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Blog: Why recognising the public right of access to the UK’s rivers should be a Government priority

Matt Gaw Photo

Matt Gaw

By Matt Gaw, Author and Paddler.

A report from Natural England highlights the importance of improving young people’s access to green and wild spaces to reconnect a generation with the natural world. Matt Gaw explains why recognising the public right of access to the UK’s rivers should now be a Government priority.

It is now nearly 15 years since the American author Richard Louv noticed something worrying about our children. Little-by-little, he charted how they had retreated from the outside world: no longer playing in the streams, fields, woods and parks where their parents and grandparents once roamed. The doing words associated for generations with childhood: running, climbing, swimming, paddling had been swapped (perhaps cut and pasted is a more apt term) for sedentary, inside pursuits. Sitting. Gaming. Eating.

Other studies followed, all highlighting a disconnect between young people and the outside world. This separation was even seen in language. In 2015, wild words like “otter”, “kingfisher”, and “heron”, were erased from junior editions of the Oxford English Dictionary due to a reported lack of use. They made way for “blog”, “cut and paste” and “broadband” – terms that hold a mirror up to the 7.5 hours a day 11-15-year-olds spend in front of a screen.

This March, Natural England published their latest study of children’s engagement with the natural world. The Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment Children’s Report is designed to paint a picture of how often children are having experiences of nature. The survey of more than 10,000 children and young people in England found 70% of those under the age of 16, and 64% of young people aged 16-24, spent time outside at least once a week. More worryingly, 20% ventured outside less than once a month, if at all.

Drilling down into the data further, the study clearly shows that the likelihood of having experiences outside lowers with deprivation and increases with ease of access. In other words, those children and young people living within easy reach of parks, playgrounds or the wider countryside are more likely to make use of them.

It is for this reason that Natural England is leading a new cross-government project to review and update standards for green infrastructure, part of a 25-year environment plan that includes a pledge to “encourage children to be close to nature, in and out of school, with particular focus on disadvantaged areas”.

But getting more people outside more often isn’t just about access to parks and landscapes, forest and fields; it is about water too. England is blessed with rivers: a wet, wild and wonderful lattice of waterways that run through countryside, villages, towns and cities. While some people may struggle to reach the coast, nature reserves or national parks, almost everyone lives close to water.

The problem is, out of the 42,700 miles of England’s waterways, just 4% (a paltry 1,400 miles) have undisputed access. To venture elsewhere, in the opinion of some, is to commit trespass – a civil offence that allows landowners to seek damages or an injunction. Worryingly, internet forums suggest a quicker, nastier justice can often be meted out through leaded lines and barbed hooks.

A membership survey carried out by British Canoeing in May 2018, which asked for people’s experiences of conflict, certainly suggests many people are being put off from accessing waters that flow through the heart of their communities. Across the country nearly 2,000 incidents were reported: cases of threats, harassment and even physical violence. On some occasions anglers swore at and chased groups, which included youngsters, and both canoe instructors and parents gave accounts of children being too scared to return to the water after being subjected to intimidating behaviour on the banks or having maggots thrown at them.

And, to be honest, who could blame them? The current access situation is clearly a barrier, not only for those who are already paddling, but for those who wish to start. Faced with the prospect of a long drive to a hard-to-reach waterway where access is not disputed, or worse, a confrontation with those who claim they should not be there all, many paddlers or potential paddlers would rather stay at home – missing out on the freeing experience of being outside on water and the many health benefits it brings.

Yet, the thing is, not only is the current situation unfair, it also flies in the face of history. Research has repeatedly shown that non-tidal rivers (there is no dispute over access to tidal parts of rivers) have always been public and nothing in law has ever been done to change that. But still the English government has refused to take a position. Instead, Defra has asked those who want to use rivers, usually paddlers and anglers, to come together to work out agreements on a local basis.

In the past such agreements have proven to be inconsistent and unnecessarily restrictive. After all, in order for access agreements to work, water users and landowners need to be committed to work together on an equal basis that helps protect the environment and ensures our waters are enjoyed and shared by everyone. But, while the right of paddlers and open water swimmers to navigate rivers is opposed, any discussion starts from a point of inequity.

If we are serious about getting people outside more often, particularly those who don’t live near the coast or green spaces, it is time for something to change. It is this change that British Canoeing is working so hard to bring about. Late last year they launched a new environmental and access charter, called Clear Access, Clear Waters, which is based around key pledges including asking the Government to bring about “fair, shared, sustainable open access for all.”

Natural England’s own research has shown that the highest levels of happiness occurs in people visiting the outdoors more than once per week and that the combination of exercise and engagement with nature is greater than the benefits of either alone. Canoeing, which offers low-impact physical exercise, exhilaration, adventure, and has the power to create a deep and lasting connection with the natural environment, is surely something that the Government should be working hard to enable.

Furthermore, aside from the benefits to physical and mental health greater access to our rivers would undoubtedly bring for all age groups, it would also help to protect the environment. After all, how can we expect young people to care and respect for our waterways and rivers when they are unable to experience them?