On 19 March each of the 15 Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs) from the three main UK political parties for the May 2010 General Election who are standing in constituencies through which the River Kennet flows, were asked
"Do you support the principle that responsible navigation of the inland rivers and waterways of England and Wales is a public right?"
With thanks to those who took the time to reply, the responses were as follows.
Devizes (Upper Kennet):
Claire Perry (Con.).
"I do not yet know enough about the issue of public rights of way over the inland waterways of Britain and therefore don't want to commit myself to a position without doing much more research."
"I do think, however, from my work to date and also from meetings with the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust that our inland waterways are a tremendous and underused national resource and I would encourage far more usage on them and and interest in them."
Junab Ali (Lab.)
Fiona Hornby (Lib. Dem.)
Newbury (Middle and Lower Kennet):
Richard Benyon MP (Con.)
"I believe that access to our waterways can best be improved by agreement. There are many examples of agreements that have been reached between anglers and canoeists which work well. There are other examples of confrontation. A blanket right of access, particularly to smaller rivers, would cause difficulties unless parties were all in agreement. It is very often the anglers who have spent considerable resources on maintaining the quality of rivers and if someway can be found to share the cost of some of this work, I believe it would go a long way towards making our rivers more accessible to various forms of passage.
For myself, my family are riparian owners of a stretch of the Kennet. The angling is controlled and managed by Reading and District Anglers Association who seem to live quite comfortably with access to this stretch of this Kennet by river craft who use the Kennet, and the canal, at various points. If I am lucky enough to be the Minister in charge, I will seek to do all I can to bring the two sides together."
Hannah Cooper (Lab.)
David Rendel (Lib. Dem.)
Reading East (Lower Kennet):
Robert Wilson MP (Con.)
Anneliese Dodds (Lab.)
As I understand it there are a number of different access agreements between the different groups that use our waterways e.g. houseboats, fishermen, canoeists, etc. I have discussed this with colleagues and it sounds like the most sensible way to deal with this issue would be to expand these agreements so they cover as much of the waterway as possible, and so that all the different groups know where they stand.
I guess in some areas, one person's 'responsible navigation' may be another person's 'irresponsible navigation', in that someone could e.g. disturb spawning grounds inadvertently and without realising they were doing damage.
So I'm sorry to say that I don't think I can assent positively to the question as it is currently phrased. I would however support the extension of agreements between the different parties involved, to cover greater and greater lengths of our inland waterways."
Gareth Epps (Lib. Dem.)
Following reminder and reference to Lib-Dem policy:
"Of course our Scottish colleagues set policy separately, but its mention in a policy paper gives me no reason to think why we may oppose it, and therefore I would support such a position."
Reading West (Lower Kennet):
Alok Sharma (Con.)
Naz Sakar (Lab.)
Daisy Benson (Lib. Dem.)
Wokingham (Lower Kennet):
John Redwood MP (Con.)
"I favour greater use of our canals and rivers by canoeists and others."
George Davidson (Lab.)
"I think my answer to your question is a "yes" but as in so many things in life, I believe there is a balance of rights and responsibilities. I have enjoyed time spent on a narrowboat and appreciate that working and enjoying rivers and waterways will keep them alive. But they also need responsible users and I think it is reasonable that a government body regulates this.
I'm not sure if this will answer your question. You might have to give me more detail if I'm going to be able to do this.
In the meantime I'll mug up on Labour policies on rivers and inland waterways.
Background advice supplied but no further reply.
Prue Bray (Lib. Dem.)
"Last year the Lib Dems agreed party policy on the Natural Environment. As part of that policy we say that we will increase rights of access to the countryside, as successfully introduced by the Lib Dems in Scotland. And in Scotland, that right of access includes access to waterways. So that means that the answer to your question is “YES”, not just from me but from the Lib Dems as a whole."
During the period of collating the above responses, MP John Grogan asked the Government the following question on the 25 March 2010:
"Are Ministers a little disappointed that, out of the 43,000 miles of river in England and Wales, fewer than 1,500 are open to canoeists, still? Given that the Welsh Assembly is thinking of following the Scottish model of opening access to the country's rivers completely, is there not a danger of England being left behind?"
The response was made by Huw Irranca-Davies, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs:
"First, may I commend my hon. Friend on his work to promote access for canoeists? We have had some useful meetings, and I can give him a commitment to bring together the various stakeholders-the Environment Agency, himself, the canoeing fraternity, anglers and others-to sit down and see what more we can do. We should approach this matter in partnership to make sure that we have biodiversity in our rivers, that our rivers are healthy and that there is good access to them."
The dismal record of successive Westminster governments in progressively addressing the issue of equality of access to our rivers makes the phrase "what more we can do" almost laughable. Acknowledgement that English and Welsh citizens deserve to have their rights recognised and enshrined in legislation to a standard of at least parity with international norms would be a good place to start.