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What are ‘Riparian Rights’ and what do landowners need to be aware of? What are ‘Riparian Rights’ and what do landowners need to be aware of?

News / Articles

Jan 20

What are ‘Riparian Rights’ and what do landowners need to be aware of?

Written by Ryan Dhinsa

DDI: 01423 726619

E: ryan.dhinsa@raworths.co.uk

Riparian rights are those that a landowner has if his/her land adjoins a watercourse or has a watercourse flowing through or within it. Given the ever more common floods and unusual weather across England and Wales, it is sensible to be aware of the rights and responsibilities a riparian owner has.

The rights are automatically inherited, are passed on to any future owners, and do not need to be expressly granted. The rights are also unlikely to appear on your Land Registry title, which is a danger in that owners are often unaware of the rights and responsibilities they have in relation to the land. In addition, certain considerations arise when dealing with the land during a transaction which the relevant parties may not have thought about. This is especially the case when a landowner is selling part of their land that abuts a watercourse or has a watercourse within, and the seller is retaining other parts of the land. The legal advisers should expressly address the various issues that may arise in the legal documentation to avoid potential future disputes.

What is a watercourse?

A watercourse can be one of any number of things. It can be, but is not limited to, a:

  • River;
  • Stream;
  • Brook;
  • Beck;
  • Ditch;
  • Leat;
  • Goyle;
  • Rhyne; or
  • Culvert

A watercourse must be natural, i.e. not manmade. A watercourse is still a watercourse if it’s dry at certain times of the year.

What rights do I have?

The landowner’s riparian rights will include and are not limited to:

  • The right to receive the flow of water in its natural state without unnatural disturbance or diminution;
  • The right to discharge into the watercourse, subject to not interfering with other riparian owners’ rights. In addition, the landowner may need to obtain an environmental permit from the Environmental Agency if the water that is being discharged is waste water or if there is any standalone water discharge activity;
  • The right to erect a building on the waterbed, subject to obtaining consents and licences from the Environment Agency and Local Planning Authority and provided the responsibilities of the landowner are not compromised in relation to the flow and quality of the water.
  • Rights of way and access; and
  • The right to fish and moor in their own boundaries of the watercourses, dependant on appropriate licences and consents being in place with the Environment Agency.

If the rights are disrupted causing actual damage, the landowner is entitled to make a claim at court.

What do I need to be aware of?

There are responsibilities of the landowner that come with the rights granted, which can be enforced by a third party and ultimately the courts. Some of the responsibilities a landowner must be aware of are:

  • They must not cause or permit any obstruction or disruption of the water flow that would affect other landowners’ rights for the watercourse. For example, this could be caused by way of an erection of a building;
  • They must not cause or permit any pollution or contamination of the watercourse and report of incident of such to the Environment Agency;
  • If an obstruction is caused within the boundaries of their land affecting the watercourse or flow (for example a fallen tree), the landowner will be obliged to remove the obstruction, potentially at their own cost; and
  • They must not harm protected species and their habitat and must preserve wildlife.

Where does my boundary line lie?

Unless a landowner owns land on both sides of the watercourse, there is an old legal presumption that the landowner will own the land from the edge of the waterbed to the middle of the riverbed. This presumption can be rebutted if evidence can be provided to the contrary. If a landowner owns both sides of the watercourse, then it is presumed the landowner will own the whole width of the watercourse. If the course of the river changes naturally over time, the landowner’s boundary is presumed to change with it. However, these presumptions do not apply to artificial watercourses, such as canals and tidal waters, where the beds are owned by the Crown.

Overall, a riparian landowner’s legal adviser needs to be alert to several issues when dealing with the land.

Ryan Dhinsa is a solicitor in Raworths’ Property team.  For assistance with all of your commercial property legal issues please get in touch with Raworths: telephone 01423 566666, e-mail ryan.dhinsa@raworths.co.uk or visit us at Eton House, 89 Station Parade, Harrogate HG1 1HF.

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