Septic Tanks - What you Need to Know - New Legislation 2020

In 2015 new legislation came into force setting out general binding rules in respect of septic tanks. The legislation prohibits discharging directly from a septic tank into any water source. The legislation granted a grace period of five years before sanctions apply. The sanctions will become live on 1 January 2020. Despite the five years’ grace period many homeowners and prospective buyers where the property is connected to a septic tank are still not aware of this legislation. 

If you have a septic tank that discharges directly to a surface water you will need to replace or upgrade your system by 1 January 2020. We recommend that where properties with septic tanks discharge directly to surface water are sold before 1 January 2020, responsibility for the replacement or upgrade of the existing system should be addressed between the buyer and seller as a condition of sale to avoid any nasty surprises or expense post completion. 

Whilst the sanctions are not live until 1 January 2020, it is important to be aware that if the Environmental Agency finds evidence that your septic tank is discharging to a surface water and is causing pollution, you will need to replace or upgrade your system earlier than 1 January 2020. The Environmental Agency will usually insist this is completed within one year, although this differs on a case by case basis. 

You may apply to the Environmental Agency for a permit for an existing or new discharge to a surface water from a septic tank, however a permit is only ever granted in exceptional circumstances. 

How can I comply with the new regulations?

1. Connect to a mains sewer – this isn’t always an available option. 

2. Install a drainage field, also known as an infiltration system, so that the septic tank discharges direct to the ground without causing pollution. It is however, important to be aware that you cannot use a soakaway, well or borehole to discharge to the ground. This option is usually complicated and costly. The Environmental Agency can assess the risk of using this system in your proposed location. 

3. Replace your septic tank for a sewerage treatment plant as a sewerage treatment plant will produce a cleaner form of water and is therefore considered clean enough to discharge straight into a watercourse. This option can be costly but nevertheless necessary and indeed the most realistic option for most.

British Standard requirement  

Your treatment system must meet the relevant British Standard that was in force at the time of installation. The standards currently in force for new systems are:

  • BS EN 12566 for small sewage treatment plants
  • BS 6297:2007 for drainage fields

Your treatment plant met the British Standard in place at the time of installation if:

You can also ask the company that installed your equipment to confirm that it complies with the British Standard that was in place at the time the equipment was installed.

If your treatment system was installed before 1983 there was no British Standard in place. You do not need to do anything to meet the British Standard requirement. You must still meet all the other general binding rules.

Enforcement and sanctions

The Environmental Agency will be responsible for enforcement and sanctions for which there are many and varied, they can include:-

  • Issuing a warning
  • Statutory enforcement notices
  • Injunctions
  • Civil sanctions
  • Requiring remediation works to be carried out
  • Issuing a formal caution
  • Prosecutions and orders ancillary to prosecution
  • Suspension or revocation of environmental permits 

This list is not exhaustive but demonstrates the varied actions available to the Environmental Agency. They have stated that their approach will be firm but fair with the principles or proportionality in the application of the law, consistency in approach, transparency in terms of how they operate and what can be expected, targeting enforcement and accountability for the enforcement action they take. 

All of the above is most important if you intend to retain your current house with a septic tank. However if you are intending to sell your property then there is certain information which you must provide to the prospective buyer in writing which is as follows:-

  • A description of the system
  • The location with reference to a plan
  • Details of any changes made to the system
  • Maintenance details for the system
  • Maintenance records

No doubt there will be many prospective buyers who will not want the hassle and expense of purchasing a property that requires the installation of a new system. We are already seeing delays in the conveyancing process due to additional enquiries and concerns being raised in respect of septic tanks and indeed in some cases transactions have fallen through as a result. It is also the case that some sellers are having to reduce the price of the sale due to the obvious costs which will be incurred in having a install a new system.

It will be interesting to see how this legislation is enforced and to see the impact of this on homeowners and indeed the conveyancing process.

Get in touch with Lanyon Bowdler’s experienced residential property team if you have any concerns or questions.