Private Sewers and Lateral Drains

The vast majority of properties in England are connected to and served by mains drainage. That is the public drainage system that is maintained, repaired, serviced etc by a water authority such as Yorkshire Water. 

The remainder of properties are served by private drainage systems such as septic tanks or cess pools. For details of some of the statutory responsibilities in relation to such systems please refer to the article entitled: Regulation of Private Drainage Systems published on Rollits website in February 2011.

For those home owners whose properties are served by mains drainage it often comes as something of a surprise to them to learn that, whilst their property does drain to the public sewerage system, there is a length of private or lateral drainage which does not form part of the public system and is, therefore, either their sole responsibility or their joint responsibility with their neighbours and adjoining owners.

One of the reasons for this is that historically the drains leading from a house or other building, across the land belonging to that property, often across neighbouring land, and finally to the point of connection with the mains sewer were not constructed to the same high standard as the main public sewer and water companies did not want responsibility for the maintenance of drains when they did not know what standard they had been built to.

This left the responsibility for drain maintenance and repair with individual householders. One might expect the title deeds and other documents relating to the property to reveal the extent of the private length of drainage and details of their exact responsibility. However, the reality is that title documents are rarely that detailed and, particularly with older properties, the exact route can only be determined by a thorough inspection on-site and responsibilities for maintenance are often a matter of reasoned deduction from the wording in the title deeds. In many cases there will be no information at all, which can lead to disputes when work is necessary or a problem arises. 

The cost of works to such private drains can run into thousands of pounds depending on exactly what the problem is. Some domestic buildings insurance policies provide cover and insurance is available from some water companies against this expense but, in the absence of such insurance cover, many households would face financial difficulty in paying for such works if they needed to do so.

The previous government carried out a consultation on the current proposals (the respondents to that consultation being mainly local authorities and water authorities) to ascertain if the existing system was satisfactory and to propose various options for change.

Following the consultation process the government, first Labour and now the Coalition, resolved to transfer responsibility for private sewers and lateral drains to the water companies responsible for the public drainage systems across the country. 

Draft regulations were put before Parliament in September last year and it is anticipated that the transfer will start in October this year, however, the exact detail of the regulations has yet to be released.

It is expected that, in return for taking on the potentially onerous burden of maintaining an estimated 200,000km of drains across the country, the water companies will increase the sewerage charge element of the water rates / tariff to recoup the additional cost and cover the risk that they are taking on.

Putting aside the additional cost to households which are already hard pressed in the current financial climate the proposals ought to be a positive step for a few reasons:

1. They will remove the prospective burden of potentially prohibitive costs to households who are suddenly faced with, for example, a collapsed private drain which is shared with another property or which sits outside their property boundaries. Under the current system, they would have to shoulder the expense of those repairs themselves (or perhaps share it with one or more neighbours if it was a shared private drain)

2. The issue of establishing who has responsibility for particular private drains will become a non-issue as it will be the water company for the area in question.

3. With a clear established responsibility for private drains, there should be little, if any, scope for dispute about what works are required, who meets the cost and who does the work.

4. Drainage repair works should, going forwards, all be carried out to the same or a similar standard since it will be the water companies` contractors carrying out the work rather than private companies who may, or may not, have the same quality control systems in place.

However, there are, as one would expect, some downsides:

1. The first is the additional cost to households which will be recovered as part of the water rates / water meterage tariff. Reports suggest that the likely increased cost will be somewhere between £3 and £25 per household per annum although this will undoubtedly differ for households who remain on fixed water rates and those that are on a metered tariff.

2. Not all private drains will be transferred by the regulations. Any drains which are within the boundaries of an individual property and serve that property and only that property will remain the responsibility of the household in question. This means that households will be left with a length of drain which they are still responsible for and which still carries the issue of unexpected financial cost in the event of a problem with that particular part.

3. The regulations will not, at least initially, transfer responsibility for pumping stations or other mechanical plant which serves existing drainage systems. The water companies are to have a period for inspecting such systems and ascertaining the likely burden of taking on responsibility for maintenance and repair of those systems. This will allow them to assess whether any remedial works are required to bring them to a satisfactory standard prior to them taking the transfer. What this could mean for households served by such systems is that they will face a charge from the water company before responsibility for them is transferred. Many households may not be able to cover such a charge and it is not clear, at present, how this will be addressed. It may be that the water companies will take the view that they can recoup the cost necessary by a further increase in tariff / rates for a fixed period after which they will drop the rates / tariff so that they are only then collecting for maintenance in the future.

All in all though the regulations seem like a positive step for households as whilst bills are likely to increase, it will remove a large part of the potential financial burden on households which have problems with such drains and should reduce the scope for disputes.

Companies that provide drainage repair, maintenance and other solutions are likely to be less happy with the changes!

Posted on: 02/06/2011

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.

Back to News articles
Back to News articles

Sign up to email news

Sign up to receive email updates and regular legal news from Rollits LLP.

Sign up