Save our sewers

Much has changed in the decade since the launch of the Campaign for the Renewal of Older Sewerage Systems. But we are still largely neglecting the infrastructure, writes co-founder Stephen Battersby

It is hard to believe that it is almost ten years since the Campaign for the Renewal of Older Sewerage Systems (Cross) was formally launched by Joan Walley MP. A lot may have changed since December 1996 but it remains true that, as a nation, we still largely take our sewerage infrastructure for granted.

It is also true that leakage of clean water from the supply system has a much higher media profile than leaking sewers – at least until the latter collapse or flood houses. We have had some ministers who took the issue of sewers more seriously than in the past such as Michael Meacher and Elliot Morley, but they are no longer in government. The current minister, Ian Pearson, from his lack of public utterances anyway, does not appear to share their concerns, although we can still be hopeful that the issue of private sewers will be addressed as promised.

The relative concern for the water supply and sewerage infrastructure is reflected in the rate of renewal and renovation as set out in Table 1. Water UK admitted that in 2002/03 around 5,000km of water mains were renewed and relined, around 1.5% of the total. Only 389km of sewers were renovated or replaced, about one in 1,000.

In a report published three years ago, which demonstrated an increased interest in the issue, the National Audit Office noted that the number of sewer flooding incidents had remained “fairly static” since 1994, although the number of properties at highest risk had fallen. But, as the Public Accounts Committee report pointed out, when homes are flooded internally with sewage, great distress and inconvenience is caused to those affected, never mind the risks to health. There were 6,000 such incidents in 2002-03.


There have been two particular issues that have concerned Cross since its inception: the problem of under-investment in the public sewer infrastructure and the difficulties of private sewers. This also means a lack of maintenance arising from a lack of awareness on the part of those responsible.

It is perhaps also indicative of the difficulties faced by local authorities that in recent years a training seminar provided by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health on the legal implications of drains and sewers has proved surprisingly popular, and has often been over-subscribed (with even the occasional delegate from sewerage undertakers). Over the years, both the removal of “agency agreements” from local authorities and retirements have led to a lack of knowledge and expertise in many local authorities and indeed even within the sewerage undertakers. It seems there will be few now employed who were dealing with the sewerage infrastructure before the creation of the regional water authorities in 1974. Indeed, from speaking to local authority officers, it is often true that even those in the RWAs in 1989 are no longer there. This means that the relationships between local authority officers (to whom residents turn when they have a problem) and those in the water and sewerage companies are not as good as they could or perhaps should be. And it can be a lengthy process to resolve the status of a sewer that continues to deposit sewage in a garden. Despite what higher management might think, and indeed what Water UK asserts, the experience of many local authority officers on the ground is of unhelpful and uncooperative staff from the sewerage undertaker.

In 1999, the then environment minister Michael Meacher promised that sewerage renewal would move up the agenda, but lamented the lack of available information, including on drains. Although information on public sewers and their condition has improved, the same cannot be said for those not vested in the sewerage undertakers.

Utilities in general are said to open up 4 million holes in UK streets each year at an estimated cost of £1B, and with indirect costs of £4B. There are large potential savings to be made by the water and sewerage companies in rapidly and accurately locating assets without inflicting third party damage. The UKWIR Vista project aims to locate them by finding a way to integrate existing digital and paper-based records and link these with data from satellite and ground-based positioning systems. We know that even where there are records including the public sewer maps, many are inaccurate because reference points such as buildings have moved or been demolished. The aim is to create the technology to enable the construction of a dynamic map of all the UK’s underground assets. This dovetails with another research project, Mapping the Underworld, which is researching improved sensor technologies to find pipes and new ways of tagging newly buried pipes so that they will never be lost.

Knowing the location of the sewers, and even their condition (which is often not the case until total failure) and investing in their renovation and renewal are two different things as can be seen when we consider the rate of renewal and renovation of the so-called critical sewers (Tables 1 and 2). These are those public sewers, according to the WRc Sewerage Rehabilitation Manual, whose collapse or repair will be expensive or disruptive or those which are considered to be strategically important. The principal structural criterion is that, if a sewer should fail, the subsequent costs would be significantly higher than if it were rehabilitated before failure.

The characteristics of critical sewers have been set out as: greater-than-average depth; located in bad ground or high water; of brick or stone construction; having man-entry size; and in close proximity to buildings or major underground services. It therefore follows that it might be expected that there would be significant investment in these given that almost 17% of the 72,000km of such sewers are considered to be in the worst two condition categories, grade 4 and 5 (see Table 3). But detailed knowledge about the actual condition of the network, particularly the non-critical sewers, is variable. Table 1 indicates that we still have under-investment in these. In some parts of the country, the rate of investment (or lack of it) since privatisation implies that some of these sewers will have to last more than 1,000 years. That may be asking a lot given that many will have been installed when road traffic was far lighter than today and water usage was also far less (another argument for greater water conservation).

We are also more aware of the impact of leaking sewers on groundwater. A recent report from the Environment Agency highlights how vulnerable groundwater is from human activities including leaking sewers. Nevertheless, Ofwat considers them as serviceable, being more concerned with immediate and obvious failures, such as lack of hydraulic capacity and collapse leading to sewer flooding, and pollution incidents.

There is still a distortion in investment of the sewerage undertakers. There is also a lag between the proposed investment taken into account for in price settlements by Ofwat and actual work. According to the latest report, the asset value of the sewerage infrastructure is £126.81B and that of the water infrastructure is £69.17B. But in 2005-2006, infrastructure renewals expenditure for sewerage was £202M compared with £342M for water. In the five-year period to April 2006 gross capital investment in maintaining the underground assets of the sewerage service was £1,082M, but the equivalent sum for the water service was £1,868. To that extent, Cross has not been successful in securing a rebalancing of this investment, reflecting that as a nation we continue to take the sewerage infrastructure for granted.

Nevertheless it is apparent that since the formation of Cross there has been increased political interest in the sewerage infrastructure, primarily the problems of private sewers. In the 1980s, the government did not believe a review of sewerage law was justified. But that has not been the case in recent years. It remains largely true that, although home-owners accept responsibility for drains on their own land, they assume that any pipeline not on their land or draining other houses will be some one else’s responsibility. The government has recognised the anomalous situation that exists, and has at least made some movement to reduce the number of new private sewers.

Defra has tackled the problem in two ways – firstly, by seeking to improve the construction of all new sewers and drains. Thus, for example, changes to legislation in the Water Act 2003 introduced the notion of pubic laterals, and all new laterals connecting to a public (but not private) sewer must be built to an adoptable standard.

The first step in this approach however was the introduction of the Protocol on Design, Construction and Adoption of Sewers in England and Wales as an attempt to ensure that past problems were not repeated in the future.

The protocol developed and agreed by Defra, the Department for Transport Local Government and the Regions (now DCLG), the Welsh Assembly Government, the House Builders Federation and Water UK was published in 2002.

Compliance was wholly voluntary and there was no guarantee that a sewer built to an adoptable standard would be adopted. Research for Defra has found that less than 1% of developments built after the publication of the protocol were designed and constructed in line with the protocol. The main reasons include the cost implications placed on developers to comply with the protocol and its lack of legal strength to make developers comply. The protocol was considered to be out of date and ineffectively regulated and publicised. The wholly sensible recommendation to Defra was that the requirements of the protocol should be made mandatory on all parties whose inaction so far reflects the overall attitude to drains and sewers.

The second approach by government has been to look at existing private sewers and drains. There has been a review of private sewers and drains resulting in a general consensus that all private sewers should be adopted, which would allow for a more comprehensive approach to maintenance and investment.

Although there is agreement on transfer to the sewerage undertakers, there remain some issues such as costs and how they should be borne, and also the impact on those small businesses that have been involved in repairing and clearing private sewers. Do they face a loss of business in the event of such a transfer?

Ownership issues

Some work has been undertaken on consumers’ views and the main findings confirmed what was largely known. For instance, respondents were not aware of their responsibilities regarding ownership of drains and sewers serving their property. This is due to a lack of information to property owners on which aspects of the drainage/sewerage system are under their ownership, and the implications and responsibilities that come with ownership.

There is a widespread belief that responsibility for drains and sewers only extends to the property boundary, as is the current situation regarding responsibility for water supply pipes. Despite this ignorance, once customers became aware of the issues and responsibilities associated with private sewer ownership, they strongly supported the proposal to transfer ownership. And their preference was for ownership to be passed to the water and sewerage companies. Views on the current ownership situation have been summarised as being unfair, complicated, untenable and inconsistent.

The latter is because some customers had the risks associated with private ownership, while others in similar houses or streets did not. Most respondents could see few advantages in maintaining the status quo.

Respondents supported the proposed transfer to the water and sewerage companies, regardless of where they lived, their demographic profile or whether or not they perceived themselves to be an owner of a private sewer. There was national majority support for this to be compulsory and overnight rather than voluntary or in stages, although in some regions the staged approach was the majority view.

The majority of respondents believed that all customers should pay for transfer of ownership rather than only those who own private sewers or lateral drains, as this would be fairer. Again, though, in some regions the respondents felt that only customers with private sewers and lateral drains should pay.

The Parliamentary All Party Committee on Sewers and Sewerage has focused very much on the issue of private sewers, but the establishment of this committee showed that the condition of the sewerage infrastructure was of wider political concern than just that of Joan Walley. Paddy Tipping and Andy King from the committee, with the assistance of Cross (a member of the all-party group) first tabled an amendment to the Water Bill to provide for the adoption of existing private sewers. The government took this on board, and section 105A of the Water Act 2003, when brought into force, will enable the implementation of the proposed adoption of the 260,000km of private sewers.

The proposed approach will help spread the costs across all the bill-payers. But there will have to be safeguards to ensure that it is not used as a cover for increased prices without the matching increased investment.

The adoption of private sewers will be largely welcomed by local authority officers, who will waste less time trying to resolve problems of responsibility. It will overcome the sort of problem experienced in one local authority, where the undertaker was prepared to install a new sewer to replace a problematic pitch-fibre private sewer, only for Ofwat to refuse the costs to be spread across all customers, rather than those owner-occupiers who could not afford the replacement or repair costs in the first place. In these circumstances, we question why we are waiting for further announcements from Defra such as on the Regulatory Impact Assessment – all seems to have gone quiet.

It can be concluded that, almost ten years after the formation of Cross, there have been and continue to be changes in the right direction. But these are slow, and we need to continue the arguments for greater investment in renewing and improving our decaying sewers.

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