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Flood advice for Land and Riparian Owners

Flood advice for Land and Riparian Owners

A riparian owner is someone who has a watercourse within or adjacent to any boundary of their land. It is presumed that they own the land up to the centre of the watercourse – unless it is known to be owned by someone else.


A watercourse is any natural or artificial channel above or below ground through which water flows, such as a river, brook, ditch, mill stream or culvert (but not canals). It can be above or below ground and does not have to contain water all year round.  

Flooding can happen if watercourse owners:  

  • fail to keep vegetation growth under control
  • install pipes or culverts without getting the required consents
  • dispose of/store garden waste, domestic rubbish, or similar material on the banks

In English law the term ‘Ordinary Watercourse’ applies to all those channels not designated as Main Rivers and is not related solely to channel size.

Piped watercourses and culverts  

These are generally the responsibility of the riparian owner. The same duties, responsibilities and rights exist for piped watercourses and culverts as for open channels, so owners must clear any blocked culverts or pipes on their land or under their property.

Rights and responsibilities  

Riparian owners have certain rights (such as the right to protect their own property from flooding) but they also have responsibilities under the Land Drainage Act 1991. To prevent flooding, these landowners must:  

  • maintain the bed and banks of the watercourse, the trees and shrubs growing on the banks
  • clear away any natural or man-made debris that affects the natural flow of water, even if it did not originate from the owner’s land
  • keep any structures they own (such as culverts, trash screens, weirs, or mill gates) clear of debris  
  • let water flow through their land without any obstruction, pollution or diversion which affects the rights of others 
  • accept flood waters through their land

If an owner fails to do these things, they may face legal action.

As ordinary watercourses can include roadside ditches, a landowner may be legally responsible for the maintenance of these where they border their land.  

If flooding on a road happens because of an obstruction in a ditch, then the Highway Authority (usually the Council) may take legal action requiring the owner to clear it.

Flood risk management  

A number of organisations and individuals are required to work together to reduce both the likelihood of flooding and the impacts it can have. Find more information on Flood risk management responsibilities.  

Land management  

Farmers are required to use techniques that prevent rainwater from carrying off topsoil into watercourses. Allowing runoff may constitute a criminal offence and could threaten the farm’s Single Farm Payment.

Before work begins  

Riparian owners must be aware of the need to obtain the correct consents and permits before carrying out work.

Any works in, over, under or within 9 metres of a Main River, must have formal consent from the Environment Agency; those in or around Ordinary Watercourses need formal consent from us (the Lead Local Flood Authority).

Works on a watercourse may also require planning permission, as well as the above consents. The West Northamptonshire Council Local Planning Authority can advise on this.  

Ditch spoil is categorised as ‘Medium Level Hazardous Waste,’ so it is necessary to obtain advice on disposal from the Environment Agency.  

A number of species, as well as all nesting birds, are protected by law. Disturbing them is a serious criminal offence, so further advice should be sought from Natural England and/or/ the Local Wildlife Trust.

Landowners must also ensure the work can be done in a safe manner, assessing this on a case-by-case basis.

Find further information on flood development and planning.

Enforcing the law  

To reduce the risk of flooding, we aim to improve and maintain an effective watercourse system through a process of co-operation, liaison, advice, and assistance wherever possible. Legal action will only be used where other methods have not succeeded in reducing the flood risk.

Further information and contacts  

Last updated 03 April 2024