Floating assets: How enterprising developers are reinventing the houseboat

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For an island with over 10,000 miles of coastline, hundreds of major rivers and a proud maritime tradition, Britain has been reluctant to actually live on water – at least, until now.

Controversy over new homes encroaching on green-belt land in some areas and high-profile disputes between house builders and existing residents are leading enterprising developers, councils and regeneration bodies to consider water-borne communities.

These are not ad hoc collections of houseboats, Amsterdam-style, but fully functioning, master-planned communities built on floating pontoons that rise to avoid flooding and ease development congestion on land. The largest scheme in the pipeline is in Glasgow, where the urban-renewal quango Scottish Enterprise has a £30m plan for the city's Prince's Dock, including a U-shaped "floating street" of apartments and houses, shops, three-storey office buildings and a 150-berth marina.

Solar panels and ground-source heat pumps will provide green power, while recycling and landfill waste is to be collected by barges. There will be a "boat pool" for residents and workers to hire once the scheme is completed in 2015.

"There's been a noticeable shift in attitudes," says David Beard, of Floating Concepts, the company selected to create the Glasgow project. "Well-publicised floods in recent years have changed the general public's view – we've had interest from as far as Mexico and Australia in the technology behind our idea.

"Planners are following suit. Five years ago they were terrified of the concept, yet now they want whole floating developments."

Futuristic? Perhaps, but some of the world is already ahead of Britain on this. In the Dutch town of Maasbommel there are 50 new two-storey water-borne homes, while in Rotterdam there is a large floating pavilion showcasing technology to be used in the construction of 2,500 floating houses elsewhere in the Netherlands by 2018.

There are over 400 floating homes in five marinas at Sausalito on the San Francisco Bay, close to the Golden Gate Bridge. In Portland, Oregon, and in Seattle, de facto communities have grown, as individual floating-home owners have created shops and workplaces on the water. Melbourne, in Australia, is considering floating leisure parks and sports fields as well as homes, while more primitive floating homes have been built in Asia for half a century.

Now Britain is catching up with a clutch of individual developers building "houses" for prospective buyers.

So far, so good, although the builders' prices are easily comparable with bricks-and-mortar buildings of the same size, which may limit the appeal of a floating property – especially because mortgages can be hard to get for such unorthodox homes. Floating Concepts has a range of houses ranging in price from £100,000 to £500,000, for example.

A rival company, Eco Floating Homes, says the price depends on what a customer wants. One of its two-bedroom models at Queensford Lakes, Oxfordshire, is already on the resale market (£185,000 from Lesters, 01491 824 000; www.lestersonline.co.uk). The firm was at this year's Ideal Home Show – a water-borne exhibit, naturally – and predicts a bright future. "The glory of the design is that it can be used for a range of purposes," Dan Fowler, of Eco Floating Homes, says. "Someone could use it as a second home, or as an office or spare guest space if they've a main house with a river frontage and want to moor it there."

So what is it like to live in one? Ian Stutt spent decades living in conventional landlubber houses, then bought a two-bedroom floating lodge in Huntingdon when he retired three years ago. The property itself is timber-made, set on a steel frame embedded with polystyrene-filled concrete floats.

"It's like living in any property, really, except there's absolutely no fear of flooding and there's a very occasional gentle sense of movement," Stutt says. "There's almost no maintenance involved." He keeps a small houseboat moored alongside for when he wants to travel – the equivalent of a car in the drive.

Malcolm Walker is a more seasoned floating-home resident – he has lived on a much older floating home, converted from a houseboat, at Taggs Island near Hampton Court for 13 years, and runs it as a bed-and-breakfast business. His neighbour is Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, but for Walker the advantages of a floating home are more prosaic.

"There's wonderful light and reflections on the surface of the water. Living this sort of lifestyle means you're much more in touch with the seasons," he says. "There's a gentle sway when boats pass. Everyone who visits just loves the place. This is an example of the sort of home that should be built on every flood plain."

But there is one drawback to what seems like an idyllic and innovative way of helping solve Britain's housing shortage – the planning system.

Most builders of floating homes hope the current uncertainty about the status of floating homes will mean they can be constructed in large numbers on almost any appropriate waterside.

"Local plans don't include any proposal on the use of water space," Beard says, while Fowler says planning consent "is a big grey area".

Yet many owners have had difficult relations with planners when they have wanted to extend their properties or seek an agreement for utilities to be improved.

For Peter and Jane Collins, the dispute with the planners has reached a dramatic conclusion – they have been ordered to dismantle their home.

Their two-storey home, called The Ark, is moored on the River Yare near Norwich. The couple claim it is a boat but it has been designated as a house by a local authority.

The couple was issued with an enforcement notice to dismantle the structure last summer because it was an "unauthorised development". They have appealed, but because The Ark has no navigation aids, engine or sails, it is regarded as a house – so it has to go.

If floating homes catch on in greater numbers, the expectation is that they will require formal consent, just as bricks-and-mortar properties do. This bureaucratic hurdle, however, is unlikely to deter serious builders and determined would-be residents.

While Glasgow is the most advanced British development, others are under discussion at Preston, Oxford, Liverpool and Salford Quays. Floating homes, it seems, are making waves at last.

Useful Contacts

* www.ecofloatinghomes.com

* www.floatingconcepts.co.uk

* Ian Stutt's floating lodge is for sale. Visit www.apolloduck.net or call 01480 411 352 for details

* For details of Malcolm Walker's floating B&B visit www.feedtheducks.com or phone 020 8979 2266

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