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Rivers, ditches and canals

There are a variety of different names for rivers, including ditches, watercourses, brooks and some have a formal designation in law which means there are rights and responsibilities associated with those designations.


All rivers are the responsibility of landowners (often called riparian landowner). Further rights and responsibilities for riparian owners can be found on gov.uk.

An old publication written by the Environment Agency which provides a useful summary is living on the edge [848KB]. In addition the council requested that the Environment Agency produce further more specific guidance [481KB] for residents on what this responsibility means in practice.

The locations of rivers and further flood risk information can be found on the following map:

Flood and water information map

Main rivers

  • Maps - Main rivers are major water channels which are identified and registered by the Environment Agency on their flood map for main rivers.
  • Maintenance - The maintenance of the river and clearance of any screens on the watercourse/main river rests with the riparian owner. However the Environment Agency is the lead on main rivers. It has powers to and does undertake some work in high risk areas to help maintain these rivers. The Environment Agency publish their planned maintenance progamme on the government website.
  • Incidents -  If you notice a blockage or tree on a main river which is causing risk of flooding please notify the Environment Agency. More information on the type of environmental issues the Environment Agency deal with can be found on their website. Environment Agency Incident Hotline telephone 0800 80 70 60 (Freephone, 24 hour service). 
  • Environmental Permits - Permission is required for works proposed to be undertaken in, over, under or within 8m of a main river from the Environment Agency. Check if you need permission from the Environment Agency
  • Warnings - The Environment Agency offer a free service that provides flood warnings from main rivers by phone, text or email, Floodline. Flood Warning Service telephone 0345 988 1188 (24 hour service) 
  • Water levels - The Environment Agency also provide information on current water levels from their monitoring stations on their website by typing in your postcode in flood risk information.

Ordinary watercourses

  • These are generally smaller ditches or rivers. Landowners (riparian owners) may drain their land to any ditch on their property. They have a duty to maintain their ditches in such a way that nuisance is not caused to neighbours.
  • In accordance with the  Section 23 of the Land Drainage Act 1991 which was amended by the Flood and Water Management Act 2010,  if a land owner wishes to pipe, alter a pipe or dam an ordinary watercourse, you should apply for consent from the Lead Local Flood Authority. 
  • Please call the Customer Contact Centre to obtain further information from the Flood and Water Management Officer. 

Roadside ditches 

  • Roadside ditches belong to the adjoining landowner and not the highway authority, except where land has been acquired for new road building. The highway authority has rights to drain highway water to a roadside ditch and may maintain it, but is under no obligation to do so.
  • Where the council owns land, the council has a program for clearance and maintenance.

Piped watercourses and culverts

  • Generally speaking, these too are the responsibility of riparian owners. Residents are responsible for all the private pipe work within their own property, unless it is adopted sewer. Then it is the responsibility of the water utilities.
  • Where a watercourse or a ditch in a highway has been piped it still is the responsibility of adjoining landowners (often multiple owner/occupiers in urban situations) unless the piping was at the behest of the highway authority in order to make the highway wider or safer or more convenient.
  • In that situation the highway authority would need the consent of the ditch owner(s) and proof of this consent would be evidence of the highway authority's liability. The same duties, responsibilities and rights exist for piped watercourses and culverts as for ditches.


  • The Grand Union Canal runs through the London Borough of Hillingdon, The Canal and River Trust is responsible for this. For more information on their work please visit the Canal River Trust website.
  • For non-critical events phone 0303 040 4040. You can call weekdays between 8am to 6pm, Monday to Friday.
  • In an emergency phone 0800 47 999 47. This is a 24 hour emergency contact number. If lives or property are at risk or there is danger of serious environmental contamination. This includes serious injury or a fatality, a fire or explosion on a boat, a dangerously damaged lock, bridge or tunnel, a boat trapped in a dangerous situation eg on a weir or in a lock, serious flooding or a breech which risks lives or property or serious pollution.

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Article utilities:  Bookmark and Share Print Print this page Last updated: 12 Jun 2018 at 12:34