An irreverent look at some of the hot topics in planning. All commentary is given in good faith but does not constitute advice! For specific help on planning matters, please contact us.

Is sewage infrastructure blocking the flow of new housing delivery?

July 10th, 2013

The pro-development approach of the NPPF has helped to bring about rapid new growth in housing development in some parts of England. This resurgence is involving sites, more often than not, in locations that are not allocated for housing, or indeed any development.

This can, in some places, put new pressures on infrastructure and the planning system has its ways and means, through CIL (for the moment!) and Section 106 agreements, to address these impacts.

One area of infrastructure untouched by such measures, however, is the local sewage network.

Section 106 of the Water Industry Act 1991 places a duty on water authorities to accept new connections to their sewage systems. Their ability to reject such connections is limited to very specific circumstances, such as where the connecting pipe does not meet the requisite standards.

The practical effect of this is therefore that, on payment of a relatively low fixed fee, a developer may connect to a mains sewer regardless of whether the sewer system has the capacity to accommodate the additional flows.

The water authority therefore has no means of stopping the system becoming overloaded. Of course, if it does get overloaded and foul water escapes from the sewage system, the water authority is liable of a criminal offence under Section 85 of the 1991 Act and European law.

The duty to make sure that the system can cope with the demands placed upon it falls squarely on the water authority.

Section 94 of the 1991 Act requires water authorities to provide, improve and extend the system of public sewers so as to ensure that the area is effectually drained.

Unless drainage works are required to serve a single development alone (rather than, say, improvement of existing mains infrastructure) the cost of such improvement works falls on the water authority itself.

Given that this almost certainly involves new infrastructure and considerable spending, forward planning of requirements is essential.

In this regard, the development plan identifies anticipated housing growth and locations and the SHLAA will give some clear indication of likely housing pressures for the future. We are told that the water authorities take all of these into account in their infrastructure plans – so if housing is in the planning pipeline, then there should be the pipelines to accommodate it.

The housing growth that we are seeing at the moment is however, to a significant extent, not in locations anticipated by development plans and so in many places the infrastructure plans are inadequate or out of sync with actual development.

Insofar as the water authorities have no real powers themselves to stop or delay development, the planning system has, in some locations, stepped in to assist. This is typically done through Grampian conditions that require there to be sewage capacity to be demonstrated before new houses are occupied.

Eminently sensible, one might say. Except of course that the effect of such a condition is in all too many cases, a ransom position in the favour of the water authority.

They are described as “authorities” but the reality is of course that they are private companies with a duty to make profits for their own shareholders. They have no real interest in delivering new housing or the jobs that it brings or any particular desire to be forced into building new, un-forecast sewage infrastructure that will impact on forecast profit levels. They cannot be criticised for that – it is the logical effect of their privatisation all those years ago.

What is more concerning is that the water authorities have become increasingly aware of the position of power they hold in respect of large planning applications and seem to be seeing this as a lucrative new revenue stream.

Knowing that a Grampian condition is a real problem for housing developers, most water authorities now charge fees of several hundred pounds for telling you what existing capacity levels are at. One would really have thought they would have such data at the tips of their fingers.

If that is not bad enough, if it is determined that there is a shortfall in capacity, they will charge many thousands of pounds to scope out what works are required to address it.

In such cases the water authorities know that developers won´t and can´t just take a Grampian condition and sit and wait for them to undertake the necessary improvements to the sewage system. Instead, a simple choice is presented – the developer pays to get the improvements early, or the development can´t go ahead.

At no stage does the duty under Section 94 of the Act, for the water authorities themselves to meet the local drainage needs, seem to come into play.

To some, this is a pragmatic way of bringing forward new infrastructure at the cost of those who will benefit from it. To others, it looks like pure and simple cash generation by greedy water companies.

Whatever your point of view, this disconnect between development aspirations and certainty of mains sewage infrastructure presents a major blockage to the actual delivery of much needed housing.
Some local planning authorities have shown their mettle by refusing to impose conditions on new development requiring sewage capacity to be demonstrated.

The stark choice for the water authority in such circumstances is to bring forward the necessary improvements or face overflow problems and the fines that will result. However, that local authorities should have to risk sewage overflow to get the water authorities to act is not exactly a vote winner with the electorate.

It is clear that government has to take a look at this and find a more workable, efficient and cost effective means of delivering the sewage infrastructure required for this new wave of development that it is encouraging. Sewage is not something that one can brush under the carpet, Mr Pickles.