War on the wharf

By the banks of the Thames, dwarfed by skyscrapers, one last slice of historic Docklands remains. Now, moves are afoot to eradicate its unique community for ever
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The Independent Online

The lights leap on in the rigging of the Ethel Ada, shining bravely through the chill of a Monday evening. For Advent, this old Thames sailing barge, built 100 years ago, has become a temporary Christmas tree. Jenny Jones, Green Party deputy mayor of London, throws the switch. Annabel Baber, a singer who lives in the Ethel Ada, and half a dozen colleagues, burst into song.

Afterwards, in the bitter cold, the listeners go back along some tricky planking to their boats, just downstream from London's Tower Bridge. About 70 people live here, at the Reeds Wharf moorings, including six children. But for how much longer?

Beyond Tower Bridge, the NatWest Tower rears up like a Brobdingnagian child's set of building-blocks. Down east, the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf are a tall row of gravestones. But everything here at Reeds Wharf is small-scale and highly picturesque. Most of the boat-dwellers are just the sort of people that local authorities write into their regeneration plans - artists, designers, architects, musicians, and the occasional lawyer.

Yet, behind this charming surface, a war is being waged. One day last summer, the boat-dwellers found an abrupt notice from Southwark borough council stuck on their boats, giving them three months' notice of eviction. The Battle of Reeds Wharf had begun.

Should we be surprised? This is the council that had to be taken to court to permit Sam Wanamaker to build his Shakespeare's Globe Theatre on Bankside. The site, Southwark claimed, was the only place that it could store municipal dustcarts. Much has changed politically since then, with the Liberal Democrats now top dogs in the borough. But, deep in the undergrowth of administration, much remains the same. What are all those people doing on those boats? They must be stopped.

Paul Evans, Southwark's director of regeneration, tells me that the council has a Plan, but these boats don't fit into it. "Whatever view we took," he says, "we couldn't set aside consideration of planning, even if it was the most meritorious thing for regeneration." More than my job's worth, guv.

The man at the centre of the battle is Nicholas Lacey. The boats - about 40 of them, of which 32 are inhabited - are moored outwards from the old Reeds Wharf warehouse where, in the 1970s, he bought one of the first Docklands lofts. You may have seen his flat already, as the principal setting of A Fish Called Wanda. He's a pleasantly rumpled-looking architect, aged 59 - beige sweater, brown cords, suede shoes - who is also busy creating artists' studios out of second-hand shipping containers, across the Thames from the useless Millennium Dome. A man of unconventional ideas.

Meanwhile, he battles stubbornly to save the moorings. He owns nine of the boats. Four have been ingeniously converted, with studios below raised decks that hold pretty gardens (lavender, quince, and other perennials, tended by Lacey's playwright wife, Juliet Aykroyd). These boats have fixed moorings. The others can come and go, and sometimes do, even as far as France.

Chris Wainwright, dean of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, and his artist wife Anne live in a 90ft barge, a "Medway coaster" built in 1961. It is both studio and living space, with a slight smell of diesel. It cost £110,000 two years ago, and they've spent as much again on it; last summer, hull damage meant six weeks in dry dock. Mooring fees are £500 a month. They'd never lived on a boat before, but they've just sold their old house in Sheffield. "It's an extraordinary experience," Anne Wainwright says, "going up and down 30ft twice a day with the tide. In winter, we batten down; but in the summer, we spend half our life on deck. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else."

Nicholas Lacey came to Bermondsey because he'd always been fascinated by the river. Reeds Wharf is just along from the Design Museum, across the inlet known as St Saviour's Dock. This is the tail end of what was once the noxious river Neckinger. Fagin's warehouse abutted it, and Bill Sykes drowned in it. The council's vast Dickens Estate, just inland, names its blocks after every conceivable upstanding Dickensian character, but no mention of the dirty duo.

Crossing the narrow dock entrance on an elegant little bridge, designed by Lacey, you see the black waves at high tide slap against the converted warehouses. Gillian Tindall, novelist and urban historian, who is writing a book on the history of Bankside, says: "Here, with the dock, warehouses and boats, is about the only place left where you get a feel of what the Thames used to be like." Everywhere else on the riverside has been heritaged-up.

In his airy ground-floor office, overlooking the moorings, Lacey shows me engravings and photos of how crowded the river used to be. Outside, beyond the moorings, the Thames is now all but empty, apart from police boats and river-cruise craft, whose wash makes the moored boats ride up and creak against their ropes and chains.

The battle has broken out because, over the past 10 years, new blocks of flats have been built along the river edge. Berkeley Homes is just erecting some more. The builders' hoarding on the site is decorated with a full-colour computer-generated impression, 10ft by 20ft; the cluster of moored boats is factored in as part of the appeal. But some of the residents in the existing new blocks have protested to Southwark council: about the noise from the boats (especially Lacey's conversion work on his garden boats); about old tyres; about the boats' intrusion into their view; and about the primitive sewage arrangements (straight out into high tide). As Gillian Tindall says, "It's a bit like people moving to the countryside, and complaining about church bells and crowing cocks."

Co-ordinated letter-writing finally precipitated the eviction threat. The Port of London Authority (PLA) got in on the act, saying that the moorings needed a PLA licence as well as planning permission. Why haven't they already got permission and licence? Lacey bought the offshore rights 20 years ago, when working wharves were already history. He argues that he bought "ancient moorings" under the terms of a Victorian act of parliament that regulated oversight of the river. "If moorings existed before Michaelmas Day [29 September] 1857," he says, "and these did, they were not subject to the controls." So he's gone ahead, regardless.

The PLA and the Southwark planners deny that the concept of "ancient moorings" exists. Others (including the "not unsympathetic" Lib Dem leader of Southwark council, Nicholas Stanton) admit they do, but wonder whether freight moorings can simply be switched to residential. A potential regatta-day for lawyers.

Over at the EU-funded Beormund Community Centre - named after a Saxon nobleman, who allegedly gave his name to Bermondsey - I sit at the back of a residents' meeting and listen to Simon Hughes, local MP and Lib Dem candidate for Mayor of London, trying to find a non-legalistic way through. Lacey appealed the enforcement order; the inspector's public hearing is due to start in March. Hughes wants to find a compromise before that. He has spoken to the council, the PLA, Lacey and the boat-dwellers. Now, it's the complainants turn.

Hughes keeps the meeting calm. But some of the flat-dwellers are furious. If a barge blocks the windows of a ground-floor flat when the tide is up, you can sympathise. It would also be a neighbourly idea to store and pump out sewage. But some speakers compare the boats to a Gypsy encampment or an unlicensed caravan site.

Hughes suggests a trade-off : about 30 boats to stay, provided Lacey puts in for licensing and planning permission. "But that means a de facto granting of rights that were stolen in the first place," one resident says. Hughes responds, carefully: "I hope that no one who lives on the river wants it sterilised. It is less used than at any time in the past 100 years. We're not looking for a still pond, with no activity. You could say, thank god everything isn't regulated. Lacey is entitled, as an entrepreneur, to start something up."

Towards the end of the meeting, some pro-boat voices are raised. Gary Williams has a foot in both camps. He lives in a riverside flat but also owns the Johanna, a tiny boat at the moorings on which he and his wife Nancy sail the Thames. They took their flat in 1998, for the balcony view, after she was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Nancy says that the battle isn't about "struggling artists" at the moorings vs "millionaire bogeymen" in the flats. (In fact, from what I've seen, it's about two rival middle-class groups.) "To disperse such a close-knit community would be a tragedy," she says.

It's hard to tell if the meeting has calmed people. Some tightly clenched faces make for the exit. Residents bought a view of the water, many reckon; not of boats. Hughes judges that two thirds of the flat-dwellers oppose any boats, and a third would be happy with minor changes.

Lisa Autogena, a Danish artist who has lived in London for 15 years, is a boat-dweller. She says: "Artists are being chased out of London by the prices. This is a real breathing-space. It's the first time in London that I've been inspired by the environment. It's creativity that makes cities work. Most of the Thames river front is now sterile and ghettoised."

People who work outside of the rules often pioneer urban innovation. Oliver Price, designer and boat-dweller, says that coming home to the moorings is "like entering a parallel world". Camden Lock and the regenerated Covent Garden were created, unplanned, by hippies, artists, squatters; no one planned the Clerkenwell and Hoxton revivals; you've got to catch creativity where you can.

Lacey thinks that he may have to settle for joining the planning and licensing system, "and becoming a little less maverick". But I hope it won't erase the good he's done. The Reeds Wharf moorings could become a model for "a more common feature of future riverside life," Simon Hughes says.

Some Southwark people see the boats' merits. Shortly after the eviction notices were posted, the moorings gardens won first prize in the "Southwark in Bloom" competition. The Laceys collected £50 from the mayor.

"Peace on earth and mercy mild," sang those Advent carol singers. Fingers crossed.