Septic tanks: New general binding rules

The new rules for septic tanks have been little published so far, but could have an impact on the selling price of land ownership, suggests Alice Jenkins.

Rural homeowners face potentially expensive obligations to bring their septic tank into compliance with the new general mandatory rules. These regulations prevent septic tanks from being discharged into water courses or drainage ditches, with non-compliant tanks having to be replaced by January 2020 or when the property is sold.

The role of the septic tank

A septic tank is a chamber used to treat domestic sewage from rural properties that cannot be connected to sewer. They are tightly regulated to avoid waterway contamination and other environmental issues.

Many domestic septic tanks drain into water courses or drainage ditches instead of flowing into the ground. According to the new regulations, all septic tanks require an environmental permit. The environmental agency does not issue permits to owners of domestic septic tanks that drain into watercourses or drainage ditches.

Therefore, if a domestic septic tank drains into a watercourse or a drainage ditch, it will need to be replaced or upgraded to comply with the new general mandatory regulations. The following options are available to make the drainage system compliant:

  • Installing a drainage field (also known as an infiltration system) so that the septic tank can be discharged into the ground instead;
  • Replacing the septic tank with a small sewage treatment plant (which may be exempt from the new regulations);
  • Connection of the property to the sewage system; or
  • Upgrading an existing septic tank that is discharged to surface water by installing a septic tank conversion unit (although the owner must obtain approval and demonstrate that the treatment plant treats the wastewater to a standard equivalent to a treatment plant).

Only in exceptional cases can an owner apply for a permit to discharge the septic tank into surface water.

Effect of the new rules

All of the above options can result in major work requiring planning permission and building code approval, and it is very likely that at least one option on the property will be out of the question. Property owners need to commission a professional report explaining how the drainage system complies with the new regulations. All of the work can be costly (potentially costing tens of thousands of pounds) and if the work isn’t done by January 2020 it will be an issue selling and buying the property. Before exchanging contracts, the buyer and seller must agree on who will be responsible for the work that must be performed within a reasonable period of time after the sale, typically 12 months.

We find that most of the septic tanks were not upgraded or replaced before the January 2020 deadline, and the scope of the work required is only recorded during the sale and purchase process. This often becomes a point of negotiation for the selling and buying price.

Even if there isn’t an upcoming sale, it can be a problem for homeowners in the country. As the environmental agency can request that a septic tank be upgraded or replaced if it detects evidence of watercourse pollution from the discharge.

Some drainage systems can be exempted from the requirement for an environmental permit. These do not apply to septic tanks, but can apply to small domestic sewage discharges in or near designated sensitive areas, provided that the volume threshold conditions are not exceeded. There are a number of requirements to qualify for an exemption, but the general mandatory rules state that they do not apply to septic tanks.

If the septic tank does not comply with the new regulations, it can contaminate the neighboring land and the operator of the system is obliged to repair any damage caused and / or be fined heavily by the environmental authority.

Points to note

It is important to know that the term “operator” is broader than just the owner of the property. This can either be the owner of the property on which the septic tank is located, the user (even if the septic tank is on a neighboring property) or the tenant if their lease contains obligations to maintain the septic tank. Each of these operators can be held liable by the environmental authority to repair any damage at their own expense.

The new general binding rules only apply to properties in England. Septic tanks in Wales can continue to drain into watercourses, at least for the time being. However, all Welsh septic tanks must be registered with Natural Resources Wales and a certificate of registration should be provided to the buyer during each transportation process.

As a general rule, we recommend that all tanks and treatment systems, whether in England or Wales, be checked to ensure they have adequate capacity, serviced and repaired at least once a year if they are not in good working order. In addition, all septic tanks in a tidal area below the “mean low water source” must be cleared.

If you are looking to buy a property that is served by a septic tank, you need to know the location of the septic tank. They are often located on neighboring properties and can be shared with other properties. In this case, buyers and their transport companies must ensure that they have adequate access rights and maintenance obligations to ensure that no problems arise.

The new septic tank regulations have barely been published, and we can see that most septic tank operators are unaware of them. Unless work has been done to replace or upgrade a septic tank discharged into a watercourse or drainage ditch, it is very likely that it will not comply with the new regulations. To avoid any delays and possible price difference in the sale of the property, it is highly recommended that owners seek professional advice to ensure their septic tank is compliant.

This article was first published in the Estates Gazette in August 2020.

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