Who is responsible for flooding control in England and Wales?
The heavy rain at the end of December and early January brought into sharp focus the problems around the risk of flooding – including groundwater flooding.
The Met Office reported that 2023 was a wet year, with the UK’s sixth wettest March, sixth wettest July and equal sixth wettest October on record. The named storms Pia and Gerrit soaked the UK before Christmas, while storm Henk added to the saturated ground with further rainfall, adding to the flood warnings in the first few days of 2024.
With flooding becoming more common, we take a look at who is responsible for what aspects of flooding in England and Wales. It’s not as simple as you might imagine as there is no single body responsible. Instead, it is a complex picture of myriad government departments and organisations working together to mitigate against the worst of the weather and to protect people and buildings from flooding.
The Flood and Water Management Act 2010
This Act was introduced to reduce the flood risk associated with extreme weather and led to the creation of the Lead Local Flood Authorities (LLFAs), which are county councils and unitary authorities responsible for managing flood risk in their local government area
The Act also gave new powers to the Environment Agency, the Welsh government and water companies.
At the highest level, The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is responsible for policy regarding flood and coastal erosion risk management in England.
Defra works with other government departments, such as the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government, to implement national policies.
These policies are delivered by risk management authorities (RMAs), which usually include the Environment Agency, the lead local flood authority (LLFA – see below), highways, councils, coastal protection agencies, internal drainage boards (see below) and water and sewerage companies.
The Environment Agency
The Environment Agency aims to reduce flood risk and minimise the harm caused by flooding. According to the 2010 Act, the Environment Agency takes a strategic overview for flood risk management from all causes of flooding, including rivers, the sea, groundwater, reservoirs and surface water.
It also works with the Met Office to provide flood forecasts and warnings.
The Environment Agency develops and applies long-term approaches to flood and coastal erosion risk management (FCERM).
Lead Local Flood Authorities (LLFAs)
Established under the 2010 Act, LLFAs are county councils or unitary authorities that are tasked with developing and undertaking strategies for local flood risk management in their local government area.
Each authority is responsible for reducing flood risk from surface water, groundwater and watercourses and must put in place plans to mitigate against any flooding that does not come from main rivers or reservoirs.
They must each maintain a public register of flood risk management bodies, investigate and record any flooding events in their respective areas, and respond to planning applications regarding sustainable drainage systems (SuDS).
LLFAs also have a responsibility to consult their local communities about their local flood risk management strategy.
District and borough councils are classed as RMAs and are critical when it comes to planning local flood risk management. These authorities work with LLFAs and other organisations to effectively manage flood risk in their geographical areas. They also carry out flood risk management works on smaller watercourses that are not maintained by internal drainage boards (IDBs – see below).
Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs)
Each IDB is an independent public body that manages water levels within its drainage district, which is a specific geographical area.
Most of the work an IDB undertakes involves maintaining rivers (except those designated main rivers), drainage channels, smaller watercourses and infrastructure such as pumping stations. An IDB also facilitates the drainage of new developments, as well as the conservation of watercourses, plus advises on planning applications to ensure any development is legally compliant.
Currently there are 112 IDBs in England whose districts cover 1.2 million hectares, which equates to just 9.7% of England’s landmass, and they operate and maintain more than 500 pumping stations, 22,000km of watercourse, 175 automatic weed screen cleaners and numerous sluices and weirs.
Water and sewerage companies
Water companies are classed as RMAs and play a significant role in both managing flooding risk and coastal erosion.
They must ensure their infrastructure is resilient, to mitigate the risk of flooding, and to make sure water supply and sewerage systems are maintained sufficiently to reduce the risk of flooding and pollution.
Crucially, water and sewerage companies are not responsible for investigating groundwater, river flooding or surface water problems. Instead, they manage sewers, ensuring they are free flowing. In the event of a flood, water companies are responsible for replacing missing or dislodged manholes; controlling access to water hydrant use; and removing silt and sewer debris from public sewers and pumping stations.
If there is frequent and severe sewer flooding, the water and sewerage companies must rectify the issues through their capital investment plans, which must be approved by Ofwat.
Highways authorities comprise the Highways Agency and county and unitary councils) and under the Highways Act 1980 these bodies are responsible for managing highway drainage and roadside ditches.
They work alongside other RMAs to coordinate their flood management strategies.
Flooding risk is a growing concern, with the change in our climate. In November 2023, we warned of the growing risk of early groundwater flooding across several parts of the country because so many boreholes and aquifers were unusually high for the time of year.
Our groundwater flood and drought forecasting service uses groundwater models, borehole monitoring telemetry and weather forecasts to predict risks and provide advanced warnings to clients in the water management sector.
Our flood risk assessments (FRAs) are used by architects, land surveyors and developers wanting a assessment alongside their planning permission applications. FRAs consider the risk and impact of flooding on a development site and analyse the potential issues with building on sites, such as local areas having an increased chance of flooding.
We provide three tiers of SuDS report: SuDSmart, SuDSmart Plus and SuDSmart Pro. We can also produce drainage design drawings for your development.
Need an FRA? Contact us today to speak to one of our expert team.