The subject of adopted and unadopted roads is quite complex, so it naturally follows that problems with the drains and sewers are similarly tricky to negotiate.
The vast majority of roads in the UK are public highways. However private roads exist within the bounds of private property, be it a home, a factory, a farm or any other type of commercial or non-commercial land. There do exist public highways that run through private land; these are often public rights of way that have been in existence since before the land was made private.
What are unadopted roads?
In between the public roads and the purely private roads lies a grey area: unadopted roads. The word “unadopted” comes from the fact that they have not been adopted by the local authorities. They are generally the responsibility of the owners of the adjacent properties to maintain, although some unadopted roads are privately owned by parties other than the property owners.
Many, if not most, unadopted roads are not actually private. They are necessary access routes to all sorts of properties, and are deemed publicly accessible.
How common are they?
According to a 2010 government Standard Note (SN/BT/402), there are around 40,000 unadopted roads in the UK, totalling 4000 miles (making their average length about 160 metres). The same study reckoned that to make them all public and pass the maintenance costs to the authorities would cost in the region of £3bn – so it probably isn’t going to happen any time soon.
To find out about road adoption by the council, visit Directgov Local.
Am I responsible for maintaining unadopted roads and sewers?
Just as maintenance of the roads is the responsibility of householders, so is the upkeep of the sewers. And if the authorities deem an unadopted road (or its sewers) dangerous or unfit for purpose they can force the property owners to pay for it, or even forcibly do it themselves and bill the property owners. It’s not hard to see how a damaged sewer could represent a public health issue, so a damaged sewer on a road whose residents refuse to pay up could well elicit such a response.
Note that this applies to the owners of the properties that face the affected road (who are known as frontagers), not tenants of rented accommodation. i.e. this is an issue for your landlord or housing association.
Residents of unadopted but public roads can understandably feel aggrieved that they should have to pay for damage caused by non-residents using the road. However, this is an unfortunate drawback of living on such a semi-private road. Some councils might have a sympathetic ear for residents (who are Council Tax payers, after all) and offer to pay for some degree of maintenance, especially on routes that affect the local economy, but there’s no guarantee.
Frontagers on unadopted roads can apply to have their roads adopted by the authorities. If successful, the costs of maintenance will be borne by the public purse. Similarly, they can apply to the local sewerage company to have their sewers adopted. The sewerage company will almost certainly require that the sewer is brought up to a modern standard before they consider adopting it, although if they see an advantage in owning the sewer (for example if improving it would improve flow in the locality), they might be swayed to bear the cost themselves. The Citizens Advice Bureau has a useful page on this subject.
People living on unadopted roads with unadopted sewers are occupying a twilight zone between public and private ownership. Sadly, the frontagers on many unadopted roads are not minded to collectively maintain their roads and underground works, and they are often potholed and in poor states of repair. Often it takes a disaster such as a sewer collapse or blockage for them to take action, and even then, downstream residents might claim not to owe anything to the kitty.
Most unfortunate are those who are sole frontagers on a lengthy road that’s publicly accessible but unadopted. They could well have to foot large bills alone if the worst happens.
Not many house-hunters ask who owns the road when they put in their offers on their dream homes. However, if the road looks like it’s in a poor state of repair, it could be a giveaway sign that the road is not under the control of the local authorities and that it could end up being their responsibility (or partial responsibility) to have it maintained.