Riverside Properties – What are my Rights and Responsibilities?

By Davinia Willys

Senior Associate

The idea of buying a property near or with a watercourse running through it may be of huge appeal. Some people may own a boat, others may be attracted to the view on offer and a brook or stream within the grounds of a property may seem idyllic.  Properties alongside a river are often sought after. Purchasers should be aware of the various rights and responsibilities this brings with it which may not appear on the Land Registry title of the property.  Purchasers should also consider any flood risk or flooding that may have previously occurred at the property.

If you own a property adjoining, above or with a watercourse running through it, you have certain rights and responsibilities.  In legal terms you are a ‘riparian owner’.  A ‘watercourse’ is any natural or artificial channel above or below ground through which water flows such as river, brook, beck, ditch, mill stream or culvert. Generally, unless it is owned on both sides by the landowner or expressed to the contrary on the title of the property, land ownership is presumed to extend from the edge of the land to the middle of the riverbed. If the land has a watercourse running through or underneath it, it is assumed you own that stretch of watercourse that runs through the land.

You may need permission for certain activities from a third party, such as your local authority, Internal Drainage Board or the Environment Agency, collectively known as risk management authorities.

Your main rights include:

  • To receive the flow of water in its natural state.
  • The right to protect the property from flooding but you must get plans agreed with the risk management authority before you start work.
  • Extract water for domestic purposes up to a stated amount.
  • A right to fish in the watercourse using a legal method. Anyone aged 12 or over must have a valid Environment Agency rod licence. Always check what your rights are as fishing rights can be sold or leased.

Main responsibilities include:

  • To let the water flow naturally without obstruction, pollution or diversion.
  • Keep the banks clear, maintain the bed and banks of the watercourse together with the trees and shrubs growing on the banks.
  • Discuss the maintenance of flood defences, such as walls and embankments, with the risk management authority. They may be vital for flood protection.
  • Do not use riverbanks to dispose of garden or other waste.
  • You must control invasive plants such as Japanese Knotweed.
  • Manage your own flood risk.
  • Always submit and discuss any plans to work on or near a watercourse with your risk management authority as early as possible and you may need their prior consent before undertaking such works.  

If you unsure of your rights and responsibilities if you are living near a watercourse, you can ask your risk management authority for further advice. If you fail to comply with your responsibilities you could face legal action.

Works on a watercourse may require planning permission, as well as flood defence or ordinary watercourse consent. Your local planning authority can advise whether your proposed works will require planning permission and possibly a risk/flood assessment to support your application.  You may also need the Environment Agency’s permission for other activities.  

If you are buying a property with/near a watercourse you should also consider what flood risk there is and whether the property is in a flood plain or whether it has flooded in the past. Your legal advisor will undertake searches on your behalf in this respect as part of the conveyancing process.  You can also check for flood risk on the government website and find out if the property is in a flood risk area.   

If you would like advice on purchasing a property near a river or one that has a watercourse running through it please contact our team on 0345 646 0406 or fill in our online enquiry form and a member of our Team will be in touch.