Small watercourses like ditches, streams, and brooks play a large role in managing flood risk in many parts of Suffolk. They can also be a great home for wildlife. This is why it is very important to keep these watercourses in a good condition and flowing unimpeded.
However, knowing who is responsible for watercourse maintenance is not always clear and can get confusing. There are also some important regulations which are often unknown to those that they apply to. This page aims to clarify these things and give an understanding of which organisation or individual is responsible for what.
The owner's role
The majority of watercourses in Suffolk are owned by private landowners. These could be homeowners, farms, or industrial premises for example. Owning a watercourse makes you a 'Riparian Owner'. Being a riparian owner means that you have certain rights, but also means that you have certain responsibilities. One of these responsibilities is to ensure that your watercourse is maintained to an acceptable standard.
It is important to note that failure to meet your responsibilities as a riparian owner can lead to legal action being taken against you.
Suffolk County Council's role
Above all else, our main concern with maintenance of watercourses is to ensure that risk to properties from flooding is minimised wherever possible. One of our roles as the Lead Local Flood Authority (LLFA) for Suffolk is to manage the flood risk from ordinary watercourses and surface water. Ordinary watercourses are all watercourses which are not designated as 'main river', and you can find out whether a watercourse is a main river on the Environment Agency website.
Although most watercourses in Suffolk are privately owned, we do own a small number of ditches and channels across the county. Often these are part of a roadside verge, for example. If we need to maintain a watercourse and have not already done so you can report the issue to us.
However, the Highways Act (1980) gives us powers to drain roads into private ditches providing that we do not cause any damage to private land or property. This does not mean that we are responsible for the maintenance of the watercourse. This responsibility is still the landowner's. In the past we may have cleared some private watercourses as a gesture of goodwill, but we are no longer able to continue with this practice.
If a watercourse is blocked and the landowner refuses to remove the blockage, we may begin legal action against the landowner to ensure that a flow is maintained in the channel. You can find more details on legal enforcement on our riparian ownership page.
Environment Agency's role
The Environment Agency are the government agency responsible for managing flood risk from the sea and major watercourses. These major watercourses are known as 'main rivers'. You can find out whether a watercourse is a main river on the Environment Agency website. Please note that we will not investigate flooding which is as a result of any main rivers in Suffolk.
For these main rivers, the Environment Agency is responsible for ensuring that the channel is kept clear, and in some circumstances may use permissive powers to do works themselves. However, landowners who own land which has a main river crossing or bordering their land are still considered to be riparian owners and still have responsibilities to keep the channel clear.
If you have experienced flooding as a result of main river flooding, you can report it to the Environment Agency directly.
Reporting unmaintained watercourses
Before reporting any blocked or unmaintained watercourses to us it is important that you inform the landowner that there is a problem. Very often this is an innocent mistake that does not require us to intervene as the landowner will be able to clear the blockage. Your local parish council may be able to help you find the landowner if you do not know who they are.
If you are unable to make any progress with the landowner it may then be necessary to report it to us. When reporting please include as much information as possible so that we can effectively respond to your report.
Please note: we will usually only take legal action against landowners in cases where there is a serious impediment to flow in the watercourse. Issues which are not increasing flood risk to properties or significant infrastructure are unlikely to be pursued.
Working on a watercourse
Occasionally it may be necessary to do some works to watercourses for various reasons. For example, you may need to install a culvert (a length of pipe) to create an access to a new property, or you may need to install a trash screen to stop debris from travelling downstream. These are legitimate reasons to alter a watercourse, but they require consent.
Land Drainage Consent is needed for any works which may alter the flow in a channel. You can find out more information on our 'Working on a watercourse' page.
If you have any questions about the consenting process, please feel free to contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org