Neighbours rally in an attempt to save The Venice of Tonbridge
A traditional boat mooring community, which has been a ‘much loved’ feature of the town for 25 years, could be forced out of the area because of a battle with their landlords.
However, ‘The Venice of Tonbridge’ on the River Medway is not being allowed to disappear without a fight. The Barden Road Boaters are appealing for support from the council and the public after being threatened with eviction from the Rendezvous Boatyard by the owners.
The small group of 13 narrow boat owners, who are moored along the banks of the river, have launched an online petition calling on Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council to protect them from losing their homes.
Boat owner Helen Kirk, who started the petition, which has already attracted around 1,700 signatures, says she and her Barden boatyard neighbours were told there was going to be a change of their tenancy arrangements on Saturday, October 8, when they were visited by representatives of the landowners, accompanied by what she describes as ‘a group of intimidating men’.
Ms Kirk said: “They changed the locks and chained and padlocked the boatyard with us inside.
“I went out and banged on the gate shouting at them ‘What’s going on? Let me out’. I have PTSD, so you can probably imagine what that did to me.”
The boat owners were then given a list of updated terms and were told they had to sign they were accepting them within two weeks or face eviction. These new rules would end their access to electricity, water, their on-land toilet and washing facilities, as well as their shed storage and garden areas, which were covered under their previous agreement.
Another boat owner, Jonathan Sidaway, concedes they ‘live an alternative lifestyle’, but argues these new terms are incompatible with their needs. “It makes life very difficult when you can’t have a cup of tea or go for a wee,” he said.
Land-dwelling neighbours have been quick to offer their support. The Barden Residents Association sent a letter to the council stating: “We are supporting the boat owners and hope they will have the town’s support, too. The boating community is much loved in Barden and we want to safeguard its future.
“There are no other permanent moorings in the area and our area is becoming gentrified as the poorest families are being forced out by soaring rent increases in the town.
The loss of this community would further diminish social diversity.”
Such local support has been ‘overwhelming’ for Mr Sidaway, who said: “People who you think maybe wouldn’t appreciate our lifestyle, have come down firmly on our side, and that is really heartwarming.”
Mooring Manager and Tonbridge Waterways owner Phil Hibbs, who acts as intermediary between the boat owners and landowners, was reluctant to comment on the ‘ongoing saga’ as it is in the hands of solicitors.
But he confirmed that the list of terms boat owners were shown was ‘nothing official, just a silly bit of paper with no legal standing’.
It is understood the landowner is a Mr Mockford. The Times attempted to contact him and his representatives for a comment, but was unable to get a response before going to press.
Fears have been raised that the boatyard owners are trying to get the boats off the site so they can prepare it for a planning application. But a spokesperson for the council said: “There are no policies or proposals to develop this land in our current Local Development Framework, and the site does not form part of the emerging draft Local Plan proposed strategy we’re currently consulting on.
“There have been no planning applications received for a new development here, and in the event that applications were made for housing, as has been speculated, it is unlikely that such proposals would be permitted as the land is within a flood risk area.
“While the council sympathises with the situation the houseboat community find themselves in, and would not wish anyone to lose their mooring, there is very little action the council can take in matters between landlord and tenant.
“Whether the actions of the landowners are within the terms of the tenancy agreement with the narrowboat community and stand up to legal scrutiny is a matter for the community to address.”