The ‘forgotten’ pensioners living off-grid on Britain’s canals

Keith Gudgin explains why living on the mainland is unviable for him

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Sometimes snaking through the centre of bustling cities, other times skirting around grassy banks near scraps of land far from any trace of society, Britain’s canal system works it away around nearly 5,000 miles of the country. Along these waters, you will find boats of all shapes and sizes whose owners come from every community you can imagine. There are tens of thousands of them, the majority using their boats semi-regularly, perhaps on weekends or during holidays. There is, however, a small, tight-knit yet growing community who call their narrow boats home — around 8,000 of them, who, for the most part, are pensioners.

People like Keith Gudgin, a 69-year-old who for the past 10 years has drifted amiably around Britain in his 40-foot narrow boat. “I love this way of life,” he said, when Express.co.uk visited him.

It’s cold on the stretch of Fazeley and Birmingham canal he has moored up at, a quaint waterway in-between major urban hubs, though backing onto what looks like a noisy lorry park. By the time we arrive, Keith has had his heating on since the day before, and will keep the coal stove ticking over for 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

He says his home is warm and snug, and that it won’t take much to heat the entire place up, nothing like a flat or a house, or a bungalow, like where he used to live. But a bag of 25kg coal lasts him just six days, and it burns fast.

Although he is relatively comfortable, things are quickly changing. The country is in the throes of a recession. Nearly everything, from foodstuffs to fuel, is rising in cost. It has hit boaters particularly hard, for varying reasons. For those like Keith, their future on the canals remains uncertain.

Pensions, inflation, and an energy crisis

According to the Canal and River Trust, the charity that looks after around 2,000 miles of canal in England and Wales, a third of their estimated 35,000 licence holders, some 34 percent are aged 65-74, by far the highest proportion. This is followed closely only by the 55-64 age group (31.6 percent).

The 65-74-year-olds have recently taken a priority spot in the headlines. Millions of them eagerly watched Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Budget, in which he confirmed that their state pensions would rise in line with the 10.1 percent rate of inflation.

It was a boon to many, although concerns about the affordability of things remain. Perhaps the biggest concern is energy costs. The Government has moved to at least temporarily blunt soaring bills by introducing the energy bills support scheme (EBSS), set to last from October 2022 to March 2023.

Households up and down the country will be given £400 towards their energy bills, roughly £66 a month. But there’s a catch: it’s only available to those with a domestic energy supply contract.

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Pensioners like Keith rely on things like coal to heat their homes. Sourcing a domestic electricity connection is simply out of the question.

A document published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (DBEIS) earlier this year suggested that up to “400,000 would not receive EBSS support due to these circumstances compared with approximately 29 million that will.”

It is true that Keith and other boaters don’t have domestic energy supply costs to grapple with, and the energy regulator Ofgem is set to raise its price cap for the average UK home by 21 percent to £4,279 from January 2023.

Still, there are costs: his coal to heat the boat, diesel to sail — which he must do every 14 days according to the law — and other boat-specific energy sources, some of which have shot up by almost 50 percent. The pension increase will help, as will the winter fuel allowance, available to all pensioners. But there is a lingering sense that this won’t last.

“I’m coping, for now,” Keith said. “But if it carries on the way it is at the moment, without that increase in my pension, give me six months and I would’ve started to struggle — struggle with all of it.

“My fuel costs have gone up 40 percent. Diesel costs have gone up 35-40 percent. Food’s going up at a phenomenal rate.”

When initially contacted by Express.co.uk, the DBEIS said: “Households not on standard gas or electricity contracts, including those who live on boats, will receive support equivalent to both the Energy Price Guarantee, which limits what households can be charged, and the Energy Bills Support Scheme, which provides a £400 rebate to bill payers.”

Since then, and just days after the Daily Express and Silver Voices highlighted the issue, the Government announced its plans to introduce an Energy Bills Support Scheme Alternative Funding (EBSS Alternative Funding) scheme which will provide those without a “direct relationship to a domestic energy supplier” with a £400 discount on their fuel bills. There will also be a £200 payment for those who use alternative fuels such as biomass or heating oil.

But the schemes come months after those rolled out to millions of other Britons, and far later than some of the sub-zero temperatures that have hit the UK, some parts of the country plunged to as low as -15.7C.

Keith was for a time trapped on his narrow boat, the canal he was moored on completely frozen over. Being stuck means not being able to travel to pick up coal. Not having any coal means going cold.

Despite the support, very quickly, the numbers aren’t adding up. Energy and consumer goods are just one side of the coin.

The Canal and River Trust recently announced their highest-ever licence-fee increase, meaning for those like Keith, a rise in pension payments is immediately negated.  

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“I’m coping, for now,” Keith said. “But if it carries on the way it is at the moment, without that increase in my pension, give me six months and I would’ve started to struggle — struggle with all of it.”

‘I’ll have to find the money’

Generally, most people living on boats don’t have to pay council tax unless they have a residential mooring. This means that they at least have one less form of bill to worry about. But they have to pay the relevant canal authority licence fee.

The Canal and River Trust, the waterways Keith continuously cruises along, sees itself as the guardian of the canals, ensuring they are looked after, well maintained, and that those who use them are happy with the way things are. “But increasingly we are there to look at and help support the boaters as well — we’re here to help,” said Matthew Symmonds, Strategy and Engagement manager at the trust.

In April 2022, the trust announced that it would be increasing its licence fee by four percent. This was followed by another four percent in October, and in November, it was revealed that the licence fee would rise by a further nine percent from April 2023, marking a 13 percent increase for those renewing an annual boat licence in the period April 1 2023 until September 30, 2023.

It means that on average, boaters will be paying nearly £1,000 on their annual licences. It will be a lot of money for many people — will boaters face being priced out of the canals now?

“No, I think it is incredibly good value for money,” Mr Symmonds said. “You get access to 2,000 miles of waterways and, particularly for people who are living on their boats, compare that price to other costs you might pay if you were living on land, and it is actually really good value.”

For Keith, however, 13 percent is a lot. Added to the rise in the cost of everything else, he must now identify aspects of his outgoings that he can cut back on.

“I’ll have to find a way to pay it. It’s as simple as that,” he said. “But it’s hard. I get an increase in my pension of 10.1 percent and instantly I’ve got an increase in my licence fee of 12 percent this year.”

Permanently moored

Not all boaters are worried about what’s to come. Many have savings, or handsome pensions, the state pension a mere supplement to their main income. Beryl McDowell hasn’t lived on the mainland since 1960, working and living on boats for most of her life.

She’s now 79, and lives in a permanently moored narrow boat along the River Soar, near Leicestershire. She has half an acre of land, orchards, and vegetable patches where she grows her food. She makes jam and chutney, and is thinking about buying some more fruit trees for her patch.

“I like the spot that I’m in here because it’s out in the country, but I’ve only got to walk about less than five minutes walk and there’s a row of shops, there’s a lovely butchers, a newsagents, a post office,” she said.

“I can get everything I want. If I want to get in the vehicle and drive two or three miles I can get to a bigger store, do a weekly shop, and not have to lug it all home, I just put it in the car. I like the stability of having a mooring to go back to.”

Beryl’s existence is idyllic and comfortable, yet even she is aware of the struggles that loom for many pensioners who are not as lucky as her. “There’s quite a few people out there who struggled and will struggle to keep up with a lot of their expenses,” she said.

“It’s swings and roundabouts: if you pay for a regular mooring you’ve got that outgoing In addition, but if you’re cruising a lot, you’re using more fuel and that’s not cheap these days. It’s very expensive regardless.”

Those expenses will in part now be helped by the Government through its EBSS Alternative Funding scheme. However, the securing of this money and the process isn’t as simple as for those living on the mainland. 

People like Keith will have to apply for the funding online or via a helpline. Applications open in January, and will from then be processed and verified.

The Government says more information will be provided next month. But the very nature of living off-grid may make the whole thing difficult. The problem is in the name: off-grid. While Keith drifts near towns and cities around the UK, he still often struggles to get a good telephone signal and internet connection. Others will be in even more isolated, far-flung areas, miles away from any settlement.

For Beryl, the whole thing is appalling. “It should be no different (to those living on the mainland) really should it,” she said. “They’re human beings just the same? And if they’re paying their contribution, one way or another, to the country, they probably worked all their working life and paid their taxes and all the rest of it…”

“I’ll have to find a way to pay it. It’s as simple as that,” he said. “But it’s hard. I get an increase in my pension of 10.1 percent and instantly I’ve got an increase in my licence fee of 12 percent this year.”

Back to the Mainland?

Given all the problems Keith is set to encounter over the course of the next year, perhaps moving to the mainland and getting all the help he can would be better than sitting isolated on a boat somewhere in the UK, possibly even cold and hungry?

“How the hell do you think I could afford to do that?” he said. “I move back onto the land, to my old bungalow, my pension, what I would get for a month, would last me a week. I couldn’t afford to. I couldn’t afford to buy a house because I have no money to do that, so I’d have to rent.

“Where am I going to get the money to rent a house with the prices they’re asking for nowadays? Then I’ve got to find money for council tax, electric bills, phone bills, water bills, everything. No chance. I could not afford to move back onto the mainland.”

The days are long and time goes slow for boaters. Keith uses the time to think about what he might want from the Government, which, he tells me, is nothing. “All I ask is for fairness no matter where or how you live — we should be treated the same,” he said. Until then, he will continue to feel forgotten by the authorities.

At the end of our conversation, Keith invites me onto his boat and shows me where he spends his days, in a chair that overlooks a huge radio set-up.

This is what he does for fun: dials in and speaks to people around the UK, most of whom he will likely never meet or know but for their radio names. This is where he’ll spend his Christmas and his New Year, right next to the warmth of the coal stove.

“I just hope things will get better,” he said.

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