What Are Watercourses?

Watercourses fulfil many roles in today’s environment. They provide drainage for developed and agricultural land and can be vital water resources, while some also have important recreational value. They are important features of the landscape and provide habitats for a wide variety of wildlife. It is therefore important that watercourses and their associated habitats are protected and enhanced for the benefit of present and future generations. 

Essex County Council considers it beneficial for watercourses to remain open wherever possible for both flood defence and environmental purposes. Culverting can exacerbate the risk of flooding, increase maintenance requirements and create difficulty in pollution detection. It also destroys wildlife habitats, damages a natural amenity and interrupts the continuity of a watercourse. 

In considering any development proposals, the objective is to retain open watercourses with a corridor of open land on both sides. This maintains a flood channel and creates a valuable environmental feature which can enhance the site and be easily maintained. Developers are also encouraged to incorporate existing open watercourses, or create new ones, within their site design. Such features are of particular importance to wildlife because they provide valuable open land in developed areas. Where possible, the removal of culverts will be encouraged to restore a more natural river environment. 

Nevertheless, there may be cases where culverting is unavoidable – for example, short lengths for access purposes or where highways cross watercourses. In such cases, the length involved should be restricted to a minimum, the hydraulic and environmental design assessed, and appropriate mitigating enhancements to the surrounding environment included.

What Is an Ordinary Watercourse?

An ordinary watercourse is a watercourse which does not form part of a main river and may not hold water all the time. Ordinary watercourses may take the form of:

  • rivers
  • streams
  • ditches
  • drains
  • culverts
  • dikes
  • sluices
  • sewers
  • passages through which water flows and which are not classified as a main river by the Environment Agency 

What Is Ordinary Watercourse Consent?

Ordinary watercourse consent ensures any works carried out do not have a negative effect on people or the environment. It means any works which may affect flood risk are properly designed. 

Watercourse consent is required for any work or structure that will either temporarily or permanently affect the flow or cross-sectional area of an ordinary watercourse.

Developments that may have an effect on an ordinary watercourse may require consent from Essex County Council as the Lead Local Flood Authority under Section 23 of the Land Drainage Act (1991):

No person shall—

(a) erect any mill dam, weir or other like obstruction to the flow of any ordinary watercourse or raise or otherwise alter any such obstruction; or

(b) erect a culvert in an ordinary watercourse, or

(c) alter a culvert in a manner that would be likely to affect the flow of an ordinary watercourse,

without the consent in writing of the drainage board concerned.

Ordinary watercourse consent must be agreed before work begins. If works are carried out without consent, the council has powers to remove or change them.

The Environment Agency regulates watercourses that have been designated as main rivers. You can find more information on these on the official Environment Agency Main River Map. 

Pre-application advice for ordinary watercourse consent can be applied for from the Lead Local Flood Authority (LLFA) and is likely to increase the chance of a consent application being approved first time. Further information about this can be found online. Ordinary watercourse consent applications can also be submitted online – further information about this process is available here


Page updated: 9/02/2018


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