Friday, 5 April 2013

National exposure for the Kennet access issue

Guardian writer George Monbiot has highlighted the issue of river navigation rights with a focus on the River Kennet in his latest blog, in a piece titled "We have no right to our rivers while Richard Benyon's interests are served" [posted online Thursday 4 April 2013 13.43 BST and reproduced today on his own blog under the heading "Political Barbed Wire. Why are 97% of our rivers shut to the public? A millionaire minister’s amazing conflicts of interest give you a clue."].

Whilst the full article, complete with referenced links, is well worth a read (as are the readers comments that follow the Guardian post) selected excerpts relating to canoeing and kayaking on the River Kennet are reproduced below.

"We have no right to our rivers while Richard Benyon's interests are served

The environment minister is being permitted to oversee a highly sensitive issue in which he has an active proprietorial stake.
[...] Now here we go again. This article is about yet another of the minister's potential conflicts of interest.

For many years canoeists, kayakers and wild swimmers have been seeking access to the rivers of England and Wales. In Scotland, as in most parts of the world, the rivers are open to those who can navigate them. But in England and Wales, canoeists and others have formal rights of access to only 3% of our rivers: 1,400 out of 42,700 miles. Everywhere else we are told we are trespassing. We have been denied one of life's great joys: messing about on the river.

There are 2.5 million canoeists and kayakers in this country, and doubtless many more people who would like to jump in the water or take their children for a paddle. But the landlords - primarily those who own or lease the fishing rights - resolutely seek to prevent public use of this great national asset: the waterways that by right surely belong to everyone and no one.

Now here's where it gets interesting. The landowners seem to be asserting a power to exclude that they do not possess. Going back to the 15th century and beyond, there appears to be a general right of navigation on all rivers. As the campaign River Access for All points out, this right was tested in the high court in 2002 (Josie Rowland v Environment Agency, case number HC 0102371.) Mr Justice Lightman ruled that the: "Public Right of Navigation [PRN] may only be extinguished by legislation or exercise of statutory powers or by destruction of the subject matter of PRN eg through silting up of the watercourse."

As no such legislation has been passed, the public right of navigation remains in force. But because landowners and their tenants do not recognise this right, everywhere but on the 3% of rivers where it has been formally conceded, canoeists, kayakers, swimmers and the rest of the public are barred by threatening signs, barbed wire and intimidating men insisting that they are trespassing.

Canoe England, which is also campaigning for access, stresses that it is not asking to navigate every mile of brook and stream. Though canoeing has very little impact on the environment, there are a few places of particular sensitivity where it could be detrimental.

But the general claim the landowners make, that it damages fisheries, is incorrect. A study for the Environment Agency concluded that: "the consensus opinion of the assembled panel of experts is: 'Canoeing is not harmful to coarse or salmonid fish stocks in rivers'."

But the evidence is of little interest to those who refuse to share the rivers: it's not, in reality, about the sensitivities of fish; it's about excluding the great unwashed from their preserves. This is particularly the case on rivers used for very expensive trout fishing, though such sentiments also infect more popular clubs. The Angling Trust lobbies politicians to prevent the recognition of wider rights of access. It is well-placed to do so: its national campaigns co-ordinator is the former MP Martin Salter.

I suspect that on this issue and on others the trust is an embarrassment to some of the anglers it claims to represent. I have met plenty of fisherfolk who have both strong democratic instincts and a great love of wildlife, positions the Angling Trust does not appear to share. I wonder how many would support, for example, the trust's demand that the government should "authorise the trapping and lethal control" of any beavers spreading from Scotland into England. (Beavers were native to these isles until they were hunted to extinction a few centuries ago and have now been reintroduced in two areas in Scotland). I wonder how many would endorse its ecologically illiterate claim that beavers are bad for fish. Studies in both Europe and North America show that their presence in rivers boosts fish populations, as they create shelter and habitat.

As a keen angler and a keen canoeist I have, so to speak, a foot in both boats. I've fished in many of the rivers of Britain, including those frequented by kayakers and canoeists. And I have kayaked on quite a few of them as well.

Paddle down the Wye during the school holidays when - because it is among the very few rivers where canoes are permitted - the river becomes extremely busy, and you'll see a sight which immediately destroys the claim that fishing and canoeing are incompatible: trout rising all around the boats. Where fish are accustomed to them, they quickly lose their fear.

Given that it claims to encourage people to keep fit and to participate in sports, given that there appears to be no legal basis for exclusion, you might have expected the government to clarify the law and either accept the legally established general right of access or change it. But it refuses to do so. Instead it suggests that landowners and canoeists should resolve the issue through "voluntary access agreements".

The problem with voluntary access agreements is that if the landlords don't volunteer, they don't happen. Unsurprisingly they have been a flop: the British Canoe Union has been trying to strike them for nearly 50 years, and has been rebuffed almost everywhere. Without guidance from the government, the issue is resolved in favour of landlords prepared to use force or threats of force to prevent people from exercising their natural and ancient right.

The man currently responsible for the issue is Richard Benyon. During a recent interview with the Angling Trust, he said this: "There will be no change to our policy of supporting voluntary access agreements as the only way forward. Anglers and fishery owners spend a lot of time and money caring for our rivers and streams and their rights deserve to be respected."

But not apparently the rights of canoeists, whose organisations also spend a lot of time and money caring for our rivers and streams.

Benyon has sided with one constituency against another. Now why would he do that? Could it be because he owns fishing rights on the River Kennet and the River Pang?

His estate office tells me that it regards its section of the Pang as closed to kayaks and canoes (in other words "non-navigable"). Benyon leases his fishing on the Kennet to the Reading and District Angling Association (RDAA). Here, his office conceded, "the entire stretch is fully navigable by water craft." This is indisputable: the right of boats to use this water is spelt out in the 1715 Kennet Navigation Act. But has Benyon's Englefield Estate transmitted this fact to the association?

The RDAA's fisheries officer says this on its forum: "Lower Benyons from the weir downstream ... is most defenatly [sic] NON-NAVIGABLE. That means no boats, dingies, rubber rings surf boards etc etc without the landowners permission. All of which I have seen!!" He then goes on name a number of other sections of Benyon's lease which are also "defenatly NON-NAVIGABLE".

Members of the association have proposed their own solutions to the access issue, such as casting at canoes with "a three-ounce zip lead, trebles and 50lb-whiplash braid". "Trebles" means a set of three fishing hooks, welded together at opposing angles.

I would have liked to pursue the question of what advice Benyon's office has given to its tenants, but after confirming that his estate has "interests" on the Kennet and the Pang, and that it regards the Pang as closed, it told me: "We have nothing further to add to our comments."

It is wholly inappropriate that Benyon should be permitted to oversee a highly sensitive issue in which he has an active proprietorial stake. He seems incapable of standing back from his own interests. In fact the nature of his brief makes it impossible for him to do so. If he had any sense of what democracy means, and how it differs from government by the aristocracy, he would spare himself further embarrassment and stand down."

The quoted text above is © 2013 George Monbiot.