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Living next to a watercourse


A watercourse is a natural or artificial channel. It moves water from one place to another, although it may be dry for long periods.

Watercourses include:

  • Streams
  • Rivers
  • Dikes
  • Ditches
  • Pipes
  • Culverts - a tunnel, usually a pipe, carrying water underground

If you live on, lease or own land next to a watercourse you have a responsibility to maintain it.

Norfolk Strategic Flood Alliance (NSFA) has created this guidance and information.

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.


Rights and responsibilities of watercourse owners in Norfolk

You have rights and responsibilities if you are responsible for maintaining a watercourse.

Rights of watercourse owners

Responsibilities of watercourse owners

  • Allow water flow without obstruction, pollution or diversion affecting the rights of others
  • Maintain the bed and banks of the watercourse. This includes trees and shrubs growing on the banks
  • Keep the watercourse clear of any debris even if it did not originate from your land. This includes litter, vegetation/grass cuttings and animal carcasses
  • Do not obstruct the free passage of fish
  • Remove invasive species of plants. For example, Japanese knotweed
  • Keep clear any structures that you own. This includes culverts (pipes), trash screens, weirs and mill gates
  • Carry out regular inspections to check if you need to do maintenance
  • Apply for consent or a permit for construction or alterations that affect the water flow. This includes temporary works
  • Follow any byelaws (a law made by the local council)
  • Carry out repairs or remedial works as directed by an enforcement authority

GOV.UK guidance

The Environment Agency information about owning and maintaining a watercourse.

Checking watercourses

Watercourse owners should do regular inspections. Particularly if:

If your watercourse has a culvert (pipe) and you cannot see from one end to the other, a contractor should inspect it. They will use specialist equipment to survey the culvert. This is very important for:

  • Long culverts
  • Culverts with bends or changes in direction
  • Culverts that get very silted or blocked up

Supporting biodiversity

When maintaining a watercourse, it is important to support the natural environment.

  • Cutting vegetation

Mowing each bank alternately can support the growth of wildflowers and biodiversity. Leaving cuttings on the top of the bank, if they do obstruct it, can also allow wildlife to return to their habitat. If the wind causes cuttings to block the water flow, move them to a sheltered area for nesting or composting.

You must not scrape banks and should leave at least 150mm of vegetation in place.

Avoid cutting vegetation during bird nesting season between March and August.

  • De-silting

You may need to remove silt from a watercourse from time to time. Be careful and only remove the soft silt that has gathered on the bed of the watercourse. You should never deepen a channel beyond its natural bed level. You should only clear the centre of the channel, avoiding the edges and banks.

De-silting should only take place between November and March. This is because the silt can reduce oxygen levels in the watercourse and kill fish. Consider using an experienced operator who does this work.

  • Bat roosts

Bats can roost in very small gaps, in certain trees and old or poorly maintained culverts (pipes). Consider this before doing maintenance. If in doubt get advice from a qualified bat ecologist. Visit The Bat Conservation Trust website for further information.