Those households and small businesses not connected to mains sewerage and which have to treat their own sewage using either a septic tank or a small sewage treatment plant, will be pleased to know that the regulatory regime governing the control of small sewage discharges (SSDs) has been simplified as of 1 January 2015. From now on, providing they comply with the general binding rules (governing things such as installation standards, volume of discharge, safe disposal of sludge etc), most operators of SSDs that do not fall within environmentally sensitive areas will not need an Environment Agency permit.

What does this mean?

The government has taken the view that the majority of septic tanks and sewage treatment plants, providing they have been properly installed, properly maintained and regularly emptied, are rarely a pollution risk. Therefore, if your system is properly maintained then you will not need to take any action. However the changes do mean that you will no longer be required to register your septic tank with the Environment Agency (EA) or keep maintenance records (although we strongly advise all operators to do so). The EA will be working with the water companies and local authorities to keep track of all domestic sewage systems.

Where permits will be required

Permits will still be needed if you are responsible for a SSD within a defined area from which drinking water is abstracted (groundwater source protection zone 1s SPZ1) and/or a ‘designated sensitive area’ which includes some obvious contenders such as SSSIs, shellfish protected waters, and nature and wildlife reserves which are largely aquatic in nature. The list has been reduced in length (for instance scheduled monuments have been removed) and can be found on  Away from designated sensitive areas, the EA does have authority to require permits if there is concern about potential pollution caused by the cumulative effects of SSDs on a local river or habitat.

Buying and selling property with a septic tank

Currently, if you are selling a property with a septic tank or sewage treatment plant, you will need to give the purchaser details of your system as part of the property information required by the conveyancing process. If you are buying a property with a domestic sewage system, it is advisable to survey the system before purchase, either agreeing any repairs with the owner or renegotiating the price, as you will be responsible for ensuring that it is fully compliant with the general binding rules.

The Environment Agency is at pains to reassure owners and operator of septic tanks and sewage treatment plants that these regulatory changes are designed to remove a layer of administration. However, the onus remains on operators to ensure that all systems are in good working order and are not polluting. The Agency has also said that it will only use enforcement powers as a last resort and has stated that it would prefer ‘to provide advice and guidance’ to those struggling to comply. As ever, if you have any concerns about permits, compliance, or buying or selling a property with a septic tank, contact a member of the property team.

About the author

Alex Robinson Partner

A partner in the Farming and Rural Business Team, Alex specialises in non-contentious property matters for agricultural and rural landowners and tenants.