HC Deb 19 March 1985 vol 75 cc841-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Durant.]

7.46 pm
Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower)

I am grateful for this opportunity to outline the problems associated with the non-adoption of sewers and surface drainage infrastructure in Wales.

I first became aware of the problems of unadopted sewers in 1983. Until then, like most people, I thought of sewers only rarely, and then only in the vaguest terms as rather unsavoury topics. I have found, however, that sewers are just like the underpayment of DHSS benefits, the non-repair of rented property, breaches of the sale of goods legislation and many other problems about which people think that they have rights and are protected against financial loss when, in fact, they are not.

The problems associated with unadopted and unadoptable sewers stem from 1981, when the now defunct National Water Council published a design and construction guide entitled, "Sewers for Adoption." The standards and requirements in that guide have now become the standards and requirements for sewers to be adopted by regional water authorities under sections 17 and 18 of the Public Health Act 1936.

However those standards do not coincide with those laid down by the 1965 building regulations, which are administered by local authorities and which form the legal requirements for the construction of sewers. The two standards do not coincide because, while the building regulations meet health and safety standards, they do not incorporate the wider view relating to the standards of construction of the network as a whole.

The regional water authorities are obliged by law to take wider considerations into account when sewers are to be adopted and maintained at public expense. In other words, the water authority criteria are higher. While the building regulations are statutory, compliance with water authority standards is not.

Too often, the developer selects the cheapest and most convenient construction route—through private gardens, for example. Unfortunately, the potential house buyer—a totally innocent party—suffers because the sewers will never be adopted by the regional water authority. They are, in effect, unadoptable because they do not meet the "Sewers for Adoption" criteria. They will remain private sewers, for which the house buyer and future buyers will be legally and financially responsible for maintenance and repair.

An example of that is now occurring at Gowerton, in my constituency, where a developer has recently been granted outline planning permission on what was an application for 112 houses, although there will now be fewer than that number. So far, the developer has not offered to enter into a voluntary agreement under section 18 of the Public Health Act 1936. It has been pointed out to the developer that, if he carries out his plans to lay the sewers of the estate on private land rather than alongside the access road, as requested by the Welsh water authority and the local authority, the sewers will not meet the "Sewers for Adoption" criteria. No matter what compromise is reached regarding diameter of pipe laying at the detailed planning stage, those sewers on that private estate will never be adopted. The developer rightly points out that he is meeting all his legal requirements, but it remains a fact that future home buyers on that estate will have to pay for the short-sighted objective of the developer. In that way we are storing up problems for the future.

The Welsh water authority estimates that in Wales 16,000 homes with sewers will not be eligible for adoption. In Lliw valley, which serves part of my constituency, approximately 2,800 houses have unadopted sewers. Householders are particularly angry when they encounter this problem, because they believe, not unreasonably, that throughout the stages of house buying they are protected from it.

The house buyer notes from the estate agent's literature whether the house in which he is interested has a "public" or "private" drainage system. If he has what is described in this literature as a "private" drainage system, that relates to a cesspit or septic tank, and the price of the property often reflects the fact that the householder is responsible for the maintenance of the private system. However, if the estate agent's literature says "mains drainage," the house buyer is normally satisfied that no further questions need to be asked. Yet he may be taking on a shared responsibility for a system where far more expense can be incurred than in maintaining cesspit drainage, where the most that is usually required is replacing a pipe from the back of the house to the bottom of the garden.

The house of one of my constituents, for example, is showing all the ugly signs of subsidence. Investigations are not yet complete, but it appears from the preliminary report than an unadopted and uncharted sewer pipe from a private housing estate of 30 houses comes across the field and under his house. The pipe is broken at that point and sewage is leaking into the clay on which the house foundations lie. I cannot yet state the legal and financial implications for my constituent and the others on the estate, but that sewer will have to be re-routed at the expense of the householders on that estate.

If the system is defective at that point, it is not likely to be in good repair elsewhere. The householder will not be eligible for legal aid, even if he can seek redress from his solicitor or surveyor, or the local authority or water authority, none of which apparently was able to state the position.

What are the implications for the building society which has an interest in the value of the property and in the householder's ability to meet repayments? What are the implications for the insurance company, if the householder is covered? That is the legal and financial morass that the present position poses for consumers.

If the house buyer employs a surveyor and valuer to inspect his property before purchase, unless the property is showing signs of flooding or affecting foundations, there is no way in which a surveyor can assess or comment on the state of the sewer. The same applies to a building society surveyor. Even on new developments, sewers are normally in place and covered before house construction. It would therefore be impractical and unreasonable to expect to extend the scope of such reports to cover the adequacy of a sewerage system, but that again means that the buyer is not protected when he thinks he is and has paid fees to ensure that he is protected.

Similarly, when a home buyer pays a substantial fee for conveyancing on his property, he expects that any aspect of his purchase which could result in his incurring an unexpected expense of thousands of pounds or could affect the subsequent value of his investment would be pointed out to him by his solicitor. I understand, however, that it is not possible for a solicitor to provide this information and protection. A local authority can inform a solicitor whether the sewer is adopted and whether a section 18 agreement will take effect, but it cannot say, without the regional water authority undertaking a survey, whether an unadopted sewer system will be adopted under section 17. The standard form for solicitors' searches which is sent to local authorities does not ask whether the regional water authority has refused an application to adopt.

Some of my constituents are new residents on an estate in Clydach where 300 houses are served by an unadopted sewerage system. Those new residents could not have been informed by their solicitors, or the local authority —neither of which knew about this—that the residents on the estate were applying for the sewers to be adopted. The residents will jointly have to pay, first, for a detailed camera survey of the sewers and then for any repairs, reconstruction or re-routeing necessary to comply with water authority standards for adoption.

Some of those houses are 30 years old; others are new. How should the costs of adoption be apportioned —equally, on age of property or on length of residence? The whole matter is potentially a legal minefield, yet it could not be covered by solicitors' searches which the householder thinks cover him for such disastrous contingencies. We are talking of hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Presumably, it was awareness of that that led the Secretary of State for Wales to overrule the Welsh water authority, Dwyfor district council and a public inquiry inspector, and to order the Welsh water authority to adopt the private sewers on the Maes Gerddi estate at Porthmadog. To repair those sewers will cost the Welsh water authority an estimated £200,000. I am delighted that the residents of the estate, who are responsible for the sewers, will not have to meet those costs, but I shall expect exactly the same consideration to be given to my constituents as, I am sure, will all Members on both sides of the House. If it is right for Wales, my English colleagues will want equal treatment.

We must return to the root of the problem — the discrepancies between the building regulations and the 1981 "Sewers for Adoption" criteria, and the implications of that for sections 17 and 18 agreements. To give people the protection to which they are entitled, first, the voluntary status of section 18 must end, and, secondly, sewers must be constructed to adoptable standards, which means the regional water authority standards.

New legislation should provide that a person constructing a sewer should build it so as to comply with the building regulations and with any higher standards necessary to comply with the adoption standards of the regional water authority, and make provision, pending adoption, by way of a deposit or bond.

Such a measure, which would close the gap between building regulations and regional water authority adoption criteria, has virtually the unanimous support of regional water authorities and local authorities. The Principality Building Society and other building societies, the Building Societies Association and the Law Society are firmly behind that suggestion.

The Association of District Councils, whose members, as planning authorities, are placed in a most invidious position, has been pressing for that change since 1982, as has the Building Societies' Association. At that time, the Secretary of State for the Environment deflected those representations by saying that pressure would be brought to bear on developers to construct sewers to adoptable standards. Informal pressure and voluntary section 18 agreements have not worked. As my constituents know, developers continue to opt for the cheapest method of construction. I hope that the Minister realises that I shall not be fobbed off with that sort of reassurance tonight. Voluntary agreements have not worked. Meanwhile, we are continuing to store up tremendous and expensive problems for the future.

I am aware that such a simple step will not resolve all the problems at a stroke. First, there will be instances of new sewers being connected to existing systems not complying with the adoption criteria. In 1936, with the introduction of the Public Health Act, a blanket adoption was given to existing public sewers. A similar solution was applied in Scotland under the 1968 Act when it was applied in 1973. However, a much more recent precedent for releasing home owners from the unknown financial implications of inadequate construction is the Housing Defects Act 1984. I see no sound or just reason why unadopted sewers should not be regarded in the same way as houses in that Act, especially as the Government should have been able to predict the problems inherent in the water councils' higher adoption standards not coinciding with the building regulations.

Secondly, a developer may feel that the regional water authority conditions are unacceptably stringent, or that a bond or deposit requirement is unnecessarily high for a particular development. It would therefore be both sensible and practical to incorporate a right of appeal into the mandatory requirement. That would help the construction industry, which is labour-intensive. As the right of appeal is already a provision of section 17, the decline in those appeals should allow for a new provision, without an increase in administration costs or building costs associated with delay.

Similarly, as water authorities are already consulted about planning applications, regardless of whether a section 18 agreement is being considered by a developer, I cannot see that mandatory section 18 agreements with the right of appeal would increase the administrative costs of regional water authorities. The procedure would be far more cost effective for the public. Indeed, the whole thrust of this call for legislation is in the public interest.

I am sure that this issue will not stimulate the same interest as the economic statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer earlier today, but for those people in homes with unadopted sewers, the need for change is just as important. When my constituents and other people buy houses and incur considerable expense in surveys and solicitors' fees, they think that they are protected from disaster. They are not, if they or their neighbour has unadopted and unadoptable sewers. Therefore, I urge the Minister, on behalf of the people of Wales, to take up this issue and to persuade his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales to introduce legislation to ensure that home buyers are given that protection which, as consumers, they have a right to expect and to which they are entitled.

8.8 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Wyn Roberts)

I must first congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell) on his lucid and well-informed speech about the difficulties which can arise when foul and surface water sewers are not adopted. It is fortunate that the number of unadopted sewers which cause serious problems are few, but, nevertheless, when problems arise they are often difficult and expensive to put right and in the interim they can cause untold problems and worries for the residents who are affected. Therefore, I welcome the opportunity that this debate offers to explore some of the reasons why these problems have arisen, what remedy is currently available and to assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are aware of the problems faced by some householders and are already considering what action needs to be taken. I should perhaps add that, although the hon. Gentleman has highlighted problems in Wales and particular cases in his own constituency, such problems are common to both England and Wales.

I shall look at the commonest causes of non-adoption. Under section 20 of the Public Health Act 1936, as amended by the Water Act 1973, all sewers in public ownership at 1 April 1974 were deemed to be vested in the relevant water authority. Thus, there passed into the public ownership of the Welsh water authority over 12,000 km of sewers.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is well aware that even today, some 10 years after the setting up of the water authorities, one of the biggest causes of complaint by them is the inadequate plans and records of their sewers. The local authorities, which originally owned the sewers before the setting up of the water authorities, are the same authorities, or their successors, who today still act as agents of the water authority in the building, maintenance and management of the local sewer network. Thus, of the 2,700 or so properties identified by the hon. Gentleman in his constituency as being served by unadopted sewers, some may, in fact, be public sewers, but, because of inadequate documentation at the time, the water authority did not accept responsibility for them. I am told that many of them are indeed the property of Swansea city council.

I should add that the Welsh water authority has been very generous in its treatment of non-adopted sewers in this category, and in a letter to all its sewerage agency councils in 1980–81 it offered a final amnesty and to accept sewers into its ownership which were public sewers in 1974 but had been left off the sewer maps. I am sorry to say that the response from the district councils was very disappointing.

The second cause of non-adoption is that the water authorities will not accept the transfer of sewers into their ownership until the development to which they relate has been completed. This seems to me to be a very sensible approach by the water authorities, and has many precedents in other fields. Clearly, the water authority needs to be absolutely sure of what it is taking on and to have the opportunity of examining and testing the complete system before adoption. This can lead to problems for householders when a builder takes several years to complete a development. In the interim, problems arising related to the sewer are the responsibility of the developer, who may or may not be quick to remedy the situation or who may or may not be the same as the original developer who started the work. In all of that, the consumers who are paying their charge to the water authority for sewerage services find it difficult to understand why the water authority, or its agents the district council, will not act to help them.

The third cause of non-adoption and the one which ultimately seems to cause most resentment is the sewer built by a developer which is put forward for adoption by the water authority under section 17 of the Public Health Act 1936 and is then found to be defective and not up to the standard required by the water auhority for adoption. The cause can be bad design; for example, the sewer is laid at the wrong depth below the road surface, or at the wrong gradient for it to be properly self-cleansing. Another problem often encountered is poor workmanship and materials. Even if the sewer conforms with building regulations, it may not conform with the standards required by the water authorities for adoption, which reflect wider considerations. I have to say that although I accept some of the points made by the hon. Gentleman on the difference in standard between building regulations and water authority adoption standards, many of the cases which have come to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales show some failure, often on the part of the local authority, in inspecting and enforcing building regulations.

So much for the causes of non-adoption. Now let us look at the remedy. The drain and/or branch sewer serving an individual property is the responsibility of the individual house owner. However, the main sewer is normally in the ownership of the developer until adopted by the water authority. If problems do arise with that sewer, the first remedy for the individual is to seek action by or redress from the developer, and that quite often leads to a satisfactory outcome. Even after completion of a development, if the sewer remains undadopted, the remedy for the householder is still with the developer or his successor in title ultimately through the courts.

A common feature of cases that come to the attention of my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Wales and for the Environment is where a developer has gone into liquidation and the residents themselves ask the water authority or its agents, the district council, to adopt a sewer. If the water authority refuses, there is a right of appeal to the Secretary of State under section 17(3) of the Public Health Act 1936.

That section of the Act lays down certain specific points to which my right hon. Friends should address themselves, as well as the facts of the individual case. I must stress that each case is different, usually presenting a combination of problems, causes and special factors, all of which have to be taken into account in reaching a decision on whether the sewers should or should not be adopted by the water authority. To assist my right hon. Friends in coming to a decision, they nearly always offer the parties the opportunity to state their case before an inspector, appointed for the purpose, at a private hearing or a public local inquiry. I am pleased to say that there have been quite a number of instances where, because of the circumstances of the individual case, my right hon. Friends have been able to find in favour of the residents and to have the sewers adopted.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Maes Gerddi estate decision. A judicial review before the High Court on that section 17 case decision is pending, to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales is a party. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will understand that, for that reason, I would not wish at this stage to get into a debate about the detailed application of section 17. He will realise that I must also be careful about how far I can discuss any individual cases that might ultimately find their way to my right hon. Friends for a decision on appeal under section 17(3) of the Public Health Act 1936.

As the hon. Gentleman said, there is a way open to developers which readily overcomes the problems about which we are talking today. That has been available since the Public Health Act 1936. Section 18 provides for a developer to enter into an agreement with the water authority that the sewers will be adopted upon completion, subject to their being built to the standards set down in that agreement. This provides a safeguard for both parties, in that the developer will be able to discharge his responsibility for ownership and maintenance of the sewer upon completion, and the water authority is assured that the sewer is built to a standard that will ensure its adoption. The residents also have the benefit of knowing that any problems that arise will be dealt with by the water authority.

The hon. Gentleman has been seeking assurances that the Government will take action to stop these problems arising in future. He has made several interesting suggestions, which I certainly promise to examine and consider with my right hon. Friends.

In case the hon. Gentleman is not aware of the situation, I should inform him that a working party composed of officials from Government Departments and the water authorities is currently examining the existing legislation relating to sewerage and sewage treatment and disposal, to see what changes are required to bring the legislation up to date and to remedy deficiencies. This follows on from the view of the Law Commissioners that the existing sewerage legislation is in need of consolidation. One of the areas of difficulty identified by the working party is the adoption of sewers. I shall certainly pass on the hon. Gentleman's ideas to that working party for its consideration.

The hon. Gentleman has pressed the case for a change in the law which requires developers to enter into a section 18 agreement with the water authority. This is certainly one option being examined by the legislative review group. The suggestion has the attraction from the residents' point of view that their sewers would be adopted. However, at that point one has to stop and examine exactly what is implied by such an agreement.

Certain obvious questions arise. First, how far does adoption go? Is it just the main sewer, the main sewer and branch sewers, or all sewers and drains to the curtilage of a property? There are a number of other possibilities as well. Secondly, the adoption standards are often more stringent than the building regulations, as the hon. Gentleman noted, because of the longer-term needs of water authorities, and thus they are more expensive to implement. This has an obvious consequence for any purchaser. Thirdly, with the sort of agreement envisaged by the hon. Gentleman, how far should the water authorities go in planning for possible extension of development to the site? The cost of such provision to the initial developer could be very high. All that I can do this evening is pose the questions. I shall certainly not try to answer them.

The present system of voluntary section 18 agreements works well and enables the developer to agree the extent of adoption and ensure the best balance of cost and service to the purchaser of property on the site being developed. Thus, though there are initial obvious attractions to the hon. Gentleman's proposition, all aspects must be carefully considered. The views that he expressed are helpful in this consideration. I assure him that they will be given further attention.

This debate has been most constructive. I hope that the elucidation and assurances that I have been able to give to the hon. Member have helped to assure him that the Government are very much alive to the problems faced, thankfully, by a very small minority of the population. Nevertheless, they are important. I am also glad to confirm to him that the Government are actively examining what action needs to be taken both to stop these problems occurring in future and to deal with existing problems.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes past Eight o' clock.