About one percent of the population rely on a private water supply, where water is drawn from a borehole, well, spring, lake, stream or river to service their properties. A borehole is likely the most common method for domestic properties.

There are extensive regulations surrounding a private water supply, these are contained in the Private Water Supplies Regulations 2016, which focus on the quality of water, and the Water Resources Act 1991, which focusses quantity and supply. Local authorities have wide powers to enforce these regulations, and breaching them, or abstracting water without a licence can be a criminal offence.

Relevant persons:

Responsibility for the quality and quantity of private water supplies lies with the owners/occupiers of the property serviced by the water supply, the owners/occupiers of the property where the water supply is sourced, or any other person who has management or control of the water supply. The law identifies these people as 'relevant persons'.

Understandably, there is a requirement for a water supply to meet basic regulatory standards, ensuring that it is safe for use and consumption at all times. This is measured by testing the number of contaminants in the water and depends on the size and nature of the supply.

1. Commercial supplies (including supplies to a number of dwellings):

These are defined as supplies of a daily average of over 10m3 or to either public or commercial premises. Properties let to third parties also fall under this category. Risk assessments must be carried out at least every 5 years and a water test must be carried out at least annually. If it is determined that a supply is a danger to human health, a local authority has a duty to warn the occupants of the property and advise how to minimise the danger.

2. Standard private supplies:

This is a supply to any premises, other than a single dwelling, not used for commercial purposes. Again, these are subject to 5-yearly risk assessments and an annual test, however, a narrower number of contaminants are tested.

3. Single dwelling supplies:

Single dwellings that are not used for any commercial activity. In this case, a risk assessment is required only, and the supply is monitored, if requested by the owner or occupier of the property.

4. Distributed mains supplies:

These are rare, but occur where water is supplied by a mains provider and then further distributed through a private water network. Risk assessments are still required, even though the water originates from a mains source.

Relevant persons are also responsible for the sufficiency of a private water supply. Supply can change in drought or severe cold weather, or as a result of a burst or leaking pipe etc.

In these cases, relevant persons are responsible for putting in place alternative arrangements and central responsibility is with the owners of the supplies, who should have an emergency plan in place. An owner of a water supply can never just disconnect the supply, even in the event of non-payment by a user.

If a local authority finds that a water supply is insufficient, either due to quality or quantity, then they are able to serve a 'private supply notice' on the owner of the supply, setting out the steps they must take to rectify the situation. This can prove expensive, particularly if the required action is to connect to a mains water supply. If an owner of a water supply does not comply with the notice, the local authority can do it on their behalf and recover the costs from the owner.

A more serious notice – 'a regulation 18 notice' is served where a supply is proved to be a danger to human life. If this is not complied with, it is a criminal offence carrying up to 2 years' imprisonment, and/or a fine.


Taking water from a source is known as abstraction. A licence is required from the Environment Agency where an average of over 20m3 is abstracted daily. This is unlikely to be the case for a single residential dwelling. Again, abstraction without a licence, where one is required, can be a criminal offence.

Licences are transferred with a property on a sale, but a buyer does need to contact the Environment Agency to transfer the rights under the licence.


To summarise, a relevant person is responsible for the quality and quantity of a private water supply, with central responsibility lying with the owner of the supply. Local authorities can enforce the regulations, and it can be costly to comply with them, and it is essential that an abstraction licence is obtained where an average of over 20m3 of water is abstracted daily.

Advice from a specialist should be obtained if you are purchasing a property responsible for a private water supply or serviced by one.

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.