Need to Know: Private Water Supplies

I have friends in Surrey who proudly boast that their swimming pool is filled with spring water; further, that they do not have to pay for the privilege. It may be that perhaps we just have more abundant water here in Northumberland, but we do have an awful lot of properties with private water supplies. My southern friends are the exceptions, but it is they who laugh when the rest of the country has a hose-pipe ban. At best, a private water supply provides cheaper and better tasting water than mains. At worst, it has e-coli and a grumpy neighbouring farmer diverting it all into his field troughs, leaving you with a somewhat minimalist bath and no ice for your G&T.  

Historically, rural estates comprising a number of farms and cottages tended to have their own self-contained supplies which of course made sense both practically and economically. As an increasing amount of property is sold off larger estates, and land ownership is split up, it is important that each party knows what its rights and obligations are in respect of the supply. Ideally, the agreement should be formalised when the property is first sold off the estate (or the ownership split up) but often it is not. Buyers faced with prospect of buying property with a private supply would, therefore be well advised to find out both the history of the property and supply and also the current arrangements regarding how the supply works and whether these are formally set down.

The first, absolutely critical question, is to find out whether the source supplying your water (and also the pipes and any other equipment), is wholly contained on the land you are intending to buy, or whether it is partially on someone else’s. The easiest – and most rare – situation is a supply wholly contained within and serving only the land owned and occupied by one person. In that case the problems are purely practical: make full enquiries regarding where the pipes and source are; when the supply was last tested; whether you need an abstraction licence from the Environment Agency; if there is a filter, what type it is and when it was last replaced; when the equipment was installed; how it operates and so on. Finally, taste it!  

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If the source serves a number of properties in different ownerships (or occupations), you run on to legal territory. To supply water in this way is in the nature of an “easement” – that is, the right to take something from one property (water) for the benefit of another property. The land on which the source is situated is the “servient” land; the land served by the supply is the “dominant” land. Easements can occur informally by long usage, but in the case of water supplies, it is much more sensible to have formal, legal provisions dealing with it – after all, when the well is dry, we know the worth of water. Those formal provisions, whether in a conveyance, or in a separate Deed, are what you should be asking to see, when considering purchasing property with a private supply.

Obviously, the emphasis will change, depending on whether you own the land with the source, or are the one being supplied, but the points to address are the same: will the supply be paid for (and if so, on what basis and when), also, who will pay for and who will carry out repairs, renewals and ongoing works to the system? Consider making a landowner solely responsible for any equipment situated on and or serving only their property, but equally be aware that the neighbouring landowner should also have a right of access to that land, to deal with emergencies and for routine inspections. There should also be indemnity provisions such that if anyone compromises the supply by their actions (digging through pipes with tractors is not at all uncommon), you will have the damage made good, or be reimbursed. Even if these points appear to be adequately dealt with in existing documents, make sure the arrangement is capable of being transferred to you as the new owner and is not just a personal agreement between two individuals. If there is any uncertainty at all, consider requiring the seller to enter into a formal Deed of Easement, setting out the rights and responsibilities in full, before you buy the property.  

Finally, if you are planning to develop the property, or materially increase the amount of water used at it, consider whether the existing supply is sufficient, or whether the time has come to connect to the mains: the number of women in the household were once given to me as an example of this, but having seen how deep my husband likes his bath, I consider that a slight.

About Elizabeth

Despite being one who feels the cold, Elizabeth braved a move to Northumberland and has worked there as a solicitor with the firm of Dickinson Dees LLP, in the Agriculture, Farms and Estates Team, where she started life as a trainee in 2003. As part of this specialist and nationally renowned team, she works both for a number of larger estates and trusts on an ongoing basis and also on one-off matters, covering the range of rural property law, including; sales and purchases, sporting rights,rights of way, easements and tenancies, to name a few. Outside the office, she nearly managed to get sent to the North Pole, loves the occasional hunt with the CVNNH and continues to try and break the 4-hour mark for a marathon. She lives with her husband, a terrier and a very silly basset.

She can be contacted through Dickinson Dees on 0191 279 9000

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