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Residential Boats (Security Of Tenure)

Volume 892: debated on Wednesday 14 May 1975

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4.18 p.m.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to protect the occupiers of residential boats and other craft and moorings.
All parties in the House have accepted the principle that people should have security of tenure in the homes in which they live. Over the years, that principle has been extended. In the case of caravan dwellers it was extended only last Friday through the Mobile Homes Bill. The outstanding exception now remaining are people who live in houseboats. They usually own their boats. But the owners of the land to which they are moored normally have the right to evict them from their moorings and to cast them adrift, so that these people become homeless.

When this happens—it has happened 80 times on the River Thames in the last three years—it means disaster to these families. New moorings are very difficult to find. The boat may have to be sold at a price below its value because it has no mooring. A family may lose part of its savings and may have to turn to the local authority to be rehoused, as being homeless, so jeopardising the prospects of other families who need rehousing. This is all because the family has no secure right to a mooring in the first place.

The problem is not vast. There are only about 15,000 houseboats in the United Kingdom. I hope that this will not count against them. The House is traditionally sensitive to the wellbeing of small minorities, and I hope that that tradition will be demonstrated today.

The Bill will not seek to provide preferential treatment for houseboat families but merely to give them, as far as possible, the security enjoyed by the rest of the community.

I have met many of the people concerned, and here I declare my constituency interest. There are about 200 such houseboats in the Twickenham constituency. That is well under half of 1 per cent. of the population. In their occupations the people concerned comprise a diverse but fairly typical cross-section of society. They include teachers, nurses and other social workers. There are designers, engineers and other skilled people. There are relatively few who are unskilled. There is one widow of a distinguished naval captain. Another is a well-known variety artiste. A fair proportion are young people saving to buy a house, which is something to be commended.

The one feature they have in common is a liking for the riverside scene and of its peace and quiet. They are independent-minded people who do not automatically want to follow the crowd. Thank God there are still some people in the country like that. It is sometimes said that they are scruffy people. That I refute. They are useful citizens who have worth while jobs. They look very much like everyone else. I cannot accept that it is right that they should continue to live in fear and uncertainty over their homes.

Until recently, the law has treated all boats in all senses as chattels rather than homes. However, two years ago Mr. Barber, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, agreed in reply to a Question of mine to treat houseboats as houses rather than boats for value added tax purposes. This meant that no tax was paid upon the purchase of them.

Last year the present Chancellor of the Exchequer decided to allow interest on loans for the purchase of houseboats to be set against income tax, so the Treasury, in successive administrations, has recently treated houseboats as homes. Not so the Department of the Environment. That Department apparently regards an Englishman's home as his castle only if it happens to be on dry land and under successive administrations it has failed to remedy this matter. I hope that the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary will take note of this. I hope that the Department of the Environment will take another look at this matter and will support this Bill.

The main argument against the Bill is that it would interfere with the rights and duties of the water authorities in such matters as navigation, dredging and repairing the banks of rivers and canals. I accept the strength of that point but will include a clause in the Bill to allow for it.

Some three months ago, Mr. Peter Black, Chairman of the Thames Water Authority, the largest such authority in the country, wrote on this matter to my right hon. Friend the Opposition Chief Whip. He said,
"… provided the Authority's existing powers to require the unmooring and removal of vessels on the Thames is unfettered, I would not feel able to say that legislation conferring security as between houseboat owners and their landlords would of itself prejudice the Authority. However, an absolute right to remain moored in a particular location on the Thames cannot now exist and should not be created."
He also said,
"… I do not think that the statutory duties of Water Authorities need be unduly interfered with, provided any security granted is limited to the matter of the private rights of houseboat dwellers against their private landlords."
That seems to me to be an eminently sensible and balanced opinion, and I hope that the Department of the Environment will give it due weight.

What is at stake is the security and freedom from harassment and fear of a group of our fellow citizens who have so far, I believe, been accidentally excluded from the protection that is now given to practically everyone else.

It is on these grounds that I beg to ask leave to introduce the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Toby Jessel, Mr. Alan Lee Williams, Mr. John Wells, Mr. Phillip Whitehead, Mr. Tony Durant, Mr. James Wellbeloved, Sir Nigel Fisher, Mr. R. C. Mitchell, Mr. Geoffrey Pattie, Mr. Nigel Spearing, Mr. Norman Lamont, and Mr. John Tomlinson.

Residential Boats (Security Of Tenure)

Mr. Toby Jessel accordingly presented a Bill to protect the occupiers of residential boats and other craft and moorings; and the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 11th July and to be printed. [Bill 162.]