Registered charity 276264

The Houseboats

Chelsea Reach is an important part of Chelsea’s character and heritage.

The Chelsea Society has therefore been working for more than two years with the Cheyne Walk Trust and others to persuade RBKC to prevent the removal of traditional houseboats from Chelsea Reach, and their replacement by very  large floating structures, each containing two dwelling units.

The Councillors had been advised by their officers that they could not prevent this, but the Vice-chairman of the Chelsea Society disagreed with their interpretation of the law, and the Society contributed, with the Cheyne Walk Trust, and the Boatowners’ Association, and other local people, a substantial sum toward legal fees to prove that the officers were mistaken.

Also, several hundred letters were sent to the Council by local people, and we are grateful for the support of Chelsea’s Councillors.

Eventually, on 19th December 2023, the Council’s Planning Applications Committee decided unanimously that:

  1. each berth at Chelsea Reach be treated as the relevant planning unit and
  2. the introduction of significantly different boats constitutes a change of use by reason of intensification, and would do so even if the moorings as a whole were treated as the relevant planning unit.

On 27th February 2024 the Council’s Planning Applications Committee (differently constituted) decided unanimously to authorise enforcement proceedings.

The Society now expects the Council to take enforcement action without further delay to remove the very large boats which have been brought to Chelsea Reach without planning permission for such change of use, and to prevent the arrival of any more.

The Society also expects the Council to take action to remove from Cadogan Pier the large boats which are incapable of navigation under their own power or sail, and which have been placed there without planning permission.

At the full Council Meeting on 31st January 2024, an all-party Motion proposed by our Chelsea Councillors and supported by Councillors from other parts of the Borough, was passed unanimously, that the Council resolves to complete the River Thames Conservation Area Management Plan.

The Society expects the Council to adopt the Management Plan without further delay.

 

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BACKGROUND

For many years the Council of RBKC had used their planning powers to control the size and appearance of boats in Chelsea, and very many applications for planning permission for individual boats have been made and determined. We therefore requested (in relation to Chelsea Reach and Cadogan Pier), that the Council modifies the statement on page 6 of the draft River Thames Conservation Area Management Plan accordingly, and adopts the amended Plan without further delay.

The Councillors say that they recognise the fact that the houseboats moored at Chelsea Reach are part of the essential character of the Thames Conservation Area and that they do not wish this character to be eroded with the introduction of larger vessels that do not resemble a traditional houseboat.  We believe that all the elected Councillors in Chelsea Riverside and Royal Hospital Wards support our objective to prevent any changes which would be inconsistent with this.  When we met with the Leader of the Council on 16th November 2022 she said that it is the Council’s policy to protect the visual amenity of the riverside, and she confirmed this at the AGM of the Cheyne Walk Trust on 21st November.

However, the Councillors were not clear as to whether they have power to exercise control.  The Chelsea Society, the Cheyne Walk Trust (CWT), and local residents have therefore thought it necessary to pay for the written Opinion of Leading Counsel, which we have sent to them.

Having read RBKC’s detailed response on 20th January 2023 to the Opinion of our Leading Counsel, and having considered it carefully, we take the view that the Councillors were receiving advice from their officers which is mistaken.  In our view planning permission has always been necessary for the occupation of each berth by a replacement boat.  The Council has power to exercise proper control over the size and appearance of each boat and should do so, having regard to the 1983 design guidance mentioned below.

At the request of the Leader of the Council, Cllr. Elizabeth Campbell, a meeting was held on 18th August 2023 between Leading Counsel instructed by RBKC and Leading Counsel instructed by The Chelsea Society, the Cheyne Walk Trust, and the Boatowners’ Association. It was agreed that RBKC is entitled to treat each berth as the planning unit and to control the size and appearance of boats moored there.

At the AGM of The Chelsea Society on 13th November 2023 the following Resolution was passed unanimously:

“The Chelsea Society, being concerned that planning powers were not being exercised to protect the amenity of Chelsea’s Riverside;

(a)          congratulates the Leader of the Council of RBKC for calling a meeting at which King’s Counsel were able to clarify that the Council has legal power to control the size and appearance of boats at Chelsea Reach and Cadogan Pier.

(b)          calls upon the Council to take enforcement action without further delay to prevent intensification at Chelsea Reach by the replacement of small traditional boats with large box-like structures, and to prevent the occupation of Cadogan Pier by boats without planning permission.

(c)          calls upon the Council to adopt the Thames Conservation Area Management plan without further delay.”

The Councillors say that the design guidelines for houseboats will be included in the forthcoming Thames Conservation Area Management Plan, but what is the point of having policies on the size and appearance of boats unless they are going to be enforced?

In the part of Chelsea Reach where the Council has control as landowner of Old Ferry Wharf, they say that they have put in place measures to protect the character of the area and management of the houseboat moorings, including restricting the number of moorings and size of vessels served from Old Ferry Wharf.

However, they have refused to tell us what these measures are, save that no individual vessel will exceed 32 metres in length, and 3.5 metres in height measured from the main deck, and that no vessel shall have more than two floors (including the floor within the hull).  We think that these dimensions are much too large, and that boats recently positioned there may exceed even those limits.

Otherwise, the Council have simply referred us to the Key Decision and clauses 3.3 and 3.4 of the Officers’ report of 29th March 2022, which are too vague to enable the Society and CWT to form a view as to whether the proposed measures would be adequate to protect the amenity of that area.

THE VISUAL AMENITY

Our reasons for challenging the Council on this issue are set out clearly in Annex 9 of the Council’s own Thames Conservation Area Proposals Statement of 1983 as follows:

Historical context

The Chelsea Riverside has historical connections from early times. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle records a Synod held in 785 at Celchyth where it is said King Offa of the Mercians resided, and the riverside has, of course, featured prominently in the history of the area over the years. There is a fish-trap still in existence at Chelsea Reach which is thought to have been constructed in the reign of King Offa.

9.2 Visual Importance

The houseboats are a prominent feature in a river landscape which has been considered “romantic” at least since the days of Whistler. They lie within a conservation area and are a feature in the river scene when viewed from Chelsea Embankment, from Battersea Bridge and from the river itself.

9.8 Overall Design Comments

The houseboats are permanent features of the Chelsea scene, occupying a considerable area of one of the most prominent locations in the Borough. They are located in a Conservation Area and adjoin property included on the statutory list of buildings of architectural and historical interest. It follows that every bit as much care must be lavished on their detailed design and appearance as would be the case with conventional buildings in this part of Chelsea.

9.6 Although most of the houseboats are not capable of being moved, they are nevertheless floating structures on a major navigable river moored along a foreshore which has been associated with boats since at least Tudor times. Any structure which, by virtue of its shape or materials, displays no vestiges of the boat building tradition is very likely to look out of place and would probably not receive planning permission.

9.6 (1)  A boat-shaped hull is preferable to a rectangular pontoon and is likely to result in a less rectangular superstructure.

9.6 (2) The relationship between the height and bulk of the superstructure and the size of the hull is important. As a general guide the overall height from waterline to roof should be kept as low as possible, and should not exceed 2½ times the height from water line to the top of the hull, and the superstructure should not (a) cover more than 80% of the hull’s plan area at deck level, nor (b) at any point rise sheer from the water.

In the case of pontoon construction, the height ratio would clearly need to be exceeded in order to obtain sufficient head room, but such vessels should only have one level of accommodation to keep the height as low as possible.

9.6 (3) A “box” shape structure is to be avoided, as it is no way associated with traditional boat construction and therefore detracts from the nautical style associated with the river.  To design a superstructure to look like a small wooden house is as discordant and ridiculous as designing a house in a conservation area to look like a boat.

The current draft Local Plan provides at 6.25 that “The character and appearance of a conservation area is not only provided by the high quality and appearance of individual buildings within the area but their relationship with each other and with the spaces between them. …Therefore, development that impacts positive elements within the area or affects its setting, including through an effect on views, gaps and vistas and other character and appearance issues identified in conservation area appraisal documents, needs to be assessed to ensure that the character and appearance of the area is conserved.”

CADOGAN PIER

We are also concerned with Cadogan Pier, and have asked the Council to confirm that:

(a)          The planning unit at Cadogan Pier is each individual berth.  (Many applications for boats in individual berths at the Pier have been made and determined).

(b)          That the use of the Pier is for leisure and working craft only, and that permission will not normally be granted for any craft which are incapable of navigating the river under their own power or sail.

(c)           That permission will not normally be granted for residential use of any boat.

(d)          That in dealing with a planning application for a boat in a particular berth, the Council will expect compliance with the guidance notes set out in paras. 9.6 and 9.7 of Appendix 9 of the 1983 River Thames Conservation Area Proposals Statement.

The Council have failed to respond to this request

 

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The Society has been concerned for some time that the amenity of Chelsea Reach, upstream of Battersea Bridge would be damaged by the removal of the traditional houseboats, and their replacement by large unsuitable structures which look more like pre-fabs than boats.

We have therefore campaigned to persuade RBKC to enforce the Design Brief in the Thames Conservation Area Statement of 1983, but they say they have no legal power to do so. This is disputed, and The Chelsea Society and other stakeholders are therefore seeking the Opinion of a QC.

An opportunity had however arisen to deal with this matter by contract, rather than having to rely on the planning laws.

The Council is the freehold owner of the Old Ferry Wharf and the lease to the Chelsea Yacht & Boat Company has expired. The Council says that it has listened to the concerns of the boatowners and local residents and has put in place, through the new lease agreements, a number of provisions. These would include measures designed to protect and maintain the existing character of the area by controls on the number of moorings and size of vessels accessed or serviced from the Old Ferry Wharf site, as well as all moorings up to Battersea Bridge. In addition, a ‘code of conduct’ to ensure that statutory and other obligations, including Health and Safety measures, would also be included in the Access and Services Lease in relation to the moorings accessed or serviced from Old Ferry Wharf.

So far so good, but the Council has refused to tell us what these measures and code of conduct are. They have simply referred us to the Key Decision and clauses 3.3 and 3.4 of officers’ report of 29th March 2022, but these are much too vague to enable the Society to form a view as to whether the proposed restrictions would be adequate to protect the amenity of the area.

The Society has proposed a list of restrictions as follows:

  • the style of the boat should essentially be boat-like and not resemble a box or container or a land-based house. House-like fascia and eaves projections and gables should not be permitted, nor should large and rectangular window forms. Glass windows should form no more that 40% of the surface on which they are located.
  • The boats should not be too long. RBKC have suggested 32 metres, but in our view they should not be longer overall than 25 metres.
  • The boats should not be too high. RBKC have suggested 2.5 metres above the deck, but in our view they should not be higher than 4 metres above the waterline.  We think that the waterline is the correct base point, because some boats have more than one deck, with different heights.  Also we would not want to encourage the construction of boats with very high hulls so as to maximise the overall permitted height.
  • All boats should be recorded and assessed for Council tax as a single residence and must not comprise two or more flats
  • The 53 Metre gap between the two rows of CYBC moorings at Chelsea Reach must be preserved.
  • Boats with pontoon construction should be discouraged and should have only one level of accommodation. A second lower level of accommodation may be contained within a conventional hull.
  • Boats should be constructed in materials and finishes consistent with traditional boat-building practice
  • All plumbing, wiring and utilities to be internal and with any external flues and cowls minimised and trailing wires avoided.
  • Each boat should have available to it at reasonable charge a metered supply of electricity, gas, and potable water; and telecommunications and refuse-disposal facilities
  • Boats should not be let or licensed as short-term living accommodation, and especially not on Air B&B or any similar short-term letting scheme.
  • Boats should not be used for business purposes other than as a home-office
  • Boats should be maintained in reasonable condition and not show any substantial area of rust or flaking paint
  • Boats should be painted in suitable colours and/or in marine wood-varnish.
  • Points (12) and (13) shall apply to gangways and other equipment used with the boat as well as the boat itself.
  • Boats must not be used so as to cause a nuisance or annoyance to the occupiers of nearby vessels or people on shore.
  • Boats must be securely moored so as not to cause damage under adverse weather or tidal conditions to itself or other boats, nor to gas, electricity, or water connections
  • The buildings and commercial berths within the site should continue to be used to preserve the traditional use of the site for boat-building and boat-repair, and to continue to provide employment and apprenticeship opportunities in those trades.
  • The boats, and the area between high and low water marks, must be kept clear of rubbish, flotsam and jetsam.

We have asked the Council to tell us which, if any, of our 18 proposals have been accepted, but they have refused to do so, claiming confidentiality.  However, we have never asked for disclosure of the confidential commercial arrangements between the Council and CYBC Ltd.

These restrictions are matters of public interest on which the community should be properly informed.  We have therefore made a request under the Freedom of Information Act.  If this is refused we will appeal to the Information Commissioner.

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