Going underground


From 1 October 2011, water and sewerage companies in England and Wales took over responsibility for “private sewers” and “lateral drains”.

In order to appreciate the effect this is going to have on property owners, we first need to understand what sewers and lateral drains are.

A sewer is a pipe that carries waste water away from more than one property. A lateral drain is the section of a pipe that serves one single property but lies outside the property’s boundary. A lateral drain ultimately connects to a sewer.

All properties – i.e. both residential and commercial – will potentially be affected by the changes. It is estimated that around 8.6 million properties in England and Wales – nearly half of all properties – are connected to a private sewer.

Responsibility for the repair and maintenance of private sewers and lateral drains previously lay with the individual property owners. This responsibility extended until the point at which the pipe connected to the public sewer.

All private sewers and lateral drains connected to the public sewerage network before 1 July 2011 transferred to the relevant water company on 1 October 2011. Water companies have billed this as “good news” for property owners as the change of law means that ownership and maintenance for private sewers and lateral drains has been transferred to the water company. The main advantage to property owners is that this change brings peace of mind and clarity regarding ownership.

Government consultation papers have stated that the following sites are not likely to fall within the transfer regulations: caravan parks, council provided traveller sites, airports, ports, railway stations and “some commercial or industrial sites”. Shopping centres and industrial estates have been cited in a ministerial statement to Parliament as examples to illustrate the latter.

Because little is known about the extent and condition of current private sewers and lateral drains, this makes it hard for the water and sewerage companies to calculate an exact cost for their new responsibilities. The Government estimates that the transfer could increase customers’ bills by between £3 and £14 per year.

Pumping stations were excluded from the transfer on 1 October 2011 (these will instead transfer on 1 October 2016), as were private sewers and lateral drains which:

  • are occupied by a railway company; or
  • are situated on or under Crown land and the relevant body has opted out of the transfer.

Property owners need to be aware that, as a result of the transfer, water companies will have statutory powers under the Water Industry Act 1991 to enter private property to carry out maintenance of the newly acquired drains and sewers. Water companies’ requirements regarding building close to or over public sewers will also apply to these newly transferred pipes.

It should be pointed out that, even after the transfer on 1 October 2011, property owners will still be responsible for any internal plumbing within the curtilage of their property and also the section of pipe leading to the public sewer. There is a right of appeal against the transfer to Ofwat, the regulator of the water and sewerage industry in England and Wales. However, anybody wishing to appeal must do so within two months of receipt of publication of the water company’s sewer adoption notice.

These new laws will also affect property developers in that any new pipes and drains which are intended to connect into the public sewerage system will have to comply with national mandatory standards of construction and the developer will have to enter into an adoption agreement with the water and sewerage authority before the sewer can be connected.

The main change here from the previous regime is that it will no longer be possible to connect to the public sewer without an adoption agreement. There are concerns within the property industry that this could lead to delays on new schemes.


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