Cottage owner wins sewerage bill battle

A COTTAGE owner will not have to pay what she is convinced would have been thousands of pounds of sewer repairs after proving that Anglian Water (AW) was responsible for funding the work.

A COTTAGE owner will not have to pay what she is convinced would have been thousands of pounds of sewer repairs after proving that Anglian Water (AW) was responsible for funding the work.

Although relieved, Carole Lee is angry that she had to battle alone and a county councillor fears others in the same situation could unwittingly pay hugely-expensive bills.

Mrs Lee was told by an AW official last month that she would have to foot the bill for digging up and mending a 10m-section of 'private' drain, serving her property, under North Walsham's Grammar School Road.

But she and her husband Neville sifted through piles of property deeds, studied census returns and trawled through old documents at the Norfolk Record Office to show AW that her cottage met requirements based on a complicated law, dating back more than 70 years, which meant the company should bear the cost.

Her case was proved after an AW official, using her findings, studied pre-war trade directories in Cromer Library and found out who had been living in her house in 1937.

Mrs Lee says the experience was 'an absolute nightmare' and she had feared a bill of �10,000 or more.

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Company spokeswoman Trish Tweddle blamed legislation and a lack of historical maps and records but said from next year householders like Mrs Lee would not have to worry as all sewers would be the responsibility of 'sewerage undertakers' such as AW.

Mrs Lee said the drains to her cottage, which is attached to another property, had been blocked many times over the years.

Both her cottage and its neighbour had been owned by the same person in the 1930s but Mrs Lee learned from AW that if she could prove the buildings were separately occupied on October 1 1937 - the date on which the Public Health Act 1936 came into force - she would have a 'Section 24' sewer whose maintenance would be the responsibility of AW.

Painstaking research by the Lees eventually led to the discovery that the properties did have separate tenants at that critical time.

'Just before Christmas it all got really stressful,' said Mrs Lee. 'We had raw sewage coming up and I was being passed from pillar to post. Environmental health couldn't help, highways said it wasn't anything to do with them. No-one was willing to help until someone suggested I contact county councillor Paul Morse.'

Mr Morse claimed Mrs Lee's predicament was another example of the 'mess' created by successive changes of responsibility and the poorly-conceived privatisation of the water industry. Legislation clearly stated that it was a homeowner's responsibility to prove that their sewer was public but he feared most people did not know that and someone less determined and skilled than Mrs Lee could accept what the authorities told them and find themselves faced with 'a very scary bill.'

Mrs Tweddle said the question of public and private sewers was very complex. In addition, the 1936 Act had not required councils to write down the location of Section 24 sewers and therefore proving whether a property was connected to one was a problem.

The government estimates that well over half of all England's houses have a private sewer or lateral drain, the part that lies outside the property boundary.

The sewerage element of customers' bills is expected to rise by about 7.5p, to 23p a week, when responsibility for their maintenance is transferred in 2011 to sewerage and water companies.

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