Private Sewers and Lateral Drains
The vast majority of properties in England are connectedto and served by mains drainage. That is the public drainage systemthat is maintained, repaired, serviced etc by a water authoritysuch as Yorkshire Water.
The remainder of properties are served by private drainagesystems such as septic tanks or cess pools. For details of some ofthe statutory responsibilities in relation to such systems pleaserefer to the article entitled: Regulation of Private DrainageSystems published on Rollits website in February 2011.
For those home owners whose properties are served by mainsdrainage it often comes as something of a surprise to them to learnthat, whilst their property does drain to the public seweragesystem, there is a length of private or lateral drainage which doesnot form part of the public system and is, therefore, either theirsole responsibility or their joint responsibility with theirneighbours and adjoining owners.
One of the reasons for this is that historically the drainsleading from a house or other building, across the land belongingto that property, often across neighbouring land, and finally tothe point of connection with the mains sewer were not constructedto the same high standard as the main public sewer and watercompanies did not want responsibility for the maintenance of drainswhen they did not know what standard they had been builtto.
This left the responsibility for drain maintenance andrepair with individual householders. One might expect the titledeeds and other documents relating to the property to reveal theextent of the private length of drainage and details of their exactresponsibility. However, the reality is that title documents arerarely that detailed and, particularly with older properties, theexact route can only be determined by a thorough inspection on-siteand responsibilities for maintenance are often a matter of reasoneddeduction from the wording in the title deeds. In many cases therewill be no information at all, which can lead to disputes when workis necessary or a problem arises.
The cost of works to such private drains can run intothousands of pounds depending on exactly what the problem is. Somedomestic buildings insurance policies provide cover and insuranceis available from some water companies against this expense but, inthe absence of such insurance cover, many households would facefinancial difficulty in paying for such works if they needed to doso.
The previous government carried out a consultation on thecurrent proposals (the respondents to that consultation beingmainly local authorities and water authorities) to ascertain if theexisting system was satisfactory and to propose various options forchange.
Following the consultation process the government, firstLabour and now the Coalition, resolved to transfer responsibilityfor private sewers and lateral drains to the water companiesresponsible for the public drainage systems across thecountry.
Draft regulations were put before Parliament in Septemberlast year and it is anticipated that the transfer will start inOctober this year, however, the exact detail of the regulations hasyet to be released.
It is expected that, in return for taking on the potentiallyonerous burden of maintaining an estimated 200,000km of drainsacross the country, the water companies will increase the seweragecharge element of the water rates / tariff to recoup the additionalcost and cover the risk that they are taking on.
Putting aside the additional cost to households which arealready hard pressed in the current financial climate the proposalsought to be a positive step for a few reasons:
1. They will remove the prospective burden of potentiallyprohibitive costs to households who are suddenly faced with, forexample, a collapsed private drain which is shared with anotherproperty or which sits outside their property boundaries. Under thecurrent system, they would have to shoulder the expense of thoserepairs themselves (or perhaps share it with one or more neighboursif it was a shared private drain)
2. The issue of establishing who has responsibility forparticular private drains will become a non-issue as it will be thewater company for the area in question.
3. With a clear established responsibility for privatedrains, there should be little, if any, scope for dispute aboutwhat works are required, who meets the cost and who does thework.
4. Drainage repair works should, going forwards, all becarried out to the same or a similar standard since it will be thewater companies` contractors carrying out the work rather thanprivate companies who may, or may not, have the same qualitycontrol systems in place.
However, there are, as one would expect, somedownsides:
1. The first is the additional cost to households which willbe recovered as part of the water rates / water meterage tariff.Reports suggest that the likely increased cost will be somewherebetween £3 and £25 per household per annum although this willundoubtedly differ for households who remain on fixed water ratesand those that are on a metered tariff.
2. Not all private drains will be transferred by theregulations. Any drains which are within the boundaries of anindividual property and serve that property and only that propertywill remain the responsibility of the household in question. Thismeans that households will be left with a length of drain whichthey are still responsible for and which still carries the issue ofunexpected financial cost in the event of a problem with thatparticular part.
3. The regulations will not, at least initially, transferresponsibility for pumping stations or other mechanical plant whichserves existing drainage systems. The water companies are to have aperiod for inspecting such systems and ascertaining the likelyburden of taking on responsibility for maintenance and repair ofthose systems. This will allow them to assess whether any remedialworks are required to bring them to a satisfactory standard priorto them taking the transfer. What this could mean for householdsserved by such systems is that they will face a charge from thewater company before responsibility for them is transferred. Manyhouseholds may not be able to cover such a charge and it is notclear, at present, how this will be addressed. It may be that thewater companies will take the view that they can recoup the costnecessary by a further increase in tariff / rates for a fixedperiod after which they will drop the rates / tariff so that theyare only then collecting for maintenance in thefuture.
All in all though the regulations seem like a positive stepfor households as whilst bills are likely to increase, it willremove a large part of the potential financial burden on householdswhich have problems with such drains and should reduce the scopefor disputes.
Companies that provide drainage repair, maintenance andother solutions are likely to be less happy with thechanges!
This article is for general guidance only. It provides useful information in a concise form. Action should not be taken without obtaining specific legal advice.