Thames boats are thriving but new rules are a threat

Tony Lodge
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Thames boats are thriving but new rules are a threat

The past 20 years have seen a glorious reconnection between Londoners and the Thames. Many of us live alongside it, commute to work on it, party on it or enjoy it for leisure and sport. Contrast this with the Seventies, Eighties and early Nineties, when it was a polluted post-industrial river blighted by empty warehouses and abandoned docks.

One of London’s timeless yet ever-changing experiences remains a boat trip. It might be to admire Westminster, St Paul’s and the City, the growth at Canary Wharf, the magnificence of old Greenwich or the voyage up to Kew, Richmond and Hampton Court, where the journey takes you from city to country. The enduring attraction of the river remains undimmed.

But much of this heritage is now at risk if new safety rules for older Thames passenger craft are pushed through by ministers. The plans would require many boats to be effectively rebuilt and could lead to up to 20 being scrapped and their skippers and crews put out of work. This would also affect historic Thames sailing barges.

The huge negative impact on London tourism and jobs is hard to calculate but it is important to consider that between May and October last year 50,000 people made the journey to Hampton Court and Kew Gardens from Westminster by passenger boat. The four-vessel service on this 150-year-old tourist route would have to be axed under the plans.

A cross-party campaign is under way in Parliament and at City Hall involving MPs Sir Vince Cable, Zac Goldsmith, Ruth Cadbury, Mark Field and the Mayor of London, to resist any plans that threaten the viability of these passenger boats. Lord Salisbury, who organised the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Thames pageant in 2012, and Lord Owen, the president of the River Thames Society, have written to Transport Secretary Chris Grayling asking him to urgently revise the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s plans, warning they would “annihilate” the Thames boat sector.

Most of London’s older passenger craft took part in the pageant and the job of leading the procession was given to the Connaught, which has been carrying travellers on the river since 1911.

Another key sector for London is the night economy, and the river is a growing attraction for parties and corporate events. Many of the vessels that risk being lost serve this busy scene. Boat party guests typically continue their night out after disembarking.

The proposals have upset and angered many Londoners, and many who are part of families who have worked hard on the river for generations.

The plans, as they stand, will lead to the closure of boatyards and other businesses, the sacking of skilled crews, and the end of famous routes. They will hurt tourism and reverse the successful efforts of the last quarter of a century to bring Londoners back to their river. They need to change.

  • Tony Lodge is a member of the River Thames Society