Skip to content

Expert Insights

25 June 2018

Riparian Owners: What are your rights and responsibilities?

So you’ve bought or are thinking of buying land that includes within its curtilage, or which lies adjacent to, a waterway of some kind. Other than inheriting a unique garden feature, there is more to benefit from and indeed more expected of you than may seem obvious at first blush.

Garden feature or waterway?

You will only have additional rights and duties if a watercourse runs through, under or along the boundary of your land. A watercourse for these purposes is any flow of water in a natural or artificial channel, whether it percolates through your land or travels across it via a defined channel. For example a river, brook, leat and culvert all qualify; an enclosed artificial pond in your garden does not.

“Gone fishing”

A riparian owner owns the land in which the water sits. Where a watercourse runs along the boundary of the property, you are assumed to own the land up to the centre of the watercourse. Perhaps surprisingly, you do not actually own the water: you cannot therefore abstract water without a licence, except in limited circumstances (such as small quantities for private domestic use).

You will have the exclusive right to fish in the water – unless fishing rights have previously been sold or leased to a third party. Before you can start fishing for salmon, trout, freshwater fish, smelt or eel however you will need a rod licence, which can be bought on a 1-day, 8-day or 12 month basis.

A more prosaic but necessary right is your entitlement to the flow of water through/onto your land in its natural quantity and quality, subject to the ordinary and reasonable use by upper riparian owners.

The costs

The obligations on a riparian owner can be onerous and costly. They range from not polluting the water to protecting wildlife. The corollary of the right to the flow of water through your property is that you must let that water flow naturally to lower riparian owners, which might mean having to remove blockages or fallen trees for example. If you want to carry out works on or near a watercourse, you may need the Environment Agency’s consent as well as local planning consent.

If you have flood defences on your property, you may be responsible for their maintenance and upkeep. Since a stretch of the River Arun’s boundary wall collapsed at Arundel in 2016, certain residents are facing an eye-watering bill for repair of the river wall (potentially up to £5.5m) despite not realising that the wall fell within their title. This example emphasises the need for buyers to pay particular attention to any waterway included in or adjoining the boundary of their future home, and take advice on what that might mean in terms of future costs and liabilities. 

For queries on this article or to discuss any aspect of buying, selling or owning a house, contact William Marriott by email  or call him on +44 (0)1483 25 25 19.