Health and safety issues could end up sinking an offer to clean up a town centre waterway that has been condemned as a rubbish tip.
Meanwhile, Totnes councillors have been told if they want to find out who owns the leat they should lay claim to it themselves – and see who turns up to complain.
Totnes Sub Aqua Club has offered to clean up the leat following more than a year of complaints about the state of the waterway outside Morrisons supermarket.
The club had asked the town council to support it by sorting out the relevant permission from the leat’s owners. But councillors were warned that no one is sure just who owns which parts of the leat that runs from Totnes Weir to the Mill Tail.
And town clerk Catherine Marlton warned that if councillors get involved they could be held liable if anything goes wrong.
She told councillors: “There are health and safety problems with this.
“If we instruct them, even indirectly, we could be held liable for anything that is contracted or any accident that happens to them while they are doing it.”
And she suggested that cleaning out the waterway would be a job for specialists.
Councillors were told earlier this month that parts of the leat could be a toxic danger zone plagued by rats and the Weil’s disease they can bring with them – and possibly contaminated by metals.
They were also told that one volunteer who climbed in to the leat to clean out rubbish near the Town Mill ended up in hospital after contracting a bug.
The council has now agreed to go to the Land Registry to find out who owns which parts of the leat.
Cllr Tony Whitty said: “We need to get more information. Not only is the leat a mess, it is an absolute eyesore. For a key entry to the town, it is a tip.”
There has been pressure for years to clean up the leat which is used as a dumping ground for rubbish ranging from old car seats to supermarket trolleys in an area used by tens of thousands of visitors and residents a year to access car parking and the supermarket.
Councillors have know been told Dart Harbour – which is responsible for the navigable length of the River Dart – may take responsibility for the leat as well.
But they still felt it was important to try to find out the ownership of the various lengths of the leat
Cllr Judy Westacott warned that previous attempts to get someone to take responsibility for the waterway had fallen down because everybody said it was not them. And she protested: “It should not be down to a group of local volunteers to clean it up.”
Cllr Pip Paine suggested that if no one was willing to claim the leat then councillors should claim it for the town.
“If we can grab it, we should. Anyone who thinks that they own it will soon tell us.”
Ms Marlton said councillors had been talking about the state of the leat for a long time now and asked: “Once we know who owns the leat, how are you going to make somebody do what they should do about it?
“We have very limited powers to make anybody do anything.”