This information should not be relied upon as legal or professional advice. Read the disclaimer.

What responsibilities do property owners have?

Property owners are responsible for looking after their own property, including the risks of water entering it and causing damage.

For further information about how they can protect their property from flooding, property owners may wish to consult the National Flood Forum’s webpage on property level resilience and resistance.

What responsibilities do riparian owners have?

Riparian landowners are those who own property or land that next to a watercourse. A watercourse includes a river, brook, beck, ditch, mill, stream, and culvert. Riparian landowners normally own the stretch of the watercourse that runs on, through or under their land. They have responsibilities to maintain this part of the watercourse.

If a watercourse runs across the boundaries of multiple landowners, each owner will own the watercourse from their property line up to its centre.

Property owners may wish to check the deeds for their property to find out whether they are a riparian owner, and whether any specific conditions apply to their ownership.

Riparian landowners have responsibilities to let water flow naturally through their watercourses, remove blockages, protect wildlife, prevent pollution and reduce erosion. If they do not meet their responsibilities, the Environment Agency has the power to issue a fine if an environmental incident is reported to them.

What rights do riparian owners have to protect their property from flooding?

Riparian landowners also have the right to protect their property from flooding, for example, by constructing or maintaining flood defences. However, they must get permissions to build anything in or around the watercourse from the relevant risk management authority, as well as obtain any wider permissions (such as planning permissions from the local authority).

Different watercourses have different risk management authorities:

  • For “main rivers”, riparian owners may need to apply for an environmental permit from the Environment Agency, Main rivers are usually larger rivers and streams, designated as ‘main rivers’ by the Environment Agency. They are shown on the Main River Map.
  • For “ordinary watercourses” (other rivers and watercourses that are not main rivers), riparian owners may need to apply for permissions or licences from their lead local flood authority or internal drainage board.

For more information on riparian ownership, see the Environment Agency’s guide to owning a watercourse.

Who else has responsibilities for flooding?

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is responsible for setting the overall policy framework for flood risk management in England. The department provides funding for flood risk management through grants to the Environment Agency, local authorities and internal drainage boards.

The Environment Agency, lead local flood authorities and internal drainage boards are the “risk management authorities” responsible for managing flood risk, as well as supporting communities following a flood. These roles overlap with those of property owners and riparian owners. The risk management authorities also have additional functions (for example, issuing environmental permits).

All relevant risk management authorities have a duty to cooperate to deliver flood risk management.

All powers relating to flooding and land drainage are permissive; the Environment Agency, lead local authorities and internal drainage boards have discretionary powers to manage flood risk. However, these risk management authorities are not required to take action when there is a flood. Property and landowners have the main responsibility for safeguarding their land and property against flooding.

The Environment Agency

The Environment Agency is responsible for taking a strategic overview.

It is responsible for managing the risk of flooding from “main rivers” issuing flood warnings and providing information through flood risk mapping. It is also responsible for operation and management of national flood risk assets (such as flood defences), normally located on main rivers.

Lead Local Flood Authorities

Lead local flood authorities are usually unitary or county councils.

They are responsible for managing the risk of flooding from surface water, groundwater and “ordinary watercourses”. They may also be responsible for the operation and management of local flood defences, although in some cases, riparian owners may instead be responsible.

The Local Government Association have produced an overview of the roles and responsibilities of lead local flood authorities.

In some areas, such as those with a special need for drainage, internal drainage boards play a similar role to lead local flood authorities.

Water and sewerage companies

Water and sewerage companies are responsible for managing the risks of flooding from piped water, sewage, and providing surface water drainage from buildings and yards.

Where constituents can go for help if they are concerned about flood risk

  • Individuals concerned about flood risk may wish to contact the National Flood Forum.
  • Property owners may wish to contact their lead local flood authority if they are concerned by flood risk. The lead local flood authority coordinates local flood risk management planning and cooperates with other risk management authorities, such as the Environment Agency and water companies.
  • The Environment Agency may be able to provide further advice to anyone concerned by flood risk from a main river for which the Environment Agency manages the flood defences.
  • Flooding is a complex legal area. Constituents may wish to seek professional legal advice about their options and specific situation. They may find the Library briefing onlegal help: where to go and how to pay (September 2021)
  • The Library’s briefing on flood risk management and funding (June 2022) may also be helpful.

About the author: Nuala Burnett is a researcher at the House of Commons Library specialising in climate change and water.


The Commons Library does not intend the information in this article to address the specific circumstances of any particular individual. It has been published to support the work of MPs. It should not be relied upon as legal or professional advice, or as a substitute for it. We do not accept any liability whatsoever for any errors, omissions or misstatements contained herein.

A suitably qualified professional should be consulted if specific advice or information is required. Read our briefing for more information about sources of legal advice and help.

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