Riparian ownership in Suffolk

Find out the rights and responsibilities of riparian (private) owners of ditches, streams or other watercourses.

If a river, stream or ditch runs next to or through your land or property you are a ‘riparian owner’Riparian owners have rights and responsibilities, which are outlined here, including links to relevant resources.

A watercourse is defined as any channel through which water flows. This may be open, and visible on the surface, but also they could be carried underground in pipes known as culverts. 

As stated in the Land Drainage Act (1991), this also includes any channel that takes seasonal flows and may at times be dry when there is no water to feed it.

Some examples of watercourses include:

  • rivers
  • streams
  • ditches
  • drains
  • cuts
  • culverts
  • dykes
  • passages
  • sewers (other than public sewers within the meaning of the Water Industry Act 1991)

Main Rivers and Ordinary Watercourses

Main rivers are normally the major watercourses in an area, and are designated as such on maps held by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency (DEFRA).  You can view these maps online.

The Environment Agency has permissive (not mandatory) powers to carry out maintenance and improvement works on main rivers, including any structures which may have been installed in the bed or banks. Any works in or near main rivers require the consent of the Environment Agency.

Ordinary watercourses are any channels through which water flows, but not designated as a main river. Often they are privately owned.

Riparian ownership

Ownership

If your land boundary borders a watercourse it is assumed that you own the land up to the centre of the watercourse. You should check your property deeds to see if the boundary of your property is marked by a watercourse or by another marker (which could be a hedge or a wall for example). 

If the watercourse is sited between two or more property boundaries, each owner may be equally responsible as represented in the diagram. 

If you own land with a watercourse running through, or under it, it is assumed that you own the whole stretch of watercourse that runs through your land. 

The riparian owner of any ditches alongside roads is normally the adjoining landowner, as the highway boundary invariably lies along the top of the bank closest to the road.

Maintenance and cleaning

You must allow water to flow through your land without obstruction or pollution. Riparian owners downstream also have a right to receive water in its natural quality and quantity and nothing you do should affect this.  

The banks and the bed of the watercourse must be maintained to their natural standard, and obstructions should be removed and disposed of responsibly. This can include silt in the bottom of the watercourse and also applies even if the obstruction did not originate from your land.

If there are any structures (such as culverts, trash screens, mill gates or weirs) on your section of the watercourse you also have a responsibility to keep them clear of silt or debris.

Modifying a watercourse  

Providing no changes or alterations are made to a watercourse or any structures in it, maintenance and cleaning work can be done on the watercourse and any of its structures without needing land drainage consent. But changing or modifying any aspect of either of these requires land drainage consent which is granted by Suffolk County Council. To find more information about getting consent, please read our working on a watercourse page.  

If you want to undertake work next to, or affecting a main river you may need a permit from the Environment Agency.

Discharge and pollution

Certain discharges to watercourses require the consent of the Environment Agency, who can advise you about this. These discharges include outfalls from septic tanks and private sewerage treatment plants. 

If you feel a watercourse may be polluted you should contact the Environment Agency for main rivers, or the local Borough or District Council's Environmental Services for other watercourses.

If you propose to discharge surface water from a new building or development into an existing watercourse you may be required to make improvements downstream (to enable the watercourse to deal with any increased flow) or to provide storage to control the rate of flow from the site.

Ditches are watercourses typically found along the borders of land or property to assist in the drainage of surface water. From time to time these ditches will become blocked and in particularly bad cases they may even cause a flood.

It is the responsibility of the landowner to ensure that the ditch remains clear and does not cause a nuisance to the public. If you find a blocked ditch, your first action should be to inform the landowner as they often are unaware that there is any issue.

Your local parish council may be able to help you in communicating with the landowner if you do not know them.

Ditches which cause floods are dealt with according to the severity of the incident. Each incident is separated into one of three priority criteria, where priority one is the most severe and priority three is the least severe. You can read more about the priority system in our flood investigation policy.

If a blocked ditch has flooded multiple times, and the landowner has neglected to clear the blockage you should report it to us online

Under section 23 of the Land Draining Act 1991 you must get consent from Suffolk County Council, as Lead Local Flood Authority, to erect or raise a culvert, or erect, raise or otherwise alter an obstruction in an ordinary watercourse, whether temporary or permanent.

If you carry out works without consent being given under section 23 of the Land Drainage Act 1991, Suffolk County Council may serve a notice requiring works or actions to be taken within a specified timescale if it is deemed necessary.  

Suffolk County Council may also serve a notice requiring works to be undertaken when it is judged that an ordinary watercourse is in such a condition that the proper flow of water is impeded.

Failure to comply with a notice served by Suffolk County Council is a criminal offence, and we can undertake the necessary works or action ourselves and recover the cost of doing so.

You can find out how to apply for Land Drainage Consent on our working on a watercourse page. Our consenting policy also outlines our policies on piping watercourses and the reasons behind our policies.

Download a guide to riparian ownership (PDF, 376KB)