Ditch and drainage responsibilities

Ditches and drains need to be maintained to reduce the risk of flooding and to maintain the condition of highways by keeping them clear of excess water. Poor drainage damages roads and creates hazards for road users and local residents. Good drainage will reduce maintenance and costs for all.

The owner of land or property that adjoins a watercourse, such as a roadside ditch, is known as the riparian owner. Although the Highways Authority is responsible for the highway, it does not own the 'sub-soil' of the highway. The owner of the land or property adjoining the highway is normally the sole riparian owner.

Who is responsible for ditch and drainage maintenance

The illustration shows ownership responsibilities.

Ditch and drainage maintenance responsibilitiesResponsibility of Highways Authority

Most open ditch drainage systems are the responsibility of the riparian owner(s) but the Highway Authority has prescriptive powers to drain the highway into them. The Highway Authority has powers to clean and restore the profile of these ditches. However, the exercise of these powers does not relieve riparian owners of their duties, and they may still be charged.

The Highways Authority is responsible for maintaining:

  • Roadside verges
  • Highway grips - (Drainage channel dug from road to ditch by the Highways Authority)
  • Roadside ditches created by the Highways Authority for the sole purpose of draining the highway

Responsibility of riparian owner / adjoining landowner

Riparian owners have a duty to keep all roadside ditches clear (apart from those created and maintained by the Highways Authority for the sole purpose of draining water from the highway). This duty extends to the full width of the ditch.

Specifically, riparian owners are responsible for maintaining and keeping clear all:

  • Roadside ditches taking land drainage as well as road drainage
  • Fieldside ditches taking land drainage as well as highway drainage
  • Piped ditches (for example, for access)
  • Roadside hedges and trees

Enforcement and liability

If an owner fails to look after a watercourse it can cause the condition of the highway to deteriorate and potentially cause flooding to properties, the highway or surrounding land.
This can result in enforcement action being taken or liability in the event of an incident.

If you are a riparian owner you must:

  • Accept the natural flow of water across your land from an upstream neighbour and transfer this, together with drainage from your property or land, downstream
  • Accept water ponding on your land even if it's caused by inadequate capacity downstream as there is no common law duty to improve a watercourse downstream
  • Carry out any necessary maintenance of the watercourse at your own expense to the satisfaction of the local Land Drainage Body
  • Seek Ordinary Watercourse Flood Defence Consent from Herefordshire Council for erecting or altering any culvert, mill, dam, weir or other like obstruction in a watercourse
  • Maintain the banks and bed of the watercourse or of the piped sections to avoid any obstruction to the flow of water. This includes trees, shrubs and litter, even if not deposited by you

Where a watercourse is sited between two or more properties, each owner is equally responsible. 

Disposal of waste

Any waste removed from ditches should be disposed of in accordance with the Environmental Protection Act. Cuttings from any clearance work should be removed and kept clear of the watercourse or disposed of to avoid re-entry which might cause blockages downstream. Similarly, ensure that any disturbed debris does not end up flowing downstream and causing problems for other landowners.

Further information