Landlords beware – lead pipes outlawed by the repairing standards from the beginning of March 2024

Landlords are being urged to be aware of a new regulation intended to ensure water supply pipes in privately rented homes are free of lead from the boundary stopcock to the kitchen tap – which becomes law on 1 March 2024.

The legislation – part of an update to The Repairing Standard which governs repair requirements for landlords in Scotland has taken many by surprise and is not without its practical complications. Statutory Guidance on meeting the standard was initially released last March but has now been amended on 1 February 2024 with just four weeks’ notice until the deadline.

Nevertheless, the World Health Organisation has decreed there is no safe level of lead in drinking water and landlords are expected to comply or face summary conviction and a fine.

Older properties most likely to be affected

Lead was the go-to metal for mains water supplies, domestic water pipes and storage tank linings right up to 1969, when it was made illegal. Iron, plastic or copper have typically been used since.

Therefore, in houses built before 1970, there is a risk that pipes, tanks and fittings, which have not been replaced since, still contain lead, particularly in traditional tenement common risers which are usually hidden behind walls/under flooring. Houses built after 1970 still have a risk of lead being present as lead solder wasn’t banned until much later in 1987. Furthermore, with lead solder still allowed for pipework in heating systems, Edinburgh Council discovered that many new build properties after 1987 still had lead present and required all new build properties to be tested before they could be sold. The main laboratory for water testing in Edinburgh therefore recommends testing properties pre 2000 as a result of this solder issue.

The new rules mean these pipes and fittings must be removed from all private rented properties, bringing them in line with existing requirements in the social rented sector which must meet the Scottish Housing Quality Standard.  However, social landlords usually own the entire building, which makes it far easier to test and replace the systems here.

The difficulty for private landlords is identifying where any offending heavy metal is in the first place, especially in tenement buildings where many of the water pipes are hidden from view and because any lead solder used on copper pipes looks identical to lead-free solder.

How do I check if my pipes are lead?

For most homes, an approved plumber will be able to tell you straight away if your visible pipes are made from lead, and it is also quite straightforward to check yourself, as this video illustrates.

If they believe there is a risk of lead being present, a landlord is obliged to inform his or her tenants that there could be lead in their water and advise them on steps to minimise the risks to them.

For drinking and cooking, it’s good practice to run the tap to clear any water that has been standing in the pipework overnight and Scottish Water suggests running the tap for at least two minutes until you notice the temperature of the water drop as the mains water comes through. The tap can then be used as normal.

The landlord is then required to have a water sample taken for laboratory analysis. As a minimum, this will be taken from the kitchen tap, where the majority of cooking and drinking water is drawn, but the statutory guidance does say that in some instances water should be sampled and tested from other outlets such as bathroom basins. It is our view at Clan Gordon that any outlet that may be used for drinking should be tested.

Clan Gordon is lobbying for clarity and guidance on this new rule.

At Clan Gordon, we know that tenant safety is of paramount importance, and we strive to support our landlords in achieving that, with minimum hassle.

With both those points in mind, we are lobbying the Scottish Government for clarity on a number of issues relating to this new law, especially around tenement buildings, where we have serious concerns over its practicality.

Most tenement flats have been modernised in the last 50 years, so we do not expect many lead pipes to have survived within the flats.

However, a significant proportion of communal main risers – the vertical pipes that allow fresh water to rise from lower floors to upper floors – will be lead and replacing these will be both difficult and expensive.

They’re often embedded in bathroom walls which would mean removing those connections and running a new mains riser up the stairwell. This is a significant, disruptive and time-consuming job, that comes with no local council grants to help with the cost.

Moreover, testing the water supply in a tenement building would require every occupier to refrain from running the water or flushing toilets for a period of anything up to 12 hours. Compliance would therefore be a major issue.

Our view is that landlords, especially in tenement buildings, are heavily penalised by this new rule. We feel the rules on lead in water should be part of the Tolerable Standard and, given, that the 1 February 2024 guidance has significantly changed regarding lead since initial publication in March 2023, more time should be given for the services to develop to deliver the testing and alterations required.

This is just one of a number of late changes the Scottish Government has made to the Repairing Standard which comes into force on 1 March 2024. Another critical matter affecting landlords in the 1 Febuary 2024 update focuses on electrical safety, whereby landlords will be compelled to have 1 or more residual current devices (RCDs) in their properties to reduce the risk of electrocution and fire. This will depend on the number of socket circuits in your property. You can read more on this here.

We will continue to lobby the Government and will keep all our landlords updated.

In the meantime, if you are looking for a supportive letting agent prepared to advocate on your behalf to ensure compliance, schedule a call with one of our experts.

More information on minimising risks where lead pipes are present can be found on the Drinking Water Quality Regulator website.