All rivers in the UK evolve continuously and almost all show signs of construction work. It is vital that activities are regulated to safeguard against ecological deterioration and flooding.

This applies to all activities, from hydroelectric power schemes in the Scottish Highlands, to dredging on the Somerset levels, or the Thames Barrier protecting Greater London against high tides and storm surges.

This is a summary of the key consents that may be required when working in or near watercourses.


Permits and licences are required for:

  • works at or near a watercourse
  • abstractions and impoundments
  • discharges to surface or ground water.

These are the most common:

  • Flood Risk Activity Permit (FRAP) Usually required for any work within eight metres of a watercourse but can also be applicable for the wider floodplain. It is regulated by the EA/NRW/SEPA for main rivers and by the Lead Local Flood Authority for Ordinary watercourses.
  • Water Framework Directive (WFD) Assessment Often required as part of a FRAP submission. This assessment focuses on impacts of activities on the ecological and chemical status of a watercourse. This can be related to water quality or loss of habitat.
  • Water Abstraction or Impoundment Licence Required where works may lead to impoundment and/or abstraction of a watercourse, such as a weir or flood attenuation storage. Regulated by the EA/NRW/SEPA.
  • Environmental Permit Required where works may need a controlled discharge – not normally required for treated surface-water discharge. Regulated by the EA/NRW/SEPA.

Application for permits and licences typically involves four steps.

  • Develop a management system to describe your method of work and what you’ll do to manage risk.
  • Gather supporting information which gives the regulator further detail on your proposed activities, such as site surveys, if required.
  • Fill in forms relevant to your required permit, which can be found online.
  • Pay the required fee, if your application is approved.

A range of charges applies, depending on the precise nature of your activity. Some of the most common activities (with the 2019 EA fees) are:

  • activities within eight metres of the bank of a non-tidal main river
    (16 metres for a tidal main river) (£221)
  • removal of material from the bed of a main river (£968)
  • construction of clear-span bridge or culvert (more than five metres long) (£170)
  • construction of culvert (more than five metres long), flood defences (more than 100 metres long) (£1,441)
  • rainfall-related discharge to surface or ground water with a volume up to five cubic metres a day (£2,460)
  • rainfall-related discharge to surface or ground water with a volume greater than five cubic metres a day (£4,652)

How WHS can help

WHS has experience in helping a range of clients through the consenting process. We can offer support and advice where required.

For a FRAP application we advise engaging with the regulator at an early stage to ensure that requirements are built into the design which streamlines the approvals process. This is particularly relevant for any ecological requirements identified in a WFD assessment, for example fish baffles on culverts. These can add significant cost if retro-fitted towards the end of a project.

The abstraction/impoundment licence is commonly required for hydropower projects, for the construction of weir intakes. Our industry-standard LowFlows software allows for low flows in a watercourse to be calculated quickly, allowing you to assess the potential impact of hydropower schemes and ensure that they are designed to maintain sufficient flows for environmental purposes.

We have significant experience of environmental permits in the construction sector. Again, early liaison with regulators is vital. We advise that clear sediment management plans are developed and put in place before construction begins. This ensures that you can present regulators with a robust management system to control pollution.

The last word

Watercourse consents are crucial to protect the ecological and hydrological functioning of surface-water and ground-water bodies in the UK.

WHS recommends early liaison with regulators to confirm specific requirements.

Pre-plan before beginning any construction work.