Making harbour fees ship shape and Bristol fashion

The UK has 5,000 miles of navigable waterways. They provide important benefits to people, to the environment and to communities. They also make considerable contributions to the UK economy.

In Bristol we benefit from our rivers, that have shaped our city, and our harbour, that our city built. The harbour plays a key role in our city’s economy, our environment, wildlife and biodiversity, business, leisure, mental health, physical health, and education. It is a crucial element of the nature and development of our city and in connecting our communities. Our harbour offers improved health and wellbeing, affordable ways to get afloat including canoeing, boating and paddle boarding. We are proud to be home to several water-based charities including the Sea Scouts, All Aboard and Urban Pursuit.  

Bristol City Council is the harbour authority and has the responsibility for ensuring the protection of our waterways. Our role as managers of the harbour includes providing accessibility and engaging all communities. We support the businesses and residents that call the harbour home and welcome tourists from barges to super yachts. 

The harbour has become increasingly difficult to manage financially in recent years. Harbour fees have fallen well behind the true costs and have not been reviewed for two decades. The shortfall in funding affects harbour services and our ability to effectively manage increasing numbers of short-term visitors. The use of our docks has changed since the last review of fees and charges was introduced and the commercial income it previously benefited from has reduced to a negligible amount, with the harbour is now used for more leisure purposes than commercial. A benefit of becoming financially self-sufficient is that operations and facilities will be improved, and these improvements will be evident for service users and all visitors to the City Docks Estate.

We have now reviewed fees and benchmarked against other cities and harbour authorities. They are set to rise above RPI for the first time in 20 years and be brought closer to the necessary funding required to run an effective harbour service. Only eight people have permanent moorings in the harbour and so no other boat should be permanently resident. Apart from the eight permanent residential permits, all other boats in the harbour are present on leisure licenses. The leisure licence is offered on an annual basis and permits the owners to berth their vessels in the harbour but do not have any right of tenure and under the terms of this licence cannot stay onboard for more than a 15-day period. Anyone on a leisure permit has to register a residential address, and does not pay council tax for the boat.  

Boat users failing to comply with the license system and treating a leisure permit as a residential privilege are abusing the system and damaging the city’s ability to manage the harbour for all, to allow for better usage and to improve the facilities.

The harbour is owned by the city for the city. We must ensure it is managed effectively for all, not for a privileged few. As well as being a requirement under legislation, it’s also a moral one at a time when Bristol City Council faces a cost of operating crisis. We continue to protect frontline services, like libraries, children’s centres, and parks, at a time of severe pressure from high inflation, rising demand for services, and continued national austerity.

Boat permits continue to offer low-cost stays in our city but they do not enable people to use a leisure licence as a permanent residence. Comparing a boat as a residence to a land-based dwelling shows clearly that despite the upcoming fee rise, boat ownership remains a low-cost alternative.  

The revised fee structure is comparable with other cities. We cherish our harbour businesses, boat and land users, and visitors, and we want them to prosper. We also want the harbour to be an open, inclusive, and excellent facility at the heart of the city.