Bids for bathing water status in England paused in blow for river cleanups

Estimated read time 3 min read

The government has suspended all applications for bathing water status in waterways, delaying the cleanup of rivers and coastal waters for at least two years.

River campaigners fear the block on new applications to create bathing water areas, which are regularly tested for water quality, has been introduced to stop water companies facing huge resource implications to tackle poor water quality in new bathing areas.

One member of an environmental NGO said: “There is a suspicion that the applications have been halted because the Environment Agency and the water companies won’t be able to keep up with making the improvements needed.”

Twelve rivers were among 27 waterways granted bathing water status by the government this month, as the bathing water season began on 1 May. Testing will begin this season by the Environment Agency for E coli and intestinal enterococci, with a water quality assessment available next spring.

Campaigners are using designations of bathing water status as a driver to clean up rivers across England, and to force water companies to invest in reducing pollution from treated and untreated sewage.

Rivers that have already won bathing water status in the last four years include the River Thames at Port Meadow, Oxford, and the River Wharfe in Ilkley. But tests have repeatedly shown that the water quality is poor, which means the agency and the water companies involved are required to investigate the sources of pollution and come up with a solution to clean up the river.

This month, as groups across the country prepared to begin working on surveys across the swimming season in order to apply for bathing water status in the autumn, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it was accepting no more applications until at least 2025.

Stephen Haywood, a rural solutions programme manager for the waterways charity Thames 21, said: “This will delay new sites being created for at least two years. It is pushing this issue away into the future. If a bathing water site is found to be poor quality, the Environment Agency has to mount an investigation and the water company will have to do something about the pollution.”

Marlene Lawrence, who runs the Teddington Bluetits outdoor swimming group in south-west London, which has 1,600 members, was about to start her survey work to apply for bathing water status this October when she heard the government had stopped all applications.

“We had a grant of nearly £1,000 to pursue this application – and suddenly they announced it was being suspended. It is very frustrating,” Lawrence said. “We cannot now do the survey until 2025, which is delaying any bathing water status being granted. We had everyone on board and ready to go.”

A spokesperson for the Rivers Trust, Tessa Wardley, called for Defra to reconsider and reopen bathing water applications so that communities’ time and efforts did not go to waste. She said a review of bathing water regulations was necessary but there was no need to halt applications in order to carry it out.

“It’s extremely disappointing for the community groups, including Rivers Trust, who have been working extremely hard to gather data and evidence on the basis that they could submit applications this year,” Wardley said.

“The delay will mean that these sites are not a priority for storm overflow investment in water company plans, will not be subject to investigation until they are designated, and will not be monitored by the Environment Agency during the bathing water season, leaving river users at unknown risk for several more years.”

Defra declined to comment.


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