The French national auditor has called for wholesale reform of the system of statutory control of septic tank installations.
Around 5 million households (20% of the population) in France use a septic tank system for their sewage treatment and disposal.
Local councils have responsibility for oversight of the installations, which they undertake through delegated bodies, called Service Public de l'assainissement non collectif (SPANC), generally run through an inter-municipal council.
The SPANCs are financed by a charge on households, and given the task of protection of the environment against pollution caused by possible nonconforming installations.
In a report published last month, the Cour de Comptes stated that: ‘the services encounter difficulties in the execution of their responsibilities, difficulties that are increased by disparate structures and practices.'
The Court noted three problems in particular for the SPANCs:
- 'the uncertainties inherent in the delimitation of public and private sewage zones;
- a confusing and dispersed mass of national and local regulations, and;
- problems in undertaking the role at the inter-municipal level.'
In short, the authors argue that the structures in place to manage a now complex regulatory system were inadequate, an outcome that has been inevitable since elaboration of the national plan over 10 years ago. Local councils and consumer bodies have regularly commented on the lack of adequate financial or technical resources for the SPANCs to properly perform the role.
The auditors were critical of a lack of harmonisation in the adoption of regulation and practices due to the residual powers that resided with local mayors.They also pointed to a lack of expertise amongst many SPANCs in the design control of often complex and innovative new installations, increasingly popular with users but potentially presenting a risk to the environment.
This also often resulted in a lack of compliance in the mandatory information to be included in the visit report given to the household following the inspection.
There was concern that the SPANCs had an incomplete knowledge of the number and characteristics of the installations in their areas, which affected the financial forecasts of services. As a result, the frequency set by the councils for the inspections is 'rarely respected'.
Similarly, the verification of the execution and conformity of new installation work, prescribed by the SPANC or engaged by the user, was 'frequently omitted, due to the lack of the necessary means at the service's disposal, or to the fact that it was notified after the work was completed.'
Mayors were also reluctant to make use of enforcement powers, as a result of which ‘a failure by the user to comply with the requirements of the SPANC is rarely sanctioned."
Finally, 'the fees paid by users are very variable, as are their methods of collection.'
As a result, the auditors proposed that new structures be created to manage the role.
In large measure this amounted to greater involvement of the departmental councils and the water agencies, and a reduction in the powers of local mayors.
In replying on the report, the French environment ministry rejected most of the recommendations, stating that they were either not appropriate or that provisions to address the auditors concerns already existed or were being drafted.