Swimmers itching to take advantage of the easing of lockdown to have their first sea bathes or wild swims of the summer should pick their spot wisely: only two-thirds of the UK’s bathing waters are of excellent quality, according to the latest data, putting Britain near the bottom of Europe’s league table for bathing water quality.
Most of the rest of the UK’s beaches were of good or sufficient quality last year, with fewer than one in 20 judged to be poor, in the annual survey by the European Environment Agency.
While the UK’s showing was better than the previous year, with 66% of sites reaching the “excellent” standard for 2019 compared with 63% in 2018, it came in sixth from bottom in the survey of European countries, comprising EU member states plus Switzerland and Albania. Overall, 85% of bathing sites surveyed by the EU’s environmental watchdog received the top rating of excellent for 2019.
Only 5% of monitored sites across Europe failed to reach the minimum rating of “sufficient”. The survey does not take account of all possible bathing waters, monitoring only commonly used coastal beaches and some inland sites.
Earlier this year, UK campaigners called for communities to apply for bathing water status for their swimming spots, which forces water companies and the Environment Agency to clean up the water if it does not meet requirements. In many areas, water companies are legally allowed to discharge untreated sewage into waterways, but having rivers designated as bathing areas means these outflows can be curtailed.
Swimmers are also warned that the EEA data is from last year and so does not take into account the impacts of an unusually wet winter followed by an exceptionally dry spring. Bathers are advised to check before setting out and to heed the government’s rules on physical distancing, as well as any local restrictions in force.
Out of 22,295 bathing sites in Europe, nearly 85% were of excellent quality, according to the EEA report. Cyprus, Austria, Malta, Greece and Croatia topped the list with more than 95% of all sites proving to be of excellent quality. Poland scored worst, with only 22% of sites being of excellent quality, far below the next lowest on the list, Albania, where 59% of sites qualified for the top rating.
The EU’s environment commissioner said countries should not take high quality water for granted. “Clean bathing water is usually taken as something that is gifted, but it’s actually one of the European collective achievements,” said Virginijus Sinkevicius. “It’s the result of hard work by many people over many years. This year’s report once again confirms that European citizens can continue to enjoy very high quality standards when bathing in European waters and all measures must be taken to continue along this path.”
Before the UK was forced by EU regulations to clean up beaches and inland waterways, many were unfit for swimming and heavily polluted with sewage or other effluent. Campaigners are concerned that the UK could water down some of its environmental commitments after Brexit without firm EU directives to follow on measures such as water and air quality.
The quality of UK beaches has risen and fallen in recent years, and can vary markedly based on factors such as droughts, which cause sewage to back up, followed by heavy rain, which can flush it out into rivers and on to beaches. This year’s showing continues a poor run compared with earlier this decade, however, as 83% of beaches were rated excellent in 2011.
After Brexit the UK can still submit to monitoring by the EEA, which as part of its remit reports on several other European or neighbouring states that are not EU members, including Iceland, Greenland, Norway and Turkey.
“Regular monitoring and assessment of bathing water are essential for ensuring that we maintain the already very high quality across Europe and, where needed, we take effective measures to address water pollution,” said Hans Bruyninckx, the executive director of the EEA. “Cleaner bathing waters do not only benefit our own health and wellbeing, but also the health of the environment.”