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“Swift the Thames runs to the sea… / Bearing ships and part of me” singer Ewan McColl wrote of Britain’s most famous river. Yet despite its romantic hold over the imagination over all Londoners, who controls what happens on the Thames? Strangely enough, no one seems to know.
The question has become more pertinent in recent months as Thames-side residents face an almighty battle over “Europe’s biggest party boat” which is the size of seven London buses. Costing £25 million pounds, stretching three storeys high and covering almost the length of a football pitch, OceanDiva can accommodate up to 1,500 people.
It is, in short, a roving nightclub which concerned residents feel powerless to challenge.
Objectors say they are fighting to preserve the river for all to use and accuse the operators of the giant yacht of wanting to “plunder the Thames and use Tower Bridge and the world-famous surrounds as a postcard frame for its own commercial benefit.”
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While the story has been framed by the press as a battle of NIMBYs versus progress, the reality is more nuanced. The concerns are about a lack of a say over what happens on the Thames.
Because accountability seems to end at the riverside when it comes to the Thames. The only guaranteed say any Londoner will get on the OceanDiva plans is – or was – a licensing application that will be made to east London’s Newham Council.
While the boat will be officially berthed there, up to 1,500 partygoers will be boarding three times a week in an entirely different borough – Southwark. But a booze licence is only needed in one place, and OceanDiva’s backers went for Newham, where most of the complained-about disruption would not be taking place.
Wall of Silence
OceanDiva put in their application, which received an unprecedented 1,000 objections. It was then subsequently withdrawn by OceanDiva’s owners in March – and it’s unclear what happens next. For now, residents wait to hear the results of a Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) investigation into an incident during a trial-cruise this June, when the party boat went off course and crashed into a barge.
The Port of London Authority, responsible for safety on the tidal Thames, did its own investigation – but has not published the findings. A spokesperson for the Port of London Authority told Byline Times: “The Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) has commenced an investigation into June’s incident. In accordance with our approach for comparable cases on the Thames, we will not be releasing anything until the MAIB report has been published.” But residents had been asking for the PLA report long before the MAIB investigation had begun.
One potential avenue for local dissent seemed to be the Port of London Authority. The PLA is a “self-funding public trust” which governs the Thames. It has powers over ensuring safe navigation and ports, and protecting the environment. They have their own police force. Yet the PLA is not accountable to residents or the Mayor of London, but (notionally) the Department for Transport.
Residents tell Byline Times they have struggled to get information out of the charity – on this issue and many others. They are not able to submit Freedom of Information Requests to it, nor to pick its board members.
That lack of a say became pertinent when the PLA contacted interested parties recently about planning applications for electric charging points on the Thames. The body made it clear that they did not have any legal duty to consult on the installations. “That made the request for views seem a bit pointless,” Rachel Bentley, a local Lib Dem councillor leading on the OceanDiva campaign tells me.
Asked who the organisation was accountable to, a PLA spokesperson said: “We are a trust port, accountable to the Department for Transport.” How could residents have a say on their decisions? “Within our remit of ensuring navigational safety, we have no obligation to consult on our reviews of vessels’ passage plans…There are a variety of different opportunities for people to provide feedback to us, including three annual public meetings and other stakeholder events.”
Patchwork of Quangos
Noise complaints, meanwhile, will have to go to the London Port Health Authority – run by the City of London Corporation. The Corporation is itself a strange sort-of-council that is elected partly by residents of the Square Mile, and partly by the businesses that operate there, including at least one sanctioned Russian bank last year.
The PLA raises most of its cash from charges applies to boat owners – for example, for “pilotage” – steering cargo ships safely down the Thames. But its second biggest source of income according to accounts in 2022 is “river works licences, rents & investment income,” generating around £15m of its £78m income.
Much of that in turn comes from charges paid by leaseholders in flats that sit by the river – levied disproportionately on those whose balconies overhang the Thames. One such resident of Shad Thames, who didn’t wish to be named, told Byline Times: “This time they’ve asked for £54,000 [a year] for our building… It seems to me that there’s no real justification for these fees.
“The charge is now getting similar to my annual council tax bill. In order to have the right to breathe the air on my balcony, I have to pay the PLA equivalent of my council tax, which seems ridiculous.
“We’re talking around £1300 or something. Only about £8k of the £50k or so is attributed to the jetties that actually sit on the Thames.”
Under the PLA Act, the legislation underpinning the trust, PLA act, “the cards are stacked in their favour,” the resident says. “If we challenge the fees, they appoint the arbitrator, who then makes a determination. But we have to pay their costs. Lots of people will want to challenge them, but they’re likely to say ‘we’re not going to pay £50k to challenge this’.”
The charge on their building – and therefore individual leaseholders – has gone up by more than 50% since 2016. The PLA told Byline Times: “Arbitration procedures are available when the level of charges is set or reviewed.”
While there might not be oceans of sympathy for residents who can afford to live on the water’s edge, the question of who runs the capital’s river is one that affects all Londoners.
On the OceanDiva battle, Kathleen Ehrlich, chair of Shad Thames Residents Association, is frustrated by how residents are being locked out of big decisions about what happens on the Thames. “None of the bodies involved in the [boat] certification process – neither the Maritime and Coastguard Agency or the PLA – are obliged to keep us informed about what’s happening. So, when we want information, we have to go to them with very specific requests.”
“The PLA will usually say to us very politely that they are not obligated include or consult residents, but that they will because they are so happy to have us involved. But it’s a very one way flow of information – we’re not in dialogue with them.
“The only way for our residents to have any voice in this whatsoever is through the licensing process with Newham. There’s no way for us to engage or for the PLA to take any of our feelings into their decision making process,” she adds.
For Ehrlich, this is bigger than the press’ narrative about NIMBYs. “We don’t really have any recourse…This is an important historical place. It is about the history of working class London that deserves to be preserved.”
The PLA has now given a grant to a company called Net Zero Marine Services, which has set up its headquarters here in Shad Thames. The firm plans to build an electric charging station and a “black water” (sewage from boats) pump-out station on the riverside.
“We have an idea of what the impact of 1,500 partygoers three times a week would be, but we’ve no idea what the impact of having a commercial charging station and a pumping station here would be,” Ehrlich says. Again, the PLA has no obligation to consult on the impact of the sewage pumping in the area.
Ehrlich took a TfL boat back from Greenwich at the weekend. The amount of residential space on the river bank is “incredible” she says. “There has to be tens and tens of thousands of people who are living on both the north and south side of the river. These kinds of party boats really do have an impact on the lives of 1000s and 1000s of people.
“There are a lot of people who aren’t millionaires that live in this neighbourhood. We have council housing, and a lot of people don’t have anyone representing them to fight this off. They aren’t able to pay barristers to get involved, they are counting on their representatives and their residents associations to be their voice in this process,” the residents’ campaigner says.
Michelle Lovric from the River Residents Group put it simply: “The marine organisations entrusted with decisions about the OceanDiva appear not to be accountable to the public. The fear and outrage of Londoners evidently holds no water for the Maritime & Coastguard Agency, the Marine Management Organisation and the Port of London Authority.”
Residents and Cllr Rachel Bentley are calling for the Mayor of London to step in. But he holds no power over the river, either.
Who owns the Thames? It certainly isn’t Londoners.
OceanDiva and the Mayor’s office were contacted for comment.
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