In September 2010, the environment section of the Guardian website called ‘Ask Leo and Lucy’ had the question, “Is it greener to live on a canal boat?” In more precise terms the question was: how does a canal boat with a diesel engine and onboard bathroom, compare with living in a ‘normal’ home?
In response the section authors said that more information about the type of boat was necessary to answer the question. This could be a modestly sized canal boat or a permanently moored houseboat. It was also necessary to detail the types of fuel sources relied on, such as: diesel, moorings mains electricity, wood burning stove and solar energy.
Agenda 21 and its meaning for boat owners in Oxford
Agenda 21 is a government initiative that is an voluntarily implemented action plan regarding sustainable development divided into four sections: social and economic dimensions, conservation and management of resources, strengthening the role of major groups and means of implementation. The initiative preceded the Rio United Nations Conference 1992. A section of the South Canal in Oxford, between the Woodstock Road and Pine Wolvercote, is given over to low cost sustainable moorings.
The Agenda 21 moorings have all the necessary commodities for living on a houseboat. They provide an affordable place for people to live, and have the added advantage of allowing people to freely move their boat from one mooring point to another. There is also the option of selling your boat with the mooring.
I spoke to Simon Kenton who works for Resource Futures, a sustainable waste management and resource efficiency company. He explained the benefits of the cheaper moorings, such as: “It allows student teachers like me to have somewhere to live.”
However, he also explained that there are negative aspects this system. For example, because the Agenda 21 zone is the one area of Oxford where people are able to sell their boat with the mooring, a measure which gives boat owners added security, this results in many people choosing to sell and move.
Many of the people who buy the boats also own another home, and choose to live on the boat only during the holidays. This breaks up to the community. “Community is one of the most important things about living on a houseboat,” said Kenton.
Sustainable house boat
In Kenton’s case, at any rate, living on a boat is an experiment in sustainability. The boat has floor boarding from a show at Oxford Playhouse and is painted with materials from a community repaint, a scheme to collect reusable leftover pain and distribute it to individuals, communities and charities in need. It also has a compost bin and a composting toilet, solar panels on the roof, an engine that runs on biodiesel and a regulator that allows the engine to run for half the normal time.
Living on a canal boat can be a way to live more sustainably and the government has taken some steps to encourage people to do this. However as with houses it the amount of energy saving depends on how much time money and thought the homeowner can afford to put in to living in an environmentally friendly way.