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Ditches and watercourses

Ditches or watercourses are the responsibility of landowners (often called riparian owners).  Roadside ditches normally belong to the adjoining landowner and not the highway authority, except where land has been acquired for new road building. The highway authority can discharge highway water to a roadside ditch and may maintain it but is under no obligation to do so.

Landowners may drain their land to any ditch or watercourse on the property. They have a duty to maintain their ditches or watercourses in such a way that nuisance is not caused to neighbours. The County Council's Flood Risk Management Team and the Environment Agency will be able to provide further advice on land drainage issues.

More information on water course responsibilities and our role in regulating these systems can be found in our Flood Risk Management pages.



  • Roadside hedges and trees are the responsibility of the adjacent land owner.
  • Roadside ditches are the responsibility of the adjacent land owner.
  • Verges are the responsibility of the highway authority.
  • Grips cut in verges are the responsibility of the highway authority, they are cut to assist with road drainage.

Drainage ditches (rural areas)

Drainage ditches are sometimes used as outfalls for water that is carried away from the road by highway gullies in locations where there is no other positive drainage system.

Ditches are generally found in more rural locations and normally run in parallel adjacent to the road. Ditches are also used to contain or catch water run-off from fields or agricultural land on higher ground, where otherwise this water and any washed detritus would end up on the road surface.

It is generally the case that the responsibility for clearing drainage ditches and maintaining them rests with the adjacent landowner, if you are unsure if you are responsible for any nearby drainage ditches you should consult the deeds to your property or check with your landlord.

If drainage ditches become blocked with overgrowth or because of earth being moved into them by passing agricultural vehicles, this can reduce their effectiveness and in turn prevent highway gulley outfall pipes from working, which results in standing water on the road surface. This can give the appearance of a blocked gulley as the system is unable to drain water away through its outfall.

The clearing of drainage ditches that have not been properly maintained is a very resource heavy task and will often involve expensive digging machinery. Where possible we will always try to establish who the responsible landowner is for any blocked drainage ditch that you report to us, but this can take time.

If it is not possible to identify the landowner we may have to carry out the works ourselves using hired equipment and our own limited resources. We use a risk management approach which factors in the volume of traffic using a route to determine the priority of problems on the highway, and therefore ad hoc drainage ditch clearing works are scheduled in the same way as all other reactive maintenance tasks.

Ditches and drains

Good drainage is essential for the maintenance of a highway. Rural areas rely on ditches for the removal of water and their effectiveness is fundamental in keeping roads in good condition. It is essential that the foundations of the carriageway are drained and not allowed to become water-logged.

Drainage grips

Drainage grips are used to channel water away from the carriageway and into ditches, where there is an absence of or limited number of gullies or other positive systems that can drain the highway water away.

Grips are essentially dug or cut out of verges adjacent to the road and they can therefore be easily damaged if driven over at tight passing points on rural lanes. Improper grass cutting maintenance can also reduce their effectiveness as vegetation dies back and adds to the presence of earth.

The digging out or renewal of drainage grips does not generally form part of our routine drainage maintenance operations, since that usually involves jetting/gulley emptying machinery which is not required to resolve a problem with grips. Where locations require the attendance of a crew and manual equipment to dig out drainage grips, this has to be scheduled in accordance with a risk assessed category of priority. Unless the problem is posing an imminent risk to safety, this type of work will be carried out as resources permit.

Ditches and the law

The common law imposes a duty on the occupier of the land adjoining the highway to clean ditches, drains etc which are necessary for draining the highway.

There are two categories of ditches that run alongside the highway:

  • Those provided and maintained by the Highway Authority for the sole purpose of draining the highway.
  • Those existing for the purposes of land drainage and which are privately maintained.

Where a ditch is used jointly for highway water and land drainage then the law presumes that the adjoining landowner is responsible for the maintenance unless there is conclusive proof to the contrary.

Work on ditches

Ditched should be cleared and the depth maintained as necessary to ensure that the efficiency of the system is not impaired.

Any excavated material must be removed from the vicinity of the ditch so that it is not washed, or pushed back in.

Piping ditches

No ditch adjacent to the highway should be piped until the local highway authority and adjacent / riparian landowner have been consulted. They will wish to ensure that the proposed pipes are of a sufficient size.

Protection of the public and operatives

Works on ditches or other features adjacent to the public highway should be carried out in such a way that no operative or item of plant encroaches onto the carriageway unless appropriate and advance signage is used.

Foul sewers

The system carrying waste water from domestic, commercial and industrial premises for treatment at the sewerage works. Public foul sewers are the responsibility of the sewerage undertaker (usually the water companies). These will be recorded on a map of public sewers held by the sewerage undertaker or they are privately owned and maintained by landowners. Connections from individual or groups of properties to the main sewer are generally the responsibility of the property owners.

Instances of foul or sewage smells or the presence of household sanitation products in standing water should be reported to the local water authority. 

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