The UK was branded “the dirty man of Europe” when it joined the EU in the 1970s, partly due to the polluted state of its beaches. Since then, significant improvements have been made, and in 2016 96.5% of UK bathing waters (609 out of 631 sites) passed EU standards—announced as the “best on record” by the Government.
Many attribute these improvements to the UK’s membership of the EU and the strict requirements and standards that have been in place at EU-level since the 1970s. Since the EU referendum result, the Government has said it is not complacent and will “keep working to improve our environment”. But some environmental commentators and politicians have raised concerns that Brexit could mean a backwards step for the clean-up of the country’s bathing waters.
What’s defined as bathing water?
Bathing water might be a coastal water on a beach, a river, lake, reservoir, or even a pond; but it must be used by a large number of bathers. There are over 600 designated sites in the UK, which are classified by government and published in a list each year.
Bathing water quality for specific locations can easily be checked and a sign will be displayed at the site itself. Bathing waters aren’t monitored all year round – just during bathing water season, usually from around the end of May until the end of September each year.
Why does clean bathing water matter?
At some point in our lives, many of us will enjoy the benefits of clean bathing waters in one way or another. Some of us may contribute to their pollution too, perhaps without even realising.
EU rules mean that the level of faecal contamination of bathing waters is monitored and assessed, and the public are informed of the quality of the bathing waters in which they swim. Faecal contamination poses a risk to human health and swimming in contaminated waters can result in illness.
Pollution can be caused by toilets and other foul drains being mistakenly connected to the wrong drainage system; water and slurry draining from farms and farmland; and/or by combined sewer overflows during periods of heavy / prolonged rain. Regular media coverage of sewage leaks onto beaches (for example, in Kent and around Devon and Cornwall) tend to keep this issue at the forefront of people’s minds.
Clean bathing water clearly has environmental and health benefits and is of utmost importance to bathers, but improvements in water quality can also contribute to wider economic regeneration of the local community, bringing benefits to businesses, farmers, local tourism and leisure activities.
Has EU legislation improved bathing water quality?
Bathing water policy is often pointed to as a success story of the EU. Bathing water quality across Europe and in the UK has improved since the standards were set by the first EU Bathing Water Directive (76/160/EEC) in the 1970s. In recent years a revised European Directive (2006/7/EC) (with standards almost twice as tough) has challenged member states to reduce their pollution and improve water quality even more. The UK was one of the last member states to use these new standards, alongside the Czech Republic and Romania.
In 2016, 96% of EU sites met the new minimum requirements, with more than 85% meeting the ‘excellent’ standard, according to European Environment Agency reports. In comparison, compliance in 1990 across Europe sat just below 80% (for coastal bathing waters); and at about 52% (for inland waters).
In the UK, the results for the 2016 bathing season reported 96.5% of sites (609 out of 631 sites) at ‘sufficient’ or better standards; and 3.2% (20 sites) with a poor classification. Some media reports focused on the 20 sites missing the standards—putting the UK second bottom in an EU-wide league table. However, the overall picture is certainly better than it was a few decades ago. According to the Environment Agency, in the 1990s only 28% of bathing waters would have met the stricter highest standards.
Compliance for UK coastal bathing waters since 1991 is shown in the European Environment Agency chart below:
Brexit: concerns, expectations and opportunities…
In a nutshell, the predominant Brexit concern for bathing waters is that without the threat of large fines for breaching EU requirements and an independent EU regulator keeping tabs on progress, the impetus for improvement may be lost, standards may slip, and in the worst case scenario the UK could return to being the “dirty man of Europe”.
These concerns are countered with the Government’s commitment that it will “keep working to improve our environment” along with the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill which aims to incorporate EU law into domestic UK law “wherever practical”. MPs have been assured by the Department for Exiting the EU that the Government will “ensure we maintain at least the [bathing water] standards that we have maintained in the past”. It’s worth remembering here that the UK was never 100% compliant with EU requirements and had the discretion to de-designate sites, thereby taking them out of EU requirements.
Even further along this spectrum is the possibility that Brexit provides an opportunity to develop a framework to make more improvements. Campaign groups such as Surfers against Sewage have long argued for a wider reach of the water quality requirements—not only for those designated sites which are failing to meet the legislative standards, but also for non-designated sites and for sites outside the bathing water season.
One more thing… Blue Flags, Green Coasts and Seaside Awards
There are awards and classifications already in place which don’t hinge on EU membership or fall away following Brexit. These awards are voluntary rather than the mandatory EU requirements so arguably have less bite, but each will require a system of monitoring, reporting and public recognition which exists independently of EU membership.
The international Blue Flag award scheme for beaches and marinas is probably the best known and has been operating in areas outside of Europe since 2001. Today it has 46 member countries, with over 100 Blue Flag Beaches across England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland is not a member). The Blue Flag criteria include water quality, but widen the scope to include environmental education and information; environmental management; and safety and services. Other awards include the Green Coast Awards and the Seaside Awards.