Drainage Ownership

25 June 2012

This substantive change received little media attention but brings about the biggest change in the management of the sewerage system since 1937 and will significantly impact both commercial and residential property owners. It is estimated that up to 50% of all properties will be affected by the change. There is currently only a statutory duty on sewerage undertakers to maintain public sewers they have adopted. Those that have not been adopted are private sewers, and the responsibility of their respective owners. Private homeowners who may be unaware of the fact they are burdened by the responsibility of the maintenance and repair of their private sewer stand to benefit by the changes as responsibility will be transferred to the local water and sewerage companies. The proposals will also impact on the ownership of lateral drains, which are sections of pipework that extends beyond the property boundary. Once the proposed transfer in October takes effect property owners will only have responsibility for drains within their own property. They will continue to be responsible for pipework within the property boundary that connects drains from the property to the sewer or lateral drain, unless there are other properties that drain through it, in which case those pipes will also be transferred into the ownership of the water and sewerage companies. These proposals aim to put an end to a complex system of ownership which caused confusion and disagreements between neighbours as to who was responsible for repair and will arguably remove the risk of costly repair bills for millions of customers. Water companies have advised that these small changes will come at the small price of a slight increase in water and sewage bills estimated to be £3 to £14 per year. Although the changes in law may bring piece of mind to landowners and provide clarity regarding the ownership of privately owned drains there may also be negative implications. On multi-let sites complex provisions may be in place in respect of sewerage and drainage which will be superseded by the changes outlined above. In addition favourable easements that may have been negotiated to allow for future relocation of the sewer or drain in the event of re-development will no longer be binding as the sewer or drain will be in the ownership of the respective water company. Under the proposals if any landowner does not want the transfer to go ahead it is vital that any owner exercises their right of appeal. Under the Water Industry Act 1991 water and sewerage undertakers are required to serve two months' notice before the planned adoption. Any objection to the proposed adoption must be served within this 2 month period. Given the logistical difficulties of identifying the ownership of all private sewers and lateral drains water companies plan to send out general notices rather than something specific to a particular property. It is important that such notices are read carefully and not ignored and confused with general circulars or junk mail. The main reason for objecting to such a transfer is that the proposed adoption will be detrimental to the person affected. As mentioned above it may be the case that an easement for use that allows a sewer to be relocated in the event of development of affected land and such 'lift and shift' rights would be lost if the sewer was adopted. Landowners must carefully consider now whether adoption of any of their lateral drains or private sewers give them cause for concern as any objection will need to be served in the very near future. If you require any advice in relation to the above and in particular would like to know whether it would be feasible and prudent to object to such an adoption please contact Mark Cornelius of this firm on 01245 228 105 or corneliusm@gepp.co.uk . Please note that nothing in this article constitutes legal advice and should not be construed as such.