Bacteria and Bureaucrats

Is there hope for the 27 new bathing sites?

Claire Robertson

Bathing Season is here, with 27 new bathing sites across England, from South Shields to the River Dart. But what is Designated Bathing Water Status and does it work?

Despite the recent headlines, Designated Bathing Water Status (DBWS) isn’t a new invention. The basic idea of monitoring bathing sites dates back to 1975, when an EU Directive gave member states 10 years to ensure bathing sites met public health standards. 

The UK seemed reluctant at first to embrace this scheme. Whereas other EU countries designated an average of 285 sites, the UK designated fewer than 30, a list which ignored Scotland, Northern Ireland and some of England’s most popular seaside resorts, including Blackpool and Brighton.

This began to change in the late 1980s, when the UK designated 400 new sites, but it still wasn’t until 2021 that a stretch of the River Wharfe in Ilkley became the UK’s first river to be given DBWS. And so it’s no surprise that campaigns have started to take matters into their own hands, applying for this legal designation to help keep swimmers safe and informed.

Why apply for DBWS?

We spoke to leading campaigners about the benefits of DBWS, but first, it’s important to remember that, despite the sewage crisis in our rivers, there are still thousands of safe places to swim all over the UK. DBWS is only relevant if you’re concerned about the water quality at your local swimming spot. In fact, as Imogen Radford from the OSS explains, ‘places without DBWS can have better water quality than places with DBWS, because where there are no concerns about the water quality then there’s no need to campaign to improve it’.

Where there are concerns, DBWS requires local authorities and water companies to share data with the public, to give people the information to decide for themselves whether to swim. Kirsty Davies from Surfers Against Sewage points out that DBWS also provides an important ‘mechanism’ to improve water quality in the UK, which is what happened at coastal sites throughout the 1990s. And Becky Maltby – one of the key figures behind Ilkley’s successful campaign – suggests that DBWS can also help campaigns raise awareness and attract media coverage in the hope of holding both regulators and water companies to account.

It’s also important to recognise that applying for DBWS can be an enormous amount of work, even with the support of organisations like the Outdoor Swimming Society and Surfers Against Sewage. Many campaigners would therefore like the Government to select a list of well-known swimming spots around the UK, rather than ask volunteers to prove what we already know – that these places are much loved and in need of protection.

Conham Bathing Group
Permission from the landowner and local authority

The first challenge which campaigns face is securing the permission of both the landowner and local council. While some councils understand the potential power of DBWS and provide valuable support, there are other cases, such as Conham River Park in Bristol, where the Council have blocked attempts to clean up local swimming spots.

Becca Blease is a member of the Conham Bathing Group who describes Conham River Park as ‘two beloved meanders’ of the Avon. Since 2021, the Conham Bathing Group have tried to secure Bristol City Council’s permission to apply for DBWS, but the Mayor has refused to give his permission due to the existence of a local byelaw which prohibits swimming – even though Conham River Park is a well-known swimming spot. 

The Conham Bathers started a petition to amend this byelaw – a petition which received over 5,000 signatures in two weeks, well beyond the 3,500 signatures required to secure a Council debate, and the support of every political party in Bristol City Council. And yet, the Mayor still refused to give permission, which, as Becca explains, has led to an ‘absurd situation where the Mayor is blocking our attempt to improve the water quality because of concerns about the water quality’.

‘The Mayor’s reluctance to recognise the clear demand to remove the byelaw is down to misplaced concerns about safety,’ Imogen Radford explains, ‘which we too often come across from many organisations that don’t understand outdoor swimming.’

This campaign, alongside the local community’s love for this stretch of the Avon, is the subject of a beautiful new film, called Rave On for the Avon. You can read our full review. Meanwhile, Becca explains, ‘we’ve developed our own sewage dashboard,’ which tracks four local storm overflows so that bathers have more information to decide for themselves whether it’s safe to swim. 

There is now an absurd situation where the Mayor is blocking our attempt to improve the water quality because of concerns about the water quality.

Sheep's Green
Public consultation and counting swimmers

This is only the first stage of a complicated application process. Even with the council’s or landowner’s permission, campaigns still have to jump through a number of hoops, including a public consultation, which can provoke pushback, such as this recent example in Cambridge, and providing information about local infrastructure, e.g., parking, toilets, access, changing facilities and so on.

Campaigns also have to record the number of swimmers who use the bathing site at peak times. We spoke to Anne Miller who led the successful campaign at Sheep’s Green in Cambridge about this requirement. ‘In the old days,’ Anne explains, ‘you had to count the number of people who used the river on 20 days throughout the Bathing Season, but there was no overall target you had to reach. Then, in July 2023, just as campaigns were starting to collect their data, DEFRA changed the rules.’ 

Under the new rules, applicants have to record the number of bathers during a four-hour period on the two busiest days of the Bathing Season. But as Anne points out, there is no guidance on how to define ‘bathers’. ‘So what happens if someone swims five times? Are you supposed to count that as one person – or five swimming events? We decided the only practical way for us to do the count was to count swimming events.’

And how do you know when the two busiest days are going to be? ‘Under the old rule,’ Anne continues, ‘you could spread the risk of bad weather across the 20 days, but now you have to take your chances or be in a constant state of readiness to drop everything and go do the count every time the sun comes out.’ 

And the magic number? An average of 100 swimmers per day across the Bathing Season – that’s 15 May-30 September in England and Wales, and 1 June-15 September in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In fact, the number is even higher in Scotland, where an average of 150 swimmers is required.

And the magic number? An average of 100 swimmers per day across the entire Bathing Season, 15 May-30 September in England and Wales, and 1 June-15 September in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The numbers and other aspects of the process should be considered within the context of extensive cuts over the past decade, which mean the Environment Agency doesn’t have the resources to monitor lots of new bathing sites, but there are still serious concerns about whether the number is appropriate.

Imogen Radford explains that, while the figure of 100 might be appropriate for popular beaches, it doesn’t always work for small river spots – an idea captured in DEFRA’s previous guidance (now withdrawn) which acknowledged that ‘all bathing waters are different and one figure may not be suitable for all sites’.

We also spoke to some campaigns who suggested the definition of ‘bather’ should be widened to include all water users – paddlers, SUPers, kayakers, etc. – all of whom come into contact with the water and might change how they engage with the bathing site if more data were provided.

And a final consideration: sporting events don’t count, which means there are some campaigns, such as the River Dee in Chester and Mill Meadows in Henley-on-Thames, which have been unsuccessful, despite having organised events which draw enormous numbers of swimmers, well beyond the arbitrary figure of 100.

Sheep's Green
What happens once the bathing water is designated?

Once designated, the Environment Agency will start to collect samples throughout the Bathing Season, up to a maximum of 20, which works out as roughly one test per week. The Environment Agency will then test these samples for two faecal indicator organisms – E. coli and Intestinal Enterococci – and publish an overall assessment at the end of each Bathing Season.

Many campaigners would like to see real-time data, just like the Conham Bathing Group’s sewage dashboard. Surfers Against Sewage have also launched a fantastic app – the Safer Seas & Rivers Service – which tracks storm overflow data at bathing sites across the UK. These data don’t test the water quality at bathing sites but just let swimmers know whether a spill is taking place.

It’s also worth pointing out that, as part of the Storm Overflow Reduction Plan which DEFRA launched in 2022, ‘all water companies must provide data about the frequency and duration of overflows in near real-time and make this available to the public no later than 2025’. Water companies are starting to do so and you can see the full list on the Rivers Trust website. 

There is also the question of which pollutants are tested. At present, the Environment Agency tests for E. coli and Intestinal Enterococci, but this means nitrates, phosphates, microplastics and other types of bacteria, including Cyanobacteria (often referred to as blue-green algae), go untested.

Once designated, the Environment Agency will start to collect samples and publish an overall assessment at the end of each Bathing Season.

At the end of each Bathing Season, the Environment Agency will publish an overall assessment – Excellent, Good, Sufficient or Poor – based on these samples, and where a bathing site is found to be ‘Poor’, the Environment Agency falls under a legal obligation to ‘prevent, reduce or eliminate (as appropriate) the causes of pollution’.

This form of words is taken from the original EU Directive and still applied across EU member states, but whereas 85.7% of bathing sites in the EU are rated ‘Excellent’, only 66.4% of bathing sites in the UK meet the same standards, while our two flagship rivers, the River Wharfe in Ilkley and Wolvercote Mill Stream on the outskirts of Oxford, are still classified as ‘Poor’.

Kirsty Davies from Surfers Against Sewage suggests that each new designated site should have an enforced action plan, which gives the Environment Agency a sense of direction and ensures consistency across regions and catchments, because, as she says – and all the volunteers we’ve spoken to agree, – ‘all this work has to be for something!’

All this work has to be for something!

Wolvercote Mill Stream
If it’s not better in 5 years, then what? 

While this is an exciting year for the 27 new bathing sites, it’s also a worrying year for the River Wharfe and Wolvercote Mill Stream, which have now had multiple years of ‘Poor’ results. 

Why is this such a concern? It’s only been a couple of years. You can’t fix the problem overnight. And so on. But where there’s a ‘Poor’ classification, DBWS only provides a five-year horizon for improvement before the designation can be revoked. 

Five years might sound like a long time, but here’s the catch … 

The Price Review scheme (PR for short) is a five-year process during which water companies set out plans for the next five years, which are then approved by Ofwat. The problem is that this five-year process isn’t aligned with the five-year horizon under DBWS. So, for example, Ilkley received its designation in 2021, two years into PR19, the scheme which runs from 2019-24. And Wolvercote Mill Stream received its designation in 2022, three years into the scheme. 

We spoke to a number of campaigns who engaged with the relevant water company before applying for DBWS to share citizen science data and discuss whether funds will be available for any investment which might be required. But Becky Malby from the Ilkley Clean River Group found this problem to be much more structural. ‘If you’re in the middle of a five-year PR scheme,’ Becky explains, ‘then it’s going to take five years to identify the source of pollution, five years to investigate the possible solutions, and then five years to act, by which time you’ve lost your designation.’ 

Claire Robertson led the campaign at Wolvercote Mill Stream in Oxford while also studying for a PhD in freshwater ecology and describes the ongoing struggle to secure investment. ‘The Environment Agency funded a source apportionment study which cost £500,000, but we still don’t know how much Thames Water have invested because the information and plans keep changing, virtually from month to month.’ 

We asked Claire if she’s worried about the next couple of years. ‘Yes, we’re all worried,’ she admits. ‘It was never our intention to discourage people from swimming. We just wanted the authorities to step up and help improve the health of our rivers.’ 

It was never our intention to discourage people from swimming. We just wanted the authorities to step up and help improve the health of our rivers.

But there is hope, in the form of a new fast-track process, called the Accelerated Infrastructure Delivery Project, which allows water companies to submit new investment proposals to Ofwat for approval within the same PR cycle to help keep up with the changing demands of new bathing sites.

We spoke to Becky Malby about what this could mean for the River Wharfe, which, unlike Wolvercote Mill Stream, has already seen a significant amount of investment, including a new £15 million super sewer underneath the town.

‘We have a storm overflow right at the start of our one-mile designated stretch,’ Becky explains, ‘so Yorkshire Water have installed a new pipe to divert the sewage, which then becomes an enormous storage system and only releases sewage back into the sewage works on less rainy days.’ This new pipe is now complete and we’ll find out if it works later this year.

Yorkshire Water have also used the new fast track to propose a further £60 million of investment – proposals which include a new integrated constructed wetland to help treat sewage and 15,000 m3 of additional storage. These plans are still in development, Becky says, and Ofwat is yet to decide who pays, whether it will be Yorkshire Water or the public.

This depends on whether the new proposals are seen as ‘basic’, in which case the company pays, or ‘enhancement’, in which case the public pays through higher water bills. ‘Yorkshire Water say this is all enhancement,’ Becky explains, ‘but we believe it’s basic, because you’re just treating our sewage within the legal limits.’

But Becky is optimistic. ‘Is there a plan? Yes. Do we think it will work? Yes. Do we support it? Yes.’ And so, despite 27 new bathing sites, the spotlight is back on Ilkley where this story began. ‘We’re the prototype,’ Becky accepts. ‘We’re showing what’s possible and – more importantly – what it will cost.’

Patrick Naylor