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Waterways - a beautiful feature or an expensive hindrance?

One could only dream of an impressive landscaped garden with a delicate stream gracefully flowing, glistening in the sunlight and encouraging vibrant wildlife, right? Maybe a beautiful view over an impressively grand river?

Whether you have a small brook marking your boundary or you border a river as large as the Thames, there are some surprising obligations placed on you and this article seeks to explore some of these.

When will the waterway be my responsibility?

If your land has a waterway running through or underneath it, it is assumed that you own the stretch of waterway that runs through the land.

If the waterway marks the boundary, it is assumed that you own the land up to the centre of the waterway unless this is owned by someone else.

You are known as the ‘Riparian Owner’ of the relevant stretch.

What are my responsibilities?

It is your responsibility to ensure the water flows freely and without pollution or obstruction. You should therefore ensure that the banks of the waterway are kept clear. Any shrubs or trees close to the waterway should be regularly pruned to avoid any build-up of debris in the waterway. It goes without saying that any litter (including animal carcasses) should be removed even if it has not originated from your land.

Believe it or not, it can be an offence to build or alter a structure which obstructs a waterway under the Eel Regulations. It is important any fish or other wildlife can pass through the waterway without restriction. If you do intend to build or alter any structures which could obstruct the waterway you should notify the Environment Agency.

If your property borders a larger river, you will also be liable to execute all flood defence works for your stretch of waterway. Flood defence works can be expensive and again you will need to work with the Environment Agency in this respect. It may be that the risk management authority undertakes the works and that you will be called upon to cover the cost of these works.

Byelaws require you to contact your local Environment Agency office to apply for formal consent for works in, over, under or adjacent to main rivers. The Local Planning Authority may insist that you prepare an Environmental Statement if your proposed works could have a significant environmental impact.

You should bear in mind that the relevant risk management authorities have a right of entry over your land in order to inspect the waterways and so they can carry out essential maintenance. These are statutory powers so they can obtain a warrant from the courts if you refuse entry.

Who should I contact?

Environment Agency – 03708 506 506 (Monday to Friday 8am to 6pm)

Incident hotline 0800 80 70 60 (24 hours)

Floodline 0345 988 1188 (24 hours)


This blog is not to be taken as legal advice and you should contact us with full details of your own circumstances so we can advise you.

About the Author
Molly Perez-Sphar, Associate Partner, Head of Commercial Conveyancing

Specialises in: Commercial Property, Residential Property, Retail, Hospitality & Leisure

If you require any further information on waterways, or would like to speak to someone regarding a similar matter, please contact Molly Perez-Sphar at Comptons Solicitors LLP. ( 3869 4460).