The challenges of sewer asset ownership: have your say

It isn’t often that an industry regulator offers developers the opportunity to be key shapers of new contractual arrangements, but a workstream doing precisely that is now running until March 2019. David Strang, of Water UK, explains why this is happening and how to get involved.

Disagreements over the adoption of sewerage assets can have significant short and medium term consequences for all stakeholders; new contractual agreements for developers could help substantially
Disagreements over the adoption of sewerage assets can have significant short and medium term consequences for all stakeholders; new contractual agreements for developers could help substantially
The challenges relating to the ownership of sewerage assets are being increasingly recognised by all stakeholders – government, developers, water companies, home owners, insurers and affected communities. Thousands of kilometres of sewers are being built each year but are not being adopted by the local water company.

Problems with lack of ownership

The basic legislation governing the water and sewerage industry sets out a regime under which privately built assets can be transferred to water company ownership. This process is referred to in the legislation as ‘adoption’. Once the transfer has taken place, the water company has the future responsibility for the operation and maintenance of the transferred assets.

In the case of sewerage assets, adoption has been governed by the terms of the ‘Sewers for Adoption’ (SfA) guidance. There are two versions of SfA currently in use, with different water companies relying on different versions to determine the suitability of assets being offered for adoption. In addition, almost all sewers are laid by the developer of the site. Only in rare instances do water companies lay sewers for new developments.

Taken together, this means that there exists confusion about what is required for sewers to be adopted. This lack of clarity affects the developer and construction parts of our industry, especially for sewerage features such as SuDS (sustainable drainage systems) that have not been part of traditional sewerage systems but are becoming increasingly important to cope with increased frequency of excess surface water in our changing climate.

For their part, water companies face a greater risk in adopting newly-built sewers since they currently lack confidence about design and construction standards for new sewers that are being built. The overall effect of these misaligned incentives is to delay the inclusion of innovative sewerage features such as SuDS, which harms not only householders and insurers with higher costs for avoidable flood damage, but also prevents civil engineering from being as innovative and effective as it could be.

Adoption of private sewers

The government has already taken steps to help this process. In 2011, the government enabled a process of water companies taking ownership and responsibility for previously private sewers. This adoption of private sewers was a recognition by government of how undesirable it is to leave sewers in private ownership. Long term assets need long term owners. But this 2011 process was only for unadopted sewers existing at that point. We need a process for all new sewers on an ongoing basis.

A key element in ensuring that sewers get adopted rather than being “orphaned” is that the procedures for having them adopted by the water companies are as simple and robust as possible.

For the first time, Ofwat has introduced a code for adoption, similar to the framework that exists in energy and gas, and is now requiring water companies and their customers to devise new procedural and legal arrangements for adoption. By including water companies and other stakeholders in this workstream – especially developers and drainage consultants – these new arrangements could really help solve the challenge. The workstream for this is running until March 2019.

Time to act

So whether you are working for a developer, drainage consultant or other stakeholder, now is the time to make your voice heard about the future of sewerage asset adoption, by registering here.

A parallel programme covering water asset adoption is also underway.  To find out more, please register.