Riparian ownership in Suffolk

Find out the rights and responsibilities of riparian 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’. Suffolk County Council has created a guidance booklet that explains everything a riparian owner needs to know, and you can read it here. You can also find supplementary information on other key facts and relevant legislation.

Guidance for riparian owners

Riparian Guidance Front Cover

Working with the Suffolk Flood Risk Management Partnership, Suffolk County Council has created a guide for riparian owners. In addition to explaining the rights and responsibilities of riparian owners, it covers everything from ownership principles to environmental considerations, and maintenance to consenting requirements.

If you own a watercourse in Suffolk, or need more information about what a riparian owner is then we recommend that you read this document. It includes links and references to other relevant organisations, and useful resources, therefore making it a "one stop shop" for most queries that a riparian owner might have. 

What is a watercourse?

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

Dealing with blocked ditches

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 or overgrown, 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 after being informed of the issue, you should report it to us online

Legal enforcement

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 (PDF, 840KB) also outlines our policies on piping watercourses and the reasons behind our policies.

Read the "Guidance for Riparian Ownership In Suffolk" booklet