British Canoeing Access Policy
The word ‘access’ includes access to and along linear waterways, the coast and also access to specific water sites and appropriate sporting facilities. The provision and improvement of access for canoeing in all its forms is very much encouraged by British Canoeing. The overall objective is to increase the number of canoeing opportunities and the introduction of new legislation to give certainty for a right of access to inland waters and the coast.
Paddlers are encouraged to enjoy water responsibly in ways that are compatible with the conservation of the environment and wildlife.
You can find British Canoeing's Position Statement on Shared use here.
Access to Water
“We believe that paddlers have a historic right to access the rivers and waterways of England and Wales.
We believe in all stakeholders sharing the space in a responsible and sustainable manor.
While this position is disputed by others, British Canoeing will campaign on behalf of the paddling community toward a long term solution”.
The legal position for paddlers continues to be a disputed topic, and we are working to secure greater recognition of the research conducted in the past 15 years which has challenged previous assumptions regarding the public’s right to navigate our waterways.
Waterway Access & the Law
Throughout England and Wales there is a high level of uncertainty regarding the legal rights of the public to use canoes and kayaks on different waterways.
The situation described below has caused many organisations and observers to state that the law is unclear. In 1973, the Select Committee of the House of Lords on Sport & Leisure stated “The legal question of rights of way over water must be settled. A number of different interpretations of this right of way have been referred to in evidence and it is time for these to be resolved”. More recently, a series of access studies, legal and historical research, along with statements from bodies such as DEFRA and the Welsh Assembly Government, have also shown the issue of access to and along water in England and Wales is legally unclear.
Tidal waters and the coast
In nearly all cases there is a Public Right of Navigation (PRN) on tidal waters. This includes the seas, estuaries and tidal rivers – up to their historic Normal Tidal Limit (NTL). Where a river’s tidal limit has by altered by the building of weirs, sluices or other structures the historic (or natural, unrestricted) NTL is the relevant limit. The right to navigate tidal waters may be subject to a payment of harbour dues and restrictions due to exclusion zones or use by the Ministry of Defence.
In England and Wales there are differing opinions regarding Public Rights of Navigation (PRN) along non-tidal waters. The bed and banks of all rivers and canals are privately owned, and many believe this gives the landowner the right to control navigation. British Canoeing believes recent legal research has cast significant doubt upon this interpretation of the law. Some waterways do have a widely recognised Public Right of Navigation, such as the Upper Severn and the Wye. Many other waterways find their status disputed despite clear evidence of both Statutory and Common Law rights of navigation.
The lakes of the lake district each have specific access arrangements. These are summarised on our page on paddling these lakes.
Canals and River Navigations
All canals and rivers actively maintained as navigations have public access, subject to a payment for a license/registration where required. Where navigations have been abandoned it can be unclear if there is still a Public Right of Navigation (PRN). You can find more details of the canals and rivers actively managed for navigation on British Canoeing's licences page.
Trespass on Land
Regardless of any Public Right of Navigation (PRN) on a waterway the land on each bank is likely to be privately owned. Going to a private place without actual or implied permission could constitute an act of trespass.
The law of Trespass is an extremely complicated subject, this summary is not intended to provide a legal answer, but is given as guidance, so that paddlers are able to make a judgement on whether or not they wish to paddle a disputed water and also on a possible form of response in the event that they are challenged.
If you are paddling where there is no identified public right of navigation without permission, then you may be trespassing. Simple trespass is a civil, not a criminal offence. Damages can be awarded against the trespasser and an injunction can be issued to prevent repetition of trespass or to restrain threatened trespass. It is not a police matter unless a criminal offence is committed; this would only be the case if wilful or malicious damage was done, there was a conspiracy to commit trespass, there was behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace or it was a case of aggravated trespass.
If you are challenged whilst paddling, always be courteous and polite whatever the situation. Avoid anything that could be interpreted as a breach of the peace or conspiracy to trespass (i.e. criminal offences). If you are challenged by an authorised official* you may be asked to give your name and address. If you are accused of trespass, refuse to admit trespass under any circumstances. There is no case if you can prove that you are within your rights or have permission. Where you have a legal right the law requires you to exercise that right reasonably with due consideration for others.
There is no legal obligation to provide your name and address to a challenger without proof of authority in the form of a warrant card. In the case of a Police Officer having been summoned, the officer should be informed it is a civil matter and for which the police has no jurisdiction. However, as a refusal to give your name could be interpreted as a breach of the peace, you should offer to accompany the officer to his police station or office where you will state the facts. The number of the officer should be noted and the full circumstances reported to British Canoeing.
An Environment Agency water bailiff on production of a warrant has the powers of a police constable, but only in respect of the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Acts. This is relevant to poaching and damage to spawning beds etc and not the enforcement of property and access rights.
The Criminal Justice Act 1994 introduced the criminal offence of aggravated trespass. This should not be confused with ordinary trespass, which is a civil offence. To commit aggravated trespass you must first be trespassing; whilst trespassing you must also have the intention of obstructing or disrupting a lawful activity (such as hunting, shooting or fishing) or intimidating those engaged in such lawful activities. Canoeists should not fall foul of this law if they canoe in a peaceful and considerate manner. We have no indication as to how the Police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Courts will interpret the act where paddlers might be involved.