The Fens are a special case, and the Middle Level Commission must listen to the people, argues Jacqueline Mulhallen
In the 1650s, the Fens, a marshy area in Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and part of Norfolk, was drained. This meant that a way of life and means of livelihood for many people - wildfowling, catching eels, raising cattle, cutting peat - was completely destroyed. The Fenlanders (Fen Tigers) rioted and they attacked the banks and earthworks put up by the ‘Merchant Adventurers’ who were draining the land, and caused so much disruption that as part of the settlement, they were granted some land and also the right to free passage for boats used for pleasure. This was enshrined by Act of Parliament in 1753 (Nene Navigation Act) and subsequently renewed in the Wisbech Canal Act of 1794 and the Middle Level Acts of 1810-74.
The Middle Level Commissioners Drainage Authority for the Fenland area now want to overturn these 250 year old rights. The Middle Level Commissioners maintain the banks, gateways and the four working locks on the system, including the sluice gates at Salters Lode (near Downham Market) and Stanground (near Peterborough). They also have some responsibility for navigation from the Ouse to the Nene and can raise money by selling commercial licences in the waterways but they cannot sell licences to people using boats for pleasure since that is against the Act. They do not own moorings so can raise no revenue from this but they have powers to fine people staying longer than allowed at moorings; check boats using the waterways have valid insurance; remove sunken, stranded and abandoned vessels and recover the costs of doing so where the owner fails to act and temporarily close sections of waterways so works can be carried out or for events. An example of their action in the third case occurred in 2015. A boat owner had his boat burgled and burnt while he was away in Yorkshire for a few days. The Commissioners hoisted the shell of the burnt-out boat from the river and billed him £5,800 clearance charges, although the owner could have arranged for someone to tow away his boat within 24 hours. He did not have £5,800, so the Commissioners sold what was left of the boat on E-Bay.
The Commissioners are seeking to change the law by Act of Parliament. They are arguing that the Fens are an anomaly that should be brought in line with the rest of the country, i.e. that elsewhere people have to pay for a licence to use a boat for pleasure on the canal, and describing those on the Fens as ‘scroungers’ since they do not pay. However, in the case of the Fens this right was granted as compensation for the loss of their way of life when the Fens were drained so it is only right that this anomaly should exist. Increasingly, people are using boats as homes and currently about 100 people live on the waterways in question. They are petitioning against the bill and have set up a Facebook page, Contest the Middle Level Commission’s Amendments Bill. In mid-January they are going before Parliament at an Opposed Private Bill Committee.
The Middle Level Commission should remember their history, or they may have to fight the Fen Tigers all over again.
Jacqueline Mulhallen, actor and playwright, has co-ordinated King’s Lynn Stop the War since 2003 and initiated and organised 14 Women for Change talks for King’s Lynn & District Trades Council (2012/2013). She has written a number of plays, including 'Sylvia' and 'Rebels and Friends' (Lynx Theatre and Poetry), and books, including The Theatre of Shelley (Openbooks, 2010), and a Shelley biography (Pluto Press, 2015).