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Blog: Access and Environment Charter Consultation Insight

Over the last few months, British Canoeing has been consulting as widely as possible with as many people as possible on the Access and Environment Charter. In this Blog, Ben Seal looks at some of the feedback and how it is now forming the content of the final publication.

After 12 events across the country, attended by over 200 members, and following 659 online survey responses, our team has been reflecting on all the feedback you gave us.

The intention has always been to present a clear message and to galvanise paddlers behind a common cause. We knew we could only achieve that by encouraging people to have their say… so hopefully you took the opportunity to have your say online or at one of our events.

While it is impossible to meet everyone’s differing opinions, the Charter will attempt to encompass all the views that have been expressed to us over the past few months. We have received some fantastic, constructive feedback and can only thank everyone who actively participated in the consultation.


So what did you tell us……?

Legislation and our aims

Both online and face to face you reminded us about the scale of the challenge! We were asked more than once “why bother if it’s never going to happen?” We were told by some to express caution with pursuing legislation as an ultimate goal:

“Whilst I support the aim of shared access I am not convinced that asking for legislation is the correct way of going about it. Once 'legislators' take it upon themselves to draft laws in this area they will endeavour to take into account the views of all 'stakeholders' and this may water down the rights of access which we are purporting currently exist”

But overwhelmingly, the response you gave us was that this was the right course of action and British Canoeing must work towards new legislation as an ultimate aim. In fact, 97% supported our suggested aim “Fair, shared, sustainable open access on and along water supported by legislation to establish* public rights of access on and along all water in England.

“This should be a BC priority to get legislation and clarity (as per Scotland)."

Online, a further 96% agreed with the definition of ‘Open Access’ as “Open access to water means enshrining existing rights and creating additional rights where needed, to ensure that everyone has a right of access on and along all water in England, for any reasonable purpose.

At many of the events the merits of pursuing a legislative route was discussed and widely agreed as the only way to achieve our desired aim of clarity and consistency across England. Mounting a legal challenge would not only be costly financially, it would not deliver the consistency and clarity paddlers demand.

*’confirm’ now to replace ‘establish’

Protection of the Environment

Pleasingly, a great many people stated that protection of the environment and sensitive habitats must be a priority to reflect in the Charter:

"I think it's important that we stress the responsible and sustainable aims of the charter. We must ensure users don't destroy vulnerable habitats for British wildlife!"

"I would like to see some explicit reference to sensitive sites (SSSIs/SACs etc) - 'responsible' access must incorporate a regard for these and acknowledgement that there are some activities and or times/places that are not conducive to access."

"I believe the environment belongs to everyone. That means we should have reasonable, shared access and responsibility that goes with it."

We agree that while we will campaign for fair, shared access to water, our responsibility as a paddling community, to protect and enhance the environment should be made very clear within the Charter.

One of the three Pledges we will be making will be to do what we can to ‘protect and enhance’ the environment – that will only happen if we collectively commit to undertake river cleans and make Check, Clean, Dry part of our paddling habit.

Following consultation and online survey, we have added further detail in this area to underline its importance.

Existing Rights

One particular point which sparked much discussion at the events and came over very strongly in the survey, was the concern that British Canoeing would lose sight of any claims to an ‘existing right’, for which we have fought for recognition of for many years:

"We already have these rights, legislation is completely unnecessary. Seeking legislation could be seen as not believing that we do already have access rights. In the worst case, new legislation could remove rights that we have."

"C'mon folks! We have an existing right to British waterways. Maybe the point should be ‘open access’ we are calling for legislation to re-confirm public rights of access on and along all water in England."

Furthermore, when we asked respondents to rank their reasons for seeking open access, it was clear that people firmly believe in an ‘ancient right’ and open access is a ‘right for everyone to enjoy, not just a few’.

British Canoeing does not intend to lose sight of any existing historical right, nor depart from our long held position. Indeed work will continue on building our Rivers Database (to go live later this year) and gathering evidence to confirm a general right of navigation.

However it is time to move our argument on; simply stating a right has not brought us progress. Access campaigners, like British Canoeing and Open Water Swimmers now more than ever, must present a much broader case to the Government of why clarity in law is required.

The Charter will acknowledge that we want new legislation to ‘confirm’ the right of open access – on the basis of ‘fair, shared, sustainable open access. We must demonstrate the wider benefits of open access being extended to water; it is a benefit that is much broader than simply wanting more places to paddle uncontested.

Other reasons given for open access included the desire to remain a leading Olympic and Paralympic nation, the economic benefits of paddling and being part of the ‘Rest of World’ – i.e. we are seemingly isolated in the world with regards to our restrictive approach to access. While these reasons received less attention, they must not be lost as broader reasons why open access to water is a good thing.

Responsible Behaviour

Online, when asked about environmental behaviours, 84% said they picked up litter from the waterways – 54% stating they do it ‘frequently’. Again with Check, Clean, Dry (CCD), 82% said they do it, 48% said they did it ‘frequently’. This sort of feedback is consistent with other research about CCD habits, telling us that our community are better than other water sports, but have ground to make up if we really are serious about protecting the environment.

Emphasis on responsible behaviour was a theme that people were keen to get across both face to face and in the online survey.

"Just that ALL water uses should behave fairly and responsibly and not abuse the trust given to them."

"It’s important to emphasise that paddlers want responsible shared use of water."

"With rights it's important to campaign for responsibility, it will be important to provide guidelines for users of waterways and to earn trust."

Further to that, respondents recognised the need to be sensitive to the rights of others who wish to enjoy the water:

"The reasonable rights of river bank landowners will need to be respected in terms of water access."

"I am not an angler but fish spawning must be protected and some waterways remain off limits during that period."

This is a particularly sensitive issue; conflict has traditionally existed with anglers and opinions on access polarised. But it was good to see that there is an acknowledgement that we all have a right to enjoy the space and we should all do more to understand how practically we can ‘share the space’.  

We must ensure that the Charter observes the right we all should have to access the water fairly, without unnecessary exclusion or prejudice. It all comes down to ‘fair, shared, sustainable open access.’

How can you help?

Championing the Charter cannot be achieved by a handful of people in the office. It will require a committed and concerted effort by the entirety of British Canoeing and beyond; from members to Board, volunteers to staff, clubs, centres, partners and beyond!

When asked about how you could help, you clearly told us that you would support a national petition (81% said they would) and a code of conduct (78%). Furthermore you indicated a willingness to lobby MP’s (53%), so with all this in mind, the team will be putting its efforts into developing the tools and the messages required to take to campaign locally. We have already published some guidance on the web, and will be encouraging this activity post Charter launch, so our message is clear and consistent as a community.

The Economics

One area which could warrant future exploration is the economic impact of paddlesport. From our survey we could glean that 81% of respondents had spent a day or more away canoeing in the last year and 80% a night away, with those doing so averaging 34 days and 11 nights each, with a £2,000pa average spend on such trips. 

A point raised at many of the face to face consultations was that we potentially ‘underplay’ our size as a sport and we should do more to celebrate what we bring to the economy and to people lives. In publishing the Charter, we will draw on what insight and evidence we have, but this could be an area we try to understand more in detail in future.

So what have we learned?

The combination of the consultation events and the online survey gave us a valuable opportunity to really test our thinking with the people who are going to champion it in future – you! Having attended all but one of the consultation events, I personally got a really strong sense that people were on-board and felt the time was right for British Canoeing to refresh its campaign.

It was extremely pleasing to see how highly people rate the protection of the environment and respect for other water users. This will be absolutely critical as we seek to demonstrate that we, as a paddling community are prepared to shoulder the responsibility that comes with open access. 

One fundamental aim of this Charter will be to not reinforce traditional lines of disagreement with anglers or landowners, but to demonstrate how fair, shared, sustainable use of waterways can benefit everyone (the public, the economy, the environment). But we need the support from Government to help get us there and break down traditional thinking. 

Above all, this campaign will need you! All of the feedback given to date has been used to make our Charter as strong as it can be. When launched, we will be counting on you to work with us and make the pledges a reality.

Oh…. And as for the name……? There was a very clear favourite, to be announced soon! Here’s a sneaky clue…..

Access Picture

We would like to express huge thanks to James Smythe who helped analyse and compile the survey responses. The evidence presented here has been drawn from his report, which helped ascertain a good understanding of all the hundreds of comments received through this process.  During the online survey we did also collect valuable insight about your experiences of conflict on the water. We will be doing further work on this in the coming weeks and presenting this back in the near future.