Attempts by the British Canoe Union (B.C.U) to drum up political support for their campaign for a right to paddle along every river and stream in England and Wales received a setback last month when the government formally rejected the B.C.U sponsored Ten Minute Rule Bill promoted by Brighton MP Des Turner. The ‘Access to Inland Waterways Bill’ failed to receive its Second Reading in the Commons on February 23rd and now has no prospect of proceeding any further.

The Biodiversity, Landscape and Rural Affairs Minister, Barry Gardiner, has also written to Labour’s Angling Spokesman, Martin Salter MP to re-confirm the government’s support for voluntary access agreements to be drawn up between canoeists and other water users. This approach has been rejected by the B.C.U who now appear to be seeking to undermine existing access agreements as part of their campaign for statutory access rights.

In his letter, Barry Gardiner said:

‘Our view is that increased access to water, for activities such as canoeing, can most effectively be achieved via the voluntary approach, which involves landowners and water users coming to a formal, written agreement about access to a particular stretch of water which takes into account the needs of all interested parties.’

Over 30% of the major rivers and canals already provide access for canoeing and the Environment Agency announced plans last year to open more water to canoeists with the publication of its “Voluntary Canoe Access Agreements” Report. As part of a series of pilot studies additional canoe access agreements were conducted on sections of the rivers Mersey, Teme, Waverley and Wear.

Martin Salter MP said:

“Over the last few weeks I have worked hard to ensure that anglers’ voices were heard in all the right places when it came to responding to this latest attempt by the British Canoe Union to introduce a statutory right of access for canoes and other non-powered craft on rivers and streams. I am delighted that the government has maintained its opposition to such a move which would frankly destroy angling on our smaller rivers, streams and brooks and disturb wildlife, nesting birds and spawning grounds.”

Mr Salter met with B.C.U representatives in advance of the date scheduled for the Second Reading to press them not to walk away from the voluntary approach favoured by the government, the Environment Agency and the angling governing bodies.

He said:

“Sports Minister Richard Caborn has authorised me to initiate discussions between angling bodies, myself and the BCU on a code of access but I suspect the canoeists will continue to lobby for their ‘right to paddle’ irrespective of the rights of other river users. Responsible anglers will have no problem with using an access code as a template for future voluntary agreements”.

Director of the Salmon and Trout Association, Paul Knight, wrote to Des Turner MP saying:

“We understand that the British Canoe Union is anxious for the same access legislation to exist in England and Wales as it does in Scotland; the inference being that it works well north of the Border.  However, as an example, the experience of one of our members was quite the contrary, to the extent that, once the Access Bill was passed, rafters and canoeists on the upper Tay at Aberfeldy, ripped up a successful and long standing agreement with fishery owners and proceeded to act purely in their own interests.  The result was a drop in angling revenue of 90% to our member, and the resulting loss of investment in the river, not to mention income to the local economy, which has by no means been replaced by the other water users.  So, despite S&TA’s initial thoughts that the excellent code of practice put in place by canoeists in Scotland would safeguard angling, this is now proving to be not always the case, and there are serious concerns amongst fishery interests. We therefore urge you most strongly to take a more holistic view of water usage and champion the establishment of locally-brokered joint access agreements between different interests, rather the free-for-all open access which your Bill encourages.” 

Martin Salter added:

“There are over 2 million anglers who enjoy freshwater fishing in England and Wales and angling as a whole contributed £3.5 billion a year to the economy. Anglers pay £20 million in freshwater rod licences to the Environment Agency much of which is reinvested in improving our river fisheries. Unlimited access to smaller rivers and streams would destroy angling in these locations. There is plenty of scope for anglers and canoeists to share appropriate water by negotiation and common agreement. I hope that the B.C.U will rein in its more militant members who are engaging in acts of deliberate trespass and disruption and get round the table with other water users to find a way forward.