Complaints are on the increase over the obligatory compliance inspections of septic tanks.
There are around 5 million households in France with no mains drainage who are reliant on a septic tank or other individual sewerage system.
As we have reported previously in this Newsletter, all septic tank systems are now formally subject to inspection by the local council at least twice every ten years.
In addition, a report on the system is also required on the sale of the property, although the council inspection report can be used for this purpose, provided it was undertaken within the previous three years.
It seems from reports being received by the consumer group Consommation Logement Cadre de vie (CLCV) that there are an increasing number of complaints about these compliance inspections.
The concerns seem to be fourfold:
- Large variations in the charge for the inspections;
- Differences in the collection procedures for the charge;
- Adoption of different standards of compliance and upgrading works;
- Variations in the frequency of inspections.
The inspections are all being carried out under the auspices of the Service Public de l'assainissement non collectif (SPANC), who are delegated bodies of a commune or a group of communes.
Although all councils have a legal obligation to set up a SPANC, there is yet to be universal coverage across the country, with the result that in some communes the inspections have not been carried out.
As all inspections are required to be completed by the end of 2012, it is likely that the government is going to have to (yet again) grant more time to the councils to complete them.
Where the surveys are being carried out, the charge for the inspection can range from €50 to as much as €300, and the charging arrangements vary between councils similarly shows no consistency.
In some cases the charge is being collected in advance, normally with the water bill; in other cases it is being annualised with the water bill, and yet in other cases it is being charged when the survey is undertaken.
The extent of the survey being carried out also varies substantially. Some inspections seem to consist of no more than a cursory visual inspection, while in other cases a more detailed examination and measurement of the performance of the system is being undertaken.
Neither does there appear to be any consistency in the frequency of the inspections. Although an inspection is required twice within a ten year period, it seems some councils are choosing to inspect more regularly, and there is nothing in the law that prevents them from doing so.
If irregularities with the system are found, once again, the response also shows no level of consistency, with tolerance levels varying greatly.
The law states that only those septic tanks posing a risk to sanitation and the environment should be replaced, yet in some areas any non-compliance is resulting in a demand for replacement, which the owner must do so within four years (one year in the case of a new owner of a property where the system is found not to comply).
As the cost of replacement can be as much as €10,000, many households simply lack the means to be able to carry out the work.
Some councils offer assistance towards the installation costs of a new septic tank, and an interest free loan (Éco-prêt à taux zéro - Éco-PTZ) is also available at a national level. This loan is not subject to means testing and is well worth considering for those who need to upgrade their septic tank.
The CCLV are calling for greater harmonisation of the regulatory framework, and there are also calls within the French parliament for a more generous system of financial support for those unable to afford to carry out upgrading works.
Be careful of anyone turning up on your doorstep to undertake an inspection of the septic tank, claiming they are from the council or acting on behalf of them. Always ask for their credentials, and never pay directly.