Policy paper

2010 to 2015 government policy: water and sewerage services

Updated 8 May 2015

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

This is a copy of a document that stated a policy of the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government. The previous URL of this page was https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/maintaining-secure-water-supplies-high-standards-of-drinking-water-and-effective-sewerage-services. Current policies can be found at the GOV.UK policies list.


England’s population is growing. That means what we need from our water system and sewerage network is changing.

We need to update our water systems and sewerage systems to adapt to these changes, and we need to make these updates safely and sustainably. That means planning for the future as well as looking after current requirements.


Drainage and sewers

We’ve transferred the ownership of private sewers from individual householders to sewerage companies. This has freed thousands of people from being charged for maintenance on pipes which they often didn’t realise they were responsible for.

The Flood and Water Management Act 2010 contains powers to change the law so that water and sewage companies will be responsible for new sewers.

Surface water flooding can happen when, for example, rainwater gets into homes and businesses instead of draining away. We’re planning to make changes so we can deal with surface water flooding better.

Over 2.8 million people are at risk from surface water flooding. We’re introducing sustainable drainage systems to help them.

Water efficiency

We want to help people save water at home. We’re doing this by:

  • educating people about how to save money by using less water

  • working with groups such as bathroom manufacturers to see what makes people more likely to save water

We’re making it more attractive for businesses to invest in equipment and technology that saves water. We’re also working with water-saving experts such as the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) to help businesses to use water efficiently.

Safe drinking water

Defra is responsible for the laws and regulations designed to make sure all drinking water in England is safe, secure, and potable (good to drink).

The Drinking Water Inspectorate is responsible for keeping water companies and other people that supply drinking water within the law.

Water resource management

Our management of water resources aims to make best use of the water available across the country.

Read more about how we manage water.


Our plans for future water management are set out in the white paper, Water for Life, published in 2011.

Appendix 1: water efficiency

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

Water is a precious natural resource. It needs to be conserved to meet current and future demands. Population, household size and growth and affluence all affect how much water we use. Climate change could also put supplies under greater pressure in the future. This means that we need to use water more efficiently.

Everyone can help conserve water – from the biggest businesses to people in their own homes.

Domestic water efficiency

There are simple steps we can all take now to protect the UK’s water supplies for the future. Here are some ways we can all use less water:


  • fix dripping taps
  • turn off the tap between rinsing dishes
  • only fill the kettle with the water you need
  • buy water-efficient dishwashers and washing machines


  • turn off the tap when brushing your teeth
  • take shorter showers
  • put a water-saving bag in the cistern
  • fit a flow regulator or an aerated shower head
  • fit flow regulators or aerators to taps


  • use a watering can or bucket and sponge, not a hosepipe
  • put a water butt in the garden


  • install a leak detector
  • insulate water pipes

Waterwise has more water saving ideas.

Non-domestic water efficiency

Water-efficient enhanced capital allowances

The Enhanced Capital Allowance (ECA) scheme for water allows businesses to invest in water-efficient plant and machinery and write the cost off against tax. This can mean savings for the business and a positive effect on the environment.

The ECA scheme covers a variety of technologies. These include water-efficient taps, toilets and industrial cleaning equipment. For more on the eligible products, see the Water Technology List.

Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP)

We’re working with the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) on a number of projects to improve water-efficiency in the non-domestic area.

For example, WRAP is helping the Food & Drink Federation with the Federation House Commitment (FHC). This is a project that helps companies in the food and drink sector reduce their use of water.

The food and drink industry is a major water user – it uses around 690 million litres of water a day. The FHC aims to cut the industry’s water use by 20% by 2020.


Getting water companies to reduce the amount of water they leak from their systems is an important part of conserving the UK’s water supplies. Independent regulator Ofwat set all the water companies targets to reduce leakage. As a result, England and Wales have seen a 36% reduction in leakage since 1994.

Appendix 2: safe drinking water

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

The government has a number of legal responsibilities covering drinking water. We have to:

  • make sure the industry is producing safe drinking water

  • protect our sources of drinking water

  • carry out and influence EU law on water

We work with a number of agencies that monitor water and sewerage companies and drinking water quality. We also work with agencies who speak on behalf of water consumers.

Drinking Water Inspectorate

The Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) enforces drinking water standards in England and Wales.

DWI’s main job is to check that the water companies supply safe drinking water that meets the standards set down in law.

DWI’s Chief Inspector is appointed by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and by Welsh ministers. The Chief Inspector acts independently of government.

Scotland and Northern Ireland have equivalent regulators:

DWI also acts as technical advisor for private water supplies.

Private water supplies

Not all the drinking water in England and Wales comes from the public network. Some communities - particularly in remote areas - can have their own supplies, with (for example) farms taking water from their own wells.

Private water supplies are regulated by different laws to public supplies. They’re monitored for quality by local councils.

DWI provides support and advice to local councils on all aspects of drinking water quality, including private water supplies.


Ofwat makes sure water companies provide good service at a fair price. Ofwat does this by:

  • keeping bills as low as possible

  • monitoring and comparing the services companies provide

  • encouraging competition

If a company doesn’t come up to the standards Ofwat or the consumer expects, Ofwat can take action to protect consumers’ interests. This can include legal action.

The Consumer Council for Water

The Consumer Council for Water (CCWater) is the voice of the water and sewerage consumer in England and Wales.

CCWater can take up a complaint if a consumer’s not been able to resolve issues with a water company on their own.

Appendix 3: water resource management (current system)

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

Managing future water needs

The law says that water companies have to supply potable (good to drink) water to all homes in England and Wales.

Water companies are also legally obliged to produce a plan every 5 years showing how they will:

  • manage the needs of future populations

  • deal with climate change

  • develop - where needed - new water supply resources such as reservoirs

Most water companies are planning to publish the final version of their latest plans (covering 2015 to 2040) later in 2014. The companies will begin consulting on their next plans in 2018.

You can read the water companies’ current water resources plans on their websites.

Water abstraction management

Water abstraction means removing water from water-bodies. These include lakes, rivers or aquifers.

Most water abstraction needs a licence from the Environment Agency.

The Environment Agency also has guidance on impounding licences. You’ll usually need an impounding licence if you want to construct, alter or operate a dam or weir.

Abstraction or impoundment licences contain conditions that protect the environment, other abstractors and water users. The Environment Agency carries out on-site inspections and checks that licence holders are complying with the conditions in their abstraction or impoundment licence.

If an abstraction is causing or could cause damage to the environment, the Environment Agency may make a proposal to change it or revoke it. If the Environment Agency finds someone is not complying with their licence, action will range from giving advice and guidance to prosecuting in the most serious cases.

Defra and the Welsh Government are working with the Environment Agency, Ofwat, and other partners to reform the water abstraction system. The system hasn’t changed substantially since the 1960s. Read more about abstraction reform.


Despite our reputation as a rainy country, we have to be prepared for drought.

All water companies are legally required to produce drought plans. You can read these on the water companies’ websites.

During a drought, water companies can restrict non-essential use of water. These are commonly known as hosepipe bans. The relevant legislation for these water restrictions can be found in:

Water companies may also apply for either a drought permit or a drought order to allow them to restrict demand for water or to maintain public water supplies. Drought permits allow companies to take water from new sources. They can also alter restrictions on existing abstractions.

Drought orders can go further in restricting non-essential use of water. The Drought Direction 2011 lists the uses of water which can be banned under an ordinary drought order.

The Environment Agency (EA) has a duty to manage water resources in England.

The Environment Agency routinely measures, monitors and reports on the water situation across England. This helps them to assess the national and local water situation and the prospects of any water shortages for the environment.

During a drought the Environment Agency:

  • increases monitoring plans to make sure that they continue to protect the environment from harm
  • makes sure that water companies and other water users do not take too much water and that they are following their drought plans
  • deals with drought permit applications to allow water companies to continue supplying water during a drought whilst limiting the impact on the environment
  • reports on the state of water resources during a drought to the public, government and our partners
  • co-ordinates a communications and media strategy to ensure the correct messages are being communicated to the areas affected by the drought

Drought plans

The Environment Agency has drought plans for England. They set out how the Environment Agency will manage water resources for the environment and people during a drought. These plans aim to balance the interests of the environment, business and public water supply. They help the EA and water users to make the right decisions at the right time.

Appendix 4: drainage and sewers

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

Thames Tideway Tunnel

London’s sewerage network was built in the 19th century. The capital’s population then was 4 million. It’s now over 7 million, and the network is almost at full capacity.

As a result, currently around 20 million tonnes of untreated waste water overflows into the River Thames in London each year. This has significant environmental effects: it kills large numbers of fish and causes health risks for river users.

On 12 September 2014 the Secretaries of State for Communities and Local Government and for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs gave permission for the Thames Tideway Tunnel project. This permission took the form of a development consent order made under section 114 of the Planning Act 2008. Full information on the decision, including the Planning Inspectorate Examining Authority’s report, is available on the Planning Inspectorate’s web site.

The tunnel project is sponsored by Thames Water plc. In June 2014, Ministers specified the tunnel project under the 2013 Specified Infrastructure Projects Regulations. This requires Thames Water to get an independent company to finance and build the bulk of the tunnel. It is done through a competitive tender process. Thames Water has started the process and is expected to have awarded the contract by mid 2015.

Construction of the tunnel is scheduled to start in 2016 and finish in 2023.

The need for the tunnel was set out in the government’s National Policy Statement for Waste Water issued in 2012.

You can read more about the Thames Tideway Tunnel on Thames Water’s website.

Ownership of private sewers

On October 1 2011 the Water Industry (Schemes for Adoption of Private Sewers) Regulations 2011 became law.

This meant that the maintenance of private sewers connected to the public sewer network on 1 July 2011 became the responsibility of the water and sewerage companies.

The transfer means customers now have a regulated company responsible for maintaining and repairing the sewers attached to their property. These companies have to work to minimum standards overseen by Ofwat.

The change also means:

  • householders are no longer charged for repairs on pipes they didn’t realise they owned

  • planning for the future is easier as we know who owns every sewer that connects with the network

  • all maintenance on sewers is now overseen by Ofwat, and consumers can turn to Ofwat if they have problems

New sewers

We’re planning to make all new sewers for new properties and re-developments the responsibility of the water and sewerage companies.

The powers to make this change are set out in section 42 of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010.. When implemented, it will mean that new sewers from new properties will be owned and maintained by the appropriate water and sewerage company. The act also allows building standards to be set for new sewers.

We consulted on this policy in 2012. Defra intends to implement section 42 of the act at the earliest possible opportunity. We will continue to look for evidence to support the implementation of the policy, including the impact on business.

Surface water flooding

We’re making plans to reduce surface water flooding.

Surface water flooding happens when rainfall doesn’t soak into the ground, but flows rapidly into the sewer system instead. This can lead to flooding. The worst effects are often in built-up areas where much of the ground is covered with non-porous materials such as concrete.

Around 2.8 million people in England and Wales are at risk from surface water flooding.

We’re planning to increase the use of sustainable drainage systems (commonly known as SuDS) to reduce surface water flooding. Sustainable drainage systems help by slowing the rate at which areas flood and by reducing the amount of surface water entering sewers.

Examples of sustainable drainage systems include:

  • using surfaces such as gravel or permeable (porous) paving blocks to allow water to soak into the ground
  • using basins or ponds to reduce the amount of water that flows away

We asked for views on proposals to increase the number of sustainable drainage systems in England. Our response was published on 18 December 2014.

In the light of this, we set out in a statement to Parliament changes to planning that will apply for major development from 6 April 2015.

We send out regular SuDS newsletters. If you want to be added to the mailing list, please email SUDS@defra.gsi.gov.uk.