Canal mooring co-op joins debate on community waterways

Surge Co-operative is developing moorings and regenerating Bow Creek – part of London’s River Channelsea

A new co-op was one of three organisations to discuss ways to develop community-owned canal and river moorings at a recent webinar on regenerated waterways as a solution for conservation, asset preservation and housing.

The community ownership model is well suited to mooring sites for houseboats. It’s one example of how co-ops and community businesses are being formed to ensure fairer, democratically controlled provision for new waves of tech and infrastucture.

Similar co-op ventures are cropping up for battery storage, electric vehicles and EV charging sites. At a recent Community Energy England event, a rural EV-sharing co-op called for the formation of a network of like-minded ventures to share experience and advice. It’s a networking model that can use the co-operative difference to improve skills and knowledge across a sector.

For waterways, Surge Co-operative is a case in point; it is developing moorings and regenerating Bow Creek – part of the tidal London river of Channelsea – and has taken advice and support from other moorings co-ops.

It’s also useful to share information with non co-ops; at the webinar, organised by Inland Waterways, Surge co-founder Al Cree joined two charity leaders who are developing their own community moorings. This included discussion of which model is actually the most suitable; Mr Cree said his organisation – which has been looking for moorings since 2015 – plumped for the co-op model because it offered more autonomy than a charitable set-up, which “gives other people a say in how you’re run”.

Conveniently, the housing co-op model offers an existing template, easily adaptable to fit community moorings, he added. The model is also eligible for “pots of funding,” while the co-op identity helps to foster community strength – useful when working with local assets.

The goal of Surge is to equip Bow Creek and Channelsea River with affordable, co-operatively run moorings, bring historic wharves back into use, nurture biodiversity and build community links between land and water dwellers.

“It’s a tidal river that has 43 disused wharves,” said Mr Cree. “We could see the loss of heritage taking place, as some redevelopment in the area has brought a loss of moorings.”

The industrial history of the area meant there was a strong culture of barges, freight boats and worker co-ops in East London, said Mr Cree. This culture is no longer as vibrant and Surge wants to preserve it; it has worked with the community to catalogue the historic bollards along the river’s edge, and joined forces with conservation group Thames21 on cleanups and the creation of habitat.

The long-term goal is to find more spaces to improve, along the whole river – and in the process engage people who wouldn’t normally join community projects, to help clean up planters on the paths, clear the riverbed and bring back boats.

Local cleanups with residents have removed 80 years’ worth of rubbish, said Mr Cree, which had made it impossible for any boat to find a mooring. It now wants to work with landowners and developers to create co-op moorings on the river’s wharves.

A test project, Channelsea Moorings Garden, is being developed to prove the effectiveness of the idea, which will be rolled out further down the river. Some moorings will be residential and others will be freight.

With funding from Power to Change, Surge worked with co-op advisor Sion Whellens and had help from other co-op moorings, such as Hermitage Moorings in Wapping.

“We’re interested in forming a federation of moorings co-ops with a website where people can talk about things,” said Mr Cree.

There were also insights from two non co-ops. Alistair Martin, from Community Moorings Scotland – which is developing a small network of lowland canals, Forth& Clyde Canal, Union Canal, Millennium Link – set out his goals for community engagement and regeneration. The charity has a lease ready with Scottish Canals and opens its first ballot for moorings this month.

Asked which model is better – co-op or charity – Mr Martin said: “CICs can be a nightmare to set up, for boring admin reasons; the charity model seemed to be simpler and there are other organisations using it. But other forms could be used. Any organisation ends up looking like the task it’s set up to do. You’ll end up putting in the structure you want.”

And there are common lessons for any type of organisation: negotiations with landowners can be slow, he warned, with legal support essential. Worse, delay can bring complications: management at other negotiating parties can change and landowning neighbours can alter their plans.

Mr Cree agreed. “It’s difficult, it takes a long time, you need big group of people willing to put in the effort. And you need to get things signed on the dotted line.”

Paul Powlesland, founder of the River Roding Trust, also chose the charity model – although he started out by squatting his chosen mooring site before formalising the arrangement with a lease from the Crown Estate, who were “incredible, really supportive”. Because it is written into its charitable charter that it operates for the benefit of river, it was easier to persuade Crown Estate to grant the lease, he added.

Mr Powlesland said demonstrating the benefits of a scheme in advance is useful for gaining official support – in his case by clearing out tonnes of rubbish and regenerating plant life.

“Instead of saying to council we want to do this… we said we’re already here, can you support us,” he said. “They can’t turn around and complain about us planting or taking out rubbish. The Crown Estate could see the vision.”

Community moorings can also prove their value by monitoring the rivers, he said; his group had identified and reported an illegal sewage outflow on the Roding.

“Having that connection between community and river is very important to defend rivers,” he added.

Paul Rodgers, from Inland Waterways, told the three panellists: “You are canal restorers, river first responders … you are a bit unorthodox in your thinking but I suspect that’s a badge you’re proud to wear.”