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Warning to homeowners with private drainage

Anyone buying or selling a property with private drainage needs to be aware of major changes which come into force later this year and which requires registration with the Environment Agency by 31 December 2011 warns Paul Burbidge, partner at Gullands solicitors.

Many homes up and down the country are not connected to a public sewer because they are located in the countryside or in other places that are too far away from sewers.  They use small, private sewage treatment systems, septic tanks or, in exceptional circumstances, cess pools to deal with their domestic sewage.  

Discharges from septic tanks and small sewage treatment plants are mainly exempt from the need to have an environmental permit, but they will now all need to be registered with the Environment Agency.

After 1 January 2012 it will be a criminal offence to carry on a small sewage effluent ground water activity unless it is authorised by an Environmental Permit or registered as an exempt facility and there could be a fine of up to £50,000 or a prison sentence if found guilty.

Paul Burbidge comments: “Registration as exempt is free if:-

  • the tank or small sewage treatment plant is not near to a protected or designated area for the natural environment;
  • it is used to treat sewage for eleven people (two cubic metres) per day or less and the discharge goes into the ground; or
  • it is used to treat sewage for twenty-seven people (five cubic metres) per day or less and the discharge goes into a river or stream”.

Key questions which should be raised about an existing facility are:

  • “Is it a cess pool?  Is it sealed and not leaking and emptied every few weeks?  If so, no registration is required.” 
  • “Is it a septic tank?  Does it discharge directly to surface water?  If so, it will require a permit and is not eligible for an exemption.  If it is discharged to the ground it must not be more than two cubic metres per day which is taken to equate to about ten bedrooms.”
  • “Is it a treatment or “package” plant? If so, discharge to surface water of up to five cubic metres and to ground of up to two cubic metres per day from a treatment plant may be registered as exempt.”

If you are selling your home you need to:

  • Find your Discharge Consent;
  • Note that the Regulations require the current occupier to provide the next occupier in writing with details of any exemption and records of maintenance and repair for a minimum of five years

Paul Burbidge concludes: “Obviously, this new requirement is an example of a potentially expensive pitfall to a smooth property transaction.  A purchaser will not easily forgive the advisor who failed to check this out at the buying stage.  Equally, unforgiving will be the vendor whose sale flounders or the sale price falls upon discovery of something nasty lurking beneath the ground!”