Septic tanks are currently exempt from regulations concerning the discharge of water (or other liquids) whether into surface water (such as a river, stream or lake) or into the ground itself.

However, on 1 January 2020 the general exemption will be removed in most cases. From that date it will become an offence for a septic tank to discharge into surface water.

Tanks which discharge into the ground might qualify for a further exemption, although the requirements in this respect are complex – fortunately the guidance issued by the Environment Agency entitled “General binding rules: small sewage discharge to the ground” is very helpful.

Who can be guilty of an offence?

Anyone who is an “operator” of a septic tank will be caught by the new regulations.

An “operator” of a septic tank includes:

  •  The owner of a property that uses a septic tank;
  •  The owner of a property that shares a septic tank with a neighbouring owner; and
  •  Any person responsible for the maintenance of the septic tank under a written agreement, such as, for example, a Lease, or an Assured Shorthold Tenancy.

What should you do?

The new regulations outlaws discharging septic tank waste into a watercourse, not the septic tank itself. Therefore, you could keep your tank and discharge the waste into a drainage field. In many cases you may need to replace the septic tank with a sewage treatment plant. 

The Environment Agency guidance referred to above sets out the upgrades which need to be considered in respect of any existing tank which discharges into the ground.

There are additional requirements in respect of any tank installed after 1 January 2015, or any new tank which is installed.


Time is clearly of the essence for any owners of properties with a septic tank, or any business who “operates” a septic tank.

If you are in the process of buying a property with a septic tank you need to consider the issues above, including investigating where the tank discharges and what steps will need to be taken as a result.

Any failure to comply with the new rules could result in enforcement action by the Environment Agency.  Their powers include the ability to issue monetary penalties and/or various forms of notice requiring remedial work. They also have the power to bring criminal prosecutions against those involved. Any enforcement action will be expensive, so it is better use your resources now to ensure full compliance with the Regulations , rather than incur the huge cost of dealing with EA enforcement action.

For further help or advice, please contact Jeremy Scott Regulatory Partner at Lupton Fawcett 24/7 on 07971 520407 or

Please note this information is provided by way of example and may not be complete and is certainly not intended to constitute legal advice. You should take bespoke advice for your circumstances.

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