The subject of river access in the UK is a contentious one. Landowners and angling clubs alike make claims to owning the river and the bed beneath. I could write page upon page as to why such opinions are ill-informed rubbish, as I would imagine proponents of banning river navigation could regarding my opinion.
I light of this I have listed below some facts as well as answers to common comments. These are not personal opinions, but wholly verifiable facts. People may dispute them, but it does not change the reality that they are facts. To quote one historical figure “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts!”
River ownership :- The water itself cannot be owned. Not even the most stubborn of access opponents can claim this. Furthermore the often quoted “Landowners own half of the river bed up to halfway across the river unless they own land on both sides” does not apply any more. The Land Registry has now changed the way that this is viewed, and a landowner now has to prove that they own the river bed before it is recognised.
Law :- Since time immemorial rivers have been regarded as a Public Right of Navigation (PRN). Opponents say that this is ancient law and does not apply any more. The reality is that PRN on all rivers has been re-affirmed in laws since, including the Act for Wears and Fishgarths in 1492.
It is then claimed that the 1492 act did not grant permission to navigate. This is true. It did not need to. What the 1492 act does is confirms that PRN on all rivers already exists. The act itself was to prevent landowners from installing illegal weirs and blockages to navigation. Thus it is doubly proved that the rivers were used for navigation.
The 1492 act was the last time that Parliament made clear its views on navigation.
Old laws only provide for industrial use :- No, they do not. Not one of the laws makes any distinction between commercial/industrial use and leisure use.
Canalised rivers such as the River Severn, Trent, and Thames prove that permission had to be given to navigate :- Again this is wrong. The navigation acts for such rivers were brought in to enable them to be modified so that navigation could be made more reliable, and not at the whim of the weather or the tides.
It is extremely notable that when the navigation acts were brought in that no landowner was compensated for loss of land. This is because the landowners do not own the rivers. They merely hold them in public trust. If they owned the rivers then they would have been compensated. Given the sheer length of such rivers you would have expected uproar at the state taking the rivers from the landowners. There was no such protest or comment, because the landowners do not own the rivers. It couldn’t be clearer.
We as anglers pay, while canoeists do not :- This argument is simply based upon jealousy and not facts that relate to any laws, rights, or regulations. However the point should be addressed. Anglers pay a rod license because their hobby has a direct effect on the wildlife of the river. It is in effect a hunting license. They then pay the landowner to be able to cross their land and use the facilities that are provided for them, such as car parking, jetties, and clearing and tidying for their use etc.
Paying to fish does not give ownership of the river. Private fishing rights are a right to use private landowners angling facilities. Nothing more and nothing less. You wouldn’t expect someone going for a walk in the countryside along footpaths to pay for a hunting license would you?!
In addition to this, canoeists, wild swimmers, and other river users DO pay for river upkeep. We pay for them through our taxes into the Environment Agency and other departments. Much in the same way that cyclists taxes still contribute towards the upkeep of the roads, even though car drivers have to pay for a tax disc. This is because cars directly affect the environment and cause extra wear and tear on the roads that bicycles simply do not. But just because a car driver pays for a tax disc does not mean that the cyclist does not contribute towards the upkeep of the roads. They do, through their general taxation.
Canoeing and kayaking, and wild swimming etc are environmentally benign activities. Informal in the same way that you would go for a walk in the countryside. if you are going to license kayakers and wild swimmers you might as well license hill walkers too!
If you license kayakers and wild swimmers you must also specify what services and facilities you are providing for that money. Since we prefer the rivers to be natural such a scheme would be an utter nonsense and amount to nothing more than a vitriolic tax.
Why can’t you use the artificial white water courses instead? :- Why can’t anglers use the many artificial fishing lakes instead?
Case law proves that there is no right to navigation. :- Currently there is no case law that says any such thing. Most cases that anglers and landowners quote from are only half quotes of the cases mentioned. The full comments from the judges who presided in those cases shows quite categorically that the discussion of the right of navigation was not at hand.
H.W. Woolwrych claimed that all non-tidal rivers are private unless a public right of navigation has been established by statute, long use or dedication. :- The often quoted book by Woolwrych is merely a personal opinion in a legal textbook. The assertions that he makes have been thoroughly disproved, and it should be noted that laws are made of statutes and case law, not unsubstantiated personal opinions in textbooks!
Unfortunately anglers have a very loud voice in the UK, and are very powerful and adept at lobbying the Government. It should also be noted that the lawmakers themselves are landowners for whom such research and laws directly affect. So it is no wonder that the battle for the acknowledgement of the public right to use rivers from the powers that be is a slow and arduous one.
For more information visit the River Access For All website and become a supporter!