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Private Sewers

11 am

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the problems associated with private sewers. This is an important matter, particularly for those facing problems, and has a long history but, until recent years, has not had much attention. Perhaps it has been a case of out of sight, out of mind.

I commend the Government for what they have achieved and particularly the Minister for his help over many years. However, I am concerned about the delays in making announcements on the way forward. The timetable for decision making has slipped and that underlies this debate. I want to press the Minister on what issues remain to be resolved, when definitive policy announcements will be made and, most importantly, when we will begin to tackle the problems on and under the ground.Most Members will know about these problems from their constituency work, and I am delighted to have the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies).

I have been associated with the problem for about 10 years and I am grateful to Newark and Sherwood district council, and particularly to one of its environmental health officers, Jeremy Hutchinson, who has provided a great deal of help and support. The council estimates that about 1,500 properties are involved in its area alone. I believe that that is an underestimate because we know the scale of the problems only when they arise.

I shall talk about three real and current problems in the Sherwood constituency. First, in Branston avenue, Farnsfield householders discovered in the autumn that their sewers had become blocked and sewage was being discharged on to gardens. The first that they knew about private sewers was when they began to explore the problem. They were horrified when they realised that they were responsible for repairs, and there is a profound argument in Farnsfield about who is responsible for the collapse of the sewer. The residents believe strongly that a new school—St. Michael's school—and the heavy traffic involved when it was being built or the utility companies making connections to the school have caused the problem. They pointed out that they had no problems for 40 years until the new construction. Not surprisingly, the school, the diocese and its contractors deny all responsibility and there is no causal link at this point. While we are debating the matter, contractors are digging the ground. I take the strong view that if the construction of the school has contributed to the problem, the school and the diocese, not the residents, should accept the cost.

At the moment, the residents are buying a pig in a poke. Newark and Sherwood council has issued notices, the contractor is on site and the repairs will be done. The householders may be charged, but they do not know what the cost might be. They are mainly elderly people and the situation is most unsatisfactory for them. They would like it to be resolved quickly.

Secondly, there are also problems in Hardwick drive, Ollerton. It is a nice estate and a nice place to live. The estate has been built for 40 years and the developer never put the sewers forward for adoption. There are long-standing problems on the estate and, again, Newark and
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Sherwood council has issued notices. The cost of the repair will probably be about £1,000. The repair will sort out a small gap, a leakage and a rodent problem, and I expect that the householders will be charged about £25 a house. That is not a great deal of money, but the problem does not stop there. It is a long-standing problem. The repair will be done but Severn Trent will not adopt the sewers and so there will be problems in future until policy decisions have been taken.

At Reynolds way in Calverton, residents have had to pay much more. In this case, Gedling borough council issued notices and major work has been done at substantial cost to the individual householders. Some, but not all, have been able to claim against their insurance. That has been a major piece of engineering work, but with all the work that has taken place, and despite much discussion, Severn Trent has decided not to adopt the sewer. It argued that the sewer is not up to adoptable standard. Most particularly, the company is not prepared to adopt because part of the system runs under a private household and is not on the highway.

There are further problems looming at Reynolds way in Calverton because a planning application has been made for major residential development on adjoining land. Gedling borough council and Severn Trent were unaware of problems with the sewers, and it has taken a great deal of argument from the residents, supported by myself, to establish that one of the issues in determining a planning application should be that of flooding and sewage disposal. Unless serious thought is given to the planning application, there will be increased problems at Reynolds way.

These are profoundly unsatisfactory situations for the householders involved. I am pleased to say that the Government are mindful of the issue, have recognised it and are taking action. A considerable amount of action is taking place. First, there has been some welcome research from WS Atkins, which, for the first time, has given indications—not definitive ones—of the scale of the problem. I was surprised—I think most were—when the Atkins report suggested that up to 50 per cent. of all households in one way or another could be connected to private sewers. Atkins went further and made a number of recommendations.

The second area in which the Government have made significant progress is in putting out those options for consultation. The overwhelming, rather than unanimous, view is that water companies and sewage undertakers should take responsibility for the sewers over a period to bring them up to standard. Of course, there are issues connected to that, particularly cost and timetables and the division between residential properties and commercial decisions. I understand that there are problems, but I know from the discussions in the consultation that the Minister is mindful that this is the preferred way forward.

Thirdly, the Minister convened and spoke at the opening of a seminar with stakeholders on 26 January 2005 about possible ways forward. I was at the seminar. It was lively. There was a good debate, acknowledgement of the problem and a resolve that we needed to make progress. In parallel to all that, the Government have taken other action. The Minister—in this Room, I think—accepted and refined amendments to what became the Water Act 2003, which gives the Secretary of State the opportunity to introduce a scheme
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by secondary regulation for the adoption of private sewers. We have a legislative peg to help us make progress.

Importantly, too, the all-party parliamentary group on sewers has been set up. I do get some jobs: I am the chairman of the group and 105 MPs are involved. Residents' associations and all the interested parties in the sewerage industry are also involved. It is a lively group that is keen to make progress. It recognises that it needs to have good relationships with the Minister and his officials, and those exist. I am pleased to be able to thank Frank Jones from the Plastic Pipes Group, who acts as secretary to the group.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on holding this important debate. He has already alluded to its scale. He has complimented the Department on the great strides that it has taken to clarify the matter and lay out the options, none of which is without pain. Does not he agree, however, that many residents, including hundreds who are affected on the Sarn estate in my constituency, are looking for a way forward, even if it is painful? They want to be able to say: "We can get out of this mess. Even if it is over a period of years, we know the way forward." That is what we are looking for.

Paddy Tipping : My hon. Friend has picked up the main thrust of the debate. That is what I am pressing the Government to do: to make an announcement, if not today, certainly soon, about the way forward. There are problems associated with any way forward, but I know the Minister, and I know that his officials are aware of the problems and are determined to take action.

One area in which action has been taken is on the new protocol adopted in April 2002 to deal with new sewers. The notion is that if new houses are built to adoptable standards, there will be no problems in future. Again, the Government have been careful about that approach, and they have asked WS Atkins to consider how successful the protocol has been. I was astonished to read in the Atkins report that only 1 per cent. of new houses are being built with sewers to adoptable standards. The report gives a variety of reasons for that, but its conclusion must be that when building new houses, mandatory steps must be taken to put the protocol in place.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I apologise for missing the first few minutes of what my hon. Friend has said, and we commend him on bringing this matter to the notice of the House. Does he agree that as well as installing traditional sewers, water companies must be encouraged to consider soft technology solutions as one way forward? Does he agree that there have to be other options?

Paddy Tipping : My hon. Friend takes a great interest in the matter, and in rural areas the notion of reed beds may be one way forward. Severn Trent Water has undertaken some work on it, but unfortunately, it seems to have come to an end. Different steps will need to be taken in different areas, and I am keen to press the Minister to consider the use of building regulations, particularly part H, to ensure that new houses are built with sewers up to adoptable standards.
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I want to make two further points from the industry. First, although there is a code of practice for developers on the design and construction of new sewers for adoption, it is beset by several different appendices in different parts of the country. It would make sense to have a universal approach throughout the country to the laying down of sewers. Secondly, it would make sense to have a workforce that was able to do the work. The industry has been pressing for the energy and utility sector skills council to be tasked with producing appropriate NVQs in those areas. I should like the Minister to consider those practical proposals and solutions from the industry.

It is clear that the Government have achieved a great deal. Much research has been undertaken, more work is in hand and consultation has been successful; but my central concern that underlines the debate is the need for an established decision-making timetable, and to keep to it. In October 2004, Ministers announced that a decision would be made in spring 2005, but the timetable was extended to autumn 2005. In a recent parliamentary answer, the Minister stated that the Government expected to publish a decision on transfer in the new year that would not rule out further consultation on the options for implementation.

Happy new year. New year 2006 has come. It is almost a year since the seminar that I mentioned earlier. Important discussions are continuing between players such as Ofwat, WaterVoice and Water UK. For me, the way is absolutely clear: I want water companies to be able to adopt the majority of the sewers. I know that there are problems associated with that, but it is the appropriate way to resolve the issue. There will be costs, but the cost per householder of a levy across all water users would be less than the cost of private sewers.

I am confident that progress has been made, and I have been delighted with the help of the Minister and his Department. However, I want from him today a firm announcement about the timetable for the adoption of private sewers. Unless we take that approach, there will be dismay across the country.

11.16 am

The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment (Mr. Elliot Morley) : I join my colleagues in wishing you all the best for the new year, Mr. Cook.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) on securing this debate and on the thoughtful and constructive way in which he presented what are, as he knows, complex arguments and real issues. I would like to express my appreciation for the work of the all-party group on sewers and sewerage, which had a major input in developing options to address the problems caused by private sewers and lateral drains.

My hon. Friend rightly stated that the Government accept that there is a problem that must be addressed. He also pointed out that there are no simple options. Alternatives for addressing the issues are what we need to deal with at present.

My hon. Friend said that a great deal of progress has been made to ensure that sewers in new build are built to adoptable standards and that we avoid the problems
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of the past. That has been done, and it has been effective. A new protocol has been introduced for the construction of new sewers. In fact, we are considering whether it should be made mandatory, as recommended by the Atkins report. I am pleased that it will be referred to in the reprinted building regulations and the upcoming review. That is the first stage in preventing such problems from developing in the future, and we have addressed it.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, we have taken the necessary powers under the Water Act 2003 to give us flexibility for implementing whatever option we decide on. That is part of the second stage, which involves dealing with the existing private sewers—the legacy of the past—and the problems that they present. He mentioned the Atkins report. Like him, I was surprised by the high percentage of sewers identified as being in private ownership. There has been extensive consultation, including the stakeholder conference in January 2005.

My hon. Friend asks, where do we go now, what progress has been made, where are we? Obviously, we must address the questions that came out of the seminar and the consultation about the scope of any transfer, the form that it might take, costs and funding, which, of course, are significant issues, the impact on the drain repair and insurance industries, and public expectation. Those are the key questions that we need to look at. If we decide that transfer is the best way forward, we have those enabling powers. We also need to ensure that we have the maximum input from the various stakeholders who are affected.

WaterVoice, which is now the Consumer Council for Water, felt that there was a need for further work to gauge customers' views. That is not an unreasonable request. To address that, DEFRA has been overseeing qualitative customer research which has examined customers' views on current ownership, and possible transfer. It comprises 20 focus groups—two in each of the water and sewerage company areas—and was completed in August 2005. DEFRA was closely supported by the Consumer Council for Water and we also received input from the Office of Water Service, which is another key player in this.

Huw Irranca-Davies : On a technical point, can the Minister confirm that that consultation included the relevant agencies in Wales?

Mr. Morley : My understanding is that it did. We are looking at England and Wales in relation to these measures. It will perhaps come as no surprise to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood that the outcome of those consultations was that the focus groups believed that current ownership arrangements were unfair, inconsistent, complicated and untenable. The majority also believed that private sewers and laterals should be transferred to the water and sewerage companies, reinforcing the support for that option expressed in other responses. The full report and the findings of the survey are available on the DEFRA website.

We need to look at the scope for and the form of the transfer, what the costs will be, the funding, the impact on industry and public expectations. None of those are straightforward issues. I share my hon. Friend's
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frustration that the wheels and machinery of Government appear on occasion to turn very slowly. I am as frustrated as he is. In fairness, my officials have done an excellent job in trying to pull together all these very difficult issues. Should private sewers, serving local authority owned commercial and industrial premises, be classed in the same way? That is a significant question that is complicated by the fact that some commercial sewers also serve domestic properties. Excluding some sewers might result in a piecemeal transfer leaving pockets of private sewers, thereby not securing effective and integrated management of the network as a whole.

The real options are overnight transfer—the whole lot moved into the ownership of the water and sewerage companies—or phased transfer, which could have the benefits of reducing the cost impact. If we go for phased transfer, do we encourage a voluntary approach or do we go for a compulsory approach? There are pros and cons for each option. While an overnight transfer would immediately resolve anxiety for private sewer owners and provide clarity for business, it might still take a considerable time as the companies work their way through the problems of the private sewers.

Whatever option is taken, we must be open and honest with people that in some cases it may be some years before there are solutions. We are talking of situations where nothing has happened for decades. Even if people expect that there will not be overnight solutions, if there is a potential solution, it will certainly be an improvement on the current situation.

Huw Irranca-Davies : Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the issues that I encounter in my constituency—I think that this happens throughout the UK—is that, because we are now decades into some of these ancient private sewer issues, an increasing number of residents will make complaints? While I fully appreciate what his Department has done and what he says about the complexities, there will be an increasing urgency to move forward on this matter.

Mr. Morley : I accept that. People suffer from problems with the sewage network. I well understand that there are real difficulties, which are likely to get worse rather than better the longer they are left.

Those are the considerations that we need to think about: overnight transfer, phased transfer, and whether phased transfer helps with the costs. All are important considerations. Ofwat has a major interest because of the impact on consumer bills. The last price round was a significant increase for many consumers, because of major works that are still being undertaken.

Paddy Tipping : Is it not the case that the consumer research—the focus group that the Minister referred to—addresses the problem and that the generality of view was that people were prepared to look at a levy?

Mr. Morley : Yes. Another question is whether the people affected would consider the option of a levy. Again, there are pros and cons. Some of the advantages
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are outweighed by the technical issues of applying the levy—the collection and costs. All the issues have to be weighed up.

My hon. Friend might like to know that Ofwat's research estimated that the impact on the average bill would be between £3 and £6 per annum for the highest cost option and between £1 and £2 for the lowest cost option. Those are within a range that is not unreasonable. The crucial issue before us is that, whatever step we, the Government, take next, we will have to produce a regulatory impact assessment. That is right. The assessment will look at the options, costs and of course benefits.

My officials are well into the process of drafting two RIAs. The first is to accompany the Government's decision on the transfer of private sewers and laterals to water and sewage companies, if that is the step we take. The second is a partial RIA to accompany the public consultation on implementation options that will be taken forward if the decision to transfer is made by the Government. That looks at the burden on the industry, which is an important issue.

A competition assessment and a small firms impact test have already been undertaken as part of the RIA process. That work, which is a crucial precondition of the decision the Government will make, is well established. The object at the beginning of the review was to alleviate the anxiety and distress caused to householders who suffer from some of those problems, which I know well and which have been clearly highlighted by the all-party group. I thank Ofwat, Water UK, the Consumer Council for Water, the all-party group and other stakeholders, which have been very much involved in and have assisted the review.

While I cannot give an exact time scale for the announcement, I can say to my hon. Friend that Ministers across Government will soon be in a position to weigh up the costs and benefits of transfer and to make a decision. I want to see that done as quickly as possible.

I also appreciated the point about skill training. I welcome proposals from the industry. It is essential to have proper qualifications and skilled work force and companies—both the water companies and small companies can do that kind of work.

In relation to the particular constituency issue that my hon. Friend mentioned, I understand that the work he referred to will start tomorrow. I certainly hope that that resolves the situation.

In conclusion, we are not too far away from an announcement. I know that my hon. Friend and others have worked hard and long on the issue. Although an announcement will not solve the problem overnight, I hope that what will be clear is that there is a solution in the offing for those people who have suffered from the problem for many years.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o'clock.

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