The UK has over 600 designated Bathing Waters – sites that are popular for swimming and paddling and have been designated under the Bathing Water Regulations 2013. They have been put in place thanks to the EU Bathing Waters Directive that was first introduced in 1976. UK designated Bathing Waters are mostly coastal, with only a score of lakes and very few rivers.
Water Quality standards have been set for Bathing Waters based on World Health Organisation research into the incidence of stomach upsets in people bathing in waters with different levels of bacteria. Water is tested for two types of bacteria, E. coli and intestinal enterococci. These bacteria usually get into water from sewage and animal manure. Tests are carried out regularly, usually weekly, by government environmental agencies between 15 May and 30 September in England and Wales, and 1 June and 15 September in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Bathing Waters are categorised as ‘excellent’, ‘good’, ‘sufficient’ or ‘poor’ on the basis of bacteria levels. Sites are rated annually, and on a short term basis in response to temporary pollution. By law, the local council must display information, online and on signs at Bathing Waters, about water quality and pollution sources during the bathing season. If there is a temporary pollution incident they must explain the nature of the problem and how long it’s likely to last.
If a Bathing Water is classified as ‘poor’, an ‘advice against bathing’ symbol must be put up on site and online, along with information about pollution sources and what action is being taken to clean it up. This doesn’t mean you can’t swim – the sites remain open – but there might be an increased risk of getting ill.
Designated Bathing Waters are the only places in the UK where bacteria levels in open water are monitored and the data published. Bacteria are the pollutants that pose the greatest risk to swimmers’ health, so this information is really useful to help swimmers avoid pollution and make informed choices about where and when to swim.
Bathing Water designations have also been hugely important in helping to clean up popular swimming spots, particularly as a result of detailed monitoring and targets being set for improvements. The UK was slow to designate Bathing Waters at first, identifying only 27 sites when the EU first introduced them in 1970s, compared to an average of 285 in other EU countries. In 1980s, under pressure from Europe, the UK finally designated 362 more sites. But monitoring at these sites showed that water quality was pretty terrible: 45% were classified as ‘poor’. The problem could no longer be ignored.
A huge amount of hard work and investment from Government, environmental organisations, water companies, farmers and local communities has resulted in a massive improvement. In 2022 97% of Bathing Waters in England met minimum standards, while 3% were classified as poor. Wales and Northern Ireland do better, while Scotland is much worse (see the figures and their sources at the end).
Despite dramatic improvements since the 1970s, things could still be much better. England’s 2022 bathing water quality results would rank 25th for Excellent results out of the 30 countries that designate and monitor Bathing Waters (if the country was still in the EU), and only two EU countries have a higher percentage of Poor results.
The UK also compares poorly in the number of designated Bathing Waters and it has far fewer inland waters and rivers. Most other European countries have designated large numbers of freshwater sites (2020 figures):
Designating bathing waters inland matters:
In the last few years the number of people swimming outdoors, including inland, has increased massively, as has interest in bathing water quality. This has been recognised and encouraged by organisations including the Environment Agency. Several water companies have been working with local swimmer and conservation groups on monitoring bathing water quality in preparation for possible designation bids. And campaigns to designate rivers have proliferated around the country.
In December 2020 the river Wharfe at Ilkley in Yorkshire became the UK’s first river Bathing Water to be designated, following a lot of work by the Ilkley Clean River Campaign to gather support from local councils and other organisations and local people, involving many in citizen science testing, and working with the company. Two more rivers were designated in 2023, and many campaigns are continuing to work hard to prepare applications.
See this post on this website for detailed discussion: Bathing water designation for local swim spots?
There is much for swimmers to consider in setting up or being involved in a campaign to get bathing water designation for local swim spots. There can be pros and cons and a potential for a backlash with implications for access in doing so. In 2023 many groups devoted a large amount of time and energy into a campaign only to see their bids turned down, and in England the procedure changed halfway through the key campaigning period in the summer, and it is still under review. Campaigners are getting in touch across the country to compare notes and strategy, and there have been complaints about places not being designated despite being very popular, the criteria and its suitability for rivers, and the credibility of a procedure that can designate a reservoir where swimming is only allowed to those that can pay for a couple of hours a week but not for a very popular river swimming spot with massive local concerns about pollution for those that are immersing and splashing about. So the situation is currently very fluid.
Government Agency websites provide the monitoring data and ‘Bathing Water profiles’ that give information about other issues such as litter and blue-green algae:
• Monitoring and details England
• Monitoring and details Wales
• Monitoring and details Scotland
• Monitoring and details Northern Ireland
Surfers Against Sewage’s Safer Seas and Rivers Service gives real-time water quality alerts for over 350 beaches in the UK and some rivers. It also provides surf and tide conditions and other information such as dog restrictions, facilities and lifeguard services.
Blue Flag beaches are usually resort beaches with plenty of facilities which meet stringent criteria. As well as having excellent water quality they also have to provide environmental information, lifeguards, toilets and other management.
The Rivers Trust have created an interactive map of sewage discharges into England’s rivers which allows swimmers to choose to avoid swimming directly downstream of them after heavy rain.
Designation application procedures – note that for England these have changed (July 2023):
Bathing water quality in all UK nations (2022 figures, government agency sources):
Government sources for annual figures:
February 2020, updated September 2023