An English water company has started charging commercial bodies for using its right-to-roam land.

United Utilities, which owns 142,000 acres of land in north-west England, the largest UK holder of land for water catchment, began its charging regime at the beginning of this month.

The British Mountaineering Council (BMC) and Mountain Leader Training England met with managers from United Utilities, owners of land from the Lake District National Park down to the Forest of Bowland.

The BMC said the meeting was: 'a useful exercise for all concerned with discussions focusing on legal, land management and conservation aspects of the [charging] policy'.

United Utilities (UU) said: “We assure the BMC that we have no intention to charge the general public for access to UU owned land covered by CRoW [Countryside and Rights of Way Act] or other access legislation.

“United Utilities has always maintained a principle not to make access charges for educational and charitable activities and there are no plans for this to change.”

However, organisers of what UU calls ‘large events’, which is not defined but would include, for instance, an orienteering event, have to request a permit at least two months before the event and will need to provide evidence of £2m-worth of public liability insurance and a written risk assessment.

Events in National Parks will also need the written permission of the park authority.

The BMC says the water company has not defined what a commercial operator is, but says it is likely to include any event where a payment is made to the organisers. UU says its catchment teams will decide what proportion is charitable and what amount is commercial. The charging rates have not yet been defined.

UU also says it doesn’t want users of its access land to take part in ‘ghyll scrambling’ even if there is a legal right.

The decision of United Utilities to charge for groups to uses right-to-roam land is bound to lead to uncertainty among groups venturing on to the land and puts the onus on organisers to contact the company well in advance.

How practical this would be for groups undergoing instruction in mountain leadership is debatable. Weather and all sorts of other considerations would make it unfeasible to plan that far ahead. Although such activities are educational, they are usually run by commercial concerns and money is certain to change hands.

It is not yet known whether other water companies plan to follow United Utilities and start charging for access to CRoW Act land.