An upcoming huge hike in fees to use Bristol’s harbour could make boat dwellers homeless, a community group has warned. A ferry operator has also said many small businesses on the docks face going bust if the proposed fee increases are introduced in April.
People who live and work in the harbour must pay Bristol City Council fees for things like mooring on pontoons, operating ferry services and lifting bridges. These fees will likely be hugely increased from April, under plans set for cabinet approval on Tuesday, January 24.
The harbour master said the fees currently charged are much lower than other similar harbours, and the extra money is needed to upgrade facilities around the docks. But almost 2,000 petitioners are urging the council to scrap its plans and negotiate with the community.
A local community association has now held an emergency meeting to discuss the fee increases. Boaters are urging the council to pause the fee changes, consult with people living and working in the harbour, and justify such steep increases with clear evidence.
A spokesperson for the Bristol Boaters Community Association said: “We knew the fees were under review and had expected an increase, but not at these extreme levels with such short notice, with further increases the following year. It’s clear there was a lot of shock, dismay and passion from everyone below deck.
“New facilities and essential maintenance of current ones — showers, toilets, pump-out stations — are yet to be experienced by the boating community. Some moorings do not have electricity or water. Increasing the fees at this stage would be like renting a one-star hotel at five-star hotel prices. The current proposal has the potential to drive people into homelessness and significantly affect the standard of living of a whole community.”
Pontoon mooring fees will increase from £188.20 to £250 during the summer, and from £158.10 to £175 during the winter. New fees will be introduced of £100 for electric supply, and £325 for annual residential mooring. All of these fees are charged per metre.
Ferries will see their fees double, with annual operating charges per boat increasing from £503.30 to £1,000; and small boats with 12 passengers or fewer increasing from £251.45 to £500. A new charge will also be introduced of 20p per passenger per trip.
More than 1,800 people have signed a petition urging the council to “save Bristol harbour” from the huge fee increases. Petitioners are also calling on the council to properly consult with people who live and work on the harbour about the changes, claiming that so far they have been “shut out of the democratic process”, despite efforts to engage with the council.
The petition states: “The ferries, boat dwellers, community organisations, leisure users and the vast majority of the citizens and businesses who live and work in the harbour were not consulted by the Harbour Review Board beyond an initial introductory meeting. The board also deliberately failed to conduct even a basic impact assessment.
“This represents a total failure in the democratic process to ensure the protection of people’s livelihoods, homes and families. This is not through lack of trying, as several of the above mentioned groups have been trying to initiate a dialogue for the past year. All businesses operating in the harbour could now face severe financial impact, thanks in part to being shut out of the democratic process.”
Luke Dunstan from Bristol Packet Boat Trips criticised the proposed “racketeering-style taxes” put forward by the council, and warned that the ferry operator and many others in the harbour could go out of business. He claimed he had tried to talk to the council about the proposed changes, with no luck.
Speaking to BBC Radio Bristol, Mr Dunstan said: “This is going to have a huge effect on our business and it’s going to be very difficult. We work in a really fragile environment here. If we want to keep a thriving dockside and passenger boats operating here, they’ll have to rethink their ideas because it’s not sustainable and we’re just going to have a dead dock.
“We have huge office blocks and amazing looking apartments all the way around the docks, that must have been sold off for lots of money. Now they’re expecting small businesses to [pay to] run the harbour. It seems a little bit unfair with all the big businesses around us that are benefiting from the beautiful vistas and ambiance that this place provides.”
According to the council, infrastructure around the harbour is “ancient and crumbling”, and the huge hike will help pay for much-needed upgrades. The council also said that “only eight” boat users have residential permits, however boat dwellers estimate there are at least 100 people who regularly live on the docks. In a cabinet report, harbour master Tony Nichols said the current fees are “extremely low” compared to other harbours in the South West.
A spokesperson for the mayor said: “Harbour fees have not been reviewed for 20 years and have now been brought up to a commercial level, benchmarked against other similar harbours. We are modernising the ancient and crumbling harbour infrastructure and the correct fee structure will contribute to the harbour being self-sufficient.
“The vast majority of boats in the harbour are moored on a leisure licence meaning they are only entitled to spend around 15 nights in the harbour per year, and have agreed a permit that means they are short term users and therefore don’t pay council tax. There are only eight boat users who have residential permits.
“The city harbour is for the enjoyment of all city residents, harbour business, land residents around the harbour and tourists. The decision to commercialise fees is aimed at ensuring the city and all users benefit from improved facilities within the harbour, while staying within the rules.”