UK: House Building And Sewerage - A Bit Of A Mess?

Last Updated: 2 March 2009
Article by Murray Shaw

To many members of the public, house builders must, to some extent, seem a bit like farmers – there is never a good year! That is certainly true in respect of the last few months. Even before the current difficult circumstances, and while house prices had generally increased significantly over the last 8-9 years throughout the United Kingdom, house builders still indicated they faced a number of challenges including insufficient land, uncertainty caused by the planning process, the spectre of a planning gain supplement and significant infrastructure constraints. Given the current financial position, a number of these are not so pressing but the issue of infrastructure problems does remain relevant and is likely to do so when the market returns to normality.

In Scotland one consistent complaint has been the difficulty in securing both water and sewerage connections. This is a factor that is recognised not just by the development industry but also by local authorities, many of whom have complained that strategic developments have been held up by a lack of capacity in the relevant systems. Glasgow Council in particular have registered their concerns and identified funds specifically for the purpose of dealing with certain drainage problems.

To some extent the difficulties we are facing now are caused by historic under spending. Matters are compounded by the fact that the public side of the water and sewerage industry has been through significant change. The abolition of regional authorities resulted in the establishment of three separate companies which have now been consolidated. There is the prospect of further change with suggestions that Scottish Water should become some form of "mutual" company. The future of Scottish Water may be an issue of some political significance depending upon the political scene in Scotland over the next couple of years, albeit there is no real suggestion that privatisation akin to that in England should take place.

To be fair the issues are to some extent accepted and attempts are being made to address a number of problems both in terms of expenditure and staffing levels. It is fair to say however that many difficulties remain.

While it is accepted that there are difficulties in securing sewerage connections matters have probably been compounded by a degree of delay and indeed uncertainty regarding the implementation of the Water Environment & Water Services (Scotland) Act 2003. This Act dealt with a range of topics but specifically addressed the position in respect of sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS) by making amendments (yet to be implemented in full) to the 1968 Sewerage (Scotland) Act.

SUDS systems have become prevalent over the last 10 years with their use being supported by the Scottish Executive and local authorities. Some Local Plans have specific policies concerning the use of SUDS systems. Specifically in terms of the planning system PAN61 gives guidance upon their use. SUDS systems were first used in Scotland in a significant way in the very large developments around Dunfermline which were consented over 10 years ago and which are largely implemented.

In many ways the Act in 2003 was intended to give legislative support and context to what was actually happening on the ground. Specifically the legislation changed the definition of sewers to make reference to SUDS facilities and made provision for the appropriate standards and requirements to be set out in subordinate legislation with the position in relation to vesting (public ownership) likewise to be dealt with in subordinate legislation.

A SUDS scheme can incorporate a number of different engineering solutions. It is clear that there are very different views about the effectiveness of these different engineering solutions with the consequence it appears likely that Scottish Water will only agree to accept what the development industry considers an unduly restrictive and limited range of SUDS features. The development industry, in addressing the technical issues that needs to be addressed, is likely to use a wider range of SUDS solutions. The consequence of this is that notwithstanding the provisions of the 2003 Act many SUDS features will not be adopted. While there might be differing views about the extent to which the 2003 Act actually intended SUDS features to come into public control it appears likely that significantly fewer will come under public control than was anticipated. The consequence of this is a fragmentation of ownership and maintenance responsibilities which cannot be in the public interest. While issues were always likely to arise in relation to systems constructed before the Act was implemented it appears likely that "legacy" issues are going to continue to a significant extent in respect of systems presently being constructed notwithstanding the passing of the Act. Indeed the position may be compounded if private SUDS systems will not be adopted and as a consequence of that the sewers which flow into those, though otherwise built to adoptable standards, will not be adopted.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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