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View from the River Bank: Why Blue Space matters more than ever

Ben Seal, British Canoeing's Head of Access and Environment, explains why things are slowly changing for the better when it comes to accessing blue spaces.

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Ben Seal met with the Sports Minister Stuart Andrew during the World Slalom Championships

It is often tempting to look at where we are with river access and conclude that little has changed.

We see and hear people getting denied access to rivers all across England and Wales.

There are probably more ‘no canoeing signs,' not less.

We read about river pollution in all its forms getting worse, not better.

It would be easy to question what progress the Clear Access, Clear Waters campaign has achieved since it was launched in 2018?

Has it actually made any difference?

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I remember presenting at a consultation event in Cumbria, shortly before we launched our first charter in 2018.

“This is a waste of time,” one attendee commented.

“You’ve got no chance of changing the law, so why are you even bothering trying, it’s a waste of our money.”

The debate on river access rights had reached a stalemate. British Canoeing continued to fend off legal challenges. 

Conflict on the riverbank seemed endemic and the size of our community has remained pretty static for a long time.

Looking back to that consultation event in 2018, I guess it was an entirely fair point to make.

Aiming for new legislation did seem like a ‘moonshot’ ambition. 

Few people knew or understood our issue, policy makers saw us as a fringe issue and we had zero political friends.

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Ben with Trudy Harrison MP, the parliamentary under secretary at Defra

We were practically a minnow in a very, very large pond.

Five years on, reflecting on the progress we have made and the opportunity that is within our reach, it reminded me of something Ivan Lawler, our then President said to camera in 2018:

“It is difficult from the outside in to see a picture changing… because that picture changes so slowly. But it is changing.”

Understandably it is hard to feel any progress is being made when we still face the same challenges as we did in 2018.

But, while we may not yet have achieved our ‘moonshot’ objective just yet, our destination is now coming into view.

We have come a long way along our trajectory. We now just need to land it.

The concept of ‘blue space’ being a distinctly different and unique space entirely has definitely not been reflected in the language of policy making.

– Ben Seal
‘… and blue’

For years, blue space has felt like the poor relative of green space. 

Sport and environmental policy feels like it has overlooked our blue spaces, or simply subsumed them into the term ‘green spaces’. 

The concept of ‘blue space’ being a distinctly different and unique space entirely has definitely not been reflected in the language of policy making.

Until now.

A great example of this is the Environmental Improvement Plan. Released in January. The EIP sets out a commitment for the government to give the public access to green and blue space within 15 minute walk from home.

Green and blue spaces.

That subtle addition of two words could well have significant implications for us in the coming years. 

Not only does it open up the prospect of tangible improvements for access, it focuses the attention of civil servants, MP’s Ministers on the very challenges we have been trying to raise the profile of for years.

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Ben with Trudy Harrison MP in the Lake District

And it is not the only area of policy where ‘and blue’ is creeping in. 

We are now seeing the needs of blue space being considered and in some cases prioritised, in a way they have never been before.

At last, maybe the time for blue space reform has arrived?

And it hasn’t arrived by accident… we had to make the case and keep making the case.

Back in 2018, we had few means of influencing Defra, nor DCMS policy. We also had few allies with whom to lobby alongside.

We now sit on a whole host of Defra working groups, often representing the wider community of ‘blue users’.

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In the coming weeks, alongside British Mountaineering, The Ramblers, British Horse Society and more than 20 others, we will be publishing ‘Outdoors For All’ – a manifesto for expanded access rights and responsibilities – including water.

British Canoeing now Chairs the Sport & Recreation Alliance Water Division, as well as a water quality sub group of other NGB’s. We are well established on Invasive Non Native Species alongside our friends in the Angling Trust. We also continue to play an active role in the End Sewage Pollution Coalition.

The Big Paddle Clean Up, PaddlePoints, The Paddlers' Code… all this and much, much more.

In just five years, we have gone from minnow, to credible and influential leader.

We must take this momentum into 2024 and land our ‘moonshot’ objective.

– Ben Seal

In 2018 we had few political friends.

This summer, we have had two Government Ministers paddling (one of them is almost certainly now a SUP convert). 

We have built good relationships with the Shadow team and formed strong bonds with many MPs across England. 

We are even starting to build good relationships with prospective candidates ahead of the next election, planning for the future already!

It is toward the next general election that we are now laser focused.

Despite recent claims of a ‘row back’, We know that Labour is committed to doing something on access. The prospect of that involving blue spaces is now increasingly likely.

You have put us in a strong position.

About 7.5m people now paddle at least once a year in the UK. Millions more swim, row, sail and dive in our waters.

The blue community is no longer a passive minority. We are a vocal, passionate and influential constituency. 

Without paddlers, anglers, swimmers, sailors, rowers and more all making the case against sewage pollution, it is unlikely the water companies would have been moved to make the changes they are now.

We must take this momentum into 2024 and land our ‘moonshot’ objective.

It is hard to see a picture changing when it changes so slowly. 

If we have made one difference in five years of campaigning, it is that we can now say with some confidence that it is now less a question of ‘if’… but ‘when’ and ‘what’.

British Canoeing relaunched its Access & Environment Charter at Westminster >>

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