Private sewer tangle nears resolution

The confusion over private sewers may be nearing a resolution as new research reveals the implications of transferring responsibility for repairs onto water companies.

Around half of all households in England and Wales are connected to private sewers, which they are responsible for maintaining in a good state and paying for any repairs. But the rules marking out who must pay are far from clear, prompting the Government to look into transferring all responsibility onto water companies (see related story).

A new study now suggests that for many companies such a transfer would double the length of sewers they are responsible for.

The study, for Anglian Water, estimates the length of private sewers in the company’s supply area at up to 30,000 km – practically the same length as their total existing network which comprises 31,000 of pipe.

The implications are far-reaching, as the situation is likely to be similar for most water companies in England and Wales, according Simon Gee, associate director of consultants Faber Maunsell who led the study.

“This affects all water companies equally – the only slight difference might be for Thames Water who might get off lighter than everybody else,” Simon Gee told edie.

Having estimated the length of pipe the changes are likely to affect using a GIS model, the consultants will now be looking more closely at ways of mapping and managing private sewer networks.

The Government drive to transfer private sewers to water copanies was prompted by complaints from householders who, completely unaware of their responsibility for repairing sewers, were forced to “learn the hard way,” Simon explained.

A complex and not entirely logical system of rules governing private sewers surely didn’t help.

If the drainage pipe serves two or more properties and was built after 1 October 1937 it is dubbed a “private sewer,” meaning householders must jointly pay for any repairs, which may involve anything from unblocking pipes to digging up the road in front of their home. A pre-1937 house, meanwhile, will get the problem fixed for free.

“At the moment there’s a bit of the disparity in terms of the service that people get for their sewage charge,” Simon Gee explained. “You could live in a pre-1937 house on one side of the road and the water company will come and fix the sewer, and if you live on the other side of the road and the house was built in 1938 then you have to pay for it.”

Transferring all responsibility onto water companies, with a surcharge for all water customers for repairing sewers, whether private or public, would spread out the costs and most importantly avoid delays and confusion.

The costs of such an operation will be known more precisely at the end of the Anglian Water pilot study.

More details on sewer management can be accessed on the Defra website.

Goska Romanowicz

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