If you are planning to buy or sell a property with a septic tank then you should be aware of the relevant regulations. It is an offence to discharge sewage to ground or surface waters without an environmental permit. However, most discharges of domestic sewage will be exempt provided certain requirements are met.

The current law is to be found in the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016 (“the Regulations”) which came into force on 1 January 2017 and consolidate earlier regulations. The Regulations specifically refer to the General Binding Rules for small sewage discharges (“the General Binding Rules”).

The General Binding Rules

The General Binding Rules were first introduced on 1 January 2015. The General Binding Rules consist of the conditions contained in the Regulations and the technical requirements specified by the Environmental Agency in guidance to operators.

The operator is the person who has control over the operation of the septic tank or sewage plant (“the system”). This could be the owner of the system, someone who uses it (e.g. a neighbouring landowner) or another person who has agreed to be responsible for the maintenance of the system in a written agreement (e.g. a tenant).

The General Binding Rules were designed to simplify the regulation of small sewage discharges. Septic tanks and small sewage treatment plants no longer need to be registered and there is no legal requirement to keep records of maintenance (although this is advisable).

Key Points

  • You can discharge up to 2 cubic metres per day to the ground (e.g. back garden) using either a septic tank or small sewage treatment plant. The Environment Agency has published a calculator for householders to work out the daily discharge.
  • You can discharge up to 5 cubic metres per day to surface water (e.g. river or stream) but you can only use a small sewage treatment plant not a septic tank. Historic septic tanks that discharge to surface water must be replaced or upgraded by 1 January 2020. You will need to replace or upgrade the system before this date if you sell the property.
  • The system must comply with the relevant British Standard that was in force at the time of the installation and must be operated in accordance with the manufacturer’s specification. Maintenance must be undertaken by someone who is competent and waste sludge must be safely disposed of by an authorised person.
  • Discharges starting on or after 1 January 2015:
    • require both planning permission and building regulations approval for the system;
    • are not permitted if any part of the building that the system serves is located within 30 metres of a public sewer or if the discharge could reasonably be made to the foul sewer; and
    • will require a permit if the discharge is in or close to designated sensitive areas.
  • A cesspit is a sealed tank and owners do not need to comply with the General Binding Rules or apply for an environmental permit. However, the cesspit must be maintained and emptied regularly by a registered waste carrier.

Conveyancing issues

  • When a property is sold, the operator must give the purchaser a written notice stating that a small sewage discharge is being carried out and give a description of the waste water system and its maintenance requirements.
  • If you currently have a septic tank that discharges to surface water then the sale will trigger the requirement to replace or upgrade the system.
  • Buyers should satisfy themselves that any system is in good working order and does not cause pollution. There could be costs involved in engaging a surveyor to inspect the system and ongoing maintenance inspections. There can be further costs if a septic tank needs to be upgraded or replaced or does not qualify for exemption under the Regulations.
  • It is important to identify the location of the system and check that there appropriate rights and obligations are in place if the system is located on someone else’s property.

Offences and penalties If a small sewage discharge is not meeting the General Binding Rules then the Environment Agency will usually try to provide advice and guidance to help resolve the issue. If this is not successful further enforcement action may be taken.

This note only applies to properties located in England as different requirements apply to properties located in Wales.