Public access to rivers & its impacts


Lucky anglers

Last week George Monbiot in the Guardian wrote a piece about the private ownership of rivers in relation to navigation access. To briefly summarise; the vast majority of English rivers are in private ownership and despite some legal confusion, currently there is no formal public right to access or use 97% of English for recreation. This tends to impact most on people who wish to use rivers for canoeing or kayaking, which are relatively low environmental impact activities, such activities are restricted to a few rivers with open access, such as the Wye, or tidal waters which have different legal rules.


Canoeing on the River Wye, one of the few rivers in England where this is possible

I should say I am not always a great fan of Monbiot’s writing, and in this article I think he makes some flawed arguments, however this Guardian article got me thinking about recreational use of rivers more widely and then how this relates to river management issues, including river restoration. The way the majority of rivers are owned and managed at the moment is targeted towards income streams for the land owner, primarily fishing through sale of permits. Although fishing is a very popular activity it is still enjoyed by only a tiny majority of people. Furthermore a river which is profitable as a fishing resource may not be the same as a diverse, viable and sustainable ecosystem long term.

It is my contention that limiting access to river environments leads to the general public failing to fully understand and appreciate them, if this is indeed the case then it goes some way to explaining a lack of support for river restoration schemes and modern, sustainable river management philosophies in general. Also by effectively barring people who are either not interested in fishing, or cannot afford the fees, from actively interacting with a river (in boats or swimming for example) it means the vast majority of people only see rivers as picturesque landscape features. By only valuing a river as something to look at issues such as biodiversity and sustainability are not relevant to people unless they pertain directly the visual health of the river.


Boating on the Danube delta in Romania

It is interesting as contrast to look at forests and woodlands in the UK, where widespread access has long been enjoyed by the public (although some woodlands are exempt from a ‘right to roam‘). Such access engenders an understanding and valuing of the entire environment and habitat and we only have to look at the widespread protests against selling off of UK woodlands recently to see how such understanding translates into political and social engagement. Conversely issues of water pollution, invasive species and river restoration remain largely peripheral, with debates dominated by fishing groups and aesthetic concerns. A recent publicity stunt in China where an activist offered £24,000 for the environment minister to swim in one of China’s heavily polluted rivers naturally focused on what diseases the hypothetical swim may lead to rather than whether the local land-owner or angling club would allow it. Although this is a silly example, a google search for “river pollution protest” yields no UK based stories out of the first 100 hits, whereas “woodland protest” and “forest protest” yields a myriad of sites within the UK.

My colleague Adam Broadhead researches “lost urban rivers” and ways to engage the urban public with the hidden rivers in their midst; I would argue that restrictive access and usage of rivers has left a legacy of “lost rural rivers” that many people do not fully value or understand, a legacy which shapes current management and debate of rivers. Restrictive access to rivers is more than an issue for canoe clubs, it touches the heart of the way people understand and value their rivers and forcing land owners to open up access to rivers cannot come soon enough.

NB: this article was amended on 13/04/2013 to change the wording of “no public right to access or use [rivers] for recreation” to  “no formal public right to access or use 97% of English for recreation” – which more accurately reflects the original Guardian article and the current legal position.

This entry was posted in Politics, River Management, River restoration. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Public access to rivers & its impacts

  1. Jon Wood says:

    Simon, I would like to take issue with your comment that there is no public right to access rivers or use them for recreation. That message is trotted out by Defra Ministers and the Angling Trust. River Access For All believes that there was a common law right to navigate our rivers, and that the only way this right can be extinguished would be by statute, or a river silting up. When challenged to tell paddlers by what law we were prohibited from English rivers, Secretary of State Owen Paterson avoided answering the question.
    Later a Defra official conceded “There is no clear case law on whether a ‘common law right of navigation’ exists on unregulated rivers. This is widely accepted to be a clear and unresolved issue.”
    Defra also choose to ignore new evidence presented to them, preferring the status quo. That is why it is important to highlight this issue with MPs, who can demand that this evasion stops, and all evidence is reviewed impartially.
    Meanwhile the public should be able to enjoy our rivers without misleading information or intimidation.
    I notice that familiar image of a ‘Police Notice’ on your blog. Of course it has nothing to do with the Police. More misrepresentation. Angling groups have also used Environment Agency & Natural England logo’s without approval in an attempt to bully the public from rivers.
    The wider range of people who can share & enjoy our rivers the better. Any one group’s view of ‘management’ is not necessarily the best for the health of the river environment. We must all enjoy our rights, and with those rights come responsibilities to protect our river heritage

    • Jon Wood says:

      Thanks for the amendment.

      • Simon Dixon says:

        No problem Jon, been trying to find the time to reply to you as well.

        I quite deliberately didn’t cover the various legal arguments as these have been covered in quite some depth on the River Access for All and various angling sites. In many ways I think the ongoing legal issues are actually a distraction. IF there was a test case and the landowner/angling club position was ruled in favour of; well it would be a manifestly unjust law, and people could then lobby to have it amended through parliament, AND/OR people would be forced to go down the voluntary access agreement route (however unsatisfactory that is). The problem at the moment seems to be the issue has become deadlocked with the canoeists reluctant to engage with access agreements as that would validate the other legal position (not to mention that such agreements seem to be rarely forthcoming), and with landowners refusing to acknowledge there is even a debate/doubt to be resolved. It is made even more poisonous by militant attitudes from a minority on both sides.

        The net result is that public access to rivers is not advanced significantly as the issue seems at stalemate. The aggressive notices remain up on the river banks and casual river users are deterred from exploring or paddling in a river, never mind boating. A firm legal ruling one way or another would at least move the issue on.

  2. This is really interesting as we have quite the opposite situation in the US. All navigable waters (and that includes even the tiniest stream, if it is connected to a larger river or lake) are protected by the interstate commerce clause and effectively in the public domain. Not sure about the legal wording, but it means that we can be in and on them, and these days, anyone planning to put things (dams, restorations, sediment) into a stream needs a federal permit. However, we have no public right to access land, and it is not at all uncommon for lakes to be effectively privatized because the land surrounding it is held privately. If you did drop into a lake from a helicopter or wade/swim/boat upstream from a public access point though, you would have every right to be in the water.

  3. Trevor Bond says:

    Devil’s advocate here. What if public access is to the detriment of the ecological or morphological condition of a river? I’m thinking here of the poaching (bare earth exposure) caused by people and dogs on river banks, the (as yet) poorly researched effects of access structures (e.g. canoe portages, fishing platforms, access bridges) upon fluvial processes, and the maintenance of ‘accessible’ watercourses (e.g. weed cutting, de-silting, tree removal).

    I would contest that a truly natural system would be relatively difficult for people to access, particularly in headwater streams. Fisherman may not want trees hanging over the water as it could affect their ability to cast-off. Canoeist may not want wood in the river as it could create a dangerous obstacle. The general public (as you’ve considered in another post Simon) may not want a naturally functioning river because this wouldn’t look like one of Constable’s paintings.

    How do we value the competing amenities of the river? Would we tolerate a sub-optimal ecosystem to ensure people have access? What is ideal for one stakeholder is unlikely to be ideal for all. It requires informed, objective discussion. Biscuits will help.

    Fundamentally I agree with the essence of the post. How we actually deliver that is the challenge.

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