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According to official statistics, England lags behind its European neighbors in both the number and quality of officially designated seaside resorts.
Despite having very few bathing places per capita, England is the country with the fifth highest share of “poor” quality bathing water in Europe, according to an analysis of UK and EU data by the Liberal Democrats.
Areas that have been granted official bathing water status are subject to additional testing by the Environment Agency in England between May and September to protect public health. These include so-called blue flag beaches, which must have an “Excellent” rating.
Tim Farron MP, Liberal Democrat MP and environmental spokesman said: “The UK is officially Europe’s sick swimmer, with water companies getting away with filthy polluting habits.”
He added: “This government has failed spectacularly in protecting our lakes, rivers and coastlines. The public is rightly furious about this issue, but Conservative ministers seem to be unconcerned.”
This summer, a number of popular English beaches, including Blackpool’s, were deemed unsafe for bathers for several days this summer due to sewage runoff.
Less than three-quarters of England’s 424 seaside resorts are considered to be of excellent quality, according to data from the UK Environment Agency.
This contrasts with some of Europe’s better performing countries in terms of the number and quality of bathing areas, such as Greece, Denmark and Germany. According to figures from the EU’s European Environment Agency, all three countries have at least 1,000 seaside resorts, of which at least 90 percent have been awarded an “excellent” status.
Kirsty Davies, community water quality manager at campaign group Surfers Against Sewage, said: “Unfortunately it is a myth that Blue Flag beaches have pristine water – they suffer from the same inadequate testing regime as [the rest of] our bathing water.”
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 the 10 water and sewerage companies in England and Wales so it can alert surfers, paddleboarders and swimmers to sewage runoff on beaches.
A government spokesman said: “Compared to many European countries, England has a smaller land mass, less intense sunlight, more rainfall and a higher population density, all of which affect bathing water quality.”
It added: “The reality is that we have the highest number of bathing waters ever. . . Last year, 93 percent of them met the highest standards of ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, up from just 76 percent in 2010, despite stricter standards being introduced in 2015.”
Environmentalists are lobbying the Environment Agency to give more rivers, lakes and beaches official bathing status as a means of pressuring water companies to tackle sewage pollution.
“The purpose of bathing water status is to force authorities to inform the public so that they decide whether or not their children can paddle and play around the rivers,” said Becky Maltby, a member of a local West Yorkshire campaign group trying to make the Ilkley River clean. “At the start of our campaign, people had no idea there was sewage in the river.”
Water UK, representing the industry, said: “Thanks to investment from water companies, we have seen a transformation in our beaches, with over 70 per cent achieving an ‘excellent’ rating, compared to just 10 per cent in the 1990s.
“We recognize that we now need to do the same for our inland rivers and swimming areas and propose to invest £10bn – a tripling of current levels – in the biggest transformation of our sewers since the Victorian era. As part of this, bathing waters will be prioritized and be among the first to receive funding.”