At first sight the call for swimmers to seek Bathing Water Quality designation seems like a no brainer. It would be hard to find a swimmer who wouldn’t answer “Yes” to the question “Do you want to swim in clean water?” An expanding number of local groups concerned about their rivers are already planning or doing applications, however there are pros and cons and pragmatic and philosophical issues to consider before setting up a local campaign.
Why is there a push to do this? The focus on swimmers is partly political – a number of environmental groups are turning to swimmers now to try to get their message across. Not because swimmers are particularly at risk – compared to plants, wildlife or other water users like canoeists and SUPers – but because swimmers may unlock funding for them to achieve their aims, and because swimming is currently popular so they can lever that popularity to encourage people to care about their environmental priorities.
Swimmers care about their environment – they are often immersed in it, after all – and get involved in all sorts of campaigns. Should they be leaping into action to campaign for local swim spots to be designated as bathing water places?
More designated places could increase pressure to improve bathing water quality, ideally leading to:
Campaigns to designate bathing spots could
Some potential cons once bathing water is designated:
Please note: The Outdoor Swimming Society cannot support specific applications for bathing water designation. This is because we are an official consultee at the stage when an application goes out for public consultation, so it would not be appropriate for us to do so.
Only three rivers in the UK are currently designated under the bathing water directive (at May 2023), unlike hundreds of coastal spots and about a score of lakes. This legislation has done a lot to clean up beaches. If a place is designated it must be regularly monitored over the summer, with reports and warnings if the water contains levels of bacteria so high as to make bathing unsafe.
On 22 December 2020 part of the river Wharfe at Ilkley became the first designated bathing site river in the UK, with water quality monitoring beginning May 2021.
A second river spot was designated in April 2022, an area on the Mill Stream at Port Meadow, Wolvercote, Oxford. (Read the OSS response to the consultation (link downloads Word.docx 2 pages).
Another river has been designated from May 2023, the Deben estuary at Waldringfield; read the OSS response to the consultation (downloads word.docx 4 pages), (and see the consultation and government response).
At the same time 9 other river applications were turned down, and requests for explanations have been rejected. Indications are that they were deemed not to have high enough number of users or sufficient facilities. Questions were asked, including in the Swim England consultation response (link downloads word.docx 2 pages), and there is a review of the process and its context by DEFRA, with OSS included in the stakeholder group.
Also announced in April 2023 were two further successful applications for designation for Rutland Water reservoir sites, one of which is a private supervised venue open two hours a week, at a cost of about £8 a swim and only open to swimmers able and wishing to do 250m loops, and the other for an existing lifeguarded beach, which is not open for swimming outside the supervised times in the summer season. Read the OSS responses to the beach application and to the supervised venue application (each link downloads word.docx 4 pages), which though welcoming the applications point out that the water is already clean and there are several other questionable aspects. Although announced as an expansion of places to swim outdoors, there doesn’t appear to be any intention to widen access to the reservoir beyond these places and times, and that is not enough for the growing popularity and demand for places to swim. We argue that reservoirs are very suitable for outdoor swimming and that this generally does not need to be supervised.
Then in July 2023, midway through the season during which groups wanting to apply for designation had already started their counting and consulting, the procedure was changed without warning or consultation. The revised procedure includes requirements for there to be toilets within 500 m and at least 100 people on two separate days (but not at organised events) must be counted and photographed. (Previously numbers had to be counted on 20 days, but there was no stated number requirement. People doing other activities such as paddle sports have never been counted, and the revised procedure has made this clear.) Information needs to be given about parking, public transport, and easy access to the water (including disabled access), and about other facilities. Water testing is not needed for an application. The local consultation process can include local swim groups.
The OSS has two social media platforms where social swim groups and those looking into status for their areas may meet others to discuss, and has information for swimmers.
The OSS Guide to Inland Bathing Waters provides essential legal and practical information on establishing free swimming in the UK
Post questioning the ‘no rivers are fit to swim in’ narrative on swimming access campaigner’s website
Surfers against Sewage toolkit helps explain the application process
Surfers against Sewage are hosting a free bathing water conference in Bristol on Saturday 11 November 2023, with sessions focussed on how to make an application and on post-designation, Citizen Science and ensuring water quality campaigning is inclusive to all of the community.
Designated Bathing Waters explained on this website – what they are and why they matter
Designation application procedures:
The trade association for water companies is Water UK.
February 2020, latest update October 2023