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Access to Inland Waterways

Volume 455: debated on Wednesday 24 January 2007

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for access by the public for non-motorised boating purposes to the inland waterways of England and Wales; and for connected purposes.

It was a great pleasure for many hon. Members when, a few years ago, we passed—against a certain amount of opposition, I seem to remember—our right to roam legislation, which culminated in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. That Act was originally intended to encompass equal access to inland waterways; but unfortunately, that got deleted at the later stages of the preparation of that Bill, so there is no presumed right of access by the public to inland waterways in England and Wales at the moment. That is not the situation in Scotland. When the Scottish Parliament passed its equivalent of right-to-roam legislation in the form of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, it covered inland waterways in exactly the same way as it did access to land.

It is the Government’s position that access in England and Wales should not be a problem and is not a problem, and that voluntary access agreements will deliver what is needed. However, the reality is quite different. There are 41,000 miles of inland waterways in England and Wales that do not have a public right of navigation. Only 510 miles of mostly highly restricted access has been negotiated. Some agreements apply only for a few days of each year, adding little to the 2 per cent. of inland waterways with a public right of access. Ultimately, access is in the hands of the riparian owners—the fishermen. But if they refuse to engage in negotiation, there is no way forward for canoeists or others to make progress.

The Environment Agency has worked for two years to put voluntary access agreements in place. In October last year, it reported its achievement: 45 miles of access had been negotiated, much of which was already the subject of access agreements and was accepted for canoeing. Two years of negotiation have produced an extra 20 miles of access, much of which is subject to considerable restrictions and complex arrangements. Even the Environment Agency was unable to contact all the riparian owners. When it was unable to gain permission, it assumed a right of access. That sets a precedent and clearly there are some legal connotations.

The Bill would clarify the matter and would provide a legislative framework. For example, the River Teme is 60 miles long, but only 1 mile of access has been negotiated and that for only certain days of nine months of the year. The River Wear is 50 miles long; 7 miles of access has been agreed. It is absolutely clear that voluntary agreements do not work. We cannot rely on them. If we want to promote public access, legislation will have to be involved. There is no other way. The Bill sets out to redress the situation. I am most grateful to the British Canoe Union, which has done the spadework on this project and has produced a draft Bill, which I expect to be published if the House accepts my motion. The Bill is essentially a read-across from the Scottish 2003 Act, with a few tweaks to remove minor problems that have arisen. It codifies responsible access to and along water. It protects the environment and the activities of canoeists, anglers, other users and landowners, who are all required to adhere to an access code. A code similar to the Scottish outdoor access code would be developed to support the Bill.

A legal right of access would provide more recreational opportunities for a group of people—including canoeists, swimmers, boaters and members of the general public—who want to use the water for recreational and educational purposes. That would have knock-on benefits for public health. The recreational aspects of canoeing would coincide effectively with the Government’s “everyday sport” and the Welsh Assembly’s “climbing higher” strategies to encourage more participation in activities. That would be possible if there were more access to rivers.

I remind the House that at the last Olympics, 40 per cent. of the UK’s medal tally was won by athletes who practise their sport sitting on their bottoms in boats—by sailors, canoeists and rowers. Canoeists won a silver and two bronze medals, and the future looks good, because a total of one gold, three silver and one bronze medal was won by the British team at the recent world youth championships in Australia. Such results are achieved in spite of, rather than because of, the training opportunities available in England and Wales. Whitewater canoeists have to go to Scotland or Wales for training, and if they want to use Olympic-class facilities, they have to go to Holland. That is not a good starting point for our teams as they prepare for the 2012 Olympics.

Another virtue of wider rights of access would be reduced pressure on accessible parts of waterways that are overused and overcrowded. Given the seriousness of the position as stated by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I do not expect immediate Government support for my Bill, despite the fact that its proposals are in line with some areas of Government policy. I do not have any illusions about the success rate of ten-minute Bills in reaching the statute book. None the less, I hope that the Government consider their position and allow the Bill at least the chance of a Second Reading and the possibility of proceeding to Committee. I hope that I can convince them of the merits of my case, and I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. Desmond Turner, Charlotte Atkins, Mr. Michael Meacher, John Bercow, Joan Ruddock, Dr. Howard Stoate, Mr. Gordon Prentice, Peter Bottomley and Sir Robert Smith.

Access to Inland Waterways

Dr. Desmond Turner accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for access by the public for non-motorised boating purposes to the inland waterways of England and Wales; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 February, and to be printed [Bill 52].