Waterway access and 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.
This situation is summarised below, and in the attached documents. We also advise paddlers to read British Canoeing’s Access Policies.
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.
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 our licences page.
In Scotland the law is different. Here the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 applies and the Scottish Canoe Association can advise.
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. We advise all paddlers to read British Canoeing’s Trespass Guidance.
The situation described under the headings above 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.
If you are unsure of the access position on your local waterways, please see our Waterways Advisors page to find details of who to contact for more information.