New rules for septic tanks – what do I need to know?

In the UK, 3.5 million people live in homes that are not connected to the main sewage network.

This means they are required to use alternative methods of waste treatment – one of which is a septic tank. These are installed underground, and use bacteria to treat waste that is discharged into the tank. However, in recent years, there has been mounting concern about the impact septic tanks are having on the environment as a result of water pollution. Therefore, on 1 January 2020, new rules come into force in an attempt to reduce the negative effect that septic tanks could be having on the environment. If they don’t comply, owners could face a fine of up to £100,000.
 

What is changing?

According to the Environmental Permitting [England and Wales] Regulations 2016, it is illegal to discharge waste liquid into surface waters (i.e. waterways such as ditches, streams or rivers). Indeed, under new rules introduced by the Environmental Agency on 1 January 2015 (known as the General Binding Rules), any newly installed septic tank would no longer be permitted to discharge into surface waters. However, the rules granted owners of existing septic tanks (i.e. those installed prior to 2015) a five-year exemption period, during which they would be expected to upgrade their tanks. Now, that deadline is drawing near.

According to the General Binding Rules, if you are the ‘operator’ (i.e. an individual who owns a property that uses a septic tank) of a septic tank that currently discharges into a waterway, you have less than three months to take action or risk violating the rules. Owners can upgrade their tanks via one of the following methods:

  • Replace the tank with a full sewage treatment plant, or
  • Install a drainage field allowing waste to discharge to the ground instead.

Whichever option you choose, the upgrade must be completed by 1 January, or when you sell the property if this occurs prior to the deadline. Under extremely rare circumstances, you may be able to apply for an Environmental Permit to continue discharging waste into surface waters; however, this is definitely not an option that owners should rely on, as the Environmental Agency has stressed that these will only be granted under exceptional conditions.
 

Other rules to be aware of

Ensuring your septic tank is compliant with the new rules outlined above may only be half the story, however. The General Binding Rules also include several other stipulations for owners of septic tanks installed after 1 January 2015:

  • A septic tank cannot be installed less than 30 metres away from a main sewer. If more than one property shares a septic tank, this distance should be multiplied by the number of properties to use it (i.e. 60 metres if two properties share).
  • You must have building regulations approval (or sometimes even planning permission) to have a septic tank installed.
  • If you intend to have a septic tank installed within 50 metres of a ‘sensitive area’ (i.e. an area of conservation or protection), then you must apply for a permit.

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