People living in “constant fear” of flooding have said they feel helpless to protect themselves unless there are changes to the law. They say confusion over who is responsible for maintaining sections of waterways is leading to a greater risk of major incidents happening. It comes amid a rise in serious flooding events – most recently in Attleborough in Norfolk, which led to more than 130 homes being affected in October last year.
Among those calling for change are couple Lynn and Hans Shortt. They faced another Christmas in temporary accommodation after their home was devastated in the deluge caused by Storm Babet – the second time in just three years.
“It is heartbreaking,” says Mrs Shortt. “We can’t live like this. You have to be on high alert all the time which is very wearing. We have been fighting for something to change for years and it took all of these homes to get flooded before people began taking notice. The stress has been huge.”
The couple’s home sits next to a culvert covered by a trash screen which frequently becomes blocked with debris. According to the Land Registry, “Culverts are used to divert or drain water from land above it. They are enclosed watercourses and may be quite large.” Typically culverts channel steams underground, beneath roads or properties, but the point where the water enters the culvert can get blocked.
Through the common law of ‘riparian ownership’, it has become the Shortt’s responsibility to maintain this section of the drain after Anglian Water relinquished its ownership of the watercourse. This includes keeping the screen clear. To do that, Mr Shortt, 70, has been “risking his life”, having to stand precariously on the screen in an attempt to clear debris whenever the river level gets high.
“We get told not to put ourselves in danger,” Mrs Shortt explains, “but no one else wants to take responsibility for it. Some people don’t know it is their responsibility to maintain streams near their homes and don’t appreciate what is involved until it affects them.”
“We live in constant fear of flooding”
In nearby Suton, Holly Drewery, who lives with her husband and two children, have faced frequent flooding. They worry it is only a matter of time before it happens again amid recent heavy rain. Despite doing everything they can do to maintain the ditch near their home, they believe the flooding problems are exacerbated by other home and landowners not fulfilling their duties.
“We live in constant fear that it will keep happening,” says Mrs Drewery, “and any time a forecast of heavy rain is predicted we worry. You can do everything you can to maintain what you are responsible for but if other drains are not properly maintained then there is not much we can do and we will keep getting flooded. Look at what happened in Besthorpe and Attleborough – it is clearly a big issue that won’t be solved by one individual homeowner. It needs collective action.”
What is riparian ownership?
Understanding who is responsible for maintaining waterways can often lead to confusion, which itself leads to a greater risk of flooding. If a watercourse – such as a stream or culvert – runs through, beneath or adjacent to the boundary of land you own, it is presumed you have responsibility for maintaining it. This is based on a historic common law, known as ‘riparian ownership’.
Riparian means ‘next to water’. People who live on, own or lease land next to a watercourse are ‘riparian owners’ and are responsible for maintaining the free flow of water for those downstream. If you fail to undertake needed maintenance, you may have to pay for any resulting damages – such as flooding – of others affected, and could even face legal action.
Campaign for change
Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman has been a vocal campaigner on the issue and is calling for legal reform to be introduced. “The rise in serious flooding in Norfolk over the last few years is caused by several factors including climate change and new housing estates with inadequate drain infrastructure.” There is also a serious lack of maintenance of rivers, drains, ditches and culverts, he says, as well as a lack of clearly understood legal responsibilities.
“Traditionally our rivers were maintained by the drainage boards and ditches by farmers and landowners to keep rainwater draining away. But with the Environment Agency now putting habitats ahead of drainage, and agencies like Anglian Water giving up riparian rights to maintain ditches and culverts, and councils powerless to force big developers to install proper drainage, we have a perfect storm.
Mr Freeman believes there needs to be a clearer set of legal obligations. He would like to see fines introduced which could fund compensation and remedial work – on large-scale developers, on the Environment Agency and any negligent landowners to maintain drain infrastructure.
For now, Norfolk County Council – the lead flood authority in the county – has said it can use its powers to serve notice on landowners if their properties include waterways that are not maintained.
Blocked waterways can be reported by calling 0344 800 8013 or online via norfolk.gov.uk/flooding.