2020 Deadline for Septic Tank Upgrades

If your property does not drain to the mains you need to be aware of a legal obligation to upgrade which might affect you. The general binding rules were published in June 2015 and circulated for various reasons with a whisper rather than a roar.

These rules affect the “operator” of a septic tank or sewage treatment plant and depending on the terms of your lease, if applicable, this could be either owner or tenant. If you drain into a septic tank shared with neighbours then each of you is an operator and you must jointly comply with the general binding rules.

Any new septic tank/sewage treatment unit must have both planning permission and building regulations approval. If it’s been installed since 1 January 2015 and you didn’t get these permissions then you should apply retrospectively for them both. If your property is within 30 metres of a mains sewer the Environment Agency will require you to connect to the mains instead of installing a sewage treatment unit; developers building more than one property must multiply the 30m by the number of dwellings.

There are special rules for non-standard systems, for example reed beds, and in those cases you should contact the Environment Agency to find out what your obligations are.

Once sewage has been treated in a septic tank or sewage treatment unit, clean(ish) water will be released and must go somewhere. From 1 January 2020 if your waste discharges directly to a river or stream from a septic tank, your apparatus must be updated to take in a small sewage treatment plant or make some other arrangements. But don’t sit back and wait – if before that date it’s actually polluting, the Environment Agency will require you to upgrade earlier. The new treatment system must meet the relevant British Standard which was in force at the time of installation, though curiously to me if your system pre-dates the British Standards (pre 1986) then you can leave well alone.

The key word here is ‘directly’. Septic tanks aren’t pretty or clever but they do the job they were designed for without too much fuss. If the clean(ish) water discharges directly into the watercourse you’re going to have to upgrade, but if it discharges through a drainage field/infiltration system then you may be OK to leave it be.

If your system doesn’t meet the general binding rules then you’ll need a permit – formerly called a consent to discharge – there will be a fee and a 13 week wait for your decision.

There are additional rules where the discharge is in various types of sensitive areas which will be a relief to anyone particularly fond of shellfish.

The problem that operators may face with compliance of course is when the septic tank/soakaway or sewage treatment unit lies on land that does not belong to the operator – which is far from unusual. Will the operator’s deeds contain the correct easements? The right to use drains and run to a septic tank does not automatically give the right to lay electricity cables to upgrade the septic tank to something that runs on electricity. Negotiation of easements and the legal work involved may be a more expensive exercise than installing new apparatus. If you are looking at collaborating with neighbours because your sewage arrangements are shared then a layer of potential for disagreement is added to the mix.

It seems to me that these rules are a bit like the Government‘s efforts to get the motor industry to get the dirty old bangers off the road in favour of safer and greener models but with a crucial difference; the motor industry is highly regulated and vehicle ownership is documented, computerised and known. Enforcement provisions exist, but, how the Environment Agency will track down the remote dwellings with decades old septic tanks and Heath Robinson systems isn’t known. The only way feasible will be to put the responsibility on the transporters of the waste – but, time will tell!