WATER - 29.04.2021

Business park fined for riverside wall disrepair

In a very rare case, the owner of a Bristol business park has appeared in court for allowing a riverside wall to collapse into the watercourse. Why was the company at fault?

Disintegrated

The case concerns a riverside wall in the Bedminster area of Bristol alongside Windmill Farm Business Park. By 2009 the Environment Agency (EA) had become concerned that the boundary wall was in such a poor state that it was falling apart. In fact some sections had already fallen into the Malago Brook, a tributary of the River Avon, and there was a risk of further masonry and other debris being washed downstream. Should this occur the material was likely to get in the way of a tidal flap designed to prevent upward flow during high tides. By preventing the flap from closing, the debris would cause a large number of properties to flood and it was therefore critical that the channel was properly maintained.

Negotiations

It appears that the owner, Maysouth Ltd (M), was initially on board and in 2009 it applied for permission to carry out repairs. However, as such work is environmentally sensitive, there are certain rules to be followed, and M didn’t give enough information to the EA in its application. Permission for the full repairs was therefore refused but M was allowed to undertake temporary works to install scaffolding wall props whilst a longer term plan was developed.

Riparian rights and responsibilities

Two years later the EA found that its own plans to install a trash screen in the vicinity were being hampered by the boundary. It reopened discussions with M, whose directors now denied responsibility.

M attempted to pass the blame to Bristol City Council who it claimed was responsible for repair and maintenance of the riverside wall. But the Council denied this, saying it did not own the wall or the land it stood on. It said that, as “riparian owner”, M was liable for the expense.

Tip. You normally own a stretch of watercourse if it runs through your land. If it runs on the boundary, you’ll normally own it up to its centre. Check your deeds if unsure. Those who own watercourses have both rights and responsibilities for them.

Tip. Your responsibilities as a riparian owner include allowing the water to flow naturally, preventing pollution, and maintaining walls which are designated flood defences (see The next step ). You might need a licence to make changes to the bed or a wall.

Formality

The dispute rattled on over a period of years. In September 2014 M was served with a legal notice under local land drainage bylaws requiring the wall to be repaired, followed by a second one in May 2016. In May 2018 M pleaded guilty to failing to comply with the notice, it accepted it was responsible for the riverside wall and half the river bed, and told the court that it would undertake the required repairs. However, it still took no action and in January 2021 it was fined £26,760 and ordered to pay costs of £10,585 for continuing to fail to comply with the notice served in May 2016.

The company owned the riverside wall and the river bed right up to its centre, as is usual where a watercourse runs alongside a boundary. This gave it certain responsibilities including preventing obstruction and maintaining the wall for flood defence reasons. If you’re in a similar position, make sure you know what you can and cannot do.

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