Boatels!

Should “boatels” be part of the Union Canal strategy, asks Gavin Corbett.

How quickly words come from nowhere. Two weeks ago I’d barely heard the word “boatel” (or “hotel boat” if you prefer). But since then, there has been a flurry of attention following the submission of a planning application for 5 such hotel boats on the canalside, right outside Boroughmuir High School at Fountainbridge in Edinburgh.  The deadline for comments is 28 December.

The idea itself is not new. There is already a hotel boat at the end of the canal at Lochrin Basin – called the Four Sisters Boatel – and by all accounts it is a well-run, popular local business. Back in 2011 the acclaimed canal strategy identified two locations at Lochrin Basin which were thought suitable for hotel boats, although it did not make clear what the overall number of boats would be.

Anyway, as far as I can see the canal moorings strategy has always conceived of mixed uses in this part of the canal: commercial, residential, passing visitor, charity and hotel use. I cannot see anything to fault in that overall vision. The tricky bit is to get the locations right and the balance right.

That is why I was a bit surprised to get notification, out of the blue, of the application for 5 boatels alongside the new school. Accompanying the planning application was a Scottish Canals options appraisal on mooring plans, with a further 7 boatels indicated, further into the basin. This too was a little out of the blue, although, given the number of changes since 2011, I can understand why Scottish Canals wanted to update and be more precise about plans. Also, 12 berths does not seem totally out of line with the original strategy although it may be a little more than I had anticipated.

I know some people are concerned about “party boats” and the canal becoming an extension of the short term lets explosion. I can fully understand that in the context of the area where far too many flats within tenements and even new blocks are being lost from residential use and into a poorly-managed and unregulated “AirBnB” sector. Although living in canal boats is a very welcome residential choice for some people, I don’t think it’s a mainstream choice in quite the same way as for tenements and therefore the read-over from the short term lets crisis generally is not a perfect one, in my view.

In other words, at a modest scale, properly-let and well-managed (as with the Four Sisters Boatel) I can see hotel boats as part of a mix of canal uses. The moorings being leased rather than sold should allow a degree of control not so readily available in flats and Scottish Canals could and should be absolutely ruthless in stamping out uses like party boats or stag/hen boats which are quite at odds with the strategy for the Fountainbridge area.

What I can’t see easily is a viable business model outside a newly-opened high school. Boroughmuir High School already has 1,250 young people attending. With growth within the catchment, that is predicted to swell by 20% in coming years. That is an awful lot of young people in a very tight urban space, especially at 8.00am-8.30am when I am not sure holiday-makers will welcome the extra colour that brings. From the school’s point of view I am keen that there is increasing use of the canalside as part of the school day, from use of the water for sport to its role in teaching science or history. Creating a line of boats would inhibit that.

So I get the sense that a more consensual view of the mix of uses on the canal is possible; but it may take a pause and a step back to get there. Over the last seven years we have sought, in Fountainbridge, to create ways in which major developers like Vastint, MODA and Edinburgh Printmakers can engage early with the council and local community and seek to share ideas and insights. There are some obvious benefits in the shape of the masterplans that have emerged, green connections, meantime uses, among others. In developing the moorings strategy, that kind of dialogue, well before the formal planning process, is much to be commended.