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Complaints about flooding and land drainage issues

This fact sheet is aimed primarily at people who believe that action by the Environment Agency or the council has put their property at risk of flooding and may be considering making a complaint to the Ombudsman.

My property has been affected by flooding, or is at serious risk of being affected by flooding, and I think this is the result of action involving the council or the Environment Agency. Can the Ombudsman help me? 

Yes, we can often deal with such complaints – although flooding, and what causes it, is a complex matter which involves many different agencies. So we cannot investigate all cases.

The Environment Agency, councils and Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs) are bodies empowered to carry out land drainage or flood protection works. Their powers are "permissive", not duties.

Flooding or the risk of flooding can come from the sea and two types of watercourses:

  • Main rivers. These are defined in law and are usually larger streams and rivers, but also include smaller watercourses of strategic drainage importance. The Environment Agency's powers to carry out flood defence works apply to main rivers only. Main rivers are designated by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
  • Ordinary watercourses. These are all other watercourses. Councils or IDBs have the power to carry out flood defence and drainage works on them.

What can the Ombudsman investigate?

We can investigate the actions of:

  • The Environment Agency, but only where the complaint is about flood defence, land drainage and the management of flood risk from main rivers and the sea.
  • Regional Flood and Coastal Committees, which include Government appointees and local authority members, receive direction from the Environment Agency with regard to flood risk management.
  • Internal drainage boards (IDBs). These are independent bodies responsible for land drainage in areas of special drainage need covering 1.2 million hectares of lowland  England. Information on areas covered by IDBs can be obtained from the Association of Drainage Authorities.
  • Local councils. These have similar powers to IDBs relating to flood prevention works on ordinary watercourses that are not within IDB areas. They are also responsible for local land use planning and need to assess whether proposed new developments may result in flooding or lead to a significantly increased flood risk. Unitary and county councils are lead local flood authorities. They must develop a local flood risk management strategy that sets out the local organisations with responsibility for flood risk in their area and produce a plan for managing flood risk. Lastly, the council may also be the highway authority and as such will have responsibility for the drainage of roads and should ensure that drains, including gullies, are maintained.

We cannot investigate the actions of:

  • Landowners. They have the main responsibility for safeguarding their land and nearby property against flooding and blocked drains. We could only investigate a complaint like this if the landowner was the local council.
  • The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). This has overall responsibility for land drainage and flood defence, and the Department for Communities and Local Government is responsible for national planning policy and guidance on flood risk. 
  • Agricultural Land Tribunals (ALTs). Amongst other things, these tribunals consider issues referred to them under the Land Drainage Act 1991 in respect of certain drainage disputes between neighbours. They deal with applications for a direction to cleanse ditches or carry out drainage work on neighbouring land. The Environment Agency is responsible for enforcement duties under the jurisdiction of ALTs.
  • Water companies. A blocked drain is the responsibility of the water company if the property involved was built before 1 October 1937 and there are two or more properties connected to the drain/sewer affected. In nearly all other cases the owner/occupiers are responsible for maintaining and clearing a private drain/sewer.
  • The Highways Agency. It has responsibility for drainage from trunk roads.
  • The Environment Agency where the complaint is not about flood defence.

Unresolved complaints about Government departments or other functions of the Environment Agency need to be made to the Parliamentary Ombudsman (Helpline 0345 015 4033). Complaints against water companies should be made to the company first and then to OFWAT (0121 625 1300) or the Consumer Council for Water (0845 039 2837).

We have to take into account that:

  • Government guidance emphasises that landowners have the primary responsibility for flood prevention
  • all powers relating to flooding and land drainage are permissive; so the various bodies involved do not have a duty to take action. They have to prioritise work on the basis of need and take action using public funds when they consider it is justified to do so. Justification is usually based on an assessment of the cost weighed against the benefit. If the organisation concerned has assessed the need for flood defence work, followed the proper procedures and relevant guidance in a timely way and then reached a decision, we are unlikely to uphold a complaint, and
  • it is often very difficult to conclude with certainty what caused a particular incident of flooding.  

How do I complain? 

  • You should normally complain to the council or other agency involved first and ask it to put the matter through its complaints procedure. Councils and other agencies often have more than one stage in their complaints procedure and you will usually have to complete all stages before we will look at your complaint.
  • Then, if you are unhappy with the outcome, or the council is taking too long to look into the matter – we think 12 weeks is reasonable – you can complain to us.
  • But we do not expect you to go through more than one complaints process. So if the matter you are complaining about involves more than one authority – for example both the Environment Agency and a council – you can complain to us straight away. Please explain the circumstances when you contact us. 
  • You should normally make your complaint to us within 12 months of realising that the council has done something wrong.
  • To complain to the Ombudsman phone our helpline on 0300 061 0614 (8.30am to 5.00pm, Mondays to Fridays). You will be able to discuss your complaint with one of our advisers. You can text us on 0762 480 3014.
  • You can complete an online complaint form

If you can consider my complaint what will the Ombudsman look for? 

We consider whether the council or other body has done something wrong in the way it went about dealing with a matter relating to flooding which has caused you problems. Some of the faults we might find are that the council or other body:

  • failed to consult the Environment Agency when deciding on a major planning application 
  • failed to consider comments made by the Environment Agency, or the relevant IDB, when deciding on a planning application for development or to keep proper records of the consultation
  • failed to consider the guidance provided by the Government
  • failed to have effective liaison with the different bodies involved in drainage and flooding matters, or 
  • failed to consider its permissive powers to deal with flooding and land drainage properly.

What happens if the Ombudsman finds that the council or other body was at fault?

Where it has been at fault, and you have suffered as a result, we can recommend that the body involved takes action to put the matter right. Depending on what the complaint is about, we may ask it to:

  • decide if and what action is warranted and take that action within a reasonable time 
  • pay compensation in some cases; the amount we suggest will depend on how much you have been affected by what the organisation has done wrong. Where we find evidence that flooding was the direct result of the organisation’s action or lack of it, and it has significantly affected you or your property, we usually recommend a payment to recognise the anxiety and the harm caused, or
  • improve procedures so that the same problems do not occur again. For example, we have asked councils to review their procedures and liaison arrangements with the Environment Agency. 

Examples of some complaints we have considered

Mr M complained that a council did not take account of the potential effect on his property when it gave planning approval for seven houses to be built on an adjacent site. There was a well known history of flooding around the site and parts of his land became flooded after the development was complete. Following consultation with the Environment Agency, the council had required the new houses to be built to a minimum floor level so they would not flood. This involved raising the site level by the addition of one metre of soil. But the council and the Environment Agency did not communicate effectively and the Ombudsman saw no evidence that either had given any thought to the impact of the development on the neighbouring land – in terms of increased flood risk. We concluded that there was maladministration by both the council and the Environment Agency. In line with our recommendations, the two parties jointly funded a full flood risk assessment to see if the complainants’ property was now more vulnerable to flooding than before the development and, if so, they agreed to pay for works to alleviate that additional risk. The council also paid the complainants £500 and the Environment Agency paid £250 for the anxiety and their time and trouble in pursuing the complaint.
Mrs O complained that her council failed to take action to ensure that her neighbour completes remedial work to a defective storm drain. The council’s drainage engineer inspected the site and found that Mrs O’s property was damp although he could not conclude that it was caused by defective ground water drainage. The council’s policy says that private owners should normally exhaust all possible steps to resolve the matter, including taking court action or private engineering advice, before the council exercises its power to do work. The council contacted the neighbour to make him aware of his responsibilities to ensure adequate drainage but did not carry out any works to the storm drain. The Ombudsman concluded that the council was not at fault. It has no duty to carry out the works but did consider its powers to do so in accordance with the law and its own policy.

Other sources of information

Our fact sheets give some general information about the most common type of complaints we receive but they cannot cover every situation. If you are not sure whether we can look into your complaint, please phone 0300 061 0614.

The Local Government Ombudsmen provide a free, independent and impartial service. We consider complaints about the administrative actions of councils and some other authorities. We cannot question what a council has done simply because someone does not agree with it. If we find something has gone wrong, such as poor service, service failure, delay or bad advice and that a person has suffered as a result the Ombudsmen aim to get it put right by recommending a suitable remedy.

Date Updated: 02/04/13