Common queries.

Most of the fens area is at or below sea level and is dependent on the artificial flood defences constructed and maintained by the Middle Level Commissioners and/or other internal drainage boards (IDBs) and the Environment Agency to evacuate excess surface water and generally protect it from flooding. The Agency have produced maps of the vulnerable, low lying areas where the likelihood of flooding is greater than 1% a year (fluvial inland flows) or 0.5% a year (tidal) which are designated as ‘flood plain. ‘Defended floodplain’ in simple terms means those parts of those designated areas which are so defended.

No defences can provide absolute protection and defences can only operate up to the level of protection to which they are designed and maintained. Floods are classified as having a return period and the general level of defence provided in the Middle Level Commissioners’ area is against a flood of up to 1:100 years, which is a flood with a 1% chance of occurring in any year. It should also not be forgotten that very local problems can occur which are not within the control of the Commissioners or IDBs, e.g. flooding from sewers.

They are statutory flood defence bodies created within areas of special flood defence need and which provide a flood defence service within those areas, which are called ‘Districts’. The area of the District is set under statute. As well as the statutory District, (which is sometimes also called the “rateable area”) the Middle Level Commissioners or IDBs are sometimes also able to control certain operations in the catchment area draining to, but outside the statutory District. This part of the catchment area is called “the highland area”. To provide this service they maintain and improve watercourses and operate other assets, such as pumping stations and sluices. The Commissioners look after the major rivers of the area, such as the Forty Foot, Sixteen Foot, Whittlesey Dyke, King’s Dyke, Old Nene and the Middle Level Main Drain, etc. The smaller IDBs look after the smaller arterial watercourses within their Districts. All of these authorities have produced policy statements indicating the levels of service that they will provide.

Monies are raised primarily from a rate levied directly on agricultural properties within a District and a special levy, payable by the local district council, in respect of all other types of property. The membership is, therefore, made up of farming representatives, generally elected for a three-year term, or local authority representatives, basically pro rata to the proportions in which they fund the operations of the Commissioners or the IDB.

The Agency maintain main rivers (in this area the Peterborough Nene and the Great Ouse systems) and sea and tidal defences.

No. The majority of watercourses are ‘private’, which means that the owner of the watercourse or the owner of property adjoining the watercourse is responsible for that maintenance. The Commissioners maintain the major Drains, as referred to in 3 above, while IDBs will only usually maintain the more important watercourses in their District, designated as District Drains. While they have powers to do work or require work to be done by third parties on ‘private’ watercourses, the Commissioners or IDBs will only exercise such powers where the circumstances make it appropriate to do so, since they will be spending public money in doing so.

Contact the Middle Level Offices where staff will be pleased to advise you or look on our website at

For flood and watercourse queries outside a Drainage District please contact either the Lead Local Flood Authority (Cambridgeshire County Council or Norfolk County Council) or the Environment Agency.

You will need consent from the Middle Level Commissioners or the local IDB before any works in the channel, e.g. culverting or filling, are carried out, whether the watercourse is private or a District Drain.

If the watercourse is a District Drain, any work within the statutory byelaw distance requires the specific consent of the Commissioners or the IDB. The byelaw distances are 20 metres (66 feet) for a Middle Level watercourse and 9 metres (30 feet) for an IDB District Drain. You will also need consent to discharge an increased rate or volume of flow to a watercourse, for which a charge, based on the cost of dealing with such extra rate or volume, is levied. The monies so raised are used to help pay for the extra maintenance or capital works required as a result of such development.

Do not forget that other consents, such as planning permission, Environment Agency consent, e.g. for impounding structures, and water quality and local authority consent for culverting, may also be required.

The link below opens a pdf document, provided by the Environment Agency, outlining the rights and responsibilities of those who own land or property next to a watercourse.

Living on the Edge

Middle Level Commissioners
85 Whittlesey Road
PE15 0AH

Tel. 01354 653232
Fax 01354 659619