Rural properties and the law concerning septic tanks

For many homeowners, it is a fact of life that they have no connection to the mains sewerage system. Little thought may be given to sewerage arrangements, other than to the periodic expense of having septic tank sludge removed. However, the law has become more restrictive in recent years and homeowners should review their private sewerage systems to ensure that they do not fall foul of it.

A discharge from a septic tank or sewage treatment plant (the former being more common in older systems and the latter, Klargester-type system being common in newer homes) requires an environmental permit, unless it benefits from the exemption for certain Small Sewerage Discharges. Sewage treatment plants may discharge directly into surface or groundwater, without a permit, if a number of conditions are met, including that no more than five cubic metres per day are discharged and that it does not include trade effluent. In either case, the discharge must not cause pollution.

The Environment Agency has set a deadline of 1 January 2020 for operators of septic tanks which drain into surface water to replace their systems and bring them into line with current regulations, after which time we can expect the Agency to consider taking enforcement action. Homeowners will have to either replace systems with a sewage treatment plant, install a drainage field so that the septic tank can drain into ground water, or connect to a mains sewer. If the homeowner opts to install a drainage field, so changing the discharge from surface to groundwater, the Environment Agency will treat this as a “new” discharge and it will therefore only be permitted if it cannot reasonably be made to a foul sewer (whether public or private).

Private sewerage arrangements are rarely treated as important issues in conveyancing, but those looking to purchase rural properties in the coming years should take particular care to ensure that they will not find themselves facing significant and unexpected remedial costs. If in doubt, homeowners and buyers should take professional advice sooner rather than later: it will always be better to bear the expense of remedial work than to run the risk of legal sanction.

Miles Coates is a solicitor in the Property department at Barker Gotelee Solicitors in Suffolk.

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