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England is lagging behind its European neighbours in both the number and quality of officially designated bathing sites, according to official statistics.
Despite having precious few swimming sites per capita, England ranks as the country with the fifth-biggest share of bathing waters of “poor” quality in Europe, an analysis of UK and EU data by the Liberal Democrats has found.
Areas given official bathing water status receive extra testing from the Environment Agency in England between May and September to protect public health. They include so-called blue flag beaches, which must have a classification of “Excellent”.
Tim Farron MP, Liberal Democrat MP and environment spokesperson, said: “The UK is officially the sick swimmer of Europe, with water companies allowed to get away with foul polluting habits.”
He added: “This government has failed spectacularly to protect our lakes, rivers and coastlines. The public are rightly furious about this issue yet Conservative ministers just don’t seem to care about it.”
This summer a number of popular English beaches, including Blackpool’s, were deemed unsafe for swimmers for several days this summer as a result of sewage outflows.
Less than three-quarters of England’s 424 bathing sites are deemed to be of excellent quality, according to England’s Environment Agency data.
This contrasts with some of Europe’s stronger performers in terms of the number and quality of bathing sites, such as Greece, Denmark and Germany. All three countries have at least 1,000 bathing sites with at least 90 per cent granted “excellent” status, according to figures from the EU’s European Environment Agency.
Kirsty Davies, community water quality manager at campaign group Surfers Against Sewage, said: “Unfortunately, it’s a myth that blue flag beaches have pristine water — they suffer from the same inadequate testing regime as [the rest of] our bathing waters.”
She urged swimmers to check her organisation’s Safer Seas and Rivers Service before entering the water anywhere in England. SAS monitors information from eight of England and Wales’ 10 water and sewage companies so that it can alert surfers, paddle boarders and swimmers to sewage outflows at beaches.
A government spokesperson said: “Compared to many European countries, England has a smaller land mass as well as less intense sunlight, higher rainfall and higher population density, which all affect bathing water quality.”
It added: “The reality is we have the highest number of bathing waters ever . . . Last year 93 per cent of them met the highest standards of ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, up from just 76 per cent in 2010, despite stricter standards being introduced in 2015.”
Environmental activists have been lobbying the Environment Agency to grant more rivers, lakes and beaches official bathing water status as a means of pressuring water companies to clamp down on sewage pollution.
“The point of bathing water status is to force authorities to inform the public so they decide whether their kids can or can’t paddle and play around the rivers,” said Becky Maltby, a member of a local campaign group in West Yorkshire seeking to clean up the Ilkley river. “At the start of our campaign, people had no idea that there was sewage in the river.”
Water UK, which represents the industry, said: “Thanks to water company investment we have seen a transformation in our beaches with more than 70 per cent achieving an ‘excellent’ rating compared with only 10 per cent in the 1990s.
“We recognise that we now need to do the same for our rivers and inland bathing areas and are proposing to invest £10bn — a tripling current levels — in the biggest transformation of our sewers since the Victorian era. As part of this, bathing waters will be prioritised and among the first to receive funding.”