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Drainage rules to protect our rivers

View profile for Clair Douglas
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There are approximately 1 million properties in the UK which are not connected to mains drainage.  It is particularly common for rural properties to have a septic tank or small sewage treatment plant in place of main drainage.

In 2015 the requirements changed with a key objective to protect rivers and streams from pollution caused by septic tanks and small sewage treatment plants.

Anyone operating, or planning to install, a small sewage treatment plant or septic tank must follow the General Binding Rules, as a minimum.  If an operator cannot comply with the Rules then they need to obtain a permit from the Environment Agency although such permits are only granted in exceptional circumstances.

Initially a deadline of the 1st January 2020 had been set for operators or buyers to upgrade or replace their systems so that they were compliant with the regulations. The Environment Agency has since removed this date from their guidelines.

Whilst the deadline of the 1st January has been removed by the Environment Agency, the Agency does state that you must have plans in place to carry out necessary work within a reasonable timescale. The timeframe provided by the Environment Agency is 12 months.

A person is deemed to be the operator of a septic tank if they are the owner of property that uses a septic tank, if they are the owner of a property that shares a septic tank with a neighbouring property or they are responsible for the maintenance of a septic tank under a written agreement, including leases and tenancy agreements.

The General Binding Rules vary depending on whether the septic tank or small sewage treatment plant discharges to ground or discharges to surface water.

Septic tanks that discharge directly into surface water are no longer permitted unless you have an environmental permit. The operator must, therefore, take action to upgrade or replace the system if the tank is not compliant. The options provided by the Environment Agency, available to the operator, to comply with the regulations include:

  • Connecting to a mains sewer (if possible);
  • Installing a drainage field, designed and constructed to the current British Standards;
  • Replacing the septic tank with a compliant small sewage treatment plant.

It is worth noting that The General Binding Rules specifically state that you cannot use a septic tank conversion unit or a reed bed for discharging into surface water.

Extra protection is in place in areas that have been designated as environmentally sensitive e.g. ancient woodland or within 50m of special areas of conservation; in these areas a permit is required. 

The installation of a drainage field will not always possible. This may be due to site constraints such as there not being enough space or the soil surrounding the drainage field not having sufficient drainage potential.

If an operator does install either a small sewage treatment plant or a new septic tank then they must have building regulations approval and they may also need to obtain planning permission. An operator should check with their Local Authority before commencing the work.

The Environment Agency has made is clear that both existing and new systems must be compliant and regularly emptied and maintained.

Systems which are not compliant could be subject to enforcement action by the Environment Agency which could be a fine (the values of which are at the Agency’s discretion) or even criminal sanctions.

If you would like to discuss your responsibilities then please do call us and speak to a solicitor within our specialist Agricultural Law department here at Crombie Wilkinson.

This article was written by Clair Douglas, Head of Agriculture & Landed Estates Team, based at our Malton office.