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Managing flood risk: roles and responsibilities

There is no single body responsible for managing flood risk in the UK because of the role of the devolved administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Responsibility is joint among a number of bodies.


The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is the policy lead for flood and coastal erosion risk management in England. New or revised policies are prepared with other parts of government such as the Treasury, the Cabinet Office (for emergency response planning) and the Department for Communities and Local Government (for land-use and planning policy). These national policies are then delivered by Risk Management Authorities (RMAs) which are.

  • Environment Agency
  • Lead Local Flood Authorities
  • District and Borough Councils
  • Coast protection authorities
  • Water and sewerage companies
  • Internal Drainage Boards
  • Highways authorities.

The Flood and Water Management Act 2010 requires these Risk Management Authorities to:

  • co-operate with each other
  • act in a manner that is consistent with the National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy for England and the local flood risk management strategies developed by Lead Local Flood Authorities
  • exchange information.

They have flexibility to form partnerships and to act on behalf of one another.

One way RMAs can cooperate is through public sector cooperation agreements (PSCAs). PSCAs allow either party to undertake inland and coastal work and flood incident response on behalf of the other where they agree to do so and where they will achieve cost savings. Reports, templates and briefing notes are available on the Association of Drainage Authorities website here .

Environment Agency

The Environment Agency has a strategic overview of all sources of flooding and coastal erosion (as defined in the Flood and Water Management Act 2010). It is also responsible for flood and coastal erosion risk management activities on main rivers and the coast, regulating reservoir safety, and working in partnership with the Met Office to provide flood forecasts and warnings. It must also look for opportunities to maintain and improve the environment for people and wildlife while carrying out all of its duties.

The Environment Agency's work includes:

  • Developing long-term approaches to FCERM. This includes developing and applying the national flood and coastal erosion risk management strategy.
  • Allocation of national Government funding to projects to manage flood and coastal erosion risks from all sources
  • Delivering projects to manage flood risks from main rivers and the sea
  • Working with others to prepare and deliver Flood Risk Management Plans (FRMPs).  FRMPs explain the risk of flooding from rivers, the sea, surface water, groundwater and reservoirs, and set out how the Environment Agency, Lead Local Flood Authorities (LLFAs) and other Risk Management Authorities work with communities to manage those risks.  The Environment Agency and Defra provide guidance to LLFAs on their role in developing FRMPs.  FRMPs for England for the period 2016-2021 are published on GOV.UK.
  • Providing evidence and advice to support others. This includes national flood and coastal erosion risk information, data and tools to help other Risk Management Authorities and inform Government policy, and advice on planning and development issues
  • Working with others to share knowledge and the best ways of working. This includes work to develop FCERM skills and resources

Monitoring and reporting on flood and coastal erosion risk management. This includes reporting on how the national FCERM strategy is having an impact across the country.

Floods – on the Environment Agency website

Lead Local Flood Authorities (LLFAs)

LLFAs are county councils and unitary authorities. They lead in managing local flood risks (i.e. risks of flooding from surface water, ground water and ordinary (smaller) watercourses). This includes ensuring co-operation between the Risk Management Authorities in their area. Under the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, LLFAs are required to::

  • prepare and maintain a strategy for local flood risk management in their areas, coordinating views and activity with other local bodies and communities through public consultation and scrutiny, and delivery planning. They must consult Risk Management Authorities and the public about their strategy. 
  • carry out works to manage local flood risks in their areas (the power for works in relation to minor watercourses sits with either the district council or unitary authorities outside of IDB areas)
  • maintain a register of assets – these are physical features that have a significant effect on flooding in their area. 
    • The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published guidance on this which is available here
  • investigate significant local flooding incidents and publish the results of such investigations. 
    • the British Standards Institute has developed a BSI Standard ‘Post-event flood assessments – Guidance on investigating flooding incidents’.
  • have powers under the Land Drainage Act 1991 to regulate ordinary watercourses (outside of internal drainage districts) to maintain a proper flow by:
    • issuing consents for altering, removing or replacing certain structures or features on ordinary watercourses; and
    •  enforcing obligations to maintain flow in a watercourse and repair watercourses, bridges and other structures in a watercourse
  • undertake a statutory consultee role providing technical advice on surface water drainage to local planning authorities  major developments (10 dwellings or more) 
  • co-operate with other Risk Management Authorities
  • play a lead role in emergency planning and recovery after a flood event. Local authorities are ‘category one responders' under the Civil Contingencies Act and must have plans to respond to emergencies, and control or reduce the impact of an emergency. Further information in the Emergency planning section.

LLFAs and the Environment Agency and  all other Risk Management Authorities need to work closely together and ensure that the plans they are making both locally and nationally link up. An essential part of managing local flood risk is taking account of new development in land use plans and strategies.

By working in partnership with communities, LLFAs can raise awareness of flood and coastal erosion risks. Local flood action groups (and other organisations that represent those living and working in areas at risk of flooding) will be useful and trusted channels for sharing information, guidance and support direct with the community. The National Flood Forum  may be able to provide information on flood action groups in your area.

LLFAs should encourage local communities to participate in local flood risk management. Depending on local circumstances, this could include developing and sharing good practice in risk management, training community volunteers so that they can raise awareness of flood risk in their community, and helping the community to prepare flood action plans. LLFAs must also consult local communities about their  local flood risk management strategy.

District and Borough Councils

District and Borough Councils are Risk Management Authorities and key partners in planning local flood risk management. They: 

  • can carry out flood risk management works on minor watercourses (outside of IDB areas) , 
  • work in partnership with LLFAs and other Risk Management Authorities to ensure risks are managed effectively , including in relation to taking decisions on development in their area.     

Coastal protection authorities

District and unitary authorities in coastal areas are Coastal Protection Authorities. They lead on coastal erosion risk management activities in their area. They are responsible for developing Shoreline Management Plans (SMPs) which provide a long term holistic framework for managing the risk of coastal change on their section of the coast. 

The Environment Agency has a strategic overview to ensure that decisions about the coast are made in a joined-up manner.

Water and sewerage companies

Water companies are Risk Management Authorities (RMAs) and play a major role in managing flood and coastal erosion risks. They manage the risk of flooding to water supply and sewerage facilities and flood risks from the failure of their infrastructure.

The main roles of water and sewerage companies in managing flood and coastal erosion risks are to:

  • make sure their systems have the appropriate level of resilience to flooding, and maintain essential services during emergencies
  • maintain and manage their water supply and sewerage systems to manage the impact and reduce the risk of flooding and pollution to the environment. They have a duty under section 94 Water Industry Act 1991 to ensure that the area they serve is “effectually drained”. This includes drainage of surface water from the land around buildings as well as provision of foul sewers.
  • provide advice to LLFAs on how water and sewerage company assets impact on local flood risk
  • work with developers, landowners and LLFAs to understand and manage risks – for example, by working to manage the amount of rainfall that enters sewerage systems
  • work with the Environment Agency, LLFAs and district councils to coordinate the management of water supply and sewerage systems with other flood risk management work. 

Where there is frequent and severe sewer flooding, sewerage undertakers are required to address this through their capital investment plans, which are approved and regulated by Ofwat.  This happens every 5 years through the Price Review process. Water companies have outcome delivery incentives (ODIs) that they agree with customers and partners.  All water and sewerage companies have sewer flooding ODIs. Some companies have ODIs on partnership working, sustainable drainage and resilience of services. For more information on the current Price Review visit here

UK Water Industry Research have prepared some good practice - How best to align the funding processes with the various bodies involved in resolving flooding: Unlocking collaborative opportunities between water companies and partners.  The aim of the research is to help facilitate more co-funded schemes between water companies and other RMAs. The report includes case studies to celebrate good practice, support partnership working and bring the guiding principles for collaboration to life. 

Regulating the industry – on the Ofwat website

Water UK represents all UK water and wastewater service suppliers at national and European level. It provides a framework for the water industry to engage with government, regulators, stakeholder organisations and the public. They share information on water companies’ performance on the Discover Water site here.

Water UK website

Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs)

IDBs have an important role to play in flood risk management, and in creating and managing natural habitats. Each IDB operates within a defined area, known as a drainage district. They are made up of elected members who represent land occupiers, and others nominated by local authorities who represent the public and other interest groups.

IDBs are independent public bodies responsible for managing water levels in low-lying areas. They are the land drainage authority within their districts and their functions include supervising land drainage and flood defence works on ordinary watercourses.

They hold the powers in Section 25 Land Drainage Act 1991 to require works to maintain a proper flow of water in ordinary watercourses in internal drainage districts

This is primarily funded by drainage rates and levies from land occupiers and local authorities. By doing this, they closely manage water levels, both in watercourses and underground (groundwater), by improving and maintaining ordinary watercourses, drainage channels and pumping stations to reduce the risk of flooding.

They are able to involve local people, encourage volunteering and raise funds from those who benefit from their work

More about IDBs – on the website of the Association of Drainage Authorities

Highways authorities

Highway Authorities (National Highways and Unitary Authorities/County Councils) have responsibility for providing and managing highway drainage under the Highways Act 1980. This may apply to certain types of roadside ditch that the organisation is responsible for, but does not apply to all roadside ditches, many of which are privately owned. Where a privately owned ditch is located next to a highway, the landowner has a common-law duty to maintain the ditch and prevent it causing a nuisance to road users.

They co-operate with the other Risk Management Authorities to ensure their flood management activities are well coordinated.