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Sewer transfers and impacts

18th February 2020
Industry briefing

Did you know that in October 2011 ownership of most private sewers, lateral drains and pumping stations that connect to the public sewer network were transferred to the ownership of the regulated sewerage companies in England and Wales? This meant an estimated doubling of water companies’ sewer network overnight.

Why was this change instigated? Previously homeowners with private sewers were responsible for their maintenance and repair and the associated costs, but many were unaware of this liability until a problem developed. The Government believed that transferring sewers to water companies, so that they are recognised as “public sewers”, would ensure they were properly maintained and alleviate pressure on property owners. Sewerage undertakers have a statutory responsibility to maintain public sewers.

A big change

There has been no historical requirement to record the location of private sewers. Consequently, at the time of transfer, water companies were unaware of the location of many of their new assets. Since the transfer, they have been working hard to map these sewers. This will take a number of years as water companies do not have the financial resources to proactively map these networks without passing these costs onto customers. Most companies are therefore adding sewers to their records as they come across them in the course of their normal operations, as well as utilising whatever historical records are available to them. These sewers are continually added to plans as companies uncover them.

Given the size of this transferred network it is likely that potential buyers will have a public sewer within or close to their boundary. With transferred sewers, not all of these may be shown on public records.

It’s always worth knowing what’s in, around and under a potential new home, especially if there are plans to extend or develop it. The CON29DW will show the location of all known public sewers, providing an invaluable resource in the home buying process.

Access and development problems

Water companies have statutory rights granting them access to private land to inspect and maintain their assets. Sewers under buildings or patios can create problems for access, and property owners have an obligation to ensure any public sewers in their land remain accessible. Whilst ensuring a water company can access private land is inconvenient for the property owner, if the sewer isn’t easily accessible, these problems can be even more troublesome, with water companies ultimately having the right to take all necessary steps to safeguard and access their network.

It’s also important for homeowners and homebuyers to know the location of public sewers if there are plans to undertake any development work. So, it is vital that homebuyers’ professional advisers are clear on their client’s intentions for the property.

Any development near a public sewer requires consent from the water company as part of the planning application, with companies having the right to require their sewers be protected, diverted, or in some case denying permission. Although a survey should always be undertaken to locate underground assets prior to development work, the CON29DW is an invaluable indicator to water company assets – both mapped and unmapped – affecting the property.

Not all sewers transferred – some complexities

With newer developments, there have also been instances where part of a network has been adopted, but other parts have not. Under the legislation, sewers that didn’t discharge into the public network weren’t transferred, so it’s now quite common on developments for foul sewers to have transferred, but surface water sewers, which often drain to watercourses, SUDS or other methods, are still private as they bypass the public sewer network.

There are also occurrences where the sewers directly serving a property have transferred, but some of the downstream sewers remain private – something which didn’t occur prior to the transfer.

Finally, although the sewer transfer was intended to be enacted in two stages, and future sewers to be adopted at the time of connection, the legislation for this has never been enacted. Some sewers were also exempt in the initial transfer. Consequently, in England, a network of private sewers is again building up.

How can DWSN members help?

The CON29DW, compiled by specialist and expert staff, is the best source for locating these sewers and identifying any potential risk.

Overall the transfer of these assets to public ownership is a good thing for homeowners, reducing their liability and removing the burden of maintaining sewers themselves. But it is always worth knowing what is in and around a property prior to purchase. The CON29DW remains the best source of identifying water company assets and making sure there are no hidden surprises.

If you want to find out more, use this postcode look-up to contact the CON29DW provider for the address you need to check.