the lack of permeability between several areas including Hackney and Walthamstow and through Bow and Stratford.

As a result, a trip along the canal often saves several miles versus taking the road.

Unfortunately, they’ve also historically been beset by extremely high levels of violent theft and other serious crime, a fact widely reported in both specialist cycling and mainstream media.

However, in recent years there’s been a huge increase in the number of people living in boats along the canals and waterways. While this has made the canals a less intimidating prospect for walkers and cyclists, the Canal and River Trust now views the number of boats in the area as problematic.

Citing concerns over collisions with rowers, it’s currently proposing the introduction of two ‘water safety zones’ on the River Lee. These would cover the stretches in Broxbourne and the Lower Lee between Old Ford Lock and Tottenham Lock; both areas notorious for bicycle theft and other robberies.

These would see boat numbers drastically reduced. Although the Canal and River Trust and organisations such as the National Bargee Travellers Association disagree over how many boats are likely to be forced to move on, those opposed to the plans claim as many as 550 homes could be forced to relocate.

Lack of eyes

Either way, for cyclists navigating along the new ‘water safety zones’ the result is certain to be fewer people in the vicinity, particularly at night.

When we spoke to the Metropolitan Police in the past about robberies in the area, a spokesperson suggested that the secluded nature of these types of path plays a particular part in the risks to cyclists.

Commenting on problems on Quietway 22, which links to the beginning of the proposed safety zone, an officer suggested, ‘Robberies have generally occurred in secluded areas hidden from public view and environments where opportunistic robbers can commit crimes.'

Cycling UK’s Senior Campaigns & Communications Officer, Sam Jones also agreed that a ‘lack of eyes can be a problem... on quieter routes’.

Consultation

Recently rebranding itself as a more general outdoor wellness charity, the Canal and River Trust is responsible for a huge amount of critical infrastructure. However, belief in its good faith has been undermined by several incidents, including its obstruction regarding to its role in the near-collapse of the Whaley Bridge dam in 2019.

A recent Freedom of Information request as to what risk assessments had been carried out regarding the implementation of the safety zones also led the Canal and River Trust to reply that it didn’t believe it was its ‘responsibility to undertake such a risk assessment’.

This is partly why most people living on the river believe that its plans will eventually result in a more dramatic reduction in boat numbers as the Trust seeks to monetise its network.

The Trust is currently inviting consultations from stakeholders, including users of the canal such as cyclists. Anyone interested can respond via its stakeholder engagement form until Monday 21st June.

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