Despite periodically straying into the news, the access issues facing paddlers on our rivers doesn’t have a huge profile. Mostly the issue goes under the public’s radar, most of who are surprised to hear our rivers could be considered private. At the national level the disagreement concerns the existent of a general historic – but, importantly, un-rescinded – right to navigate our rivers. It’s all too long winded for this post to cover, but essentially paddlers and anglers/landowners are at deadlock over interpretations of centuries old common law (for reference: the paddlers are right, obviously!).
But where there is some agreement, at least on the face of it, between different parties is regarding how a Pubic Right of Navigation (PRN) can be created at a local level on specific stretches of river.
Both the Country Landowners Association (CLA) and the Angling Trust have issued policies or opinion relating to river access that confirm the view that a PRN will be created on a stretch of river by either:
- Long-user; or
- Landowner grant
For Rights of Way on land (public footpaths, bridleways etc) a Definitive Map exists to catalogue recognised routes. If a route isn’t on the map but people believe it should be there exists a clear mechanism for people to apply for it to be added. The process (especially the time councils take) isn’t perfect, but it works.
Nothing similar exists to enable claims for a PRN to be assessed and confirmed. The frustrating result for canoeists is that even where public rights demonstrably exist organisations like the CLA and Angling Trust will (with extreme hypocrisy considering their public position regarding how such rights can be established) actively oppose the existence. In many cases not only will they oppose any claim for a PRN but they will also send out menacing legal letters to anyone claiming such rights exist or who dare use the river.
Trent at Kelham
One example of a river where a clear PRN exists is the River Trent passing by the village of Kelham. The current river navigation instead uses the branch running through Newark, and is (presumably begrudgingly!) accepted as a PRN. However, the branch running past Kelham was once the main navigation route of the Trent, used for centuries as a public navigation.
Despite the history of the river here being a PRN, the anglers who rent or own the fishing rights vehemently oppose paddling, claiming any use of the stretch for navigation is trespass. There have been reports of paddlers being threatened and abused by the anglers (who no doubt would say the same of canoeists – one of the perverse impacts of the debate is to make enemies of two groups which in other countries act in cooperation for the environment).
It’s a real shame as the route makes a great 10 mile round trip when the current managed channel is used as a return route. The picture of the river here (from Flickr) shows the river running past Kelham – we aren’t talking about a narrow stretch of river where fair sharing of the space isn’t possible. Both recreations should be more than capable of working with each other on the Trent here.
The attached document shows the evidence for a PRN on the Kelham branch, representing about as clear a claim for a common law PRN on historic use as you can imagine. I’d be really interested in any extra – or opposing – evidence.
Claim and counter-claim
The issue facing paddlers is that, despite how clear this evidence is, there is no route to have this PRN officially recognised. This does not mean the route is not a legal PRN. A court judgment or Definitive Map Modification Order don’t create a Right of Way, they only recognise it.
So the canoeist has no recourse at all – there is no route for them to take to clear the matter up.
Locked in limbo
The fall out from this results the national problem being reflected on hundred of rivers locally: the de-facto acceptance of no access rights for canoeists on rivers.
Many canoeists will now simply carry on paddling, hoping to ignore the often hostile challenge they receive from the banks. But many more are put off from accessing rivers.
Organisations like local councils, wildlife organisations, and even friendlier landowners are also put off from promoting the many benefits of canoeing on these stretches. No new facilities like decent portage or access can be put in. No advice can be given to paddlers on the wildlife or dangers of the stretch. All because any efforts to do any of this will receive a quasi-legal threat from the local anglers, meaning putting money into a project a risk they can’t take.
All of which is of course the result those opposed want.
What can be done?
When you consider that only 4% of England’s rivers hold uncontested recreational navigation rights (and almost every mile of the 4% is managed, modified and canalised river), you can see the extent of the problem.
So, what are the solutions?
- Government should take more note of the nature of the access issue nationally – in particular the strong evidence for a general PRN. Gaining a full national solution to this issue, with the rights and responsibilities of canoeists taken seriously would be the single biggest step to positive change.
- Examine the potential for claims of PRN to be assessed. For those rivers where there is a claim for a local PRN in addition to the national General PRN there needs to be a simpler way of resolving the dispute. This will also enable the Government to see the huge extent of this issue on rivers across England – making a proper national resolution more likely.