Discharges to surface water and groundwater: environmental permits

When you need an environmental permit to discharge liquid effluent or waste water to surface water or onto the ground, and how to apply.

You may need an environmental permit if you discharge liquid effluent or waste water (poisonous, noxious or polluting matter, waste matter, or trade or sewage effluent):

  • into surface waters, for example, rivers, streams, estuaries, lakes, canals or coastal waters (known as water discharge activities)
  • onto or into the ground, for example, land spreading waste sheep dip, or discharging treated sewage effluent to ground via an infiltration system (known as groundwater activities)

You need to apply to the Environment Agency for a permit for any standalone water discharge or groundwater activity - standalone means the activity is not part of a waste operation, installation or mining waste operation.

If your water discharge is part of one of these operations, you can make the discharge part of your installation permit or waste or mining waste permit.

You’re breaking the law if you operate without a permit if you should have one.

When you do not need a permit

You do not need a permit:

  • to discharge uncontaminated water, for example, clean rainwater from roofs or small areas of hardstanding to surface water
  • to discharge uncontaminated water collected from public roads and small parking areas (that’s been through a maintained oil separator or sustainable urban drainage system) to surface water
  • for certain low-risk groundwater activities, known as groundwater activity exclusions

For more information about the Environment Agency’s position on protecting groundwater, see Groundwater protection position statements. Position statement G12 on page 29 explains when you do not need a permit for discharge of clean roof water to ground.

Check the guidance for your activity

Your water discharge or groundwater activity may meet the conditions for an exemption from environmental permitting or a standard rules permit. For more information read the relevant guidance for:

You’ll need to apply for a bespoke permit if none of the above apply to you.

Contact the Environment Agency if you’re not sure if you need a permit.

Standard rules permits for package treatment plants

You may be able to apply for a standard rules permit if you operate a package treatment plant for secondary treatment of domestic sewage.

Your package treatment plant must discharge between 5 and 20 cubic metres of domestic treated sewage to surface water daily (for example, your plant treats sewage from a small hotel or bed and breakfast, not a single household). If your sewage discharge to surface water is less than 5 cubic metres per day and you meet the general binding rules, you do not need a permit.

Your operation must meet the description and rules, but:

  • you cannot change (vary) the rules and you have no right of appeal against them
  • if you want to change your operations and so will not meet the criteria of the standard permit anymore, you’ll have to apply to make it a bespoke permit instead
  • if there’s a change in your local environment after your permit has been issued (for example, a change in the definition of a groundwater source protection zone), you may need to apply to change your permit

Applying for a standard rules permit is usually quicker than a bespoke permit. If you do not meet the conditions for the standard rules permits you must apply for a bespoke permit.

Apply for a standard rules permit

Before you apply for a standard rules permit you need to:

Standard rules permits: application forms

Download and fill in these forms:

Send your completed forms and application fee to or post them to:

Environment Agency Permitting and Support Centre
Environmental Permitting Team
Quadrant 2
99 Parkway Avenue
Parkway Business Park
S9 4WF

Find out about keeping sensitive information in your application confidential and what happens after you apply.

Before you apply for a bespoke permit

You need to:

Apply for a bespoke permit

Standalone water discharge and groundwater activity permit (not open-loop heat pump systems)

Download and fill in forms:

Open-loop heat pump systems

Download and fill in forms:

Standalone groundwater discharges with spreading activities permit

Download and fill in forms:

Send your application

When you send your application you’ll need to include:

  • the relevant forms
  • the summary of your management system
  • your risk assessment if you’ve been required to do one
  • any other supporting documents mentioned in the form guidance, for example, site maps and plans
  • your fee

Email your completed forms to or you can post them to:

Environment Agency Permitting and Support Centre
Environmental Permitting Team
Quadrant 2
99 Parkway Avenue
Parkway Business Park
S9 4WF

You must be the ‘legal operator’ of the water discharge or groundwater activity that you want a permit for.

This means you must have sufficient control of the activity, for example you:

  • have day to day control of the activity, including the manner and rate of operation
  • make sure that permit conditions are complied with
  • decide who holds important staff positions and have incompetent staff removed if required
  • make investment and financial decisions that affect the performance or how the activity is carried out
  • make sure that regulated activities are controlled in an emergency

You can have contractors carry out activities at your site and remain the operator if you continue to have sufficient control of the activity. But sometimes a contractor may be the legal operator or become the legal operator, based on the tests set out above. A remote holding company is unlikely to have sufficient control.

If you’re no longer the operator you must formally transfer the permit to the person who is the operator. If you continue to operate an activity when you’re no longer the legal operator the Environment Agency may take enforcement action against you or revoke the permit.

You must apply as a ‘legal entity’ that can be legally responsible for the permit and can accept liability, for example:

  • an individual
  • public limited company
  • private limited company
  • government body (for example, local authorities, NHS Trusts, Food Standards Agency)
  • limited liability partnership

As the operator you’re legally responsible for the activity whether or not it’s in operation.

Your application can be refused if the Environment Agency does not consider you to be the operator or a legal entity.

Joint operators of one activity

If your activity has more than one operator acting together, you need to make one joint application for all the operators. For example if several people jointly operate a treatment plant then they would all be named on the permit.

Keeping sensitive information confidential

When the Environment Agency consults on your permit application it will let people see the information in your application.

You can ask the Environment Agency not to make public any information that is commercially sensitive for your business (for example, financial information). You can do this by including a letter with your application that gives your reasons why you do not want this information made public.

The Environment Agency will email or write to you within 20 days if it agrees to your request. It will let you know if it needs more time to decide.

If it does not agree to your request it will tell you how to:

  • appeal against its decision
  • withdraw your application

Fees and charges

You must pay a fee to apply for a permit. Usually this fee cannot be refunded.

You must send your fee with your application. If your application’s successful, the Environment Agency normally charge you an annual ‘subsistence’ fee while you have a permit. This fee depends on your activity and the type of permit you have.

Find out more about fees and charges. You can contact the Environment Agency for help to work out your fee.

After you apply

The Environment Agency may reject your application if, for example:

  • you have not used the right forms
  • you’ve forgotten to include the fee or sent the wrong fee
  • you have not provided important information

Once the Environment Agency has the information it needs to start assessing your application, it will contact you and tell you that your application is ‘duly made’. This means it’s starting the assessment process. It may still request more information if it needs it to complete its assessment.

Consultations on your permit application

The Environment Agency will publish online a notice of your application and instructions for how other people can see and comment on it.

Members of the public and anyone interested in the application have 20 working days to comment.

The Environment Agency may also consult other public bodies, for example, local authorities, Public Health England, water companies and Natural England.

If the Environment Agency considers your application to be of high public interest, it may:

  • take longer to give you a decision
  • carry out an extra consultation on the draft decision
  • advertise the application more widely

The Environment Agency’s public participation statement explains how and why it will consult on permit applications.

Decisions about your permit

The Environment Agency will write to you to tell you its decision about whether or not it can allow what you’ve asked for.

You should normally get a decision on your application within 13 weeks. The Environment Agency will tell you if your application will take longer.

You can appeal if it refuses your application or if you’re not happy with the conditions it has put into your permit. Its decision letter will explain how you can appeal.

The Environment Agency will publish the decision on its public register.

The Environment Agency will not normally change your permit within 4 years of it being issued. However, it may change your permit if:

  • you do not meet your permit conditions or environmental standards
  • there are changes to legislation

Comply with your permit

After you’ve been granted your permit you’ll need to comply with its conditions.

Find out how the Environment Agency will regulate you when you start operating.

Change, transfer or cancel your permit

After you have your permit, you can:

  • change (vary) the details on it
  • transfer it to someone else
  • cancel (surrender) it

Find out how to change, transfer or cancel your permit.

Contact the Environment Agency

Contact the Environment Agency if:

  • you need help with your application
  • you’re not sure if you need a permit

General enquiries

National Customer Contact Centre
PO Box 544
S60 1BY

Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm

Published 1 February 2016
Last updated 19 October 2017 + show all updates
  1. New link to the Environment Agency's groundwater protection position statements.
  2. First published.