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Living next to a watercourse

Watercourse maintenance in Norfolk

The responsibility for watercourse maintenance

If you live on, own or lease land next to a watercourse you have rights and responsibility for its maintenance. It is the presumption in common law, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary.  

This is known as 'riparian rights and responsibilities'. Read further information on riparian rights and responsibilities.

Riparian means 'next to water'. People who live on, own or lease land next to a watercourse are 'riparian owners'. 'Riparian rights' mean you have a right to receive any flow of water from upstream. 'Riparian responsibilities' are to maintain the free flow of water for those downstream. For example, remove blockages and cut back overgrown vegetation.

If you are a tenant or landlord you should check your tenancy agreement to confirm who has maintenance responsibilities.  

Clarifying watercourse responsibilities

If there is:

  • A different landowner or tenant on each side of a watercourse

Each landowner or tenant is responsible for the land on their side of the watercourse, up to the centre of the watercourse. This is sometimes referred to as the centre line. This is the presumption unless there is formal information stating otherwise. For example, title deeds.

  • A fence, hedge or wall between your land and the watercourse

The watercourse marks the boundary line, rather than the fence, hedge or wall. Maintenance responsibilities still apply. This is the presumption in common law, unless any evidence states otherwise.

A fence, hedge or wall between your land and the watercourse Diagram 2023

  • An adopted highway on one side of the watercourse

An adopted highway is a road maintained at public expense. The landowner on the non-highways side has maintenance responsibilities for the whole watercourse. Not up to the centre line of the watercourse. The landowner has responsibility even if deeds show they do not own the watercourse. 

The landowner is still responsible for maintenance if water flows from the adopted highway into the watercourse. This is because the highway authority has a duty to discharge surface water from the highway under the Highways Act 1980.

An adopted highway on one side of the watercourse

Although landowners will typically own up to the centre of an adopted road, the highway authority will still be responsible for maintaining the road surface including any highway grips and verges.

  • A culvert (a tunnel, usually a pipe) running underneath the highway

Many culverts and pipes that pass under roads and highways are in private ownership. The adjacent landowners will be responsible for their maintenance. Norfolk County Council has a register of bridges and culverts and who owns them, if known. 

A culvert (a tunnel, usually a pipe) running underneath the highway

  • Watercourses on unregistered land 

Landowners next to the unregistered land are responsible for maintenance up to the centre line of the watercourse.

Hedge and ditch rule

In rural areas the hedge and ditch rule may apply. The owner of the hedge also owns the whole ditch from bank to bank. The rule usually applies to artificial ditches not natural watercourses. If you are unsure you should check your deeds and/or take legal advice.

Responsibilities of flood risk management authorities

Flood risk management is different to watercourse maintenance. Watercourse maintenance continues to be the owner's responsibility.

Buying a house next to a watercourse 

If you are buying a house next to a watercourse, you should:

  • Visit GOV.UK and check flood risk mapping for both rivers and surface water 
  • Check the deeds to the property to see if it states watercourse responsibilities. Do not assume that there are no watercourse responsibilities if it is not mentioned in the deeds
  • You can also find out if any existing flood defence or drainage consent related to the property has been given, refused or pending decision by opting to ask that question in the local authority search.

You should visit the site to confirm. Chatting to neighbours is also a good way to find out historic information. This can be useful to find out about piped watercourses that do not show up on plans.

Remember, you may have responsibility for a watercourse outside your property boundary.