A river runs through it - buying or developing land near a watercourse: boundary issues

This is the second article in our series about owning or purchasing land that includes or adjoins a river or other watercourse. It summarises how a watercourse can affect the legal boundaries of your property, and questions you should ask if buying or developing land near to or containing a watercourse.

How does a watercourse affect my property's boundaries?

If your property abuts a watercourse, there is a legal presumption that you own the land under the water, up to the 'centre line' of the watercourse. This presumption is rebuttable with evidence however. The bed and foreshore of a tidal river is vested in the Crown by law. Sometimes this will be registered as a separate title of land at the Land Registry, but not always. Where the river ceases to ebb and flow, the presumption of ownership up to the centre of the watercourse applies. Canals were created by statute, so are treated differently. As the course of a watercourse naturally changes over time, the position of the property boundary will change. However, the boundary will not legally change if the watercourse has moved due to a sudden event which causes a permanent change, or due to human effect on the route of the watercourse.

What should I ask if I am buying or developing land abutting/including a watercourse?

Your solicitor will do due diligence on your behalf. This will usually include carrying out a local drainage and water search, and a waterways or Canal and River Trust search. They will also raise enquiries with the seller, in particular the Commercial Property Standard Enquiries (CPSEs).

As sellers sometimes take a cautious approach when replying to CPSEs, asking further specific enquiries around the following areas can tease out more useful information:

  • Previous or expected works to the boundary
  • Any payment demands received in relation to maintenance and repair of the watercourse and its embankments and structures
  • Any property-specific structures (for example a mill, fence, flood defence, culvert or bridge)

It is also advisable to raise enquiries with the relevant Risk Management Agency (see the first article) and/or the Environment Agency about the state of repair and condition of the banks of the watercourse, whether they have any obligations relating to the watercourse and have carried out/are planning any works. If you intend to develop the property, you should also ask whether your works will require their consent. You should also consider how riparian rights and obligations are dealt with in any leases or other contractual arrangements with occupiers of the property.

The final article will explore the consequences of not complying with your riparian obligations, other practical issues to think about related to properties near to watercourses, and other sources of information.

The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the date of publication and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.

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