A septic tank is a key component of a septic system, a small-scale sewage treatment system common in areas that lack connection to main public sewers. After the sewage enters the septic tank, the wastewater passes through an infiltration system or soakaway and into the ground, or into surface water. This is known as small sewage discharge.
When you are purchasing a residential property that has a septic tank the conveyancer/solicitor acting for you needs to raise sufficient enquires of the seller. In England and Wales it may be that the owner of the property may require an environmental permit to make a discharge to the groundwater or to surface waters. An environmental permit contains detailed rules and conditions strictly regulating a discharge.
Most small sewage discharges from residential properties do not cause environmental issues provided that the tank is well maintained and does not discharge near a sensitive area for protection of the environment or a groundwater source. Discharges to groundwater and surface waters (such as rivers) are regulated under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016 and came into force on 1st January 2017 which means that most discharges to groundwater or to surface waters require an environmental permit.
So how do you know if the system is exempt from requiring a permit? The following criteria needs to be met which are set out in the General binding rules. In summary:
For a new discharge which is one which started on or after the 1st January 2015 the following additional rules apply:
Considerations when buying or selling a residential property in England and Wales
If you are buying or selling a property in England and Wales should consider whether the small sewage discharge qualifies for an exemption under the EP regime.
Registration for an exempt small sewage discharge is no longer required in England and regulatory burdens have been reduced. Effectively, the exemption registration scheme has been replaced by the two sets of general binding rules as mentioned above. (Registration is still required for an exempt small sewage discharge in Wales.)
The Law Society Property Information Form (third edition) contains queries in relation to septic tanks and the seller will need to disclose and provide written information stating that a small domestic sewage discharge is being carried out on the land and setting out its maintenance requirements.
You should also satisfy yourself that the septic tank:
A prudent buyer/seller should also take into account any costs for replacing a tank that does not meet the standards under the EP regulations 2016.
You should also think about instructing a surveyor to inspect the tank to confirm it meets the requirement and satisfies the criteria for the exemption.
You should also identify the location of the septic tank. This is particularly important where the tank is located on someone elses’s property. The conveyancer/solicitor can investigate whether there are appropriate rights and obligations in place.
The importance of these enquires should not be forgotten. If the septic tank is defective it could cause contamination problems at the property. You could also find yourself being on the other end of a bill from a neighbouring property for contaminating their land.
If this happens you may liable to carry out remediation under the contaminated land regime under Part 2A of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, Water Resources Act 1991 or the Environmental Liability Directive 2004.
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