Could legal rights help restore River Ouse?
The River Ouse in Sussex is on course to be the first river in England to be granted legal rights.
Lewes is the county town of East Sussex, situated at an ancient crossing of the River Ouse. Recently the district council passed a 'rights of river' motion, acknowledging the rights of nature as a way of improving the health of local rivers by giving them similar protection to people, and agreed there was “a case to be made for considering our interactions with our local waterways”.
The council's motion marks the first step towards creating a Rights of River Ouse Charter to secure the river's health and its right to be pollution-free within two years.
"This motion is the first step towards a Rights of River Ouse Charter through which the health and wellbeing of the river is represented and voiced by local communities."
Councillor Matthew Bird, the Council's cabinet member for sustainability, proposed the Rights of River motion.
"Our waterways face constant harm from pollution, road runoff, development and climate change and the health and wellbeing of the River Ouse is severely under threat," said Bird. "This motion is the first step towards a Rights of River Ouse Charter, through which the health and wellbeing of the river is represented and voiced by local communities throughout the Ouse Valley catchment."
The motion was supported by local organisations including the Ouse & Adur Rivers Trust and the Sussex Wildlife Trust. The rights of river movement's aim is for rivers to be treated as living entities in their own right, and is growing globally as a way of extending legal rights to watercourses.
Laws giving natural features such as rivers and mountains, or ecosystems, legal rights have been enacted around the world. For example, in 2008, Ecuador made history as the first country to recognise the rights of nature in its constitution and since then all individuals are able to bring a legal case on behalf of nature. Meanwhile the first river to be granted legal personhood was the Whanganui River in New Zealand in 2017.
Rights of nature activists in the UK have made some advances in exploring legal personhood for rivers such as the Thames, but - until now - the closest attempt has been the proposed bylaw by Frome Town Council in 2018 to grant personhood to the River Frome in Somerset. Sadly the bylaw was rejected in 2020.