Water Works: Lower Lea Valley field trip

London’s 600 km network of rivers and canals provide space for leisure, trade, wildlife and currently around 5000 houseboats. Around 150 km of this network, stretching across 15 boroughs, is owned by the Canal and River Trust (CRT).

On 1 May, FLL21 candidates visited the lower Lea Valley to learn how the Canal & River Trust maintains, funds, and manages uses along their sections of London’s waterways. The event tied in with our major 2019 project, Making the Most of London’s Waterways.

Development of the CRT

The Canal & River Trust evolved from British Waterways in 2012, taking over its assets and responsibilities – including overseeing licences for boats and managing towpaths. Enterprise Manager Hannah Gibbs explained that the CRT is further evolving its remit to include supporting waterways and wellbeing. With much of the CRT’s London network located within deprived neighbourhoods but often inaccessible, there is a major opportunity to improve wellbeing by increasing people’s access to waterways.

Map showing London’s deprived wards in relation to waterways owned by the CRT. (Courtesy of CRT)


As part of the 2012 handover agreement, the CRT receives £800m from central government over a 15-year period, up for review in 2021. Steve Craddock, Planning Manager – South & South Wales, outlined other sources of funding. Alongside income from boat licence fees and the National Grid (who have cables under many towpaths), the CRT seeks public and private donations, fees from hiring out space, and Section 106 contributions. The 2012 handover also gave the CRT some areas of waterside land. Their joint ventures – H2O Urban and Waterside Places – develop residential and commercial properties, re-investing 50% of profits back into their waterways.

Working with boaters

Boating Manager Sorwar Ahmed explained that the CRT manages around 600 long-term moorings as well around 2000 short-stay moorings of up to 14 days. The soaring number of Londoners living on boats brings both opportunities and challenges.

For example, boaters look after canals and contribute to the local economy. They help with dredging and keeping waterways clean and navigable. Their licence fees are also an important source of income for the CRT. However, most of London’s new boats don’t have a permanent mooring, which can cause congestion as boaters seek short-stay moorings around central London and well-connected transport hubs.

To address some of these issues, the CRT’s 2018 London Mooring Strategy mapped the gaps in amenities such as moorings, water collection and waste disposal points, laundry facilities, and other facilities, focussing especially on outer London. The map below highlights ‘opportunity areas’ for further amenities in the upper Lea Valley.

CRT: 2018 London Mooring Strategy – Area 7: Upper Lea Valley (courtesy of CRT)

Local barge owner Al Cree, Founder of Surge Co-Op, is concerned that new development will lead to the loss of historic wharves and moorings. Surge Co-Op has mapped 43 disused wharves throughout the lower Lea, and recently received funding to undertake a feasibility study to establish the best way to provide affordable, co-operative moorings. There are lots of spaces that could work for this, but many stakeholders need to be involved. A major challenge is finding the right contacts within local authorities, developers, and other organisations.

Emissions from boat engines are another growing issue, which the CRT tries to resolve in partnership with local authorities and other organisations. For example, LB Islington recently created an eco-mooring zone, aided by DEFRA funding, with another planned in Brentford.

Working with communities

Jeannette Brooks, Development & Engagement Manager, discussed how the CRT has created volunteer stewardships with groups who want to adopt a stretch of waterway. Groups are given non-legally binding management duties for a year or more, with a chance to opt out if their adoption does not succeed. Poplar HARCA have taken on the largest of these adoptions, assisted by local groups such as canoe clubs and the scouts.

The CRT allows community groups to adopt stretches of towpath through volunteer stewardships. (courtesy of CRT)

As waterside development and activities increase, higher numbers of pedestrians and cyclists are competing for limited space with anglers, wildlife and boaters. The CRT often finds itself managing diverse needs. A common demand is for increased lighting. However, the CRT and some boaters prefer encouraging passive surveillance, preserving waterways as one of last dark places in the city and safeguarding a natural environment for wildlife.

Engaging with developers

Waterside development provides much-needed housing, but can have unintended consequences. For example, waterside buildings can block sunlight, harming biodiversity and reducing the productivity of houseboat solar panels. New development provides an opportunity for the CRT to improve nearby towpaths and facilities. The Olympics led to extensive benefits for local waterways, but today improvements are primarily secured through Section 106.

Old Ford Locks and L&Q’s Bream Street Wharf Development

For example, L&Q’s riverside Bream Street Wharf development is providing a rebuilt bin store for a nearby boat servicing point for the CRT. However, this also benefits L&Q as it will result in less foul-smelling duckweed build-up beside their development.

South of the Olympic Park, the triangular site at Sugarhouse Island is enclosed by rivers on two sides, with river walls previously in varying states of repair. Developer Vastint had to rebuild the entire wall before construction for better flood protection, and they will provide a permanent laundry and storage facility for boaters through S106.

However, often competing with schools and highways for S106 contributions, waterways don’t always take precedence. The CRT’s arrangement with Argent for managing waterways around King’s Cross offers an alternative approach. Hannah Gibbs concluded that to create better waterside spaces, developers should not only think about the land around the water, but also those who live on it.

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – Before and after. (Courtesy of CRT)

With increased demand for housing in London, waterways – and the land beside – are providing space for houseboats and new developments. The challenge for all stakeholders is to balance the benefits that new developments bring with the diverse needs of boaters, anglers, wildlife and the wellbeing of the surrounding communities.


Interested in learning more about London’s waterways? Register for our upcoming conference or visit the project page.