Making Changes to Watercourses

Making changes to the watercourse

An ordinary watercourse includes every river, stream, ditch, sluice, or passage that drains water away. Under the Land Drainage Act 1991 and the Water Resources Act 1991, consent is required for any works that might affect the flow of water whether temporarily or permanently. Under the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, Southend-on-Sea City Council as the Lead Local Flood Authority (LLFA) is responsible for authorising consent to works on ordinary watercourses. If the watercourse is classed as a main river, you will need to apply for consent from the Environment Agency.

Works that may require consent are:

  • any mill dam, weir, or other similar structure that obstructs flow or restricts storage
  • any works that erect obstructions that are likely to affect the flow of the watercourse
  • all construction that involves a culvert
  • any temporary structures including sandbags or materials to be removed later that alter or change the flow

Riparian Owners

Who is a riparian landowner?

A riparian landowner is the owner of land that is next to a watercourse or has a watercourse running through or beneath it. An ordinary watercourse can be any stream, ditch, or culvert. If land on the other side of the watercourse is not owned by you, joint riparian ownership is presumed up to the centreline of the watercourse. The deeds for your property or land will tell you if this is not the case. Riparian owners have legal responsibilities to maintain watercourses and reduce flood risk to properties in the area.

Your rights as a riparian landowner

The laws grant riparian owners rights including:

  • you can protect your property against flooding from the watercourse and to prevent erosion of the watercourse banks or any structure - You may need consent for some works from the EA
  • you own the land up to the centre of the watercourse, unless it is owned by others
  • you have the right to receive water in its natural state, without undue interference in its quantity or quality
  • you can fish in the watercourse, provided the fishing rights have been sold or leased. A fishing rod licence will usually be required

Before starting any works, you must submit your proposals to Southend-on-Sea City Council and the Environment Agency to determine if you need to obtain permissions from other stakeholders. If your works affect conservation sites, you must contact the relevant authorities for advice.

Your responsibilities

There are a number of responsibilities as a riparian owner including:

  • you must let water flow naturally
  • you must not pollute the water
  • you must protect wildlife - including their habitats and prevent invasive species such as Japanese knotweed from spreading
  • you must maintain the watercourse and clear any obstructions (natural or otherwise) so as not to impede normal flow of water
  • you must maintain any approved structures on your stretch of the watercourse and keep them free of debris. These may include trash screens, culverts, weirs and mill gates

For more details about the rights and responsibilities of a riparian owner, please visit the Environment Agencys guidance on owning a watercourse.

Role of Southend-on-Sea City Council

Southend-on-Sea City Council have the powers to serve notice on riparian owners for removal of any obstructions to an ordinary watercourse that increase flood risk. If necessary, the council will carry out works to remove any obstructions to watercourses causing this risk and recover all associated costs from the landowner.

The council will always aim to resolve all problems with relevant landowners before pursuing legal enforcement.

If you wish to make temporary or permanent alteration to the watercourse, you will need to apply for watercourse consent.

How to apply for watercourse consent

Applications for consent to carry out works can be made online. We encourage all applicants to contact us before submitting an application so we can discuss your requirements, offer advice about alternate solutions, and ensure the application is completed correctly.

Multiple consents can be made in one application for a single location with the fee applied per structure. Please ensure you have copies of your supporting documents ready before you apply.

Apply now

Once submitted, the council have a statutory eight-week period to provide a response on whether consent is granted, denied, or granted with conditions. A timescale will also be given in your consent certificate which outlines when the works need to be undertaken. If an application is not considered within the eight-week period, consent is automatically granted. Applications submitted with insufficient information will be automatically denied and you will have to reapply.

Southend-on-Sea City Council requires 7 days notice to be given before work has been completed to carry out an inspection of the works if they are permanent.

Please note: You may still have to obtain additional permits and consents from other bodies before works can commence. It is up to the applicant to liaise with relevant bodies.

Can consent be Denied?

There are many reasons as to why consent may be denied. Some of the main reasons are:

  • the structure applied for is deemed unnecessary
  • the proposed structure has adverse effects on flood risk, ecology, biodiversity and other environmental factors
  • the flow of the watercourse will be obstructed
  • there is insufficient information provided with the application

If you disagree with our decision, you can appeal under Section 23 of the Land Drainage Act 1991

Applicants are advised to read the guidance notes and contact us before you send an application.

Failure to obtain Consent

The existing legislation does not allow for retrospective consents to be obtained. Failure to obtain permission for an activity/structure before carrying out works may be a criminal offence. Any person acting in contravention of Section 23 of the Land Drainage Act (1991) could face a fine of up to £5,000 if convicted, and a further fine of up to £40 for every day contravention is continued after conviction.

Under section 24 of the Land Drainage Act (1991), Southend-on-Sea City Council have the power to take action to remove any structures and return the watercourse to its original condition and recover all expenses incurred from the offender.

Furthermore, if you have committed further offences or breached any environmental laws or Planning Laws, we will report this to the relevant enforcement authority.

If you have noticed works to an ordinary watercourse, you can contact us at to determine whether the works required consent and whether an application was made or not.

Contact the Civil Engineering Team

Telephone: 01702 215000

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