Open letter to full council from Sharyn Hyde

Hello,

My name is Sharyn Hyde. I am work locally for the NHS as a psychotherapist in a busy primary care service and I am contacting you both in a personal capacity as a residential boater and as a member of the PSPnO campaign group. The PSPnO campaign was created in response to the City Council Executive Board decision on the 17th March to proceed with a consultation on the proposed Waterways PSPO against the advice of its own Scrutiny Committee. I am contacting you to explain the situation for boaters, to appeal to you to work for a positive, inclusive approach towards boaters, to explain why the decision to proceed with a consultation on a PSPO is so distressing to liveaboard boaters, and to outline why we have good reason to distrust the consultation process.

There is often a lack of understanding about the boating community, and this may contribute to the direct or indirect discrimination against boaters that we regularly experience from a variety of sources, including the City Council in the creation of the proposed Waterways PSPO. Recent examples include a boater on the Agenda 21 moorings being told that his “slum boat” would be dealt with soon by someone working for the council, and a friend who was shouted at and called “disgusting” by a woman on the towpath for transporting her (sealed) toilet cassettes on a bike trailer to the local elsan point, or conversely the man who has accused boaters of disposing of their sewage in the water – something no normal boater would do.

The boating community is diverse and people have many reasons for living on a boat. I could talk to you about the friends I have met who love the canals who are lucky enough to travel the system all year round, the artists who derive their inspiration from living afloat, the people who make their living on the waterways, the man who has found that living on a boat has helped him to manage his bipolar disorder and not be hospitalised, the friends with an interest in environmental impact and sustainable living, the key workers who are looking for affordable living in the most expensive city in the country to live. Personally, I grew to love the inland waterways and their history in 2001 when I travelled the system working on a pair of hotel boats. I stayed on the water as I like living a practical, low impact lifestyle and living surrounded by the rich heritage of the inland waterways. I like being part of one of the last places in the UK that you will automatically find a community through a shared love of boats and boating. Boaters generally help each other out and I have made many friends this way. It is a culture and community that I would struggle to explain to you without half a day to do so, one that is difficult to fully appreciate unless you have experienced it. Oxford City Council would find that engagement with the boating community could result in positive developments that would not otherwise come about. As boaters we are used to finding creative solutions to immediate problems; when part of your lifestyle means that you will at some point be faced with a scenario of coming home late at night to find that all your power has gone, or your water pump has broken, or some other catastrophe, practical problem solving becomes a way of life.

There is little evidence of any attempt by the City Council to engage with boaters in a positive way. We find this surprising, particularly as the PSPO proposal has been pushed by Labour councillors and the newly published Oxford Labour Party manifesto makes direct reference to working with communities in a positive way, and avoiding unnecessarily heavy handed approaches that criminalise people, preferring a restorative justice approach instead. We are perplexed by this apparent contradiction and would urge the Councillors concerned to follow their own party lines and engage with our community.

The Oxford Labour Party manifesto also makes repeated reference to the acknowledged housing crisis in Oxford. We are again perplexed as to why the Council has not considered offering more moorings as a strategy that would help. It is bewildering that the Council would rather punish a problem caused in part by lack of provision and not offer not an alternative solution; this is problem creation rather than resolution.

For this reason we as boaters are frightened by the proposed waterways PSPO and the way that the process has so far been handled by the Council. It feels as if our way of life is under threat by people who do not understand us or care about us. The use of a PSPO is a disproportionate response to concerns that appear to be poorly developed and understood. The PSPO is not like a bye law; it requires far less scrutiny in its development and is therefore much less rigorous. This can be seen in the proposed Waterways PSPO. The fact that the proposed terms prohibiting emitting noise and smoke “causing nuisance to others” relate to normal, essential boating activity is alarming to us. The fact that it falls under criminal law is frightening. The fact that it becomes a matter for a council representative to decide what constitutes “reasonable” is disturbing and removes any notion of burden of proof. The fact that Cllr Dee Sinclair, who proposed it, has said that it will not be used and its purpose is to act as a deterrent shows a lack of understanding that is very concerning. The implications of this are that the decision as to whether it is criminal or not to heat and power your home falls on a council representative. The response that this scenario will not arise as the intention is to ensure that people will be too frightened of receiving a criminal record to breach the terms is utterly unacceptable when it is about something as basic as the right to heat and light. This is what deterrent means – coercing people into behaviour with the threat of consequences. When this applies to the basic necessities of living, you can perhaps understand why we as boaters are distressed by this. To put this into a PSPO not only fails the 2 part test necessary as part of the guidance of PSPO (section 177) but the proposed PSPO causes the problem the legislation was created for. In this form is detrimental to the boating community’s way of life; an incredibly ironic and ill-thought out approach as I’m sure you’ll agree when considered alongside the guidance. As it also applies to a space that crosses public and residential use, it is likely that it breaches aspects of Human Rights laws.

The process that the City Council has followed so far adds to boater’s fear and lack of trust. The existence of the Waterways PSPO development has been denied until earlier this year despite reference being made to 18 months of development works. An extremely dubious file of evidence has been compiled to support it and the proposed PSPO terms do not match the evidence file (for example ignoring complaints about cyclists from the file, adding terms about dogs where there is no evidence included to support a problem with dogs). The Executive Board recommended proceeding with a consultation against the advice of its own Scrutiny Committee. Some of the terms (mooring, storage, smoke and noise) cover primary legislation which is managed by the Environment Agency and Canal and River Trust. From the available “evidence”, the proposed PSPO appears to have been constructed on the basis of a very few repeat complaints from homeowners, with no discernible attempt to contact boaters to establish the facts. It directly discriminates against boaters in clauses a-d. That the PSPO is being put out to consultation in its current form despite heavy criticism is consistent with an approach that does not respect boaters and indicates an intention to push it through, as putting it out to consultation incurs a cost and suggests a confidence in the content. If the Oxford City PSPO consultation embarrassed the council then it seems odd that the Council would want to repeat that embarrassment unless they intended to proceed regardless of legitimate complaints. We have also recently discovered that a key meeting of the Public Engagement Board which was supposed to include boater representatives as advised by the City Executive Board has taken place in on 24th March with no attempt to engage boaters, directly against Executive Board instructions. The Councillor in charge of the process, Richard Adams, also chaired a Council funded group UMBEG (the rather threateningly titled Unlawfully Moored Boats Enforcement Group) which pushed for the development of the PSPO, but does not appear to consider this a conflict of interest in terms of his position in implementing the consultation. For these reasons many Oxford boaters are feeling alarmed and distressed by this threat to our way of life. We feel that our voices do not seem to matter to the Councillors who have pushed this through without talking to us, and given responses to our questions to the Executive Board and to the meeting on the 18th which do not offer answers but ask us to trust in a process which has so far been demonstrably dubious.

The PSPnO Campaign group is strongly opposed to the introduction of the Waterways PSPO. We are not happy with being told to shut up and engage with the consultation, as we feel that there are reasonable grounds to distrust the process of the consultation. We are willing and would much prefer to work with the Council to find alternative, positive approaches to managing the waterways, ones which take into account existing legislation and organisations which already look after the waterways. We are perplexed by the approach that has been taken to date, aptly described as “half-baked” by the Scrutiny Committee.

To summarise, the proposed PSPO is disproportionate, discriminatory and distressing to boaters. Whilst we would prefer to engage in constructive ways with the Council regarding our community, we are opposed to the PSPO and will work positively at all stages to resist it. This includes challenging it through a judicial review should it be passed in a form that discriminates against boaters. I have not repeated the legal arguments against it so far as these were very well articulated by Dr Alex Wood in his statement to the Scrutiny Committee meeting on 7th March, which is a matter of public record. My intention in contacting you today is to explain why we at the PSPnO campaign believe that proactive engagement with the boating community is a much more fruitful approach, one that is consistent with the Oxford Labour Party manifesto and to appeal to you as a Councillor to push the Council to work with Oxford boaters and their representatives to find positive solutions and to oppose the PSPO as an affront to our basic right to live our lives peacefully and without intimidation and fear.

Yours sincerely,

Sharyn Hyde

Exchange with Cllr John Tanner

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