Right to Swim: The OSS manifesto

What do we want? A right to swim in inland water in England and Wales

THOMAS WATT @field_projects_studio

The OSS believes in free access to nature including enshrined access to water.

Since 2006 The Outdoor Swimming Society has sought to normalise the idea of swimming in the sea, lakes, lochs and rivers. We believe people have a natural right to swim in a lake or river, free of charges, restrictions and rules.

Yet swimmers often find themselves excluded from areas of open water. The CROW (Countryside and Rights of Way) Act 2000, the act of parliament that brought the formal right to roam into existence in England and Wales, omitted access to water from its scope. There are disputed rights on access to rivers. And when reservoirs were privatised water companies had a legal duty to keep the land and the water open to the public for recreation – but water companies have excluded swimmers from this brief, allowing sailing for example, but banning swimming.

It is time for this to change. We are at a time in history when the popularity of outdoor swimming has exploded. We are also at a time when there is a huge felt need for more time in and access to nature. We should not have to pay for it, any more than we should expect to pay to go for a walk in the woods. Nor should we be subjected to rules and bureaucracy, other than the simple rule of leaving the countryside as (or better than) we found it. Swimming is many things to many people, but at its core for most it’s an immersion in nature, and an amateur pursuit, something done just for the love and experience of it.

So the right to roam is at the heart of what we stand for at the OSS. It is the right to just go off and do it, on your own or with others. Not because you paid, or belong to the right club, just because you want to, and because nature belongs to you just as much as it does anyone else.

So what do we want?

A legal right of access to reservoirs and all other water bodies in England and Wales for swimming 

This will mirror the rights that have existed in Scotland for 18 years since the implementation of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 and its accompanying access code.

The model in Scotland has been shown to work very successfully.  A right of access allows swimmers to be given accurate information about any genuine or unusual risks in a particular location so that swimmers can take responsibility for their own safety. A right to roam will stop the water companies and other organisations preventing access to reservoirs and other waters based on distorted messaging around the risks of outdoor swimming, and get everyone (water authorities, landowners, media, swimmers) talking about genuine hazards. We believe this will lower risk more successfully than the existing swimming bans in English and Welsh reservoirs.

Rights to access rivers to swim & extension of CROW rights to access water

In Scotland, the right to access rivers and all other water bodies to swim and paddle is clear and straightforward, in return for being responsible and respecting land water, and this works well. In England and Wales there is a complex web of contested rights for most rivers and gaps in open access rights to water. One step towards starting to resolve this would be to extend to waterways the CROW legislation that gives us the right to roam on some land.

Meanwhile, let’s swim!

While we work for full freedom to swim, we want to give swimmers and the swim community confidence to assert their right to swim thoughtfully and responsibly even where some might challenge their right to be there. Rights need to be fought for and defended. Link up with the inland access team in the forum to discuss outdoor swimming access issues in your area: the Inland Access Group – Outdoor Swimming Society group on Facebook. See also guides for more advice and inspiration: