27 April 2015

Waterfront property; des res or no go?

Owning a property with water frontage sounds idyllic, but you need to fully consider the potential ramifications before diving straight in…

Firstly, what rights does the property have over the waterway?

This will partly depend on who owns the underlying riverbed:

1. Is it a tidal river?  If so then the presumption is that the riverbed is owned by the Crown, unless title has been passed to someone else, for example the Thames riverbed now belongs to the London Port Authority.

2. Is it a natural lake or a river beyond the ebb and flow of any tide?  Unless someone else can prove ownership then it is presumed that the lake or river bed, up to the middle of the lake or river, belongs to the person owning the property next to that section of the water.  Title boundaries may change over time, as the river gradually erodes the bank or changes course.

3. Is it artificial?  If it is a canal, it will have been established by statute and will generally belong to the Canal and Rivers Trust (in England or Wales) or British Waterways Board (in Scotland). 

But even if I don't own the riverbed, surely I can fish / swim / sail from my own back garden?

Not necessarily; riparian owners (the owners of land on the banks of a watercourse) have certain rights and obligations relating to the waterway.  However, general riparian rights over canals will normally have been extinguished by legislation.  So if the property fronts a canal, you probably have no rights to access or use the water from the property, unless you obtain a licence for that activity (for a fee) from the Canal and Rivers Trust.

If the property abuts a natural waterway, the riparian owner can:

  • use the water flowing past so long as it does not diminish the quantity or quality of the waterflow (eg. for irrigation)
  • carry out works to the banks to protect their property against flooding  -  although not if it would cause flooding to other properties
  • moor alongside their own frontage to load/unload at reasonable times and for a reasonable duration.  However,  there is no automatic right to moor permanently unless you own the riverbed
  • construct jetties and mooring posts so long as access down the river is not obstructed, and only if they own the riverbed as well as the banks.

In all cases you must bear in mind statutory obligations relating to the waterways, particularly in respect of pollution, planning rules and any need for discharge consents, which are often personal so won't necessarily automatically pass to any new owner of a property and may be expensive to obtain.

Still considering plunging in?  Read part 2 to find out more…

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