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Sold down the river - a riverside reality

18 Apr 2018

For many owning a property on the river is a dream come true.  Sailing, fishing or just watching the water lap on the bank - it sounds idyllic, but what considerations do developers need to consider when looking at a site which commands such a premium?  Isabel Alderton-Sell in DMH Stallard’s Property Development Team looks at what you need to think about.

Considerations:

Who owns the river bed?

If you want to build a jetty over the riverbed, or balconies which overhang the riverbed, you’ll need to know who owns it. 

First of you will need to look at the Land Registry to see if the river bed land is registered.  If it is, you can obtain a copy of the title to establish who owns it.

If the river bed isn’t registered, and no unregistered title documents exist, then ownership will be determined by established legal presumptions. The rules differ depending on whether the river is tidal or non-tidal.  The general legal presumption prevails, unless there is something to establish contrary intention. 

If the river is tidal, then there is a presumption that the boundary line of a property is at the top of the foreshore (the land lying between the high and low water-marks of a mean average tide between spring and neap tides).  Beyond this point, the river bed is presumed to belong to the Crown.  You should be aware that the Crown has in some cases sold the title of some riverbeds to others, for example, the Thames riverbed belongs to Port of London Authority.

For non-tidal rivers, if the river runs alongside the garden wall, or hedge, you’ll need to check if the wall or hedge marks the boundary.   If the river marks the boundary, then the presumption is that you own the land up to the centre of the river. 

Can I develop right up to the water’s edge?

A development-free edge is required on the banks next to a watercourse. This means that for any inspection or maintenance required to the watercourse, there is easy access.   Additionally, in some areas local byelaws govern what you can and can’t do on the edge of a river.

Development

Works on a river may require planning permission, as well as flood defence or ordinary watercourse consent.  You must contact your local Environment Agency office to apply for formal consent for works in, over, under or adjacent to main rivers.  If a river is tidal, Marine consents may also need to be obtained. 

Flood risk

A risk management authority can designate a feature on land as a flood risk management asset, for example a garden wall.  Features and structures that have been designated as an asset cannot be altered, removed or replaced without the consent of the responsible authority.  You will need to check whether any such designations exist before removing any features.  You should bear in mind that some buyers will be put off by the flood risk of being next to a river. 

Ongoing responsibilities for plot buyers:

1.  Riverside property owners will need to keep the banks clear of anything which could cause an obstruction and increase the flood risk. They will be responsible for maintaining the bed and banks of the watercourse and the trees and shrubs growing on the banks.

2. Landowners can be responsible for work to reduce bank erosion.

The Point

Developing a site near a river is complicated and many of the presumptions are merely starting points.  There are lots of third parties whose consent you may possibly need.  Some consents are personal to the current landowner and won’t pass when you purchase the site and then subsequently sell off your plots.   

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