People living in the countryside of England and Wales often have to shoulder the whole burden of drainage from their home because there are no sewers nearby, and there is no obligation on water companies to provide them.
In addition, many rural residents will have to carry out costly improvements before January 1st 2020. How do you know if you will be affected?
There has not been much advertising or public information about the Environment Agency’s General Binding Rules for off-mains drainage in England and Wales, which were quietly announced in 2010. Of course, ignorance of regulations is not a defence if you break them!
Around one million homes in England and Wales are not connected to the sewer system, and most of these are likely to have septic tanks. From January 1st 2020, or earlier if the property is sold, it will be illegal (definitely in England) for a septic tank to discharge into any watercourse. If your tank does this, you will have to replace it with a new drainage system, costing thousands rather than hundreds of £s. Needless to say, there is no financial help for this. The official view seems to be that if you cannot afford to upgrade, you should not be living off the sewer grid.
The General Binding Rules are good for the environment, but ignore the repercussions if people lack the funds to upgrade, and in addition those who do not comply face potentially unlimited fines. Does the prevention of sewage contamination trump the rights of financially challenged households to remain in their homes? Is this an attempt to force the less-well-off out of the countryside, a modern version of the Highland Clearances or the Enclosure Acts? It seems wrong to me that it appears no pot of money has been put aside to help those on low incomes to make the mandatory changes.
If you are within 30 metres of a mains sewer, you must connect to it. For homes further away, If you have discharges of less than 2,000 litres of wastewater per day, you can use a septic tank or a sewage treatment plant with a drainage field. Over 2,000 litres a day, and up to 5,000 litres, you cannot have a septic tank but must use a sewage treatment plant.
Drainage firm WTE Ltd in Pocklington, East Yorkshire, winner of the Best Sustainable Sewage Treatment Equipment Manufacturer in the UK Award in 2017, has guidance on the costs involved.
If your septic tank discharges to a water course, you have to provide a ‘drainage field’ instead, which requires you to have a large lawn or area of land – around 100 square metres, I have been told – into which soakaway pipes are laid. A new septic tank may set you back around £800 to £1,200 and could be about £1,500 to put in. The big expense is the drainage field, some £5,200 for 100 metres of drains, according to WTE. That gives a total of £7,500 to £7,900.
Then there are annual costs of some £150 for emptying the tank, and putting money by to replace the drainage field after around 10 years. That’s about £520 a year at current prices.
Alternatives to septic tanks are more complicated. An extended aeration sewage treatment plant costs about £1,850 to £2,400, WTE estimates, and between £600 and £3,000 to install. They can be drained into a ditch, so don’t necessarily need a drainage field. They need electricity to work, typically between a minimum of 50p and about £3.50 a week, but can be more for large households. They need to be emptied and serviced annually, for a total of about £200 to £250 a year more. Several suppliers promote these as the most cost-effective option, but the systems still demand up-front payments of about £2,500 to £5,400 or more.
A traditional sewage treatment plant is another possibility. This also requires electricity, comes at a pretty hefty price and needs either a drainage field or discharge to a ditch. The system will set you back about £1,800 to £3,200, installation will be £2,000 to more than £3,000, and if there is no adjacent ditch, a drainage field will be around £5,200. It will be easy to say goodbye to up to £11,400 or so. The annual maintenance cost can be nearly £1,000 — £100 to £400 for emptying, electricity of £80 to £180, and £100 to £375 for servicing.
A filter treatment sewage plant does not need electricity but has a total cost of some £4,500 to £7,500 to buy and install, albeit a relatively low annual maintenance cost of about £250.
A reed bed filtering system is a huge financial stretch for all but the super-rich, costing approximately £16,000 to install, according to WTE, and over £2,500 a year to maintain, on the basis of complete replacement every 10 years.
Then there is the old-fashioned cesspit, a large holding tank without any waste treatment, which typically can need emptying every four to eight weeks, depending on usage, and this service may cost £1,000 to £2,000 a year, or more.
New systems will need planning permission and building regulations approval – more costs – and upgrades have to be signed off as meeting building regulations.
There’s a lot of technical information online, definitely worth reading if you could be caught out by the General Binding Rules.
Whichever way you look at it, off-grid drainage is far more expensive than paying your water company to use the sewer grid. If your system in Wales must be upgraded but you cannot afford it, now’s the time to contact your Assembly Member. It is of course environmentally desirable to reduce pollution, and the new rules are beneficial in this regard. Even so, putting all the costs onto homeowners, regardless of their financial means, smacks of injustice.
Information from Natural Resources Wales, the successor to the Environment Agency here, reveals that the January 2020 deadline is not as definite as it is in England. This is confusing because the General Binding Rules apply both in England and Wales, but is not the only confusion arising from devolution.
Natural Resources Wales stresses, though, that every owner of a septic tank or domestic sewage treatment system in Wales must register with them straight away, i.e. before January 2020. Permits may require upgrades to be carried out, and in some difficult conditions owners may need to apply for a discharge permit, costing £125 currently. See here for more details on how to apply, and here for decision-making guidance from NRW.
For more information, see for example http://www.hutchinson.co.uk/resources/ea-general-binding-rules