Land Law Update – Changes to Sewer Ownership

Sewer OwnershipWhile not the most glamorous of subjects in Conveyancing terms, who owns the sewers to a property is very important. Few people will have realised that just over a year ago the ownership of more than 200,000km of private sewers and drains transferred from property owners to six water companies. 

This mass transfer of ownership is actually a good thing for property owners, as in the future it may save owners from having to pay costly repair bills if things go wrong. The reason for the change was to make ownership of the sewer network clear and help improve long-term maintenance.

In Conveyancing terms, identifying the legal ownership of drains and sewers has always been important. Drainage searches formed one of the more substantial searches that any sensible Conveyancer would have carried out when acting for a client in the purchase of a property. The search is called a CON29DW, which will be familiar to any Diploma student who has completed the Conveyancing part of their qualification. The changes have already been incorporated into the drainage and water enquiry forms and in practical terms the change means that Conveyancers will on the whole have an easier time advising clients on this issue (or at least that is the hope).

The types of advice that solicitors might still be expected to give about drainage could include questions such as: 

“Will a client be able to build over a sewer once ownership is transferred to one of the water companies?” 

The answer to this question is that yes it is possible, but the water company in question has to give permission. Even if a property owner intended to build near a sewer, they might need to seek consent from a water company before they could develop land. If a client was buying a property and intended to develop it, failure to give advice on this point could prove to be very costly to the firm, as they could very well be considered negligent. 

Another question that I would expect a good Conveyancer to answer (or even bring to the clients’ attention before being asked) would be: 

“Where there is a drain or sewer that is transferred to the water company, can they access my land without my permission?”

Again the answer to this question is yes, and most owners might be quite happy to grant access, as it is presumably for the purpose of repairing or improving the existing drains. However, water companies have automatic statutory rights of access, and unless it was during a time of emergency, some property owners might like the right to have some say about when a company can access their land. Considering commercial properties like shops, I expect they would be less than happy for routine maintenance to happen at their busiest times of year, particularly if public access to their premises is limited or cut off entirely.    

Issues such as waste and surface water management are not what most property owners are thinking about when they are house-hunting, but once they have found the house of their dreams, it is the job of their Solicitor to consider these types of issues. Secretaries form a key part of any efficient Conveyancing team, so being aware of changes to the law like those outlined above will make you stand out from the crowd.