Don’t get sold down the river! Considerations when developing riparian land

Riverside sites have obvious attractions for developers – properties with river views are highly desirable and command significant premiums. However there are special considerations to be taken into account when developing land which adjoins a river (known legally as “riparian land”). As legal title to river bed land is usually unregistered one key question will be “who owns the riverbed?” This will be of vital importance where a proposed development extends onto or above a river, for example via a jetty or marina or where a balcony or building will overhang the airspace above a river.

Where the river bed land is registered the Land Registry will hold an official record of ownership of the land. For unregistered land, unless there is evidence of who owns the river bed, ownership will be determined by established legal presumptions. The rules that apply will depend upon whether the river is  tidal or non-tidal. 

For non-tidal rivers the starting point is that ownership of the river bank also includes ownership of the adjoining river bed up to the mid-point of the river. Where this presumption doesn’t apply, the boundary between the riparian land and the river bed will be the water line of the river in its ‘normal’ state, so a water line caused by serious drought or flood will be disregarded in determining the property boundary.

For tidal rivers it is presumed that the boundary line land extends up to the medium high water mark of the tide and beyond this point the river bed is presumed to belong to the Crown.

These presumptions are merely a starting point and will not apply if there is contrary evidence of ownership (for example where title documents show third party ownership of the river bed). Legislation can also intervene and major navigable waterways are often owned by a designated river authority, such as the Port of London Authority. If a proposed development of riparian land extends over land in third party ownership further careful consideration must be undertaken of whether that party’s consent is required.

Written by Richard Bogue

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