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Tactical Boating

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn jumps off the election trail and aboard Stoke’s Oatcake Boat to talk exclusively to WW about childhood cruising, canal congestion, greening the network – and being a dab hand at marine mechanics...

“I love canal boats,” said Mr Corbyn as he took the tiller of the Oatcake Boat. 

It felt rather surreal on the morning of Friday 22nd November to be heading to Stoke-on-Trent to meet Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn aboard a narrowboat for an exclusive one-on-one interview. That day he was headline news: he had officially launched his party’s manifesto in Birmingham the day before, and was due to take part in the BBC’s Question Time Leaders Special 2019 in Sheffield that evening. Yet he was making time to speak with WW’s editorial team about inland waterways. While we are fully aware of the importance of our canals and rivers, we hadn’t expected them to be the stuff of general election campaigns.

We had received the invitation only a couple of days earlier via an email from one of his press team. Apparently, Mr Corbyn had learned of a campaign to help continuous cruisers register to vote, and he wanted to promote it. But more than that: we were told he was keen to hear of boaters’ concerns and discuss any issues facing the waterways. (In the interests of editorial balance, we contacted the other major political parties to solicit their views too, but as WW went to press we had yet to receive any replies.)

Although we had our pens poised above notepads and the small lights of our dictaphones were glowing red, the atmosphere aboard the boat’s cosy saloon was entirely informal.

The Labour leader tries his hand at making traditional Staffordshire oatcakes under the guidance of Kay Mundy.

The Labour leader tries his hand at making traditional Staffordshire oatcakes under the guidance of Kay Mundy.

Mr Corbyn seemed relaxed as he tucked into a traditional Staffordshire oatcake and our impression throughout the interview was that he simply wanted a friendly two-way chat. He avoided any forceful campaign rhetoric, asked many questions, and it felt like familiar territory for the WW team – we were essentially talking to someone about their interest in the waterways.

Our slot was a mere ten minutes long and, as you can imagine, there were many questions we didn’t have the opportunity to ask. But the topics of restoration, canal history, London mooring congestion, freight and the green future of our canals all came up. And, as you’ll read, Mr Corbyn had something to say about them all...

Many readers will be surprised to discover you have a keen interest in the inland waterways...

Yes, I have a love of canals. I was born in Wiltshire but grew up in Shropshire, so I always had canals close by. My family had an old fishing boat moored at High Onn Wharf on the Shropshire Union. We had many holidays afloat and took it all over, especially on the Avon and the Severn. It was great fun. The boat had an Austin Seven marine engine in it. I became very good at fixing Austin Seven marine engines...And I love the history of the canals, right back to the Bridgewater Canal. I have a whole shelf of canal history books at home. 

Do you still get much chance to indulge your canal passion?

I visit them quite a lot, mainly cycling alongside them – the Lee Navigation especially, up to Broxbourne. That waterway is actually a fantastic place for wildlife – I just wish they’d clean it up a bit more around Tottenham Lock.

Admiring the crockery aboard the Oakcake Boat.

Admiring the crockery aboard the Oakcake Boat.

There’s also the issue of overcrowding there...

If some people choose to live on a boat because of the lifestyle, then that’s one thing. But some are almost forced into it, having been priced out of the housing market. Take Hackney as an example, which is just by the Lee. Twenty years ago that was seen as a relatively cheap place to live, and now people simply can’t afford to. Labour’s overall housing polices centre on investing in council housing, and rent regulation in the private rental sector. 

While it’s great that people might want to live on boats, I’m aware there are problems with demands on services and facilities, and the very large numbers of boats on the waterways which just never move.

There’s a lot in your manifesto about the environment. We’re interested to know if you’d help boaters embrace greener boating. At the moment there’s no charging infrastructure in place, and we seem to be behind several European countries on this...

I think the point about greening our canals is very important. Canals are wildlife corridors; they’re good for fish and birds and so on. I remember taking a friend’s boat on the Regent’s Canal and being surprised by the amazing number of herons. I’d never seen so many in my life! 

So I think your point about improving infrastructure for green boating is valid. An electric boat is a great idea, but you need a lot of charging points to make it work. Let me look into this because I can see the point of it. 

Is encouraging freight back on the inland waterways something else you would consider as a part of your environment policy? 

There could be much more freight on the Aire & Calder and the Thames too. (Though there is more freight on the Thames now, particularly aggregate for building, which is good.) I think getting freight onto the narrow canals is difficult, but on the broad waterways it’s quite practical. So, yes, I would promote that.

The Oatcake Boat

The Oatcake Boat on the Trent & Mersey Canal in the shadow of Stoke City FC’s bet365 Stadium.

Would a Labour government promise to give more support to canal restoration? 

Yes, protecting these waterways is something I feel very strongly about, as with disused railway lines. In many cases they should never have been closed but they were. In those instances we must protect the line so they can be reopened in the future. 

What I want to see is canals reopened wherever they can be. The Cotswold Canals, for example, seem ripe for reopening. Others are potentially more challenging. I was on the Lancaster Canal [whose Northern Reaches were severed by the M6 motorway in 1968] a couple of years ago, and it was beautiful.  

When I was at school we started a campaign to get the Shrewsbury to Norbury canal reopened. I’ve still got the maps. The canal went, originally, from Norbury Junction to Shrewsbury and there were a lot of locks between Norbury and Newport, where I lived. After that there would have been very few because it was fairly flat most of the way from there to Shrewsbury. The problem was getting the support of the then British Waterways. I think it’s hard to see how [the restoration] would happen now. It’s still ongoing, but I think the problem would be linking up with the Shropshire Union system at Norbury. Newport has got a bit of canal. The council, many years ago, bought a stretch of it and they watered it, so it’s there. 

You can read the full interview with Jeremy Corbyn in the January 2020 issue of Waterways World, on sale from 5 December.