They are billed as an ideal place for “messing around in boats”, but the Norfolk Broads have become the focus of an increasingly bitter and divisive battle between boat dwellers and land lovers.
A row over mooring rights in a marina has escalated into an expensive six-year legal dispute. Allegations of “social cleansing” and “gentrification” have been levelled at the Broads Authority, the body responsible for managing the picturesque waterways.
At the heart of the row is a disagreement over planning rights at Jenner’s Basin marina on Thorpe Island in Norwich. The marina’s owner, Roger Wood, insists he has the right to private moorings at the former boatyard in the river Yare. The Broads Authority (BA) disputes this, claiming that the historic rights lapsed before Mr Wood, a former pilot boat skipper, bought the plot. Some residents whose homes overlook the site have complained about noise and the unattractiveness of the boats moored opposite.
The BA is taking Mr Wood to court to enforce planning conditions, a move which threatens a 40-strong “liveaboard community” which has developed in the marina. The enforcement action could close down the moorings unless specific planning conditions are met. Residents have received legal letters warning them they may have to move. Some have already left following the legal threat. More than 4,000 people have signed a petition calling for the BA to end its moves against the marina residents.
However, last Friday the BA was granted a temporary High Court injunction which prevents any more boats from mooring at the basin.
Opponents have accused the BA of taking an “authoritarian, heavy-handed and costly legalistic” approach. During heated meetings, the chair of the authority, Professor Jacquie Burgess, was accused of describing the boat dwellers as “feral” and likening the marina to a “shanty town”. Professor Burgess denies calling anyone “feral” and says the shanty town remark was solely in relation to the physical look of the area rather than its residents.
One woman who lives on the island said: “Some of the neighbours, and worse still, some of those on the Broads Authority itself, have the impression we are some sort of ‘lawless’ community of New Age mariners. They think those of us living on boats are against all rules and regulations and the whole lifestyle is all about avoiding all officialdom and any restrictions. That we are travellers with boats, not caravans.
“That couldn’t be further from the truth. We work locally. We pay our taxes. We dispose of our rubbish responsibly, but the sad thing is that their minds seem to be made up. They have gone down the legal route and are wasting an awful lot of public money, to what end I’m not sure. This isn’t really about planning – it’s about lifestyle and our lifestyle doesn’t accord with their idea of the Broads.”
Mr Wood, who says he bought the site as a retirement project, not a development opportunity, insists experts told him the site had “private mooring rights” when he purchased it in 2006. He successfully challenged one planning inspector’s decision he could berth 12 boats at the site on the grounds of legal errors and a second inspector increased the number of berths to 25 subject to certain planning conditions being met. The BA say the conditions have not been met and is taking enforcement action to end the “unlawful development”.
Mr Woods says the 25-boat limit is uneconomic and that BA’s approach to the problem has left him out of pocket and threatens to take away his livelihood completely.
When businessman James Knight, former vice-chair of the BA’s navigation committee, began to question its approach, he was dismissed by what he describes as a “kangaroo court”. Mr Knight, who runs his own boating company, believes the legal approach to the matter, which has now cost more than £100,000, is unhelpful and counterproductive. He said claims of lifestyle prejudice against the residents were not without foundation.
The BA has defended its approach. It insists it does not have powers to evict the boats already moored at the marina, but acknowledges that those living there have received letters warning them of the legal action it was taking against the owner. It said in a statement: “We have utmost sympathy for Mr Wood’s tenants in Jenner’s Basin who are caught in this dispute, but as a planning authority we are bound by law to uphold planning legislation and these rulings.
“The situation has been wholly misrepresented. It is absolutely not an attempt to ‘gentrify’ or ‘socially cleanse’ an area. If this was the case we would be going against our own planning policies that define the site as a conservation area.”
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