General Binding Rules Septic Tank

General Binding Rules Explained | Septic Tanks | Small Sewage Treatment Plants

A Breakdown of the General Binding Rules for Small Sewage Discharges in England

In this blog we aim to break down the General Binding Rules for small sewage discharges using a systematic approach. The rules differ depending on whether the sewage system you have or plan to install discharges to ground or discharges to surface water. The full list of rules is available here at the gov.uk website but not all of them will apply to you. You will need to know where your discharge point is located (to ground/to surface water) in order to find out which rules apply to you. You will also need to know if you are operating a septic tank or a sewage treatment plant and whether or not you have a drainage field installed. If you already have an idea of what the rules mean and why they exist you can skip ahead to the section on rules for Discharges to Ground or to the rules for Discharges to Surface Water. In the last section we cover the General Binding Rules that apply to all Small Sewage Discharges.

What is meant by the General Binding Rules for Small Sewage Discharges?

The General Binding Rules regulate small sewage discharges and apply to anyone that operates a septic tank or small sewage treatment plant in England. Under these regulations, anyone that has or plans to install a septic tank or small sewage treatment plant must follow the general binding rules as a minimum. Once you comply with the General Binding Rules, you do not require a permit. Permitting allows the Environment Agency to assess the discharge to ensure that it won’t cause pollution, and to specify additional requirements beyond the general binding rules if necessary. All small sewage discharges in designated sensitive areas (or those that cannot meet the General Binding Rules) are required to have a permit.

When do I need a permit for a small sewage discharge?

small sewage dischargesThe whole purpose of the General Binding Rules is to protect water resources from pollution caused by small sewage discharges. If you already have a small sewage discharge without a permit, you are essentially agreeing to be bound by the General Binding Rules. Where it is not possible to comply fully with the General Binding Rules, the Environment Agency can issue a permit. Bear in mind that the Environment Agency will only grant a permit for a small sewage discharge if there is no evidence of pollution or if the risk of pollution is acceptable. If there is evidence of pollution or a significant risk of pollution, you must replace or upgrade your sewage system in order to comply with the General Binding Rules or meet the conditions of a permit. You will find an application form for a permit here on the gov.uk website. The form you need to fill in depends on where you discharge the sewage to (groundwater/surface water) and how much sewage you discharge (based on the largest amount you are likely to discharge). Read on to find out more.

The following General Binding Rules apply specifically to small sewage discharges to ground:

  • The discharge must be 2 cubic metres or less per day in volume.
    If you are unsure about the volume of discharge from your property, you can download a daily discharge volume calculator tool here on the gov.uk website. A permit is required to discharge any more than 2,000l of treated sewage per day to ground.
  • drainfield installationThe sewage must receive treatment from a septic tank and infiltration system or a sewage treatment plant and infiltration system.
    If you do not have an infiltration system in place you must arrange for one to be installed. An infiltration system is an area of ground set out with perforated pipework at specific spacing and elevation to distribute the effluent for treatment within the soil underneath.
  • The discharge must not be within a groundwater Source Protection Zone 1 [SPZ1] or within 50 metres from any well, spring or borehole that is used to supply water for domestic or food production purposes.
    You must apply for a permit if this is the case. The minimum size for a groundwater SPZ1 for a drinking water supply is a 50m radius from the source.  No matter how large a groundwater SPZ1 is, any small sewage discharge discharging to ground within it will require a permit. You can contact the Environment Agency to find out if you are within an SPZ1.
  • New discharges* must not be in, or within 50 metres of, a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), Special Protection Area (SPA), Ramsar site, or biological Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and must not be in an Ancient Woodland.
    As these are sensitive areas for wildlife and habitats you must apply for a permit to discharge here. You can contact the Environment Agency to find out if you are within any of these areas.

*New discharges are considered to be those started on or after 1 January 2015.

The following General Binding Rules apply specifically to small sewage discharges to surface water:

  • The discharge must be 5 cubic metres or less per day in volume.
    If you are unsure about the volume of discharge from your property, you can download a daily discharge volume calculator tool for small sewage discharges here on the gov.uk website. A permit is required to discharge any more than 5,000l of treated sewage per day to surface water. 
  • The sewage must receive treatment from a sewage treatment plant.
    This means that a septic tank discharging direct to surface water (brook/river/streams/ditches etc.) is no longer allowed and must be replaced with or upgraded to a sewage treatment plant. The Government have given operators until 1 January 2020 to arrange this. We covered the difference between a septic tank and sewage treatment plant in an earlier blog post.
  • For discharges in tidal waters, the discharge outlet must be below the mean spring low water mark. 
    This means the discharge point must be at a height less than the average height obtained by the two successive low waters during the same period.
  • New discharges must not be in or within: 500 metres of a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), Special Protection Area (SPA), Ramsar site, biological Site of
    Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), freshwater pearl mussel population, designated bathing water, or protected shellfish water; 200 metres of an aquatic local nature reserve; 50 metres of a chalk river or aquatic local wildlife site. 
    As these are sensitive areas for wildlife and habitats you must apply for a permit to discharge here. You can contact the Environment Agency to find out if you are within any of these areas.
  • New discharges must be made to a watercourse that normally has flow throughout the year. 
    This means that the discharge cannot be to surface water that does not contain flowing water throughout the course of the year (unless there is an unusually long period of dry weather or a drought). Ditches are no longer acceptable to discharge to.
  • For new discharges, any partial drainage field must be installed within 10 metres of the bank side of the watercourse.
    A partial drainage field is a seasonal system that works differently in the summer and winter which means that you’re discharging both to groundwater and to surface water, depending on the seasonal ground conditions. The Environment Agency considers 10m to be close enough to the water course to be defined as a discharge to surface waters. So this rule is essentially in place to maintain a distinction between discharging to ground and discharging to surface water.
  • New discharges must not be made to an enclosed lake or pond.
    Unlike a watercourse with flow (rivers and streams), lakes and pond have a limited supply of oxygen. When the oxygen in a lake or pond is used up by the bacteria in the discharge (even if it treated to good standards), pollution occurs.

The rest of the General Binding Rules apply to all small sewage discharges and are as follows:

  • The sewage must only be domestic.
    This is typically waste from toilets, sinks and drains in a home or small business like a nursing home, guest house or pub provided that the activities remain in proportion to the domestic scale.
  • The discharge must not cause pollution of surface water or groundwater.
    This is the all-encompassing rule and the purpose of the General Binding Rules.
  • All works and equipment used for the treatment of sewage effluent and its discharge must comply with the relevant design and manufacturing standards  i.e. the British Standard that was in force at the time of the installation, and guidance issued by the appropriate authority on the capacity and installation of the equipment. The works must comply with the Building Regulations, H2, 2010 and the equipment must comply with the relevant BS EN 12566 series of standards for Small Wastewater Treatment Systems for up to 50 PT. A reputable wastewater treatment company will confirm that their equipment is certified to the relevant standards and the capacity of the system is suitable for the discharge. If you are employing a builder to carry out installation works, it is their responsibility for making sure that it complies with the building regulations. However, if an inspector finds that the work does not comply with the regulations then it is up to the owner of the property to address it. How to avoid this? Use a reputable builder.

  • The system must be installed and operated in accordance with the manufacturer’s specification.
    You risk losing your warranty if you do not follow the installation and operation guidelines provided by the manufacturer of the sewage system.
  • septic tankMaintenance must be undertaken by someone who is competent.
    Self explanatory – do not attempt to do this yourself, unless you are a trained and certified maintenance technician/engineer. Otherwise, you risk losing your warranty. Contact the manufacturer to arrange appropriate maintenance. A new sewage treatment plant may include a maintenance package in the price.
  • Waste sludge from the system must be safely disposed of by an authorised person.
    British Water recommends that “Non-mains sewage treatment system owners should enter into a maintenance contract with a competent operator which uses suitably qualified personnel who have passed the British Water Maintenance and Servicing Training Scheme.” You can download the British Water guide to the Desludging of Small Wastewater Treatment systems here on their website.
  • If a property is sold, the operator must give the new operator a written notice stating that a small sewage discharge is being carried out, and giving a description of the waste water system and its maintenance requirements.
    If your sewage system does not meet the General Binding Rules you must remedy it at your own expense. Otherwise, you can expect the value of your property to decrease significantly or be much slower to sell – it is unlikely that a buyer would want to take on this extra expense.
  • The operator must ensure the system is appropriately decommissioned where it ceases to be in operation so that there is no risk of pollutants or polluting matter entering groundwater, inland fresh waters or coastal waters. 
    To decommission a disused septic tank:

    • Locate the septic tank and uncover the top of the tank (generally 30 – 60 cms below ground level). Do not enter the tank.
    • Have the septic tank wastewater (liquid and sludge) pumped out completely by a licensed hauler.  It is important to pump the wastewater, as it contains bacteria and viruses that could make you or your family ill. Keep the pumping receipt as it acts as proof-of-pumping.
    • Fill in the septic tank completely with sand, gravel or soil and put the access lid(s) back in place, or demolish the tank. Ref:http://www.epa.ie/water/wastewater/guidance/remed/
  • New discharges must not be within 30 metres of a public foul sewer.
    If you can access a sewer, access a sewer.
  • For new discharges, the operator must ensure that the necessary planning and building control approvals for the treatment system are in place.
    Contact the Environment Agency before installing a new system or making changes to an existing system to check if a permit is required. Before carrying out any installations, contact your local planning authority to check if it requires planning permission. We already discussed Building Control Approvals here.

That concludes our explanation of the General Binding Rules for small sewage discharges in England.

Remember, do not make any changes to an existing sewage system or begin a new installation without first consulting with the Environment Agency regarding a permit; they are there to help. Equally, do not commence any work without first checking if planning permission is required from your local council or planning authority. To help you, we have included a list of useful links below regarding the General Binding Rules for septic tanks and small sewage treatment plants in England:

General Binding Rules for Small Sewage Discharges [gov.uk]
FAQs on the General Binding Rules for Small Sewage Discharges [gov.uk]
Guidance on meeting the General Binding Rules for Small Sewage Discharges [gov.uk]
Information about Building Regulations and Planning Permission [planningportal.co.uk]
Building Regulations for Drainage and Waste Disposal (H2) [gov.uk]
Permit Applications for Small Sewage Dischares [gov.uk]
Guidance on Permit Compliance for Small Sewage Discharges [gov.uk]
British Water Codes of Practice relating to Small Wastewater Treatment Systems [britishwater.co.uk]

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