General Binding Rules for 2020

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General Binding Rules

If you own, live in, or are building a property with off mains drainage it’s important you’re aware of changing legislation around septic tanks. In a bid to tackle water pollution, the Environment Agency has set out General Binding Rules, which mean you have until 1st January 2020 to replace or upgrade your system. 


What are the 2020 General Binding Rules?

The General Binding Rules for small sewage discharges have been put in place to protect England’s watercourses from pollution caused by septic tanks and other small-scale sewage treatment plants. Under the new regulations, you can no longer discharge low quality effluent from septic tanks directly into ditches, streams or other watercourses. The options available are to replace your septic tank with a sewage treatment plant or if you have enough room and free draining soil install a drainage field. It is often the case however, that when a septic tank does discharge directly into a watercourse it is because either the soil type at the property is unsuitable (primarily clay) or there is insufficient room. 


Use the correct treatment system:

You must use a small sewage treatment plant to treat the sewage if you’re discharging to surface water, such as a river or stream. A small sewage treatment plant (also known as a package treatment plant) uses mechanical parts to treat the liquid so it’s clean enough to go into a river or stream. Discharges from septic tanks directly to surface water are not allowed under the general binding rules. If you have a septic tank that discharges directly to surface water, you will need to replace or upgrade your treatment system by 1 January 2020. Where properties with septic tanks that discharge directly to surface water are sold before 1 January 2020, responsibility for the replacement or upgrade of the existing treatment system should be addressed between the buyer and seller as a condition of sale. If the Environment Agency finds evidence that your septic tank discharging to a surface water is causing pollution, you will need to replace or upgrade your system earlier than 1 January 2020. You will usually have to do this within 1 year, although this will be agreed on a case-by-case basis. 

What are my options?

If your septic tank discharges into either a watercourse or soakaway, then the following options are available to you:

What else do I need to know? 

Under the new General Binding Rules, your septic tank or sewage treatment plant must meet British Standards BS EN 12566. Furthermore, you will need to make sure your tank is regularly emptied and maintained by a professional in line with the manufacturer’s instructions. If you are selling or buying, the seller is now legally required to inform potential buyers, in writing, if a property has a septic tank – including details of its precise location and maintenance requirements. It is important to have your sewage treatment system regularly emptied and maintained. 


You must get the sludge which builds up in your sewage treatment plant removed (desludged), before it exceeds the maximum capacity. As a minimum, you should have your sewage treatment system desludged once a year, or in line with the manufacturer’s instructions. The company you use to dispose of your waste sludge must be a registered waste carrier. Ask the company to confirm this when you arrange to have your tank emptied or ask the tanker driver for a copy of the company’s waste carrier’s certificate. You should have your sewage treatment system regularly maintained in line with the manufacturer’s instructions. If these are not available, ask your local maintenance company for advice.


You must have your sewage treatment system repaired or replaced if it is not in good working order, for example if it has:

  • Leaks

  • Cracks in tank walls or pipes

  • Blocked pipes

  • Signs that the effluent is not draining properly (pools of water around the drainage point)

  • Sewage smells

  • A failed motor

  • A failed pump

  • A failed electrical supply 


Anyone who carries out maintenance on your waste water system must be competent. Competent people include those on British Water’s list of Accredited Service. 


Full details of the general binding rules can be found at

South of England Map
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