The river licence (or waterways licence) can be confusing. If you’ve recently started paddling, the advice around where you can paddle and what you can do can be stifling.
Different waterways are effectively managed by different bodies which can cause a bit of a headache, especially when you only want to put your boat on the water and go for a leisurely paddle.
To help you see the wood from the trees, we’ve put together this handy little guide around the waterways licence. What it is, when, and if, you need it, and how to get your hands on one!
What is a river licence?
River licences, psst, remember, it’s actually a waterways licence, are licences you might need to paddle some waterways in England and Wales. It’s not like a driving licence, where you have to take a test to get one. Anyone can get a licence, but it’s something you should probably buy if you paddle on inland waterways in England and Wales.
The licence costs £45 for the year when you purchase through British Canoeing and covers around 4,500km of waterways. The British Canoeing membership is only suitable for paddlers who live in England. For paddlers who live in Wales, Canoe Wales offer a similar membership which includes a licence too.
British Canoeing Membership
Canoe Wales Membership
Canal & River Trust Licence
Norfolk Broads Licence
Do I need a waterways licence to paddle?
You need a licence to paddle on Canal & River Trust and Environment Agency waterways, plus other actively maintained waterways including the Norfolk Broads. Most of the waterways which require a licence to paddle on are covered in British Canoeing (or Canoe Wales) membership. Find a list of those waterways covered here.
If you don’t see the place you want to paddle on that list, that could mean a few things. You might not need a licence to paddle it, or as with some lakes in the Lake District, they might not require a licence. Alternatively it could mean that British Canoeing membership doesn’t include a licence for that section of water.
Unsure whether the stretch you want to paddle is covered? Contact British Canoeing or the waterway authority that looks after that section and they will tell you if you are unsure.
Do I need to carry a waterways licence?
You will need to carry proof of your licence with you when you paddle to avoid a fine when paddling on inland waterways that need a licence. If you don’t have proof when you’re asked to produce a licence, you could face a hefty fine. Membership to British Canoeing includes a digital and physical card which you can take with you when you paddle, just incase you get asked to produce it!
Why do I need a river licence?
Licences are required by the people who maintain that waterway, whether that be Canal & River Trust, the Environment Agency or another private body. The money collected through licencing helps them to actively maintain and improve the waterways so they are around for years to come, and everyone has the chance to enjoy them.
Your licence fee goes towards several things, including:
- Removal of debris from the river such as logs post-flooding
- Flood damage repairs
- Removal of invasive non-native species, including floating pennywort, which is carried on boats or kit from waterway to waterway and can clog up entire rivers and canals in a matter of days
- Installing ‘check, clean, dry’ stations to try and prevent the spread of these invasive non-native species
- Maintaining put ins, take outs and towpaths
- Managing water quality and levels
- Protecting against and repair bank erosion
What if I don’t have a waterways licence?
If you’re paddling on the sea, estuaries or tidal water, or on a river or canal which doesn’t require a licence, then that’s fine, you don’t need one!
Check where you’re paddling first to see if there are any licence requirements on that stretch. You can find out over on the British Canoeing website and if in doubt, get in touch. Beside, buying a licence is certainly cheaper than paying a fine!
How do I get a waterways licence?
Licences are really easy to get hold of. You can purchase a British Canoeing membership that includes a licence for 4,500km worth of inland waterways but failing that, there are other options.
You can usually purchase day licences from places like the Canal & River Trust or Broads Authority, or you can purchase yearly licences from these places too. The most comprehensive licence for paddlers though is the British Canoeing membership (or respective home nation membership). Those memberships cover the largest amount of waterways and includes combined liability insurance too, with family, couples and young persons discounts are also available.
Do I need a river licence in Scotland?
No. Since the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, Scotland has what we call the ‘right to roam,’ meaning you don’t need a licence to paddle there. If however you do live in Scotland and paddle regularly, you can join the Scottish Canoe Association which includes a host of benefits including liability insurance.
So there you have it, ‘river licences explained’.
Want some more info on where to go paddling? Head over to the Paddle Trails section of the website and browse over 170 places you can go with your boat! All the information you need to paddle that trail is included in the trail download, including licence information… phew!