New clause 19 - Power to require adoption of private sewers

Water Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 21 October 2003.

Alert me about debates like this

'After section 102 of the WIA there is inserted—

''102A Power to require adoption of private sewers

(1) The Secretary of State may be regulations establish a scheme to enable a sewerage undertaker to be required to adopt a sewer to which this section applies.

(2) A scheme under this section may apply to any sewer which is—

(a) situated within the area of a sewerage undertaker or which serves the whole or any part of that area; and

(b) not vested in a sewerage undertaker.

(3) Regulations under subsection (1) may amend section 105 so as to extend the appeals procedure to the scheme, provided that the appeal shall be heard by a person other than the person imposing the requirement to adopt.''.'

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Labour, Sherwood

I am pleased to discuss new clause 19 and to have the support of some long-standing campaigners on the issue that it addresses; my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud, for Falmouth and Camborne and for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Andy King) who has the important and unique distinction of being the chairman of the all-party sewers and sewerage group. While I am giving out accolades, I should also mention Stephen Battersby, who runs an organisation called the Campaign for the Renewal of Older Sewage Systems. He has been a strong advocate of the need to make progress on the issue of private sewers.

Sometimes amendments are described as probing. Let me be clear; this is a prodding amendment. I want to prod the Minister, who needs no prodding on the issue. Since he took on his extended post, he has shown a great deal of interest, commitment and action on the issue. The problem is a long-standing one, which has been around since the privatisation of the water industry back in 1991. I looked at the Water Industry Act 1991; the Committee sittings took place

in this Room 12 years ago, and I suspect that similar discussions to those we are about to have took place at that time.

The position is perfectly simple. Throughout the country there are a large number of properties with sewers that are not adopted. In the ambit of Newark and Sherwood district council—an area that part of my constituency covers—there are more than 1,400 properties that are not connected to adopted sewers. I should put on record my thanks to Newark and Sherwood district council, and particularly to Jeremy Hutchinson, one of its environmental health officers.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Will the hon. Gentleman clarify his point about the number of houses that he said were not connected to an adopted sewer? Are they connected to a sewer that has not been adopted, or are they not connected to any sewer at all?

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Labour, Sherwood

They are connected to sewers, but those sewers are not adopted by the sewage undertaker. That is not just a problem in the Sherwood area.

Photo of Mr Andy King Mr Andy King Labour, Rugby and Kenilworth

They are eventually connected to a public sewer, which is adopted.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Labour, Sherwood

We are talking about the bit in the middle, a subject that has been considered by consultants W.S. Atkins who were commissioned by the Minister and reported in June. The report is important and interesting. It shows that there are between 80,000 and 200,000 km of unadopted sewers. There is a big variation between those figures, which reflects the difficulties of the matter. Atkins also looked at the call-outs that took place; the number of calls that local authorities received from householders with blocked sewers that were found to be private sewers. It reported that there were 108,000 such reports in any one year.

The research went further and suggested that the number of calls, if the sewage undertakers are taken into account, was 282,000. It is a big, long-standing problem and we need to do something about it. The Atkins report provides a basis on which to do solve it. In fairness to the Minister, he put the report out for consultation in June with a closing date of 26 September. We are beyond that closing date, and perhaps the Minister will tell us the number of organisations that have replied.

I gently chide my hon. Friend the Minister; I was in front of him on the matter and tabled a parliamentary question that was answered on 16 October. I simply asked whether he would list the number of people who had replied to the consultation, and give us a feel of their responses. I am grateful for his reply, in which he said that the consultation period of the paper, which was published on 1 July, extended until 26 September. He said that the responses from organisations or individuals that were not marked confidential would be placed in the Library and a summary of responses would be published when ready. That adds an awful lot to the debate, but we might go a little further.

I suspect that, during the consultation, people have responded in favour of the Atkins option, which, in a sense, passes the ownership of the sewers to the sewage undertakers. That is the clean and clear way of dealing with the problem. That discussion took place back in 1991, but the then Government neglected to take the issue forward. There are costs involved, because if that approach, which I favour, is adopted, sewage bills will go up across the country. Everyone who pays a water bill will take on, over a period of time, collective responsibility for the cost of adopting the sewers.

All that I would say at this stage is that this is a big problem, and not one that an individual householder can sort out. The sensible way forward is to bring sewers up to adoptable standards. Again, sewage undertakers have been more relaxed, careful and thoughtful in their approach to that. But private sewers often affect not only individual householders but a group, in which case there is a collective cost across that group. It takes only one householder to decide not to continue with the scheme designed by the local authority or sewage undertaker to put the kybosh on it. That problem has existed for a long time.

We are on the road to progress, and many of us would like to make progress more quickly. I am sure that the Minister and his officials have looked carefully at the new clause. At the end of the day, it provides a permissive power—a hook in the Bill—so that when the consultation has finally finished, the Minister has the opportunity to introduce by regulation any scheme that he thinks fit. No option is closed off and no specific option is included, but the means is provided to sort out a long-standing problem. If we can achieve that, there will be cheers across the country. This is a tough issue, which causes much concern to many thousands of households.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

I commend the hon. Member for Sherwood for introducing the new clause. Logic says that the Government should reject it; pragmatism says that they should accept it. The hon. Gentleman did not mention the practical impact on thousands of families up and down the country who buy a house on a private development, ignorant of the fact that the sewer is unadopted, and then face sewage flooding winter after winter. They are then told that all that they have to do is to make their sewer, which links into the main sewer, up to standard; but they cannot afford it, and the problem continues.

I have experienced that all over my constituency, as have other hon. Members. I am thinking of the villages of Winterslow, Alderbury and most recently, Beech grange in Landford. Once again, Ofwat is involved. Southern Water has said that there is a double or triple sewerage problem on that estate because it was built on wet ground where there are land drains and another water main and a main adopted sewer crossing it. All the intermediate parts of private sewer linking together cause the problem because when there is a flood in winter, the sewerage cannot accept the ground water, which causes flooding.

Southern Water has sealed 12 manholes on the estate so far to try to solve the problem but that has just meant that the poor people at the lower end of the estate have twice as much sewage in their garden every

winter. However, the company says that it has asked Ofwat for increases to its budget to allow it to undertake work. Ofwat has said no, as that would be too expensive for the consumer. I am sorry, but the consumer will have to pay more one way or another. The individual families—often elderly couples with very low disposable incomes who are hit, in particular, by the council tax—simply cannot afford it.

What are we going to do about that? Will we say, ''No, logic must prevail; it must be down to the individual householder''? How do we get the owners of 60 or 70 houses in the middle of the countryside—some of them are retired, or live exclusively on benefits—to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds to put the sewers right?

It is in the public interest that there should be a responsibility on the sewerage authorities to spread the cost across their customers in the way described by the hon. Member for Sherwood. I simply see no alternative way out of the problem. I hope that the Minister will not just say no. We all have to grasp this issue; we all have similar problems in our constituency, and here is an opportunity to do something about it.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud 11:00, 21 October 2003

I do not want to add much to what my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood said in his inimitable way. I do not mean to prod the Minister, but we need some action on the back of the Atkins report; we need to clarify where we are going. The sad thing is that the problem will get worse before it gets better, because we know that until we lay down clear guidelines for new developments, some of those developments will involve substandard sewerage that will not be adopted.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Labour, Sherwood

I do not want to argue with my hon. Friend, because he has been supportive, but regulations introduced on 1 April mean that, from that date, all houses must have sewerage of an adoptable standard.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud

I was just about to come to that. As is always the case when work is in progress, there is still some confusion locally about those regulations. I was about to say that we have reached a point at which the situation is at least static.

I shall raise a couple of points that I know my hon. Friend is aware of, but which confuse the situation considerably. In my area, until about five years ago, it was standard practice for the local authority to be the agent of the water company. What makes things worse at the moment is that I know of a number of cases—and I have to declare an interest, as this includes cases on my street—where there is total confusion in the event of a blocked sewer.

Householders ring the local authority, because many of them do not yet realise that the agency arrangement is no longer in place. The local authority then says, ''It's not our responsibility; ring Severn Trent.'' When the householders ring Severn Trent, it says, ''That's not an adopted sewer, so it's your problem.'' To be fair, between the authority and the water company, we usually muddle through, and

someone comes to deal with the problem. Sometimes there is a bill, and sometimes not.

There is total confusion out there about who does what, who pays for it, and what happens if no one picks up on the problem. I am assured by Severn Trent that the matter is purely one of a money, and I am sure that that is common to all the water companies. It has nothing to do with practicability or the company's ability to use the latest technology to improve sewers. Improvements can be made, but they have to be paid for.

The second issue that I should like to raise is quite complicated. I will not bore the Committee with the details, but an interesting issue has arisen in Summer street in Stroud about a sewer that has been tapped into by various new developments. Again, there is lack of clarity about the grounds on which that was done, and about who took responsibility—was it the planning authority, the water company, or those acting on behalf of the people in the newer property? That needs to be sorted out. I hope that the Atkins report, which I have looked at, considers the argument about who takes responsibility and therefore deals with the problem.

Finally, I come to the worst case of all. I agree with the hon. Member for Salisbury that we are talking about large sums of money. Like many Members, I have areas in my constituency where there is no clarity over ownership, particularly where sewers pass under common land, and it is a nightmare when there is a serious leak. Who is going to pay for it? I am not saying that we can resolve that through legislation; I am sure that many cases will end up not in the courts, but in an argument about who will pay the bill.

If the Atkins report is followed up and we consider secondary, if not primary, legislation, to clarify exactly how sewers are adopted and who will pay, that will only help those poor people at their wits' end who visit me and other hon. Members. It is not just a question of what people must pay, but of how they get to the stage of finding people to do the work. At the moment, everybody looks the other way, particularly in rural areas. The point was made that connection charges for new sewers are already high, so we need to consider the cost implications. Let us put forward a realistic and honest appraisal—we cannot carry on as we are.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood on tackling this important matter in a new clause. It is a convenient hook on which to hang something, and the fact that it is not prescriptive is also helpful—indeed, it is a bit like my amendment on the water savings trust.

The Government recognise that this is a serious issue. They are at last consulting—belatedly, but they have finally got round to it six years on, so we give credit where credit is due. We now have regulations to ensure that new sewers are adoptable. That is very important, and I congratulate the Government on achieving that; it could have been achieved a long time ago, but at least we have got there now. As the hon. Member for Stroud said, at least the situation will not get worse, and we can find a way to improve it. We must deal with it and, as the hon. Member for

Salisbury suggested, the only way is to have sewerage undertakers adopting private sewers. There is no other way around it. We can huff and puff and look for alternatives, but that is the only answer, and we must spread the bill, which in my cases will be large.

I wanted to speak today because of an incident in my constituency—I apologise in advance if I bore hon. Members, but the incident is important. A private sewer in my constituency has developed a blockage. The sewer serves 82 properties in Polgate, and the district council has decided for good environmental health reasons that the blockage must be cleared. It decided to seek agreement from the house owners to fund that, but agreement is not forthcoming, so it will serve a notice under the Building Act 1984 for the work to be done. The 82 properties are not on particularly rich estates, and in many cases the people who live there are struggling to make ends meet. A big bill will suddenly land on their doormats—it may be a four-figure sum—which must be paid to deal with a problem that they did not know was there and did not know was theirs. That is intolerable.

It is extraordinary that in this day and age responsibility is still so unclear and ownership unknown. People write to me saying that they had no idea that they became responsible for a private sewer when they bought their property, yet suddenly they have a big bill for rectifying a problem that may recur, unless the sewer meets adoptable standards, which will of course increase the bill.

There is a further complication to the case in my constituency: the private sewer is not terribly old—only about 20 or 30 years. The householders strongly believe that the reason that the sewer must be dealt with expensively now is that the material used for the piping 20 or 30 years ago was inadequate. Wealden district council argues that when, in its planning capacity, it gave permission for that material to be used all those years ago, it was acting on best advice and had no reason to think that it was inadequate—but it is.

It is rather rough justice for the district council to say, ''We did not know that the material was inadequate, but you can still have a bill anyway''. In the short term, Wealden district council, and other councils in similar situations, ought to pick up the bill—as they can. Under the 1984 Act, councils have permissive powers to pay to deal with such a blockage; they are not required to recharge individual householders. Until we sort things out properly it is far better in the short term to spread the cost around general council tax payers in the whole district, rather than to present 82 households with a huge bill that they probably cannot meet. How will they pay that bill? What will happen if they do not pay?

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Does the hon. Gentleman feel that we are talking mainly about privately owned housing and that almost everybody who has bought a house recently has paid a large amount in stamp duty? Should not the person who has taken the money put things right? The money should come from the

Treasury, rather than from people who had nothing to do with the purchase of the houses.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

I fully recognise the problems of local councils, whatever parties are involved, and the enormous burden of council tax—although that is taking us slightly beyond the scope of the clause. I would prefer it if such things could be funded through general, rather than local taxation. However, under the 1984 Act local authorities have the responsibility to deal with such matters and the power to pay out of their general pot or to recharge. Whatever the ideal situation is, we are dealing with what currently happens.

In the short term, local authorities must realise that it is neither fair nor practical for huge bills to land on the doormats of people who can ill afford to pay them. In the case that I mentioned, Wealden district council, which deals with Polgate, ought to pick up the bill.

That is the short-term scenario for getting us through the next year or two, but as the hon. Members for Sherwood, for Stroud and for Salisbury said, in the longer term this matter must be sorted out. There is cross-party agreement. This is not an easy problem to solve and I understand why the Government have hesitated. Nevertheless, the situation is becoming urgent. I hope that as a consequence of our discussions and the consultation process that the Government have embarked on, private sewers will become a thing of the past. In years to come people will, perhaps, look back on our discussion with incredulity.

Photo of Mr Andy King Mr Andy King Labour, Rugby and Kenilworth

I welcome the opportunity to debate this important issue. There is unanimity in the Committee about the necessity of taking action.

I want to be fair to the Minister. The review by W.S. Atkins is a fantastic piece of work. Sadly, however, many Opposition Members have not had sight of it. I assure them that it is a good read; it is enlightening and it will show them that there have been many missed opportunities to put things right. The situation was last reviewed in 1988. We must think about who was in power then.

We are trying to put right an anomalous situation. In Victorian times people had the sense, through the Public Health Acts 1848 and 1875, to require sewers to be adopted. Those Acts were unambiguous: they said, ''This is a public health matter. We must get this right.''

Our problems are due to bad legislation being made in 1936 under which the requirement rule was removed. We ended up with a mish-mash; some sewers were adopted, but adoption applications were not made for others. I assure Opposition Members that the problem does not affect just the odd 50 or 60 houses here and there. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood said, there is a lack of clarity about the size of the problem—between 80 and 200,000 km of sewers are affected. Either way, more than 8.5 million households are affected. A lot of poor, old and vulnerable people are affected because of that earlier reckless decision.

The problem was further exacerbated in 1973 when the water companies came along. Of course, water companies want profit and do not see themselves as charities. Therefore, when problems arose, they asked, ''Where is the formal agreement?'' Local authorities scrambled around, but all that was necessary was a minute in a council meeting.

We now have a ridiculous situation in which sewers have to be in an immaculate condition and a perfect location if an agreement to adopt is to be reached, following a row with the regulator. That is just nonsense.

I apologise, Mr. O'Hara, for not declaring an interest at the beginning of my remarks. I was one of those people who lived in a house for 20 years without realising that my sewer had not been adopted. The interest has been registered with the House authorities, but I should have made it clear to members of the Committee.

It came as a great shock to the 800 or so residents of my own estate to find out that the sewers were not adopted when, after 30 years, serious problems started to develop. We held public meetings. I hired a local school hall and had to have two sittings when some 1,000 residents turned up and could not fit into the room. It was incredible. The fear of an enormous bill landing on their mat caused considerable concern to elderly people.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East 11:15, 21 October 2003

I find this discussion slightly incredible. Has my hon. Friend examined the reason that solicitors do not inform property buyers that they could find themselves in that situation?

Photo of Mr Andy King Mr Andy King Labour, Rugby and Kenilworth

That is a very good point. The Minister and the authorities have considered it on several occasions. The search asks only whether a property is connected to a public sewer, yes or no, but it should also allow the answer, ''yes, eventually.'' We are trying to remedy that, and we are putting matters right with new standards. We have drawn a line under the situation. Before 1936–37, we were okay, so the problem is just with the years since then.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

It is worth putting it on the record that solicitors have started doing environmental as well as legal searches in the past two or three years, and those facts and figures are now starting to emerge. People who now buy houses have knowledge of the problem, so the Committee's concern is with the historic problem to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Photo of Mr Andy King Mr Andy King Labour, Rugby and Kenilworth

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. Indeed, with buyer's packs, we are beginning to give people much better information so that they can make an informed decision.

We have a timely opportunity. In the early days, the water companies did not want to know about the problem, but they, too, have moved considerably. Only a year ago, the managing director of Severn Trent made it clear that adoption was the only way forward. Let us get it right and put in the money. Adoption could be phased in but, even if it were done

tomorrow, it would mean adding about £3 a year to household bills throughout the country.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I just wanted to clarify that point. The hon. Gentleman mentioned an addition of £3 to household bills across the country, but that is not quite right. There is a certain geographical distribution of the problem. For example, in my constituency, the majority of houses are in rural areas and have their own septic tanks, so they will not pick up the bill. Will not the cost hit some areas much harder than others?

Photo of Mr Andy King Mr Andy King Labour, Rugby and Kenilworth

That is a very important point. In my area, we are starting to put matters right. Flecknoe was the last village in my area in which the septic tank was causing problems and giving rise to worries about the environment through seepage and all the rest of it.

We have put in new sewers to villages, and I am delighted by the progress that has been made. We must treat the problem as a public health matter and share the burden properly across the whole country. The cost will work out at about £3 per household among those who pay water rates for being attached to a public sewer. Those who are not attached to a public sewer will not receive that part of the bill until their properties are connected.

My final point is that people in my estate are incensed because they pay exactly the same amount as the people across the road in a different estate whose sewers are adopted, and they say that they want a 30-year rebate.

We have an opportunity to put right a grave injustice. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood, who says that this is a prodding amendment. We want the Minister to take it on board.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I have listened carefully to the comments made by my hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood, for Stroud and for Rugby and Kenilworth and by the hon. Members for Salisbury and for Lewes. I have attended the all-party group on sewers on several occasions to discuss the particular problems in some detail. I understand that this is a major problem throughout the country. There will not be many constituency MPs who have not had the matter raised with them—people have certainly raised it in my constituency.

We are trying to address the situation. We commissioned a study by W.S. Atkins to ascertain the scale of the problem and to give us some options for tackling it. The results of that consultation are being analysed and will probably not be known until the beginning of next year. One problem with the parliamentary question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood is that the results are still coming in, but I can tell him that so far we have received 150 responses from individuals and organisations. He might also like to know that 86 per cent. of respondents are in favour of a change of ownership for private sewers. Of that 86 per cent., 92 per cent. consider that sewerage undertakers are best placed to take on that responsibility.

There are, however, financial implications, which hon. Members have touched on. We must consider what will happen to people's bills, and a lot of work

must be done to assess that major consideration. I understand the strength of feeling about this problem, and our work appears to indicate that it is much larger than people thought. The figures suggest that 50 per cent. of all domestic properties are connected to private sewers in one form or another.

The bad news is that costs may be very high. The good news is that if the problem affects a lot of people, there is a stronger justification for adopting a solution involving the sewage companies and, therefore, spreading the cost. We must consider those matters when we have had a chance fully to evaluate the representations received as part of the public consultation on the W.S. Atkins report.

I appreciate that this is a prodding amendment. It would add to the Bill permissive powers to take the

matter forward through the adoption of private sewers when all the analysis and work has been completed at the end of the consultation. However, it might take some time to phase in the adoption of private sewers because of the cost implications. I do not know about that, but we must do the work and be open and transparent.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood has made a powerful case on permissive powers. I understand the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth—the issue is important in his area—and other members of the Committee.

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.