Environmental management – guidance

River maintenance and drainage charges: farmers and landowners

Understand your responsibilities, when you will need permission for maintenance and other works, and when general drainage charges apply.

Your responsibilities as a riverside property owner

A watercourse is any natural or artificial channel above or below ground through which water flows, such as a river, brook, beck, ditch, mill stream or culvert (excluding public sewers).

If you own land above or with a watercourse running through it, you are a ‘riparian owner’ and have responsibilities.

You will also have ‘riparian owner’ responsibilities if your land boundary is next to a watercourse. It is assumed you own the stretch of watercourse that runs through your land (unless your deeds show otherwise).

If you rent the land, you should agree with the owner who will manage these responsibilities.

As a riparian owner you must:

  • control invasive alien species such as Japanese knotweed
  • allow the flow of water to pass without obstruction
  • accept flood flows through your land, even if these are caused by an inadequate capacity downstream
  • keep any structures, such as culverts, trash screens, weirs and mill gates, clear of debris
  • notify the Environment Agency and lead local flood authority or internal drainage board if you would like to build a structure that obstructs fish passage
  • ensure your work does not damage wildlife

As a riparian owner your responsibilities also include:

  • managing your own flood risk
  • maintaining river beds and banks, including trees and shrubs growing on the banks
  • clearing litter and animal carcasses from the river and banks, even if they did not come from your land
  • keeping banks clear of obstructions that could increase flood risk either on your land or downstream if it is washed away
  • not stopping fish from passing, either by permanent or temporary obstructions
  • leaving a development-free edge on the banks to allow access for maintenance and inspection
  • helping to protect the water quality, for example do not use riverbanks to dispose of garden waste such as grass cuttings, where they could be washed into the river and pollute the water
  • protecting your property from water that seeps through natural or artificial banks (where this damages a flood defence your risk management authority may require you to pay for repairs)
  • considering how your work will change the flow and water level of the watercourse so as not to adversely affect flood risk for others
  • trying to improve habitat wherever possible

In some areas development on the riverbank is not permitted. Or it may require an environmental permit from the Environment Agency or consent from your or your local council (unitary or county council where they act as a lead local flood authority) or internal drainage board.

You could face legal action if you do not meet your responsibilities.

A guide to your rights and responsibilities as a riparian owner.

Get permission for works on or near a watercourse

For some activities you may need:

  • consent (where the activity affects an ordinary watercourse) from your local council (unitary or county council where they act as a lead local flood authority) or internal drainage board
  • an environmental permit (where the activity affects a ‘main river’ or sea defence) from the Environment Agency

These organisations are known as risk management authorities. You should get consent or an environmental permit before you start any work.

River maintenance

Watercourse maintenance can reduce the effect of flooding and improve land drainage. Maintenance must be carried out carefully to protect wildlife and fisheries and comply with the law. Your risk management authority can serve you a notice if you have not maintained a watercourse on your land.

As a riparian owner you can carry out some maintenance work on main rivers without getting an environmental permit or consent.

Maintenance on main rivers

You don’t need permission from the Environment Agency to:

  • remove in-stream debris and rubbish
  • undertake minor tree works - you can cut back trees and other vegetation and remove fallen trees
  • trim grass/vegetation on the banks and in the channel, provided you remove the cut vegetation so it does not pollute the river

You will require permission to:

  • remove silt, sand and gravel from the channel
  • re-profile the watercourse banks
  • make the watercourse deeper or wider
  • spread material on top of the bank or nearby
  • carry out maintenance works to structures in, over or under a main river, flood or sea defence
  • carry out works in the flood plain
  • build a culvert, outfall, weir, dam, pipe crossing or bridge
  • put in bank protection to prevent or repair erosion
  • divert or impound the flow of water

Before you start work on or near a main river or sea defence you should check if you need an environmental permit.

Alongside your responsibilities as a riparian owner, the Environment Agency may undertake maintenance work on or near main rivers and to river and sea defences.

The guide Flood and sea defences: when maintenance stops sets out how the Environment Agency will engage with communities and partners if they are proposing to amend their approach to maintaining flood and coastal risk management assets. These are structures or features that reduce the likelihood or impact of flooding from rivers and the sea, to people, property or infrastructure.

There may be other activities relating to the main rivers and flood plains in your area that are prohibited by local byelaws. Contact your local Environment Agency office to find out more. To find out where your local office is call their National Customer Contact centre on 03708 506 506 - call charges apply.

Maintenance on ordinary watercourses

You need to contact either your internal drainage board or your local council (unitary or county council where they act as a lead local flood authority) if you want to carry out some maintenance work to an ‘ordinary watercourse’.

Other permissions

When carrying out maintenance or works on main rivers and ordinary watercourses other permissions may be required from the Environment Agency, your risk management authority or other authorities, such as Natural England.

For example:

An EIA may be required under the Agricultural EIA Regulations or the Town and Country Planning EIA Regulations. Contact the Environment Agency to find out what is required for the maintenance or work that you’re doing.

Your local council can tell you if any other permission is required and can advise on the removal of animal carcasses and invasive species.

Contact Natural England to find out if you need permission to work on any river which is on or near a designated nature conservation site or within a European or nationally protected site. For example a:

  • Special Area of Conservation
  • Special Protection Area
  • Site of Special Scientific Interest

If the watercourse on your land is affected by the tide you may also need a marine licence from the Marine Management Organisation.

Drainage charges for occupiers of land in the ‘Anglian’ region

The General Drainage Charge only applies to the Environment Agency’s ‘Anglian’ region. The region is from the Thames Estuary in the south to Humber Estuary in the north, and from the East Anglian coast to Daventry in the west. The main urban areas are Norwich, Peterborough, Ipswich, Chelmsford, Cambridge, Northampton and Lincoln.

The charge applies to occupiers of:

  • agricultural land and buildings which fall outside the boundary of an internal drainage board
  • agricultural land and areas occupied by agricultural buildings
  • areas participating in a Defra scheme, such as ‘set aside’ land
  • commercial woodlands
  • woodlands planted under a Defra or Forestry Commission scheme

Annual general drainage charge invoices

The Environment Agency will send you an annual invoice around 1 April each year for the period 1 April to 31 March.

The occupier of the land on 1 April must pay the full annual charge.

If you have a mixture of both chargeable and non-chargeable land you will only pay the levy for the chargeable land.

Charges 2016 to 2017

Regional Flood and Coastal Committee Charge (pence per hectare)
Anglian central 203.64
Anglian eastern 348.01
Anglian northern 292.25

The money raised from the charge/levy contributes towards the cost of maintaining and improving main rivers, sea defences and tidal embankments that protect low lying areas.

Work carried out can include dredging to remove silt, weed clearance and maintaining structures such as barriers, sluice gates and pumping stations.

If you have any questions about your charges or your invoice contact the Environment Agency.

Contact the Environment Agency

General enquiries

National Customer Contact Centre
PO Box 544
S60 1BY

Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm