Right to Roam Breakthrough

31st January, 2023

The Outdoor Swimming Society  strongly welcomes the news that the Labour Party has committed to introducing a new “right to roam” in England and Wales that will extend to swimming in our rivers, lakes and other inland waters.


Shadow Environment Minister Jim McMahon announced the new policy in Devon on 27 January 2023 following a recent High Court decision that reversed the long-held belief that there was a legal right to wild camp on large parts of Dartmoor

OSS founder Kate Rew stated “This new law will bring much-needed clarity to the legality of swimming in the country’s immensely beautiful rivers and lakes.  At long last, it appears that England and Wales will be brought into line with the position in Scotland where a statutory right to swim in the country’s rivers, lakes and reservoirs has been in place since 2005.”

In announcing the new policy, McMahon stated “There are still huge parts of England and Wales that are off limits when it comes to the right to access, whether that’s woodlands, cliffs, rivers, where the rights that we are afforded in open countryside aren’t then mirrored in those places. That needs to change.”

Although there are clear legal rights to swim in coastal waters and tidal rivers, rights to swim in other rivers, lakes and reservoirs are dependent on a range of ancient common law rights, rights developed by long-term usage, permissions and a patchwork of local byelaws.  And reflecting on the current position Mr McMahon stated “This is a scandal. A Labour government would clean up the UK’s waterways for all to enjoy – if people don’t have a stake in their environment they won’t fight to protect it.”

It is expected that a Labour government would extend the application of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 which conferred a clear legal right to swim in rivers, lakes and reservoirs in Scotland, to England and Wales.  Kate Rew notes that “The 2003 Act, and the accompanying Scottish Outdoor Access Code, have now been in force for 18 years [February 2005] and have been a tremendous success.  It is well overdue for this now to be extended to the rest of the United Kingdom.”

The OSS has campaigned for these changes over many years and is very encouraged by the Labour Party’s adoption of this new policy.  As Kate Rew observed, “This really is  great news for everyone who loves swimming in England and Wales.

by Nathan Willmott (OSS Legal Advisor), 27/1/23

  • Coming up in elsewhere this weekend (4th February 2023), more good news about your river swimming access. Sign up now if you’re not a subscriber – elsewhere comes out on the first Saturday of every month, is created by volunteer contributors, and is free to receive.