The last full annual boat count took place in 2019, with the pandemic affecting the counts scheduled for 2020 and 2021.
Over the course of the last three years the survey shows a slight drop in the percentage of licensed boats, down from 96.5% in 2019 to 94.1% this year, together with an increase in boats taking a licence without a home mooring with indications that boats appear to have left marinas to continuously cruise.
A difficult few years
Matthew Symonds, our national boating manager, said: “The last few years have been difficult for most of us, including many boaters. The rise in the number of boats sighted, and the slight fall in licence compliance, could suggest that pressures stemming from the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis are affecting use of the waterways. The cost of maintaining the canal network is also rapidly increasing and the damaging effects of climate change are growing more frequent, which means that the income from boat licences, around 10% of our total, is even more important for managing and maintaining the network for navigation.
“We supported many boaters throughout the pandemic and will continue to do so where this is needed. Our Boat Licence Customer Support team is out every day helping boaters who might be struggling with their licence requirements and we always urge boaters to talk to us, and in most cases we're able to find a way to keep people on the water.”
Challenges for the Trust
Whilst compliance decreased in all our regions, the relative decrease was greatest in Yorkshire & North-East and the East Midlands. The East Midlands also saw the greatest growth in boat numbers, with a 13.3% increase on 2019, followed by the North West (5.8%) and London (4.8%).
The pandemic also proved challenging for us with operational constraints, delays in the court system, and an increase in requests for support with licences resulting in the Trust being unable to resolve as many cases as usual.
Sadly, on occasion we do have to take robust action to remove boats when all other avenues have failed. In 2021-22, 100 boats were removed from our navigations as they were unlicensed, despite the Boat Licence Customer Support team's best efforts to resolve matters; many were abandoned boats.
Body worn cameras
Whilst the vast majority of the Boat Licence Customer Support team's interaction with boaters in overwhelmingly positive, in response to concerns from colleagues about the potential for confrontation, abuse or harm whilst conducting their work, a trial of wearing body worn cameras took place during 2021 in London & the South East. Following the success of that trial, the cameras will now be rolled out to other Trust employees whose role includes day-to-day interaction with those on the waterways which, alongside other procedures, will be a tool to support them while they go about their daily jobs.