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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Charlie Smith

‘Left out in the cold’: the boaters locked out of fuel support

Ema Pightling, on her narrowboat outside Hebden Bridge, has been struggling to heat her home.
Ema Pightling, on her narrowboat outside Hebden Bridge, has been struggling to heat her home. Photograph: Charlie Smitth/The Observer

Once thought of as the coolest place in Britain to live, Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire has become a small hub for people in search of a bohemian paradise in the north; among them are the canal boaters who moor up in the former mill town.

Despite living in such confined quarters, this small and mobile community has, however, been finding life much more expensive as the cost of living crisis continues, and government help is only available for some.

Ema Pightling, 29, a charity worker from Bradford, lives on a narrowboat just outside Hebden Bridge town centre and has been struggling to heat the vessel as fuel costs rise. “This winter has been horrific,” she says. “We’ve been waking up at minus six degrees. It takes a lot of coal and wood to heat up. People are starting to burn possessions – old clothes, old socks, T-shirts. We’ve had times where we’ve had to because we’ve not been able to afford wood and coal.”

Boaters have seen a steep rise in the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), which they use for cooking and heating. The price of red diesel – used in boat heaters and engines – has also increased by at least 20% since Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago, while costs of coal and wood have also risen.

Carolyn Edwards, 54, a lecturer at the University of Leeds, says that a 13kg bottle of propane has risen from £30 to £45 over the last year and that a bag of coal has doubled to £16 over the past two years. “In October I’d say it went up by about another 50-60% again. This winter is much more expensive.”

Lecturer Carolyn Edwards says her fuel costs have rocketed in the last year.
Lecturer Carolyn Edwards says her fuel costs have rocketed in the last year. Photograph: Charlie Smitth/The Observer

Edwards lives on a small boat in the town centre and wants some help with her energy bills, but says those living off the main electricity grid have been excluded from government assistance.

The government said last week that 900,000 off-grid households in England, Scotland and Wales that do not have mains electricity or gas can now apply for a £400 lump sum to help pay their energy bills under the Energy Bills Support Scheme Alternative Funding. However, of the 15,000 people living on Britain’s waterways, only boaters with permanent moorings who can prove their address are eligible. The 5,500 boaters registered as continuous cruisers – who must move on every 14 days – are not eligible for the £400.

This amounts to discrimination, says Marcus Trower, deputy chair of the National Bargee Travellers Association (NBTA), which campaigns for boat dwellers.

“This scheme was supposed to remedy the unfair exclusion of off-grid communities from a grant that most of the country received back in October 2022. Tens of thousands of people remain locked out of support due to not having a fixed address,” he says, referring to boaters and other off-grid communities such as people living in vans and caravans.

“Boaters and other itinerant populations have been left out in the cold to face the cost of living and fuel crises alone this winter, with many having to go cold or hungry whilst second-home owners received several payments months ago at a cost of £200m to the taxpayer. Now they have been deliberately excluded again in a move that looks like clear discrimination.”

Jo Allan, 78, who lives on a boat moored just outside Hebden Bridge, is among those who are not eligible. “It excludes constant cruisers, that’s myself,” he says. “We don’t get the £400 everybody was supposed to get.”

Unlike other boaters, the retired agricultural adviser from near Glasgow says she was lucky to get support with her bills, which have doubled in 18 months, during winter due to her being over 65.

Steve Bullcock says that younger boaters have been left with no support.
Steve Bullcock says that younger boaters have been left with no support. Photograph: Charlie Smitth/The Observer

Another Hebden Bridge boater, Steve Bullcock, 71, says he has seen the prices of coal, diesel and gas go up by about 25%. Younger boaters have been left out in the cold with no support, he adds. “It costs more to heat a boat because it’s not as well insulated, so although it’s warmer than a house, pro rata you spend a lot more on fuel.”

Dom Newton, a trustee of the charity Floaty Boat, says the government does not understand people living on boats. He says there was limited progress after he held talks last week with officials of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to help continuously cruising boaters get help with their bills.

“We’re being asked for things like, ‘How can you prove you are a continuous cruiser? Can you provide evidence of council tax exemption?’ Well, no, because we don’t pay council tax.”

Talks between boating groups and the government are ongoing, according to Newton. “It was relatively clear they don’t have a very good understanding of how a continuous cruiser’s life works, even down to the types of fuel we have to buy.”

Other boaters have also been forced into finding alternative ways to heat their floating homes this winter in an attempt to keep energy bills down. One, who asked not to be named, used wood from trees cut down due to having ash dieback fungus.

“We’ve just been really stretching the fuel this time, getting away with using one bag of coal a week just to keep the fire in,” he says. “This is why we live on a boat, so that we can absorb costs like this. When [the cost] goes up, we feel quite insulated from it.”

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