The National Rivers Authority and water companies have now begun crackdowns in Northumberland, Co Durham, Tyneside and Bristol. Homeowners can end up facing bills of more than pounds 1,000 to put right their misconnections to the drains - with the threat of prosecution if they refuse.
No one knows the extent of the problem. In the worst cases, streams running through open land near housing estates carry cloudy, smelly water - and even sewage solids.
The problem arose with the post-war practice of using foul sewers to carry waste water to treatment works and separate pipes to collect rain water from street drains and gutters and empty it into local streams. It meant that the foul sewer network did not have to cope with huge surges of water when it rained.
But some houses were completely misconnected. All the waste water - including the toilet flushings - goes into the storm drains and rain water from the gutters goes into the foul sewers. Many more are partly misconnected, often due to more recent work, such as building an extension or installing a washing machine or dishwasher.
Northumbrian Water has surveyed 15,000 post-war homes near streams and rivers which the NRA reckoned were being polluted by misconnections. It found that 10 per cent were partially misconnected and 1 per cent were totally misconnected.
Eddie Parkin, project manager with Northumbrian Water, said the company tried to treat domestic polluters courteously. First leaflets were sent out explaining the potential problem and saying that engineers would like to call to carry out tests. Flourescent dye was put down sinks and basins and flushed down toilets to identify the culprits. Miniature television cameras on a flexible probe could also be sent up the drains to seek out misconnections from outside.
But the water company's bottom line is that such pollution breaches at least one of three Acts on public health, the water industry and building control - and the householder is responsible.
Most polluters have agreed to carry out remedial work. Northumbrian has yet to decide what to do with a minority who refuse. It may be left to district council environmental health officers to decide whether to go to the expense of prosecuting. One builder agreed to put matters right on a street of houses which it had put up 20 years ago. Others have declined - or gone out of business.
Edward Rudd from Gosforth, Tyne and Wear, was on his first day of retirement when engineers discovered the foul drains at his home, built in 1957, had been completely misconnected. He estimates it will cost pounds 1,000 to repair. The builder of his home no longer trades and he will have to pay to dig up the road to reconnect his drains to the mains system.
About 350 householders in the Chapel House district of Newcastle have had to undertake major drainage work, costing hundreds of pounds each. David Hirst, 39, a computer programmer found that waste from a wash-basin installed 30 years ago was going down the rainfall drain and polluting a local stream. He had to dig up the area behind his home and install new drainage. He took his case to the Ombudsman but, with the builder no longer in business, no claim was possible. 'A High Court test case exempts council building inspectors from liability for 'economic loss'. So we are liable for all expenditure,' he said.
Newcastle council says its building inspectors cannot be held responsible for 'economic loss' incurred by builders' errors. Claire Philipson, of the city's legal affairs department, said: 'Our engineers and surveyors will be happy to advise on the most economic way of putting it right. But we don't have the funds to help out.'
In Bristol, the NRA, Wessex Water and the city council surveyed homes near polluted streams and found hundreds of misconnections. The NRA has yet to decide what to do next.
Meanwhile, anyone buying a post-war home would be well advised to have the drains inspected - a check which many surveyors are reluctant to do.Reuse content