Private Drainage Systems – Smelling of Roses?

The majority of properties are connected to the mains system for drainage of foul waste. There are, however, a number of properties where mains drainage is not possible and which remain connected to private drainage systems.

You might expect this is only in rural areas. Whilst they are most common in those locations there are a number of properties within urban areas which remain connected to these systems.  Perhaps because the properties were built with the system many years ago and this has not been changed.

Some new developments which are in the process of being built will still be connected to a private drainage system as the public system does not have capacity.

It is important to be aware of the regulations in respect of the different systems that are available.  In addition, as the systems are not public specific rights are required in order to be able to use these.

What systems exist?

There are two widely used systems:-

Rules relating to these systems differ.


There are no specific requirements in respect of a cesspool or cesspit. Other than to ensure the tank does not leak and it is emptied regularly.  As the system is closed and there is no discharge there is no risk of contamination to the environment. It is possible to install a new cesspool or cesspit. If you do so you must ensure that you obtain planning permission and building regulation approval.

Treatment plants

The rules in relation to other private drainage systems have changed.  Since 2015 it has been a requirement that any system be brought in line with what is known as the General Binding Rules whenever a property is sold.  From 1 January 2020, however, this now applies across the board. Properties which use a private drainage system are now required to bring these in line with the General Binding Rules.

If you cannot bring the system within the General Binding Rules then you are required to apply to the Environment Agency for a discharge permit.

There are a number of requirements to comply with the General Binding Rules.  We will not cover all of these in this article as they differ from property to property.  Please visit for a guide.

The main points to be aware of are as follows:-

WARNING – If your system does not meet these criteria then you will require a discharge permit from the Environment Agency.

What rights do you need?

You will require sufficient rights in order to operate your system.  In contrast to the public system, where you often connect straight into the main sewer from your house, a private system must be wholly contained on your own land or else your title must contain suitable rights to use another’s land either for the system to be placed in or upon or for the discharge.

Typically, a cesspool or cesspit can be housed in a relatively small area of land as it is simply a hole in the ground. It can be dug deep and then covered to give sufficient volume. In these cases, these can often be placed in garden land.

In contrast, treatment plants often have lengthy pipework connected to them. To allow for the clean effluence to be discharged into a drainage field.  Both the pipework and the drainage field can take up a substantial area of land. Unless you have a farm or extremely large garden these systems often spill out onto neighbouring land, for which you may need an easement.

In some cases, the system is shared between a number of houses and therefore the tanks may be within the boundaries of one property with the pipes and drainage field within the boundaries of others.


If you have a property which is connected to a private drainage system you need to ensure that the system complies with the General Binding Rules.  If it does not you must apply for a discharge permit from the Environment Agency.  There is a cost to applying for a permit and in some cases, there is an annual fee to be paid.

In addition to complying with the General Binding Rules you need to ensure that you have sufficient legal rights to utilise the full system.  It is therefore important that you are aware not only the location of the tank but also the pipes and run off areas.

Hart Reade Solicitors are a full-service law firm with offices in  Eastbourne, Hailsham, Polegate and Meads.  We hold both Lexcel and Conveyancing Quality Accreditation from the Law Society of England and Wales..  To make an appointment with one of our commercial property Solicitors, please phone our office on 01323 727 321.

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