Wednesday, 17 August 2022

Locked river access gate 'unlawful'

BOAT owners are being blocked from getting on and off the River Thames in Henley by a gate that has been locked unlawfully.

The metal gate at the entrance to the pontoons on River Terrace belongs to the town council.

But the Environment Agency says it shouldn’t be locked because that is in breach of the council’s licence to have moorings and goes against the public’s right to embark or disembark at any point along the public towpath.

The issue has arisen after a member of the public reported the locked gate.

A spokeswoman for the agency said: “As the navigation authority for the non-tidal River Thames, we have a duty to protect the public right of navigation. In licensing landing stages, pontoons, jetties and so on, we make it a condition of the licence that this right must be preserved.

“When the access gate on Henley Town Council’s landing stage at River Terrace is locked, it interferes with that right and breaches our licence conditions.

“We have no issue with the gate being there, provided it is kept unlocked.”

Town clerk Janet Wheeler that councillors had discussed the issue previously and disagreed over the public’s right of way. She said: “Some considered it not to be public footpath but I believe it is. You can’t block the public from a public footpath but this is obviously a grey area.”

She agreed to check the records from several years ago, before she was in post, and to take legal advice before reporting back to councillors. This would require “quite a lot of work”.

The issue was discussed by councillors during a confidential session at a meeting of the council’s recreation and amenities committee last month.

Councillor Ian Reissmann said: “It’s important for the council to conduct itself within the law as directed by the Environment Agency. We will be doing that and investigating our position.”

In 2006, the council was involved in a legal battle with residents over the mooring rights on River Terrace. The council claimed that it owned the moorings outside numbers one to seven and ordered homeowners who were using them to move their boats or pay rent.

Most struck deals with the council but two, Rainer Pannier and Robert Bleackley, won the rights to the moorings outside their properties after a hearing at Reading County Court.

Recorder Gary Flather QC ruled the residents owned the riverbed beneath the jetties and the boat-shaped space either side of them and ordered the council to pay £60,000 in costs.

However, he found the council owned the riverbank and riparian rights, covering the interface between the land and the river. Cllr Reissmann said: “That was not an issue with the Environment Agency but with a number of people who occupied and used those moorings.

“Those people succeeded but it ensured the council’s ownership of those moorings was established in law.”

The gate was installed by the town council when it created the moorings in 2008 but it was not included in any designs.

In 2009, South Oxfordshire District Council said it would seek to have the gate removed.

A report to the council’s planning committee at the time said: “For the avoidance of doubt, this gate does not form part of the current application and is not shown on the plans accompanying this application nor is it referred to in the description of development.

“Planning officers have considered the acceptability of this unauthorised gate under enforcement investigation and are of the opinion that it is visually intrusive and out of keeping with the area.

“As such, officers are likely to pursue the removal of this gate under delegated powers, although formal action has yet to be authorised.”

However, no action was taken after the town council was granted planning permission for five “finger” jetties covering a 31m stretch of the river.

Two neighbours opposed the application, saying the jetties would block the public’s right to access a public road and ability to move freely close to the bank.

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