Floating voters: How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'

Lois Pryce highlights the plight of all those (the homeless, the nomads) who, without a postcode, have no voice

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Indy Politics

Perhaps it was because Russell Brand said I shouldn’t, perhaps it was the guilt-inducing spectre of Emily Pankhurst, or it could simply have been an instinctive reaction to David Cameron over-exposure, but this year, I told myself, I really must register to vote in the general election.

It’s a straightforward matter, you would think – taking part in our great democratic process – but I haven’t voted since 1992, when I was 19 and John Major took the helm (no thanks to me) with his Cones Hotline and his bastards’ list. My lack of participation has not been out of apathy, or because I was waging a refusenik revolution, but because for the past 20 years, despite being a regular tax-paying British citizen, I haven’t had an address, or at least, not the right kind.

In 1995 I made the decision, for both romantic and financial reasons, to live on a boat. What I didn’t realise as I chugged into the sunset was that I was entering the strange netherworld of the postcode-less, where everything from voting to applying for a credit card to having a pizza delivered becomes extremely complicated.

During the first few years of life afloat I moved around London’s waterways and lived at a number of sites. I used my workplace addresses for official correspondence, which was fine when I was at an indie record label that operated out of a North London townhouse, but not so easy to explain to my bank when I moved to Virgin Megastore and  wanted to change my address to 14-16 Oxford Street, W1.


When I got a job at the BBC, I feared that requesting my bank statements be sent to Bush House was pushing the realms of credibility. Owning and insuring a vehicle, or registering with doctors and hospitals, was equally convoluted. The more intertwined I became with officialdom, the more complicated life became. And after a tortuous phone conversation, trying to direct a confused pizza delivery boy down a towpath, I accepted that I was destined to collect my own takeaways.

Canal plus: Lois Pryce on her houseboat; those who live in caravans are also classed as being of ‘no fixed abode’ (David Sandison)

But for the past 12 years I have been self-employed as a travel writer so I spend a lot of time out of the country and use a mailbox service to receive post. The boat is now at a recognised mooring that my husband and I rent from the landowner. The problem is, this patch that we have come to call home is not an official residential mooring – in other words, in the eyes of the local authority, it does not exist as an address where people live.

Residential moorings are the holy grail to boat dwellers because they’re almost impossible to come by. (The rest of us are officially classed as “continuous cruisers”, and take whatever we can find.) Nonetheless, I was aware that as a UK citizen, I was still entitled to vote, somehow or other. So I telephoned the Electoral Services of the local London borough and explained my predicament. The bewildered voice on the other end of the line should have been a warning.

“A boat? I dunno... I’ll have to ask.”

Here we go. A few minutes later she came back, having missed the entire point.

“You just use the address of your mooring,” she said in a bored monotone.

“Well, no…” I began to repeat the whole story, “The point is that the mooring isn’t a registered residential address.”

“Well, where do you get your post?”

“I use a mailbox service.”

“Well, just use that address then. You can register online.” I was certain that this wasn’t the case but she insisted, so I followed her instructions. The Government’s electoral registration website is very straightforward and user-friendly. So I registered at my mailbox address and, a month later, when I hadn’t heard anything, I called the voice again. She looked up my application.

“It’s been rejected. You can’t register with a mailbox, you need a residential address.”

I took a deep breath and continued. I had done some research in the intervening weeks among my fellow bargees.

“So,” I explained, “my situation is that technically I have no fixed address, so…”

Those who live in caravans are also classed as being of ‘no fixed abode’ (Christopher Furlong / Getty)

“Well, you can’t vote if you’re homeless!” she spluttered. The distaste fairly seeped down the line and I came over all hoity-toity. I couldn’t help it. I may have quoted the Representation of the People Act 1983. I may have even said, “I think you’ll find…” I could hear her yawning.

What my informal enquiries had revealed was that I would need to register as “No Fixed Address with a Declaration of Local Connection”, a category for people who are associated with a specific area but don’t have an officially recognised residence there. I imparted this information to a stroppy silence, followed by a long consultation with her superiors. This woman – the first point of contact at Electoral Services – clearly had no idea what I was talking about. Eventually, I was informed that a form would be sent to me, and it arrived with a letter explaining under what circumstances someone could make a declaration of local connection.

There were three viable reasons: 1) you are homeless; 2) you are on remand; and 3) you are a patient in a mental health hospital. I felt slightly boring, merely living on a boat. But these wranglings with bureaucratic incompetence made me think. What about homeless people who want to vote and are being dismissed by misinformed council employees? What about the postcode-less slipping though the cracks?

London’s housing crisis has caused a boom in what could be called “creative housing solutions”. Itinerant floating homes have reached peak levels, with London’s canals chocked solid. According to the Canal & River Trust, there are more than 1,000 “continuous cruisers” in the capital alone, with an increase of 85 per cent over the last two  years in east London. And it’s not just to boats that people are turning while the oligarchs snap up the bricks and mortar. With UK house prices rising at almost 10 per cent a year in 2013 and 2014, and more than 13 per cent in London, it’s a clear case of necessity being the mother of invention. My research, which began with a call-out for personal experiences on social media as well as talking to community organisations and trawling through news stories, uncovered all manner of creative answers to the problem, from people living in their workplaces and in motorhomes parked in friends’ gardens, to buying caravans and holiday chalets that are cheap because they don’t have residential status.

Pete, a former live-in hotel worker in Scotland, found that he was unable to register to vote as he had no official residential address. Joan, a journalist who lives on a yacht, told me she would like to know how to register but had assumed it wasn’t possible, because “being of no fixed abode is tricky”, she explained. “There is no option for ‘unfixed boat/caravan/camper’”.

(David Sandison)

Both had chosen their situations and while they found it frustrating, they accepted the downsides of their lifestyle. But there are many more who face similar issues through circumstance rather than choice, such as the residents of the “beds in sheds” phenomenon.

An aerial survey using thermal imaging by Slough Borough Council identified more than 6,000 of these makeshift buildings in the town. (As most of their tenants are by default under the radar, it is hard to assess their numbers – but they can’t all be illegal immigrants.) And if the figures in Slough and the 1,000-plus “continuous cruisers” in London are any guide, the UK’s postcodeless clearly extend to tens of thousands. These are desperate times and people are obviously willing to forgo their opportunity to vote for a roof of any kind over their heads.

Not that they do need to forgo their vote. Every UK citizen over 18 who is not in prison or a member of the House of Lords is entitled to vote, no matter what their domestic situation. But if they don’t have a postcode, then taking part in the process is riddled with obstructions. So, what do you do?

My first port of call was the Government’s voting registration website, gov.uk/register-to-vote, where I had begun. On the home page, another click took me to useful links for those in non-standard situations. Aha! Here we are. Well, sadly not, unless you belong to certain categories, that is. The information only relates to diplomats, British Council employees or servicemen living abroad. Onwards I clicked. Proxy voting, postal voting – plenty of information about that, too – but no end of clicking could reveal how to vote if you are homeless or have no fixed address. Nothing.

Fortunately, charities such as Shelter and Homeless Link provide this information on their websites, and a press officer at Homeless Link informed me that they are currently working with the Cabinet Office on a “Voter Registration Project”. But unfortunately, their efforts don’t appear to include posting the necessary information on the gov.uk site.

(David Sandison)

Many layers of trawling through homeless charities’ sites eventually uncovered references to the “Declaration of Local Connection” and finally, buried several pages deep in my search, a couple of local authorities who mention it on their electoral services page. But it took some doing, and I was in the fortunate position of having the time and the means, a social network to tap into for advice, and of course, a home, which may lack a proper address, but does have a broadband connection and a phone line.  Still, technology is a two-edged sword. As is so often the case, the technology that was supposed to set us free has trapped us. The UK’s postcode system, which is the most advanced in the world and has been a boon to postmen and couriers everywhere, has been sold, hijacked and ultimately reborn as the UK’s unofficial ID system – a process that started in the 1980s when the Royal Mail first began selling the Postcode Address File to private companies. In other countries, such as France or the US, a postal code relates to an entire area. In the UK your postcode identifies you.

It wasn’t so long ago that your insurance company, bank and local pizza restaurant didn’t have a computer that connected your name to your postcode, but we now have the peculiar situation where it is assumed there must be one for every human. Only in the last couple of decades has this creep of technology and the advent of the electronic database created the black hole of the postcodeless. And when that happens, guess what? Computer says no.

This database mentality, combined with the introduction of laws such as the 1994 Criminal Justice Act that gave local authorities “powers to remove unauthorised campers”, has made it difficult to lead a genuinely peripatetic lifestyle in the UK. The result of this is a society where someone who doesn’t live in a building with an address is viewed with suspicion. Diversity is the buzzword and it is standard practice for official documents and public notices to be available in multiple languages to accommodate all; the official line is that everyone is equal in our great democracy. But woe betide you if you try to be itinerant in 21st century liberal Britain. This seems to me to be where the tolerance ends and where, suddenly, people find they have a lot of explaining to do.

Pete, Joan and my other postecodeless contacts were not even wholly itinerant. They were all working people, mostly in urban centres, in professional careers or running their own businesses. Many had families and were involved in their local communities. All possessed an ingenuity and resourcefulness which meant that they had found an alternative way to live in our increasingly expensive and controlling nation.

It doesn’t sound like a crime and indeed none of them was breaking the law – they were simply residing in non-traditional structures,  working as “digital nomads” from wherever they wished, or leading lives which meant that they didn’t return to the same place every night. But most of them had not voted for many years; it had taken a back seat to other more pressing issues associated with their situations. Ian, a health worker, described how he was embroiled in a long-running bureaucratic headache with his local authority due to living in a motorhome on his own land. Then there was boat-dweller Mat, a software engineer with a PhD from Imperial College who told how he had been head-hunted by a bank but had the job offer rescinded when the subject of his PO box address came up at the interview: ‘They sat there, shaking their heads in confusion, saying, ‘But how will we be able to find you?!’’’ he told me.

I finally managed to register but it was tiresome and frustrating and it’s easy to see why someone could be discouraged by the hoop-jumping and poor advice that litters the path to the polling station. Whether this postcodeless minority will be voting in the general election remains to be seen. I hope some of them will manage to wade through the mire of bureaucracy and misinformation to make it to the ballot box. But settling down in front of the TV to watch the results with a pizza seems much less likely. Some things are just too complicated when you don’t have a postcode.