Sewer ownership disputes to end

Confusion over who should maintain sewers should come to an end when the water companies are required to shoulder full responsibility.

Private sewers and lateral drains which are currently the responsibility of the owners of the properties they serve are to be transferred into the ownership of the nine statutory water and sewerage companies in England.

The move will release householders from a liability most don't even realise they have until something goes wrong and they face a bill for fixing the problem. It's estimated that up to 50% of properties connect to private sewers in some form or another and that most other properties connect to a public sewer by means of a lateral drain.

The costs of transfer will be met by an increase in the sewerage element of bills for the generality of customers.

Although these are uncertain, preliminary estimates give a range of bill increases of between £3 and £11 across the nine sewerage companies in England.

An extensive review of private sewers began in 2001, prompted by the concerns of householders. A consultation in 2003 revealed a high level of support for transfer, and the Government concluded there was a clear case for action.

Announcing the decision, Environment Minister Ian Pearson said: "Transfer of private sewers and lateral drains will relieve owners who currently bear the risk of costs for maintaining and repairing them, costs that can be worryingly high.

"Most private sewer owners do not even realise they have responsibility for their sewers until a problem occurs.

"Understandably, they assume that their sewer and lateral drain are looked after by the water and sewerage company. It can come as quite a shock to discover that they are liable when, for example, their sewer blocks or collapses.

"As well as benefits to current private sewer owners, there will be environmental wins in having a much greater proportion of the sewer network in the management of the water and sewerage companies. They will be able to plan maintenance and resolve problems more easily and comprehensively."

Transfer will, according to Government, bring three key benefits:

  • It provides a solution to a range of private sewer and lateral drain problems affecting householders, such as lack of awareness of their responsibilities and unwillingness or inability to co-ordinate or contribute to potentially high costs of maintenance and repair of their pipes;

  • It brings clarity for owners, local authorities and sewerage companies, all of whom typically become involved when these problems arise;

  • It will significantly help address a lack of integrated management of the
    sewerage network as a whole, and provide greater efficiency of effort, environmental stewardship and expenditure.

    The Government intends to launch a public consultation to seek views on how the transfer should be implemented. The consultation will also be used to examine how to prevent the proliferation of new private sewers, in order to prevent the recurrence of existing problems.

    David Gibbs

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