Rights of River Charter

, 07 March 2023
Rights of River Charter
River Ouse © Arthur Hoare

Rights of River Charter

Remarkably, on 20 February 2023, Lewes District Council passed, by 27 votes to 2, a Rights of River motion for the Ouse. The motion had been proposed by District Councillor Matthew Bird, who is Cabinet Member for Sustainability as well as Climate Lead for Sussex Wildlife Trust.

The passing of this motion, the first in the country, means a charter on the river Ouse’s rights will be developed over the next two years.

One of the people involved in drafting the Ouse Charter will be Lewes-based environmental lawyer, (and until very recently, Trustee of Sussex Wildlife Trust) Emma Montlake. I went to speak to her about it.

Rights of river motion supporters at County Hall © Willie Robb
Rights of River motion supporters at County Hall © Willie Robb

Emma begins our discussion by putting some pebbles in front of us. She explains that they have come from the Whanganui River in New Zealand. ‘In 2017, it was the first in the world to be granted Rights of Personhood. In other words, the river is recognised as a person. The Maori community have always recognised the river as one of their ancestors but this was not traditionally something recognised in law. This was a landmark case.’

Stones from the Whanganui River in New Zealand
Stones from the Whanganui River in New Zealand

Emma is Joint Director of the Environmental Law Foundation, or ELF, founded in 1992, with the aim of helping ordinary people and communities be heard on matters affecting the environment. ELF have been interested in thinking about the rights of nature, or Wild Law, for some time, Emma tells me, because although nature exists without a relationship to humans, fundamentally legal frameworks recognise humans and their property, but not much else.

She goes on to explain that, in the last 10 years, there has been an explosion in the Rights of Nature movement globally. Ecuador, for example, have had the Rights of Nature as part of their constitution since 2008. A biodiverse forest was therefore able to protect itself against mining in 2022. Other countries have created rights for rivers, such as the Ganges in India and the Magpie River in Canada. 

I ask how the Ouse Rights of River motion came about.

‘Along with a number of other local people, in 2021 we set up a CIC called Love Our Ouse and launched it at the River Festival, along with Tash Padbury (Green Ambassador for the Depot Cinema in Lewes). After an inspiring talk by barrister and river rights campaigner Paul Powlesland, an audience participation session was held to discuss what rights we felt the river Ouse should have. It was a fascinating and wide-reaching discussion, and we talked about the Universal Declaration of River Rights.

It says rivers should have the right to flow, perform essential functions within the river’s ecosystem, be free from pollution, feed and be fed by sustainable aquifers and have native biodiversity, as well as the right to regeneration and restoration. It is on this that the Ouse charter is likely to be based.’

What, I ask, might it mean, in practice? ‘Someone might represent the river in council meetings, or the river might be involved in planning, in the same way health has a representation at the moment. An example of what might happen is - litter pickers by the Ouse have concluded that 80% of plastic waste comes from Tesco. So the river could say ‘Stop polluting me. You’re causing a nuisance.’ and potentially issue proceedings against Tesco. Of course, there is no legal framework for Nature Rights in the UK and we are doing this at a local political level, but all the same who knows where it will lead. You have to start somewhere.’

Thin-lipped Grey Mullet © Milly Manley
Thin-lipped Grey Mullet © Milly Manley

The Ouse is 36 miles long and Emma tells me that Love Our Ouse is putting in for funding for a River People Tour, from source to sea, with some of the creative elements of the River Festival, to figure out what matters to whom and where. For example, should the Charter include the right for the river to protect its native species, such as Sea Trout and Thin-lipped Grey Mullet?

I ask Emma’s favourite spot on the Ouse. ‘I love the Winterbourne, so I’d say the spot where it joins the river in Lewes, on the Railway Land. It’s an industrial area, and it’s where the Thin-lipped Grey Mullet gathers in their remarkable, mysterious way, I love how the clear, blue chalk Winterbourne stream flows into the brown tidal swamp of the Ouse.’

Leave a comment


  • Caroline Dorling:

    Utterly brilliant and inspiring- thank you so much for alerting us…Caroline

    08 Mar 2023 12:47:00

  • Caroline:

    This is a fascinating article, highlighting an important initiative and the impact that passionate, and determined local people can have in their community. Thank you for sharing this.

    09 Mar 2023 06:49:00

  • Viviane Doussy:

    An amazing piece of legal environmental work and achievement – how inspiring!

    09 Mar 2023 07:36:00

  • Lorna Rowney-Smith:

    Wonderful. This brings tears to the eyes. Well done to Lewes District Council for accepting such forward thinking policy and especially to Matthew Bird, and those who will bring it all about. Other local rivers are waiting for the same treatment. I grew up on the Cuckmere, which has seen dire times recently. Please, Wealden District Council, follow Lewes’s lead as soon as possible

    09 Mar 2023 18:22:00

  • Anna:

    This is fantastic and something that should be widely promoted and reported on. I hope other rivers can benefit from the same support. It’s really lovely to hear a positive river story for a change.

    11 Mar 2023 20:55:00

  • Iain plumer:

    Hi I a very interested in your river status as I’m a charcoal burning forester starting on a campaign to clean up our rivers with activated charcoal, the eron and adur .i would love to talk.

    29 Aug 2023 19:19:00