Guidance

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 the ground, and how to apply.

You may need an environmental permit if you discharge liquid effluent or waste water:

  • into surface waters, for example, rivers, streams, estuaries, lakes, canals or coastal waters – known as ‘water discharge activities’
  • into or on the ground, such as spreading waste sheep dip, or discharging treated sewage effluent to ground through an infiltration system – known as ‘groundwater activities’

Waste water includes:

  • poisonous, noxious or polluting matter
  • polluting substances
  • waste matter
  • trade or sewage effluent

If your water discharge or groundwater discharge is part of a waste operation, installation or mining waste operation, 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 when you should have one.

When you do not need a permit

You do not need a permit:

  • to discharge uncontaminated water, such as clean rainwater from roofs (as explained in groundwater protection position statement G12) or from small areas of hardstanding to surface water
  • to discharge uncontaminated water collected from public roads and small parking areas (that’s been through a properly maintained oil separator) to surface water
  • to discharge to an enclosed lake or pond – this means it contains water throughout the year and does not connect to a watercourse, or it connects to a watercourse but is sealed or lined to prevent water draining into the ground or soaking into the surrounding soil
  • for certain low risk groundwater activities, known as groundwater activity exclusions
  • for a closed-loop heat exchanger

You must use appropriate pollution prevention measures to make sure your discharge does not cause pollution.

For discharges of uncontaminated water (such as rainwater) from excavations, you do not currently need an environmental permit if you meet the requirements of the temporary dewatering from excavations to surface water regulatory position statement.

The Environment Agency’s approach to groundwater protection is explained in its groundwater protection position statements.

Exempt water discharge and groundwater activities

You will not need an environmental permit for the following activities if you meet certain conditions. Check if you’re exempted from requiring an environmental permit:

Check the guidance for open-loop heat pump systems to find out if you:

  • need a standard rules permit or bespoke permit for these systems
  • can operate them under an exemption or regulatory position statement

Discharges in sewered areas

You should discharge your waste water to the public foul sewer whenever it’s reasonable to do so. You do not need an environmental permit to do this.

To find out if there is a public foul sewer near your property, contact your local water company. You may also need to ask your neighbours if their properties are connected to the public foul sewer, as water companies’ maps may not show all their sewers near you.

You must check with your sewerage undertaker (usually your local water company) before you:

  • make a new connection to the public sewer
  • discharge anything other than domestic sewage

Permits in sewered areas

The Environment Agency will not give you a permit for a private sewage treatment system if it’s reasonable for you to connect to the public sewer.

Their assessment of what is reasonable takes into account:

  • the comparative costs of connecting to public sewer and installing a private sewage treatment system
  • any physical barriers that would prevent you connecting to the public sewer
  • any environmental benefits that would arise from installing a private sewage treatment system such as the reuse of treated effluent

They also consider how close you are to a public foul sewer. It’s likely that they will consider it reasonable for you to connect to a public foul sewer in the following scenarios.

For a single domestic property

If any boundary of the premises that your system serves is within 30 metres of the public foul sewer.

If you’re building a development of more than one property

If the distance from the boundary (of the premises that your system serves) to the nearest public foul sewer is less than the number of houses multiplied by 30 metres.

Example If there are 3 properties then it’s if the distance is less than 90 metres (3 × 30 metres).

In some cases, the Environment Agency may ask you to consider connecting to the public foul sewer if it’s further away.

If some or all of your discharge is from anything other than domestic properties

If there are any public foul sewers within the distance from the boundary of the premises that your system serves, calculated using the following method.

Divide the maximum volume in cubic metres that you want to discharge from those other premises by 0.75 (1 cubic metre is 1000 litres). Multiply the result by 30 metres. This will give you a result in metres.

Example A discharge of 1.2 cubic metres divided by 0.75 gives 1.6, which multiplied by 30 gives a result of 48 metres. So, in this example, it’s if there is a public foul sewer within 48 meters.

If you cannot connect to a public foul sewer

If there is a good reason why you cannot connect to the public foul sewer (for example, if there is a river or a railway line in the way) then you must apply for a permit. You must provide evidence to justify this when you apply - this is explained in the guidance for part B6 of the application form.

The Environment Agency will decide whether to allow you to use a private sewerage system or whether you should connect to the public foul sewer instead.

Trade effluent discharges

For trade effluent discharges, you must either:

  • get consent for trade effluent from your sewerage undertaker
  • set up a trade effluent agreement with your sewerage undertaker

If you do this you do not need to apply for an environmental permit for the discharge.

If your sewerage undertaker has refused to grant consent for trade effluent to sewer, you must provide details of the reasons when you apply for a permit to discharge to the environment.

Planning new developments

If you’re planning a new development, plan your foul sewerage at an early stage and consult with the local council and sewerage undertaker. If you got planning permission on the basis that the development will be connected to the public foul sewer, this indicates it’s likely to be reasonable to do so.

The Environment Agency will not normally give you a permit for use of a private sewage treatment system based on the nearest public foul sewer not having enough capacity. If necessary, you should agree improvements to the sewerage network with the sewerage undertaker so you can connect to it. These improvements must be put in place before the development is occupied. This reflects planning practice guidance and building regulations.

Building and paying for a new sewer

Your sewerage undertaker may have a legal duty to build and pay for a new sewer for you to connect to (known as a ‘first time sewerage’) if:

  • your current sewerage system is causing or is likely to cause an adverse effect on the environment or amenity, and this cannot be solved by repair or maintenance
  • more than one property needs to replace or upgrade their sewerage system, and the new system will serve more than one property
  • providing a public sewer is the most appropriate solution

Contact your sewerage undertaker to find out how to apply.

If you’ve applied to the sewerage undertaker but are unhappy with their decision, you can contact the Environment Agency to appeal.

Type of waste water: domestic sewage or trade effluent

As part of your permit application, or to know whether your activity qualifies for an exemption, you must classify your waste water. Read more about when your waste water is classed as domestic sewage.

For help understanding what treatment system you have

You should get advice from a competent service engineer if you need help understanding what treatment system you have. British Water provides a list of accredited service engineers. There may be other competent service engineers.

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, as:

  • an individual
  • a public limited company
  • a private limited company
  • a government body (for example, local councils, NHS Trusts, Food Standards Agency)
  • a 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 should 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.

If an operator dies

The permit should be transferred to someone else. The transfer application should be sent to the Environment Agency within 6 months of the date of death. Otherwise, the permit will not be valid after that date.

Apply for a standard rules permit

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

Your small sewage 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 domestic sewage discharge to surface water is less than 5 cubic metres a day and you meet all the relevant 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
  • if the standard rules change, you must make sure you can still comply with them – you must apply for a bespoke permit if you cannot

If there’s a public foul sewer within 800 metres of any boundary of the premises the treatment system serves, you cannot meet the conditions for a standard rules permit.

If you do not meet the conditions for a standard rules permit you must apply for a bespoke permit.

Before you apply for a standard rules permit

You must:

Standard rules permits: application forms

Download and fill in forms:

Due to coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions, the Environment Agency’s ability to process postal applications is reduced.

Please send completed forms and application fee by email to PSC-WaterQuality@environment-agency.gov.uk.

If you cannot, send them by post to:

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

Find out about:

Apply for a bespoke permit

You must apply for a bespoke permit if your activity does not meet the conditions for:

Before you apply for a bespoke permit

You must:

  • develop a management system (a written set of procedures that identify and minimise the risks of pollution)
  • check whether you need to complete a risk assessment
  • plan how you’ll control and monitor emissions
  • identify and get other permissions from the Environment Agency or others that may be required for your activities

An environmental permit does not give you any right or permission to discharge where you do not own the land where you intend to discharge. If necessary, you must:

  • negotiate arrangements, such as wayleaves and easements, to use or cross another person’s land
  • identify and negotiate any requirement for downstream improvement works with the riparian owners (the owners of the land by the edge of the watercourse) – not doing this could lead to a riparian owner taking legal action against you

If you’re a statutory sewerage undertaker, or are applying to Ofwat to be appointed as one, you must follow the guidance relevant to:

Specific substances assessment

When you apply for a bespoke permit you must tell the Environment Agency if your discharge will contain specific substances. If it does, your risk assessment must include a specific substances assessment.

Check the list of surface water specific substances in the surface water pollution risk assessment guide.

For discharges to groundwater, a specific substances assessment is needed for hazardous substances and non-hazardous pollutants. This does not include discharges that only contain or are only likely to contain ammoniacal nitrogen, ammonium and suspended solids. Check the Water Framework Directive UKTAG website’s list of hazardous substances and non-hazardous pollutants for groundwater.

Bespoke permits: application forms

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 must include:

  • the relevant forms
  • the summary of your management system (except when you are sending a B6.5 application form)
  • your risk assessment, if you’ve been required to do one
  • any other supporting documents mentioned in the form guidance, such as site maps and plans
  • your fee

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Environment Agency’s ability to process postal applications is reduced.

Please send completed forms and application fee by email to PSC-WaterQuality@environment-agency.gov.uk.

If you cannot, send them by post to:

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

Keep sensitive information confidential

When the Environment Agency consults on your permit application they 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 they agree to your request. They will tell you if they need more time to decide. If they do not agree to your request they will tell you how to:

  • appeal against their decision
  • withdraw your application

Fees and charges

You must pay a fee to apply for a permit.

You must send your fee with your application. If your application is successful, the Environment Agency normally charges 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.

Get help with your application

The Environment Agency offers basic pre-application advice to help you complete your application. This basic advice is free as the cost of providing it is included in the application charge.

For standard rules and bespoke permits, the basic advice service covers (where applicable):

  • which standard rules set is relevant for your activities
  • helping you check that your activity meets the criteria for a standard rules permit
  • carrying out nature and heritage conservation screening
  • which applications forms and guidance to use
  • information about any administrative tasks the Environment Agency will need to do

For bespoke permits, the basic service also includes advice about risk assessments you may need to do to accompany your application.

If you need more in depth advice about your application, the Environment Agency offers an enhanced pre-application advice service. The enhanced service costs £100 an hour plus VAT. It can include face to face meetings and advice on:

  • complex modelling
  • preparing risk assessments
  • parallel tracking complex permits with planning applications
  • specific substances assessments
  • monitoring requirements (including baseline)

The Environment Agency will give you a written estimate before they start work. This will include:

  • a breakdown of the work they will carry out with costs
  • when these costs will be charged

Getting pre-application advice will help you prepare a good quality application that can be processed (determined) smoothly and quickly. Complete the pre-application advice form if you want to request either basic (free) or enhanced (chargeable) pre-application advice.

After you apply

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

  • not used the right forms
  • forgotten to include the fee or sent the wrong fee
  • not provided important information that you were asked to give by the application forms and their guidance

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

Consultations on your permit application

The Environment Agency will publish a notice of your application online 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 councils, Public Health England, water companies and Natural England.

If the Environment Agency considers your application to be of high public interest, they 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 they consult on permit applications.

Decisions about your permit

The Environment Agency will write to you to tell you whether or not they can allow what you’ve asked for.

You will normally get a decision on your application within 4 months. The Environment Agency will tell you if your application will take longer.

You can appeal if they refuse your application or if you’re not happy with the conditions they have put into your permit. Their decision letter will explain how you can appeal.

The Environment Agency will publish the decision on the public register for environmental information.

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

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

Delays in application processing times

Application processing times are currently longer due to:

  • COVID-19 restrictions
  • an increase in application volumes

The Environment Agency will contact you once they can start processing your application.

If you have sent a postal application since 18 March 2020, please resend it by email if you can.

Once you have been granted your permit

You must comply with your permit’s conditions. Find out how the Environment Agency will regulate you when you start operating.

If you need to you can:

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

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

Published 1 February 2016
Last updated 19 April 2021 + show all updates
  1. Grouped information on the activities that people may not need a permit for (and indicated where this is dependent on meeting certain conditions). Added section on getting help from a competent service engineer. Explained what arrangements to put in place for a trade effluent discharge. Explained what to do if an operator dies. Added more information on how to find out if there is a public foul sewer near a property. Added more information on when it's likely to be reasonable to connect to a public foul sewer. Explained that someone cannot meet the conditions for a standard rules permit if there’s a public foul sewer within 800 metres of any boundary of the premises the treatment system serves. Added more information on what to do before applying for a bespoke permit, such as negotiating arrangements with landowners.

  2. Explained how we are managing postal applications during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

  3. The 'Decisions about your permit' section has been updated to: 'You will normally get a decision on your application within 4 months.' This is because 4 months is the statutory determination period in the Environmental Permitting Regulations 2016.

  4. We added guidance for 'discharges in sewered areas'. You should discharge your waste water to the public foul sewer whenever it’s reasonable to do so. We added links to new content for domestic sewage and technical guides for waste water treatment works and water companies. This new content replaces our withdrawn water technical guidance note.

  5. Added information about the new pre-application advice service that you can use if you need help with your permit application.

  6. Added content to this guide to explain what specific substances are. When you apply for a permit you need to tell the Environment Agency if your discharge will contain specific substances. Removed form F2 from this guide – you now need to complete form F1 for all water discharge or point source groundwater discharge activity permit applications.

  7. New link to the Environment Agency's groundwater protection position statements.

  8. First published.