Adoption of Sewers (Home Improvement)

– in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 16 January 2015.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Anne Milton.)

Photo of Mark Pawsey Mark Pawsey Conservative, Rugby 2:34, 16 January 2015

It is a great pleasure to see you, Madam Deputy Speaker, in the Chair this afternoon and to see the Minister for farming, food and the marine environment, my hon. Friend George Eustice, at the Dispatch Box.

Many Members will be aware that new legislation was passed by this House in 2011 meaning that the ownership of private sewers and lateral drains was transferred to the 10 statutory water and sewerage companies. This welcome change, which had been sought over many years, came about in no small part as a result of the tireless work of my constituents, and particularly of Pam Brockway of the Woodlands Residents Association in Rugby. I drove through the estate this morning when I was dropping my daughter off at school, and I was reminded of the problems the estate had faced many years ago when the sewers, which had not been adopted by the water authority, failed. This resulted in great expense for many residents and led to the residents campaigning for many years for a change in the law.

The Water Industry (Schemes for Adoption of Private Sewers) Regulations 2011 were eventually introduced. This was a victory for home owners as they were no longer liable for unexpected and often large bills if anything went wrong with the private sewers on their land. They often did not know that they had responsibility for those sewers. When my constituent, Mrs Brockway, was faced with a £1,000 bill when her sewer collapsed, she decided to take action to bring about the much-needed change in the law.

Members of Parliament often get involved in matters brought to their attention by their constituents, and Mrs Brockway took the matter to the then MP for Rugby. It took 12 years, but the new legislation was eventually passed thanks to her determination, her industry and her refusal to give up, and thanks to the support of other residents, including Roy Barnes of the Woodlands Residents Association, along with the help of my predecessors, the former MP for what was then Rugby and Kenilworth, Andy King, and his successor, my right hon. and learned Friend Jeremy Wright. I pay tribute to all of them for their hard work. It is only right that in my opening remarks I should acknowledge the efforts of my constituents to get the law changed, because every home owner in the country owes them and all the other people who campaigned on this issue an enormous debt of gratitude.

I raise this matter today not with the intention of bringing about any changes to that hard-fought-for and much-welcomed legislation but to draw attention to the issues now being faced by many home owners when they seek to improve or extend their homes. They have to contact the water companies in these circumstances, and conflicting information is often given out. Also, the water companies often levy excessive charges against them when their proposed improvements extend over, or within 3 metres of, a sewer on their land. This is owing to the requirement for the home owner to apply for a building-over agreement.

Rugby is the fastest-growing town in the west midlands. It has double the rate of house building of that in the country as a whole, even before taking into account the sustainable urban extension of 6,200 new homes, whose development is just starting on the Rugby Radio site. I am very supportive of development; indeed, I am probably as pro-development as any MP in the House. I fully recognise the Government’s work to stimulate development through the adoption of the national planning policy framework, which has led to planning permission for 200,000 new homes being granted in the last 12 months. I also recognise the economic growth that arises from the building of new homes and the contribution to the economy that is made when people extend and improve existing homes.

I understand why the Government introduced legislation to simplify the planning system by allowing home owners to improve their properties, often without the need to apply for planning consent, although I do believe that there is a strong role for the planning system in preventing neighbour disputes. We are now in a situation in which the planning changes are making it simpler for home owners to extend their property, but the adoption of private sewers is pulling in the opposite direction. It is estimated that around 80% of home owners seeking to extend their property will need the consent of the relevant water authority, because the planned extension will go over or near what was formerly a private sewer.

There are important consequences of this situation. There have been examples of water companies refusing to give permission for home owners to extend their property owing to an expected repair to a sewer at some unknown point in the future. This has been known to happen after the planning application fees have been paid, which only adds to the great frustration of the home owners. In other instances home owners are being forced to absorb the cost of repairs to adopted sewers in order to gain permission from the water authorities, which can add significantly to the cost of improving their homes —conceivably, this can be more than the cost of the improvements themselves, when it will prevent a home owner from proceeding. The additional costs may prevent the home owner from adding value to their property through improvements, as may the costs of the works, where they exceed the value of the improvements. The home owner may, thus, not benefit from any added value.

There are six key points to consider. The first relates to the concerns over the legal requirement to obtain a building-over agreement. Different information is available from different water companies. Some distribute information stating that building-over agreements are a legal requirement for home owners looking to build on or near to a sewer when in fact they are not that. The second point relates to the excessive and divergent charges being levied by water companies—there is significant variation in those. The charges often include a map fee, which determines the presence of a sewer, an application fee and, in some instances, the cost of a CCTV examination of the sewer. Map fees can range from as little as £18 to as much as £60, and application fees can reach more than £500, adding to the significant bill for the home owner. I understand that in Wales the cost can prove even more excessive, as home owners are also required to amend the deeds of the property. Of course, the result of these little charges is that home owners may abandon their proposed works.

The third issue relates to variations in the amount of time the approval process can take. Although there is a set period of eight weeks within the planning system for routine planning applications to be decided—there is a requirement on the local authority to adhere to that—there is no such obligation on the water companies. In the absence of an agreed time limit, home owners often have to wait weeks, even months, before they know whether their improvements can commence.

The fourth issue relates to the cost of possible future repairs. I have alluded to instances where water companies are refusing to give their permission. I have been made aware of a number of cases where home owners are being forced to absorb the cost of repairs to adopted sewers in order to gain permission—the additional costs incurred can total several thousand pounds. The fifth issue relates to the fact that approximately 50% of sewers are currently not mapped by water companies. In some instances the home owners are being required to pay for the map, which can cause additional costs. There are no clear guidelines in a situation where no map is available, which can jeopardise any improvement project. The sixth issue relates to the permitted development rights that the Government have brought forward with the objective of cutting red tape. However, the requirement for permission from the water authorities is acting in the opposite direction and adding red tape, and results in additional costs and delay.

What can be done to remedy this situation? Despite the home improvements industry receiving assurances from the water companies that guidance would be issued, there is no industry-wide set of procedures and cost guidelines. I understand that the Government have previously declared their support for such a solution in guidance issued by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, when it said it was doing work

“with a view to establishing a streamlined process for approval of building over (or close to) small, shallow sewers, which represent the majority of transferred sewers.”

I, like many home owners, would very much welcome a move by all the water authorities to work together to adopt a set of guidelines to ensure that the system is transparent and that home owners have more protection. That could form a national code of conduct governing the process of securing a building-over agreement, and setting consistent costs for the application, map and CCTV fees. That would go a long way towards rationalising the application process, and would give a degree of practical certainty for home improvement projects.

Nobody is arguing that for a return to the pre-2011 situation, where householders were vulnerable to unexpected and often substantial bills to remedy faults in sewers they were not aware of or where potential liabilities would lead to the reduction in the value of properties and difficulties in achieving sales prices. My constituents have played such an important part in effecting change to that situation. This is a serious matter. The ability of a home owner to make improvements or extend is a key part of the aspiration of home ownership—an aspiration that this Government fully support. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments and the position of the Government in respect of reassuring home owners who are being subjected to uncertainty and additional costs when looking to improve their properties.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2:44, 16 January 2015

I thank my hon. Friend Mark Pawsey for raising this important issue. As he said, before 2011, home owners were responsible for their sewers and pipes. Should anything have happened to those pipes, it was down to the home owners to cover the expense, and attempt to recover costs from those neighbours who shared the same pipes.

In October 2011, the Government implemented the water industry regulations transferring the ownership of, and responsibility for, private sewers and lateral drains to the water and sewerage companies. My hon. Friend rightly pays tribute to the sterling efforts of his constituent, Pam Brockway and others, in bringing this unfair practice of passing the cost on to individual home owners to the attention of Government, which resulted in those legislative changes.

I have also had experience of this matter in my own constituency. I remember meeting in one of my surgeries an elderly lady who was being bullied by a cowboy builder to sign on the dotted line to say that she would pay £10,000 towards the upkeep of a private sewer that was collectively owned. She resisted that, but I have heard of many other such practices, often involving vulnerable people.

In addition to preventing unexpected and substantial sewer repair bills going to individuals, the 2011 transfer has also meant that the sewer network can be systematically upgraded over time. The consequence has been a regularly maintained and more resilient sewer system.

The 2011 transfer has resulted in a greater focus on the 2010 building regulations. The regulations set out how buildings should be built or improved. Although no changes were made to the 2010 building regulations, the transfer regulations enabled building regulations more effectively to achieve their aim of ensuring that new buildings and extensions are constructed in a way that does not adversely affect the sewers. Given the general lack of awareness among home owners before the 2011 transfer, private sewers were at great risk of compromise or damage when construction took place—ultimately at the considerable expense of individual home owners.

The local authority, or approved private sector building control body, has the final say on whether any works comply with building regulations, although they must have regard to any views expressed by the sewerage undertaker, such as when a sewer is within 3 metres of the proposed works. Furthermore, even if the developer disagrees with the building control body, there is the option to apply to the Department for Communities and Local Government for an independent determination.

I wish now to address some of the points made by my hon. Friend. He pointed out that the 2011 transfer could not resolve all the issues. He has highlighted six important issues including: the legal requirement for a build-over agreement; charges levied by water companies for build-over agreements and works to be done; the time taken for the process of agreement; and the paucity of information about where the sewers are located.

First, there is no formal legal requirement to obtain a build-over agreement. However, it is considered good practice to obtain the permission of the water company responsible for a sewer or drain affected by any proposed building project, and that is also encouraged by the approved building regulations guidance. Water and sewerage companies are best placed to advise on suitable actions or possible risks to the sewerage network as a result of building work.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point regarding the variance in the charges levied by water companies for build-over agreements. We all want to see that any such costs are reasonable, proportionate, appropriate and consistent; otherwise we will have saved home owners one expense through the 2011 transfer only to expose them to new costs.

My hon. Friend highlights the importance of guidance. He is right that the solution to these and many of the other issues would be a joint industry-developed code of practice governing the processes of securing a build-over agreement and bringing transparency to the costs involved. A code of practice could also address any issues concerning timing and make it clear where responsibilities lie for repairs to sewers when the construction is being carried out or who retains liability for the quality of the construction and its potential impact on the sewer underneath in the long term.

The Glass and Glazing Federation has already taken the initiative in drawing up a draft. The Government have been talking to the water companies about working with the Glass and Glazing Federation to reach a common approach and I am told that we can expect positive developments soon. I welcome that, but I want to see even greater momentum behind the idea of the code of practice. In advance of the debate, I contacted the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Dan Rogerson, who is responsible for water, forestry, rural affairs and resource management. The Under-Secretary intends to write to Water UK, the organisation that represents the water companies, to encourage that development. I hope that from this debate we will see momentum behind the idea of a code of practice, because given that there is no formal legal requirement for the build-over agreements, which are only set out in guidance, home owners are in a strong position to get credible guidance that prevents water companies from charging excessively for these agreements.

Photo of Mark Pawsey Mark Pawsey Conservative, Rugby

One or two water companies seem to be suggesting that the need for a build-over agreement is a legal requirement. Does the Minister agree that that information is inaccurate and should be withdrawn?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

They are incorrect in that. There is no legal requirement for a build-over agreement, but it is set out in guidance. The legal requirement is that people should have regard for the views of water companies, so they should consult them. There is no statutory requirement for a build-over agreement, but it is set out in guidance that they should be encouraged. I hope that that clarifies the position.

My hon. Friend raised an additional concern that many sewers are, as yet, unmapped. Section 199 of the Water Industry Act 1991 places a requirement on sewerage undertakers to maintain an up-to-date map of their sewers. However, ownership of some 220,000 km of unmapped sewer and lateral drain pipework transferred overnight in 2011. The impact assessment for the 2011 transfer estimated that mapping all that pipework as part of a distinct project would cost more than £1.3 billion. I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that to avoid unnecessary costs for water bill payers, water companies are updating their maps during the course of their normal activities. If the sewer or lateral drain does not appear on the sewer map, there is no requirement for the building control body to consult the water company.

My hon. Friend refers to the Government’s aim to cut red tape and the positive steps taken to streamline the planning regime and help stimulate the building industry. The building regulations set out requirements for construction and how structures are built. Fair and effective building regulations are vital to ensure that the public and the environment are suitably protected. None the less, I reiterate that there is no formal legal requirement to gain permission from water companies, although it is recognised as good practice in buildings regulations guidance.

In conclusion, my hon. Friend has raised an important point. I agree that the answer is to have a voluntary code of conduct supported by the industry and I believe that home owners are in a strong position given that there is no formal legal requirement for a build-over agreement. I encourage him to engage with the Under-Secretary and perhaps with Department for Communities and Local Government Ministers to make progress on the idea of a voluntary code.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.