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Volume 555: debated on Tuesday 11 December 2012


Tuesday 11 December 2012


Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Navigation on unregulated watercourses

The Petition of Douglas Malpus, Southport,

Declares that the 1472 An Act for Wears and Fishgarths affirms that between the statue of Magna Carta and 1472 there was a public right of navigation (PRN) on all rivers; further that the Petitioner believes, except where this has been modified by navigation acts, this remains the last time Parliament expressed its will on navigation on unregulated watercourses and the current legislation Rowland v. EA states that a PRN may only be extinguished by legislation or the exercise of statutory powers; further that the Petitioner believes the statement in general, “there is no public right of navigation on non-tidal waters”, found in text books and commentaries is not the law but restatements of inaccurate comments about the law; further that the case law often presented as authority Bourke v Davis was rejected by the House of Lords in 1990 and therefore that the Petitioner believes there is no legal basis for the position currently held by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to adopt a policy for navigation on unregulated watercourses which is consistent with current legislation or explain by what authority the Department holds a contrary policy.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.—[Presented by John Pugh, Official Report, 13 November 2012; Vol. 553, c. 1P.]


Observations from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs:

All 2,000 miles of canals and rivers that the Government have entrusted to the Canal & River Trust are open to navigation for pleasure. More than a quarter of our major river and canal network is available for such use and 40% (1900 km) of that available network is within 15 km of an urban area and therefore accessible to large sections of the population.

The Government believe that a balance needs to be struck between the different uses which our non-tidal waters serve and between the enjoyment of property rights by landowners and the needs of others using the waters. There can be sources of tension between those exercising fishing rights and canoeists and rowers using the same waters for pleasure purposes. Conservation requirements or water management structures can be incompatible with unfettered navigational use. Structures in and beside rivers created as a result of heavy industrial use can pose significant health and safety risks for users with associated liability questions for those who own them. River ecology may also need to be protected, for example when rivers are in low flow, during fish spawning season or where protected species are identified. The Government therefore believe that those wishing to use privately owned unregulated waterways should work with the relevant landowner to agree access. It would be inappropriate for me to seek to interfere in the question of how private property rights are balanced with navigational use. However, I am confident that a voluntary approach allows appropriate decisions to be made between local people, according to their area’s own recreational, business and conservation needs.