AN ECCENTRIC recluse who has occupied a ramshackle raft on the river for the last 20 years, has come under fire from residents who say his growing empire of oil drums and tarpaulins is an eyesore.

Ian McCullogh's home-made houseboat has been moored on the Thames near Marble Hill Park for nearly 20 years.

He pays neither council tax nor mooring fees and spends much of his time looking after the ducks and birds that nest on smaller rafts around his boat.

Mr McCullogh has been criticised by campaigners as a blight to views of the river and a potential hazard to river users.

The criticism intensified recently over his latest project, a separate raft made out of oil drums and scaffolding poles, decorated with an old bicycle or two.

Stan Rust, who runs Hammerton's ferry nearby, said he was irritated that nothing was being done by the authorities. "The council can't stop him," he said. "Why should he get for nothing what we pay through the nose for? He's got money. He's taking the michael out of us and shouldn't be allowed to do so."

But local passers-by voiced their support for his unusual home and its flotilla of smaller rafts for ducks' nests which provide him with eggs each spring. The Port of London Authority also said it had no quibble with him, after settling a dispute several years ago. A spokesman said: "He is not causing a hazard for other river users, so on a safety or navigational level [the rafts are] not a problem."

The Richmond Society has called the floating complex an eyesore, but this week appeared to be softening its stance. A spokesman said: "We find that the subject of the man and his raft comes up now and then. The Richmond Society does not have a corporate view about this and we spend our time focusing on a host of important and urgent issues facing the town including planning, graffiti, rubbish clearance and the closure of public toilets."

Mr McCullogh, also known by several other names, including 'Gary', was not available for comment this week.

"Little is known about him except that he is in his 50s, well-educated and may have been a university lecturer in Edinburgh. He has keen blue eyes, a short, neat grey beard and is surprisingly well-presented, sporting a new pair of brown boots under his brown poncho.

He is said to be from the Twickenham area - some say Montpelier Road - and is rumoured to have a girlfriend who lived on the raft for a while, but now lives onshore and visits the raft occasionally, attired in a similar poncho. His mother is said to have visited the waterside in a wheelchair.

Most who have encountered him say he is pleasant and a threat to no one. Mark Edwards, who runs Richmond Boat Hire, said: "He keeps himself to himself, but he's well-behaved and helpful to people who hire boats."

Mr Edwards said the Port of London Authority would be within its rights to remove him, but he was pleased that it did not. He said: "The fact that he doesn't pay any mooring fees and I do doesn't bother me." But he said there had to be a limit to his raft-building activities. "There is a point where someone will say to him 'you can have so much, but not any more."

Ivy Simpson, 72, who lives opposite Marble Hill Park and has been walking her dog every day for years past Mr McCullogh's home, said: "He does seem to be collecting a lot more stuff. I don't know why he needs all that." She added: "But it doesn't affect me at all."

She said that Mr McCullogh's rafts added to the charm of the riverside, bringing children to the river in summer to see the ducklings. She said: "He's a damned sight quieter than vandals destroying park seats and so on. I say live and let live."