Living on the edge

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Advice from the Environmnet Agency for riparian owners


  • livingontheedgeaguide to the rightsand responsibilitiesof riverside occupation

  • We are the Environment Agency. Its our job to look afteryour environment and make it a better place for you,and for future generations.

    Your environment is the air you breathe, the water youdrink and the ground you walk on. Working with business,Government and society as a whole, we are making yourenvironment cleaner and healthier.

    The Environment Agency. Out there, making yourenvironment a better place.

    Published by:Environment AgencyRio HouseWaterside Drive, Aztec WestAlmondsbury, Bristol BS32 4UDTel: 0870 8506506Email:

    Environment Agency

    All rights reserved. This document may be reproduced withprior permission of the Environment Agency.3rd edition April 2007

  • Environment Agency Living on the edge 1

    It explains your rights and responsibilitiesas an owner. It also explains our role andthat of other organisations with which youmay need to work.

    It explains who is responsible for flooddefences and what that means in practice.

    It shows how we can work together toprotect and enhance the natural environmentof our rivers and streams.

    We are publishing this guide because wehave powers and responsibilities relating torivers and watercourses throughout EnglandandWales. Our work often affects peoplewho live nearby. A watercourse is any naturalor artificial channel throughwhichwater flows,such as a river, brook, beck, or mill stream.

    Our job is to protect and manage theenvironment land, air and water. Ourday-to-day activities include pollutionprevention and control, waste regulation,water resources and flood riskmanagement.We also have duties relating to fisheries,recreation and conservation.

    If you own land or propertyalongside a river or otherwatercourse, this guide isfor you.

    Contents 1 Introduction2 Your rights and

    responsibilities5 Flood risk6 Mills and weirs

    7 The role of theEnvironment Agency

    14 The role of otherorganisations

    15 Explanation of terms

  • If you own land adjoining a watercourse, youhave certain rights and responsibilities. Inlegal terms you are a riparian owner.

    Your rights have been established in commonlaw for many years. However there are somecircumstances in which these rights may beaffected by other law. There will also beactivities for which you will need permissionfrom a third party such as your localauthority or the Environment Agency. Thereis more information on this later on.

    If you only rent the land, you should checkwith the owner who is to manage theserights and responsibilities. You will needto agree on this between you.

    2 Environment Agency Living on the edge

    your rightsand responsibilities

  • Environment Agency Living on the edge 3

    These rights will be affected by your duty toother riverside landowners, to the rest ofthe community and to the environment.

    Before you start workon or near a watercourse,you should submit your plans both to us andto your local authority. We will need to decideif you require consent from us. Your localauthority will decide whether you needplanning permission. Some sites are importantfor conservation or are of archaeologicalvalue. If your work would affect one of thesesites, you may need further permissionsfrom the relevant English orWelsh authorities.Many environmental factors are taken intoaccount in decisions to authorise work.These factors include flood risk, wildlifeconservation, fisheries, and the reshapingof the river and landscape.

    Your rightsYou are presumed to own the land up to

    the centre of the watercourse unless it isknown to be owned by someone else.

    Water should flow onto your land in itsnatural quantity and quality.

    You have the right to protect your propertyfrom flooding, and your land from erosion.However, in most cases we must agree yourplans before you start work. See pages 9 and10 for more details.

    You usually have the right to fish inyour watercourse. However, you must usea legal method. You must also have a validEnvironment Agency rod licence unlessyoure less than 12 years old. Sometimesyour rights will have been sold or leased.Check your facts.

    You will almost certainly need anabstraction licence if you want to: remove or abstract water from a surfacesource such as a river, stream or canal; and take more than 20 cubic metres(approximately 4,400 gallons) a day.

    If you are proposing to abstract water,contact your local Environment Agency officeas soon as possible. A guide is available onrequest: Abstracting water a guide togetting your licence.

    Rivers can be dangerousWater may look harmless, but it canhide strong flows. Water can be deepand powerful, especially near weirsand sluices.

    your rights and responsibilities

  • 4 Environment Agency Living on the edge

    Your responsibilitiesYou have the responsibility to pass on flow

    without obstruction, pollution or diversionaffecting the rights of others. Others alsohave the right to receive water in its naturalquantity and quality.

    You must accept flood flows through yourland, even if these are caused by inadequatecapacity downstream. There is no duty incommon law for a landowner to improve thedrainage capacity of a watercourse.

    You must maintain the bed and banks ofthewatercourse, and also the trees and shrubsgrowing on the banks. You must also clearany debris, even if it did not originate fromyour land. This debris may be natural orman-made, and includes litter and animalcarcasses. See pages 9 and 10 forinformation on consent for these works.Your local authority can advise you on theremoval of animal carcasses.

    You must not cause any obstructions either temporary or permanent that wouldprevent the free passage of fish.

    You must keep the bed and banks clear ofany matter that could cause an obstruction,either on your land or downstream if it iswashed away. Please help us to protect

    water quality do not use riverbanks for thedisposal of any form of garden or otherwaste where there is any danger that it willbe washed into the river. This includes grassclippings, which are highly polluting.

    You must keep any structures that youown clear of debris. These structures includeculverts, trash screens, weirs and mill gates.

    On your property you may have flooddefences such as walls and embankments.These are vital for your protection andthat of others. You should discuss theirmaintenance with us.

    You are responsible for protecting yourproperty from water that seeps throughnatural or man-made banks. Where suchseepage threatens the structural integrityof a flood defence, we may wish to see thatit is repaired.

    You must control any invasive alienspecies such as Japanese knotweed. If yoususpect such a species is present, pleaseget in touch. We can advise you on how tomanage and control these species.

    If you do not carry out yourresponsibilities, you could face legal action.

    your rights and responsibilities

  • Environment Agency Living on the edge 5

    Land and property near rivers could be atrisk from flooding. We can tell you what thatrisk is, how flood warnings will be issued,and what to do when a flood occurs.

    Information on local flood warnings isavailable from our local offices.

    There are maps available which showthe general extent of flooding. These areavailable from our local offices or onour websitesWhats in your backyard?section also gives local environmentalinformation. Our FloodMap ismulti-layeredand has information on flooding from riversand the sea for England and Wales. TheFlood Map also shows flood defences andthe areas they protect.

    Telephone our Floodline service on0845 988 1188 for information about floodrisk in your area.

    flood risk

  • mills and weirs

    6 Environment Agency Living on the edge

    A river control structure is a structure thataffects river levels and flow. Examplesinclude mills, dams and weirs.

    If you own a river control structure, you arelegally obliged to maintain and operate thestructure properly. You must also fulfil anyobligations you have under land drainagebyelaws. You may be sued in the civil courtsby anyone who suffers as a result of youractions or neglect.

    Keep gates and screens clear ofobstructions, so that they work properly.

    Our engineers are always willing todiscuss maintenance and operation with theowners of river control structures.

    If you are buying a property with a rivercontrol structure, contact our local office tointroduce yourself. You can find out how youcan work with us and learn about whatproblems may arise.

    You may need an abstraction licenceif you intend to take water from the river.For more details see page 12.

    You must contact us first if you wishto construct a weir, sluice gate or othercontrol structure or if you would like tomodify an existing structure. You mayneed our formal consent, and possiblyan impounding licence. We generallydiscourage obstructions to watercoursesbecause of their environmental impacts.

  • the role of theEnvironment Agency

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    Protecting the river environment andmanaging flood risk are part of our job.This means that some of our duties andpowers affect riparian owners.

    New European legislation is changing theway we manage rivers. The Water FrameworkDirective is already being implemented inEngland andWaleswith the purpose, amongstother things, of mitigating the effects offloods, and it also promotes the use of riverbasin planning. For more information, Floods Directive should also come intoforce in due course, which promotes the largescale planning of flood riskmanagement.

    PowersUnder the Water Resources Act 1991, wehave powers to maintain and improve mainrivers (for explanation of terms, see page 15),in order to ensure the efficient passage offlood flow and to manage water levels.These powers allow us to do work; they donot oblige us to carry out either maintenanceor construction of new works on main rivers.

    We can construct and maintain defencesagainst flooding, issue flood warnings, andmanage water levels.

    We can dispose of dredgings by depositingthem on land within the reach of the dredgingmachines boom.

    We are unlikely to carry out maintenanceon a watercourse just for amenity reasons, orto stop erosion where this does not increaseoverall flood risk.

    We also have powers to make byelaws.There are 10 sets of byelaws covering EnglandandWales; our local office can provide youwith the correct set for your area.

  • 8 Environment Agency Living on the edge

    DutiesOur principal duty is to contribute tosustainable development. This isdevelopment that meets the needs of thepresent without compromising the ability offuture generations to meet their own needs.It includes protecting the environment andthe prudent use of natural resources.

    Under the Environment Act 1995, wehave a duty to supervise all matters relatingto flood defence.

    In our workmanaging water, we alsohave a duty to promote conservation of theaquatic environment. This applies to thewildlife, landscape, and archaeology ofrivers, watercourses, wetlands andassociated land. We also have powers forestuaries and coasts. When we considerproposals, we assess the likely impact onthe environment.

    The Water Framework Directive will bringgreater consistency to the management ofwater across Europe. The Directive aims: to protect and enhance our water

    environment; to promote sustainable water

    consumption; to reduce water pollution; to lessen the effects of floods and droughts.

    The Directive is being implemented inEngland and Wales through the River BasinManagement Planning process. There arelocal liaison panels for each river basindistrict. For further information

    the role of the Environment Agency

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    Flood defence consentsThe Water Resources Act 1991 andassociated byelaws require you to applyfor formal consent for works in, over, underor adjacent to main rivers. This is to ensurethat such activities do not cause or makeworse an existing flooding problem, interferewith our work, and do not adversely affectthe local environment, fisheries, wildlife,and flood defences. These consents arereferred to as flood defence consents;in the past they were sometimes calledland drainage consents, after the oldlegislation that applied.

    Under the Land Drainage Act 1991, you alsoneed our consent if you want to construct aculvert or flow control structure (such as aweir) on any ordinary watercourse. There isa definition of an ordinary watercourse onpage 15.

    We generally oppose culverts and in-channelstructures because of their environmentalimpacts. Our publication EnvironmentAgency Policy Regarding Culverts isavailable from our offices.

    Contact us as soon as possible to discussyour plans. We will want to see full details ofthe work you propose at least two monthsbefore you intend to start. Talking to us earlyon helps everyone and avoids delays andwasted effort. Once preliminary details havebeen agreed, we will ask you to fill in an

    application form. This must be returned withthe appropriate fee. You can obtain detailsof the charges from our local offices.

    We will not approve works that we believewould harm the environment or wouldincrease flood risk even if the worksappear to be sound from an engineering orstructural point of view. As noted above, wediscourage the culverting of watercourses,and we also promote soft engineeringmethods to control erosion. For example, weprefer using natural materials such as wovenwillow spiling or natural planting to limiterosion where practical, rather than steelsheet piles, unless conditions at the locationrequire that piles are used.

    If consent is refused, and you think it hasbeen withheld unreasonably, you mayappeal. There is a procedure for suchappeals, which are heard by an agreedindependent arbitrator. We will tell you moreabout how this works at the time we decidewhether to grant consent or not.

    You must not carry out work without consent.If you do, the consequences can be expensive.We can reclaim from you the cost of whateveraction we decide is necessary to remove oralter your work. Or, we can require you to putthings right. Carrying out works without priorconsent or failing to rectify problems may bea criminal offence.

    the role of the Environment Agency

  • 10 Environment Agency Living on the edge

    Our consent only covers the impact of thestructure on flood risk and the environment:

    We do not confirm that a proposedstructure is of sound design.

    We do not check whether your plancomplies with other legislation, such ashealth and safety.

    Our consent does not allow you to carryout works on land or rivers that you do notown. You must have the landownerspermission as well as ours.

    If you are a landowner affected by flooding,you may wish to consider some of the

    coastal or flood plain options withinEnvironmental Stewardship schemesoperating in England and Wales. Ourlocal office or our website can give moreadvice. You may also be able to apply toa conservation scheme for the restorationor creation of features either on awatercourse or within the flood plain.However, you will still require our consentfor works and possibly other permissionslike those mentioned elsewhere in thisbooklet. You may have to show thisconsent before you receive any fundingpayment from a conservation scheme.Contact our local office before you makea funding application: this will avoidunnecessary delays.

    the role of the Environment Agency

    Flood wall orEmbankment

    Please see Byelawsfor dimensions

    Main Rivers

    All work within these limits needs Environment Agency consent

    Please see Byelawsfor dimensions

    Applications within these limits are chargeable

  • Environment Agency Living on the edge 11

    PlanningWe are a statutory consultee, and have to beconsulted in the town and country planningprocess. Our representations to local planningauthorities relate to the environmentalmatters that we are responsible for reviewing,including flooding. We only comment onplanning policies or applications we donot decide them.

    Our advice is aimed at protecting flood plainsfrom inappropriate development. Our localoffices can provide advice on developmentissues. For details of government policy ondevelopment and flood risk, see:

    Planning Policy Statement 25, publishedby the Department for Communities andLocal Government in England

    Technical Advice Note 15, published bythe Welsh Assembly Government in Wales.

    These publications are available on theInternet or from the relevant organisations.

    Flood riskmanagementMore than two million properties in Englandand Wales are at risk from flooding. Changesin our climate, resulting in fiercer stormsand wetter winters, will increase this risk.It will never be possible to prevent floodingentirely what we can do is manage floodrisks. This reduces the likelihood of floodingand its impact.

    We now use the term flood riskmanagementto describe our work. We aim to reduce thelikelihood of flooding by:

    managing river and coastal systems;

    constructing and managing defences,where appropriate.

    We work to reduce the impact offloods through:

    influencing land use planning;

    better flood warning;

    faster emergency responses.

    Floodwater can come from land, rivers andthe sea. For rivers, we draw up CatchmentFlood Management Plans (CFMPs). For seaflooding and coastal erosion there areShoreline Management Plans (SMPs).We prepare these with the other coastalauthorities. These management plans lookat flood risk on a large scale. This allows usto see how reducing risk in one area mightchange, or even increase, the risk elsewhere.

    the role of the Environment Agency

  • 12 Environment Agency Living on the edge

    Other consents and licencesYou may also need our permission forother activities. Contact our local officefor more details.

    Water resourcesYou will need a licence from us to abstractor impound water from or on a watercourse.We have to ensure that:

    your proposals will not harmthe environment;

    existing abstraction rights are protected;

    water resources are managed in thebest interests of the environment andother lawful users.

    Discharge consentsYou will need our consent to discharge anytrade or sewage effluent to controlledwaters. Controlled waters include mainrivers, ordinary watercourses, somelakes and ponds, canals, reservoirs andunderground sources. You may also need aseparate flood defence consent if you arebuilding a physical structure for discharges.We use the consents system to protect thequality of water and its environmental value.We set water quality objectives and ensurecompliance with standards laid down inEuropean Directives.

    FisheriesWe have a duty to maintain, improve anddevelop fisheries. We do this through stockassessment, habitat improvements andrestocking. We grant and regulate licencesfor the introduction and removal of fish, aswell as issuing rod licences and commercialeel and salmon licences. The Salmon andFreshwater Fisheries Act 1975, the SalmonAct 1986, and various byelaws cover thiswork. We also enforce regulatory constraintson structures, sluices and dams that havebeen built to catch and/or retain freshwaterfish, salmon, trout and eels.

    You must have an Environment Agency rodlicence if you are fishing for salmon, trout,freshwater fish or eels in:

    England (except the River Tweed);


    the Border Esk and its tributariesin Scotland.

    Money from the sale of licences helps tofund our management of fisheries. If you arecaught fishing without a licence, you arecheating other anglers and could be finedup to 2,500. You do not need a rod licenceif you are less than 12 years of age.

    the role of the Environment Agency

  • Environment Agency Living on the edge 13

    Recreation and navigationWe have a duty to encourage the appropriaterecreational use of watercourses. On somerivers we are also responsible for navigation.In this role we provide details of speciallicensing or restrictions that we may placeon plans for the bed or banks of the river.These could affect proposals for mooringand landing facilities. You may also requirea licence for any boat that you wish to useon the river.

    Right of entryWemay need to come onto your land to carryout our work, for example to manage flooddefences. We have statutory powers of entryin order that we can do our job properly andwithout delay. Whenever possible, we tryto co-operate with landowners and others.However, we can obtain a warrant from thecourts if entry is refused. All our staff carryidentity cards.

    We try to make sure that we always haveaccess to riverbanks, so that we can carryout maintenance and other work safely.

    the role of the Environment Agency

  • 14 Environment Agency Living on the edge

    Internal Drainage BoardsIn some places, Internal Drainage Boards(IDBs) have operational and regulatory powerson ordinary watercourses. See page 15 fora definition of an ordinary watercourse.These powers are similar to ours for mainrivers. IDBs also have a similar dutyregarding conservation.

    Local authoritiesUnder the Land Drainage Act 1991, the localauthority is the operating authority forordinary watercourses where there is no IDB.Local authorities have powers to carry outworks on ordinary watercourses for certainpurposes. They sometimes have their ownregulations and byelaws. These affect whatyou can and cannot do on an ordinarywatercourse. Local authoritiesmay also takeenforcement action against you if you failto maintain the flow of the watercoursealongside your property.

    During a flood, the local authority providesemergency aid to householders. This mayextend to supplying sandbags.

    Works on any watercourse may requireplanning permission from the localauthority, as well as our consent.

    Navigation authoritiesThe tidal reaches of many rivers have publicrights of navigation. Where applicable,harbour authorities may have a degree ofcontrol. There is no public right of navigationon most non-tidal watercourses. Somespecific larger rivers and canals areadministered by navigation authorities,such as British Waterways, privatecompanies or the Environment Agency.

    Nature conservationSometimes you will need permission fromthe relevant conservation body, as well asfrom us. Youmay, for example, intend to carryout works or change the flow characteristicsof a watercourse that is within or near asite protected by law (for example a site ofspecial scientific interest or Habitat site). Oryou may wish to trap, release, kill or managea species or habitat associated with the riveror wetlands.

    If you are planning this type of activity or work,youmust contact the relevant conservationbody. These are:

    Natural England (formally English Nature).Their website

    Countryside Council for Wales.Their website is youre unsure which organisation youshould be talking to, please ask us for advice.

    the role of otherorganisations

  • Environment Agency Living on the edge 15

    explanationof terms

    Main riversMain rivers are usually larger streams andrivers. However, they do include smallerwatercourses of local significance. A mainriver is a watercourse marked as such on amain river map. This is an official document.A main river can include any structure orappliance that controls or regulates the flowof water in, into, or out of, the main river.Our powers to carry out flood defence worksapply to main rivers only, but our other dutiesand functions extend to all watercourses. InEngland, Defra decides which are the mainrivers. The Welsh Assembly Governmentdoes this in Wales. Our local offices havecopies of main river maps.

    Ordinary watercourseAn ordinary watercourse is every river,stream, ditch, drain, cut, dyke, sluice, sewer(other than a public sewer) and passagethrough which water flows and which doesnot form part of a main river. The localauthority, or IDB where relevant, has powersfor ordinary watercourses that are similar tothose we can use on main rivers. Our powersto carry out flood defence works apply tomain rivers only, but our other duties andfunctions extend to all watercourses.

    ErosionMoving water wears away riverbanks causing erosion. It is a natural process thatcan be made worse by channel narrowing,by inappropriate reinforcement, and by the

    overgrazing of sheep and cattle. Generally,you the landowner are responsible forany work to reduce bank erosion. You willprobably need our consent before carryingout any protection work. We do not usuallyget more involved unless natural erosioneither threatens a flood defence, or maycreate a significant change to the natureof the river and the land alongside it.

    Farmland should be managed in ways thatprevent rainwater from carrying off topsoilinto the watercourse. This run-off damagesthe land and the ecology, quality andcarrying capacity of the receiving water.For guidance, please see our booklet,Best farming practice: profiting from agood environment (2003).

    In certain circumstances, allowing such run-off may constitute a criminal offence. If youare a farmer, this could threaten your singlefarm payment. For guidance on preventingsoil erosion, please see the Defra bookletSingle Payment Scheme. Cross Compliance.Guidance for Soil Management (2006),or Welsh Assembly Government FarmersGuide to Cross Compliance. Under theEnvironmental Stewardship scheme, youcould even be paid for improving yourmanagement practices. For more informationgo to our website. For construction sites,please see our pollution prevention guidanceadvice, also on our website or available fromour local office.

  • 16 Environment Agency Living on the edge

    Flood defenceSome legislation, such as the Acts mentionedearlier, still use the terms flood defence orland drainage. We now refer to the activitiesthat these cover as flood riskmanagementoverall, but may use the other terms whenreferring to legal matters.

    In law the term flood defence also refers toirrigation (other than spray irrigation) andthe management of water levels. The termflood defence can also refer to a structurebuilt for the purpose of managing the flowand storage of floodwater, such as anembankment for example.

    Flood plainA flood plain is an area of land over whichriver or seawater flows, or is stored in timesof flood. Flood plains usually extend beyondthe land immediately next to a watercourse.There is often pressure to build on them.However, if buildings or other man-madeobjects obstruct flood plains, water cannotflow away efficiently and the effects offlooding are made worse.

    Flooding can also occur from other sourcessuch as water mains or sewers. These arethe responsibilities of other organisations.

    explanation of terms

  • GEHO0407BMFL-E-P

    Environment first: This publication is printed on paper madefrom 100 per cent previously used waste. By-products from

    making the pulp and paper are used for composting and fertiliser,for making cement and for generating energy.

    Would you like to find out more about us,or about your environment?

    Then call us on08708 506 506 (Mon-Fri 8-6)

    or visit our

    incident hotline 0800 80 70 60 (24hrs)floodline 0845 988 1188