Canoeists make waves about right to paddle in English rivers

Campaigners seeking land reform to overturn system that they say denies them access to waterways

Canoeists are campaigning for a right to “blue spaces”, with fewer than 4% of England’s rivers open to the public.

Paddlers have described being shouted at and even subjected to physical abuse for passing through some stretches of river during their exercise.

A patchwork of landowners having rights over tiny lengths of river, which makes it almost impossible to create routes for swimming and boating without land reform, campaigners have said.

Ben Seal, campaign manager at British Canoeing, said: “The law is currently unclear so we have been campaigning to get those waterways opened up so people get fair and equal access to the blue spaces around us. People don’t know if they are trespassing, they are threatened often and coerced off the river. We have a tiny percentage of area where people can freely paddle.”

There has been a large increase in the number of people wanting to use England’s rivers recreationally – membership of British Canoeing jumped from 36,500 to 93,000 in a year.

But canoeists are often threatened by landowners for paddling through their land. “Some of our members have faced physical violence,” Seal said.

Currently, the rules about access to rivers are negotiated locally, and recreational users need landowners’ permission to pass through rivers that run through their property.

But there are problems with this. Seal explains: “If you are looking at a 10-mile stretch of river, there could be hundreds of people to negotiate access agreements with. This would be completely unworkable.”

Philip Dunne, Conservative MP for Ludlow and chair of the House of Commons environmental audit committee, said that as rivers become cleaner and are awarded bathing status, more access should be granted.

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“Every community in the country should have access to waters – whether coastal or inland – that are safe for people to swim in without running the risk of falling ill,” he said. “As bathing water quality is achieved in more rivers, recreational users should be able to access these spaces easily.”

Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), including the MP for Taunton Deane, Rebecca Pow, have called for more rivers to get bathing status, meaning the water quality must be monitored and logged.

Members of British Canoeing will this summer start a campaign to clean up rivers, including litter picking in local areas. They argue they bring a net good to waterways and are far less of a danger to the health of rivers than problems such as sewage pollution and agricultural run-off.

In fact, many swimmers and other recreational users of waterways have led the charge against sewage pollution, leading to a law change last year meaning that water companies have a legal duty to reduce sewage outflows.

Seal said: “Flip it around and if all rivers were accessible and open to people to enjoy, just think of the amount of people that would then be engaged and care for the health of the river. It is interesting when you stack up the harm actually caused by recreational users of the countryside against the harm caused by those who are the custodians of the land; some farmers, landowners, water companies and industry.”

Defra sources said there were no plans to change the current system, and that those wishing to use rivers would have to negotiate with landowners.

They added that they “recognise that taking to our inland waters can have a positive effect on physical and mental wellbeing, as well as offer opportunities to improve the water environment.”


Helena Horton Environment reporter

The GuardianTramp

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