Applies to England only

General binding rules

General binding rules is a term given to legal requirements in regulations that set the minimum standards for which to apply. In this case, the regulations are the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2014. The purpose of the regulations is to prevent pollution and ensure that sewage is properly disposed of.

The regulations apply to you if you own a septic tank to get rid of your sewage. Rural properties are more likely to have septic tanks as they are unable to connect to a public sewer.

Buying/selling a property with a septic tank or sewage treatment plant

If a property you wish to buy still has a non-compliant waste management system, ask the seller whether they intend to replace or upgrade it—agree to this as a condition of sale. Alternatively, consider lowering your offer to make up for the future costs of improving it yourself.

If you are selling the property, it is your responsibility to install a sewage treatment system compliant with the general binding rules. Being non-compliant will not only detract potential buyers but you may also be subject to enforcement action by the Environment Agency.

You must also provide the following information to the buyer:

  • a description of the treatment plant and drainage system
  • the location of the main parts of the treatment plant, drainage system and discharge point
  • details of any changes made to the treatment plant and drainage system
  • details of how the treatment plant should be maintained, and the maintenance manual if you have one
  • maintenance records if you have them

Sewage discharge into a watercourse, January 2020 deadline

If your septic tank discharges directly to a watercourse, you must upgrade or replace your septic tank as soon as possible—the deadline for doing so has already passed.

Watercourses and surface water
Discharges are not allowed into enclosed lakes or ponds as there must be flowing water throughout the year. Therefore, a watercourse is a:

  • Beck
  • Brook
  • Canal
  • Ditch
  • Goyle
  • Leat
  • Rhyne
  • River
  • Stream

How to comply with the general binding rules for sceptic tank regulations

1. Connect to a mains sewer

Check with your local water company to find out if there is one nearby. You must then apply and pay for your property to be connected to the sewer system through your local water company.

If your property is within 30 metres of a public sewer, you will not be able to replace your septic tank with a small sewage treatment plant. If you’re within 30 meters of a public sewer but can’t connect to it, (e.g. there is a river in the way) you will need to apply for a permit to be granted use of a small treatment plant.

2. Sewage discharge into the ground

Your septic tank or small sewage treatment plant must treat the sewage before discharging it into the ground via a drainage field, you cannot use a soakaway. Drainage fields allow wastewater to be safely dispersed into the ground and prevent pollution—they must meet British standards.

A small sewage treatment plant works in a similar way to a septic tank but treats the waste liquid to a higher degree. In both instances, the solids sink to the bottom forming a sludge that needs to be professionally disposed of, usually once a year. View the Government's guidance.

Groundwater source protection zones

Check to see whether your intended drainage field falls within a groundwater source protection zone 1 (SPZ1). These zones determine whether the groundwater beneath your drainage field is used for drinking water, which must not be polluted with sewage effluent. You can ask the Environment Agency directly or use their map:

  • use this link to open the map
  • search for your location (top-left of the page)
  • under ‘Table of Contents’, tick ‘Designations’
  • open ‘Land-Based Designations’ by selecting the ‘+’ icon
  • do the same for ‘Non-statutory’ and the tick box ‘Source Protection Zones’

If your area highlights in red, it won’t meet the general binding rules.

3. Upgrade to a sewage treatment plant

To discharge wastewater into a watercourse, you must install a small sewage treatment plant and have building regulations approval to do so. They treat sewage to a higher standard than a septic tank and cause less pollution. View the Government's guidance.

Cannot comply with the rules?
If you believe you are unable to follow the general binding rules then you will have to apply for a permit. You can get help from the Environment Agency and it is recommended you contact them before making any changes to your discharge system to ensure you comply correctly.

Regulations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales

These regulations only apply to England, use the links to find out your responsibilities if you’re in another part of the UK.

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