Preparing for the big sewer transfer

Private sewers and lateral drains are to be transferred to water companies - but how can drainage contractors prepare for this? Sally Nash has some answers.

Last year the government announced its decision to transfer private sewers and lateral drains into the ownership of the water and sewerage companies in England and Wales. The reason for the shake-up was to remove the burden of maintenance and repair from householders, and achieve a more integrated sewerage network.

So far, so good. But the move will undoubtedly have huge implications for the water industry. There is a raft of issues to address, such as the cost of funding the initiative, establishing how much new pipe work water companies will be responsible for, the effect on small drainage companies, and training and health and safety implications.

One of the uncertainties for water companies and contractors is that nobody knows when the regulations will be introduced. A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) told WET News that the responses made in the recent consultation were under consideration, but there was no timescale for the transfer.

“This is going to take time, and even if we did something now, a transfer wouldn’t be possible until the next price review – so we could be talking 2013,” said the spokeswoman.” Some websites are still suggesting the transfer could take place shortly after 2010.

The National Sewerage Association (NSA) represents contractors, training organisations and equipment suppliers and designers engaged in the operation and maintenance of private and public sewers throughout the UK.

NSA chairman Phil Reaney stresses that the difficulty with the current position is that no date has been set for the transfer. The indecision means that companies represented by the organisation are struggling to understand the demands that will be put on them on transfer. “This indecision means that companies are unwilling to expand in order to meet demand,” says Reaney.

Increased workload

The transfer, he says, should ensure regular maintenance and repair is carried out on the transferred sewers, as well as those in current water company ownership. He hopes this would bring about increased workload for drainage contractors.

The NSA – in conjunction with other trade bodies and the water companies – is looking to introduce a registration card for all drainage operatives. This registration system is intended to pull together the various skills training and competencies into one register, and to issue cards identifying the work types that the individual cardholder is skilled in carrying out.

The scheme is intended to be managed by EU Skills. If the water companies introduce this registration system into their procurement procedures, it should ensure only fully-trained operatives work on drainage systems.

The NSA is working with Defra and other drainage organisations in order to inform and educate and to ensure companies working in the current private drainage arena have the opportunity to tender and win work.

There are steps that both water firms and small drainage contractors could be taking, says Kevin Ridout, head of quality enhancement at Ofwat. Ridout says that water companies could prepare for the changes by assessing the amount of pipe work involved.

Another area to focus on is to find out where the pumping stations are.

Water UK believes small drainage contractors could join forces in order to bid for larger contracts. The long lead-time could give the independent small or medium-sized drainage contractor time to form alliances, says Ridout.

The extra responsibility is considerable, as Water UK estimates the transfer of private sewers to water and sewerage companies would increase the length of sewers companies would have to maintain.

A study for Anglian Water estimated the length of private sewers in the company’s supply area at up to 30,000km – practically the same length as their total existing network.

Phil Mills, deputy chief executive of Water UK, told WET News that a number of

concerns have been raised at the steering-group meetings, including uncertainty surrounding length and condition of private sewers.

Best estimates could be that bills for sewerage rise between £6-£12, adds Mills.

“When Defra announced the transfer, some people misinterpreted the timing and thought that it had happened straight away,” says Mills. “There will be a communications exercise to get the message across about the changes in the run-up to transfer.”

Mills says: “Water companies that have to go through onerous procurement routes for contracts are likely to deal with larger contractors, but these may, in turn, employ these smaller co-operatives.”

At the steering group meetings, views were expressed that it might take four or five years before one-man/two-men bands are in a position to bid for work. However, Water UK does not think it will take that long.

Small drain-clearance companies were a bit late in coming to the party, says Mills, especially as the whole issue of transfer had been rumbling for many years.

Legal issues

Another issue concerns lateral drains and establishing exactly where the blockage is. A host of legal issues might include assessing whether the drain is in a customer boundary, or on the company side. Also, the location of all sewerage pumping stations needs to be established.

“If they are attached to properties, there may be health and safety implications,” says Mills. “Water companies may have to physically relocate them.”

Ofwat’s Ridout believes it will be easier to stage the transfer of private sewers first, then followed this with lateral drains on single properties.

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