Your Rights and Duties (England & Wales only)
The general information provided here is not intended to constitute legal advice. You are advised to seek legal advice on your specific circumstances.
If you live in Scotland, this page does not apply to you. You should seek legal advice from a Scottish solicitor.
Rights of property owners
The law (common law) allows property owners to take reasonable measures to protect their land and property from flooding, provided that these measures do not cause harm to others. For information about building your own flood defences, see section below: Right to protect property from flooding.
The Environment Agency website offers guidance on simple measures you can take to protect your home. You may have to seek professional advice before you put some of these measures into practice. Other measures such as sandbag protection have some legal consequences. For instance, if the sandbags you place outside your home get soaked with floodwater, they may become contaminated with sewage and you would need to dispose of them properly. So if you intend to use sandbags for flood defence, ask your local authority for advice on disposal.
Responsibilities of property owners
The law (common law) requires that you use your property or land in a way that does not increase the risk of flooding to a neighbouring property. If you do carry out acts on your property that results in flooding to other people’s property, you may face a civil action.
To reduce the risk of flooding to neighbouring properties, the law requires that you:
- Keep your drains clear in your property and to ensure that you do not drain water into your neighbour’s property or foul drain. There is a natural right of drainage that allows water that flows naturally across your land to flow downhill naturally to your neighbour’s land. But you are not allowed to artificially channel water a way that will cause damage your neighbour’s land. If you do, you may face a civil action. (Example: Yes - Rainwater that falls on your lawn is allowed to flow downhill through your neighbour’s land. No - You are not allowed to channel roof water through a down pipe on to your neighbour’s property.)
- Maintain your flood defences (if you have any). If failure to maintain these defences leads to flooding, you could face a claim in negligence or nuisance.
If you live alongside a watercourse and want to know about your rights and duties, the Environment Agency produce a booklet which you might find helpful.
What if your land or property is next to a river or water course?
Right to protect property from flooding
Waterside owners who own property near a natural water course or river (riparian owners) have certain rights under common law (riparian rights). One of the riparian rights entitles a waterside landowner to take reasonable steps to protect his property from flooding.
You are entitled to put up good flood defences such as walls and embankments to safeguard your property, provided that you do not cause harm to other people’s properties or land. If your defences make flooding worse on your neighbour’s land, you may be liable to a civil claim (them taking you to court seeking compensation and/or an injunction). Environment Agency consent and/or local authority planning permission may be required for building flood defences: before you carry out any works, contact your local Environment Agency office. You may not be allowed to do something that has the effect of removing an area of flood storage from a flood plain.
The Environment Agency has the duty to issue flood warnings and other relevant information (including indicative maps) to waterside owners on potential river flooding risks. Contact your local Environment Agency office or call the Agency’s floodline on 0845 988 1188 for further information.
Responsibilities of waterside owners
As a waterside landowner, you are required under the law to:
- Avoid causing any obstruction, pollution or diversion of the river or watercourse that would affect the rights of others;
- Maintain the bed and banks of the river or other watercourse, by clearing waste (natural or otherwise), even in cases where you did not generate the waste in question;
- Protect property from seepages that may occur from natural or man-made banks.
What about owners of cesspool or septic tank drainage systems?
Rural property owners sometimes rely on private drainage systems such as cesspools and septic tanks because they are not connected to the main drainage system. Flooding may also occur if these types of drainage systems are not operated efficiently.
If you own a cesspool or septic tank, you are required under the law to:
- Ensure that such systems are watertight and to take steps to avoid leakage or overflow that may cause groundwater contamination. Under the Public Health Act, it is an offence to allow a cesspool or septic tank to leak or overflow. Your local authority can initiate a criminal action against you if a leak or overflow occurs from your system. In addition, if this results in pollution of a watercourse or river, the Environment Agency may also prosecute. The penalty is three months imprisonment or a fine of up to £30,000.