Riverside properties – more to them than meets the eye
Sponsored feature by Giorgia Clements, real estate senior associate at Penningtons Manches
Owning a property overlooking a river or with a stream through the garden (riparian land) may sound appealing, but knowing what you can and cannot do with the watercourse and its contents is crucial to avoid liability.
The usual starting points are “who owns the watercourse” and “which class of watercourse applies”, as riparian duties often attach to the owner and different authorities control the different classes. The legal boundary of most riparian land is the mid line of the watercourse (not the river bank). If the same person owns the land on both sides, he will generally also own the whole watercourse. However, both presumptions may be displaced by contrary evidence and tidal rivers belong to the Crown. Interestingly, the watercourse owner does not own the water in it (though they may use some).
A riparian owner can fish in the watercourse if they have the correct Environment Agency rod licence and the fishing rights have not been granted to someone else (eg by lease). He can launch and use a boat on it (but not create a permanent mooring without a licence) and can take up to 20 m3 of water daily for domestic or agricultural purposes (except spray irrigation) without a licence.
Sadly, the burden of riparian duties often outweighs these benefits. He must not abstract so much water that it prejudices the rights of downstream riparian owners, nor pollute the water, either by direct activity (e.g. spraying herbicides too close or using the river bank as a dumping ground for grass cuttings) or inactivity (eg failing to remove animal carcasses washed up on the banks). He must take reasonable action to prevent the watercourse silting up, and prune vegetation to prevent it obstructing the flow of water or increasing flood risk. He must keep clear any flood defences on his area of watercourse, and maintain at his expense features providing flood defence (e.g. riverbanks or boundary walls). He must identify and manage invasive alien plants such as Himalayan Balsam or Japanese Knotweed and almost all building near a watercourse (especially to put up more flood defences) is prohibited without prior consent.
The relevant law is complex and a novice riparian owner may overlook restrictions because they are rarely recorded at the Land Registry. There is introductory guidance at gov.uk/guidance/owning-a-watercourse (replacing the useful Environment Agency booklet 'Living on the Edge') but specialist advice is often needed.
For further information, please contact Giorgia Clements, real estate senior associate at Penningtons Manches. Tel: +44 (0)1223 465425 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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