Transco v Stockport MBC

March 05, 2024
Micheal James

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Transco v Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council (2003) stands as a significant case in English tort law, specifically impacting the interpretation and application of the rule in Rylands v Fletcher. The House of Lords considered whether Stockport MBC could be held liable for damage caused to Transco’s gas main, stemming from a burst pipe on their land used for a housing estate.

Facts of the Case

A leaking pipe installed by Stockport MBC to supply water to a council estate allowed water to accumulate at an embankment. This erosion led to the collapse of the embankment, exposing and endangering a high-pressure gas main owned by Transco. To prevent potential disaster, Transco undertook remedial works and sought to recover their costs from Stockport MBC under the rule in Rylands v Fletcher.

Legal Issue

The central question revolved around the applicability of the rule in Rylands v Fletcher:

  • Did Stockport MBC’s use of the land for water supply constitute a “non-natural use” under the rule, thereby potentially making them liable for the escaping water and subsequent damage?
  1. Rule in Rylands v Fletcher

This rule imposes strict liability on landowners for:

  • Non-natural use of land (activities exceeding ordinary use).
  • Escape of dangerous things from the land causing damage.
  • Foreseeable damage by the escaping thing.
  • Absence of contributory negligence by the injured party.

Arguments of the Parties

  • Transco:
    • Argued that supplying water through a large pipe was a non-natural use of land compared to everyday domestic use.
    • Claimed the escaping water constituted an “escape” under the rule, causing foreseeable damage to their gas main.
  • Stockport MBC:
    • Contended that supplying water was a natural and ordinary use of land, essential for residents’ basic needs.
    • Argued that the water leak did not qualify as an “escape” within the meaning of the rule, claiming it didn’t leave the land’s boundaries.

Judgment and Rationale

The House of Lords ruled in favor of Stockport MBC. They determined:

  • Supplying water for domestic purposes, despite the use of a large pipe, was not a non-natural use of land in this context.
  • The leaked water, while damaging, did not constitute an “escape” beyond the land’s boundaries, as it remained largely contained within the embankment.

Impact of the Case

This case clarified the concept of “non-natural use” under Rylands v Fletcher:

  • Ordinary activities associated with land use, even using substantial infrastructure, might not fall under the non-natural use category.
  • The definition of “escape” received nuanced interpretation, highlighting the importance of the escaping thing exceeding the land’s boundaries in a literal sense.


Transco v Stockport MBC highlights the challenges of applying the rule in Rylands v Fletcher in contemporary situations. By clarifying the meaning of “non-natural use” and “escape,” the case set a precedent for assessing similar claims, balancing potential liability with social necessities and practicalities of land use. However, ongoing debate surrounds the rule’s scope and potential evolution in light of modern contexts and technologies.

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