The boathouse was constructed to make Cambridge more competitive, having lost the Men’s and Women’s Races in the three years before it opened in December 2016John Sutton/Geograph

Cambridge rowing has successfully navigated a victory over Revenue and Customs (HMRC) after the latter claimed that the University should have owed £575,000 in VAT on its newly-constructed £4.9 million boathouse in Ely.

The dispute stemmed from a rule which allows construction costs to be exempt from VAT if the facilities in question benefit a sports club and not individuals. HMRC took issue with Cambridge being exempt, arguing that the boathouse was for the use of individual rowers rather than the rowing club as a whole.

Opened in December 2016 and initially met with criticism by environmentalists for its potential consequences on wildlife, the boathouse took eight years to come to fruition and was established with the intention of providing “an environment where [Cambridge University Boat Club (CUBC), Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club (CUWBC), and Cambridge University Lightweight Rowing Club (CULRC)] can co-operate on winning all six Boat Races each year”.

Set back from the congestion of the River Cam, the “long, straight stretch of the River Ouse [...] offered ideal training conditions” and the opportunity for “serious training”, with the facilities intended to create “a new and secure home” for Cambridge rowing over the next century and compete against the facilities at Oxford’s Wallingford Boathouse.

Following defeat in the three years before the boathouse opened, Cambridge has reigned victorious in the Women’s Race every year since, also picking up wins in the Men’s Race in 2018, 2019, and 2021, with the same pattern in the Reserve Races.

According to The Telegraph, Dr Susan Hood, president of CUWBC until last year, argued at the first-tier tax tribunal that the club would stand to benefit from the boathouse, claiming that the club’s principal purpose was to compete against and defeat Oxford in the annual Boat Race.


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A barrister representing Cambridge reportedly further spoke of the club’s worries that, without the construction of the boathouse, Oxford would dominate the Boat Race, which would in turn lead to a loss of interest from sponsors and the public alike.

A spokesperson from accountancy firm RSM said that Cambridge successfully highlighted in court that the rowing clubs alone decide which rowers can use the boathouse facilities, and that the boats and equipment belong to the boathouse and not to individual rowers.

It is also reported that the tribunal took into account the negligible amount of money paid by rowers to their clubs versus the cost of the elite facilities at the boathouse, and that rowers pay fees to compete in the Boat Race, not to use the boathouse.

Provided that Cambridge rowing and HMRC reach agreement on “further issues”, the tribunal ruled that the former will be exempt from the £575,000 VAT charge.