Campaigners are calling for more transparency from government after five applications to turn sections of English rivers into bathing areas were rejected, despite promises from ministers that cleaning up rivers was a priority.
Officials have rejected the application for three areas of the River Wharfe in Yorkshire to be given the status, which requires more rigorous testing for bacteria from discharged sewage and is an attempt to force a river clean up.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has also turned down applications for the River Tyne at Wylam in Northumberland and the River Kent in Cumbria, much of which is a protected site of special scientific interest.
Defra on Friday announced that four swimming areas in England have progressed to public consultation stage to be considered for bathing water designation – Sykes Lane bathing beach and Whitwell Creek at Rutland Water, Firestone Bay in Plymouth, and a section of the River Deben at Waldringfield, Suffolk.
The Wharfe was the first river in the UK to be given bathing water status and encouraged other local people to pursue the same protections for their rivers.
Local people spent a year gathering evidence to submit for the applications for other areas of the Wharfe around Wetherby.
But Defra said on Friday that all three areas in the Wharfe had failed in their bids.
Linda Richards, Conservative councillor for Wetherby on Leeds city council and river campaigner with the Conservative Environment Network, led the campaign to create more swimming areas along the Wharfe. She has said the status was sought in order to be able to monitor the whole length of the river and improve water quality. Local citizen scientists took water samples in a coordinated, scientifically controlled experiment to develop a snapshot of the river’s quality.
“This is the only measure that will compel the Environment Agency to regularly monitor the water quality of the river. We understand improvements will not happen overnight, but unless the EA are actively monitoring the situation, then improvements might never happen,” she said, explaining the decision to apply.
Campaigners in Cumbria applied for the River Kent, which runs from Kentmere to Morecambe Bay, to be given bathing water status. High levels of faecal bacteria were found when citizen scientists carried out testing in the river, between February and September last year.
The samples taken by the Clean River Kent group in all six locations it surveyed would be classified as poor, meaning a swimmer would be at high risk of becoming unwell. The campaign used the data to push for the status to force the authorities to clean up the river.
The application was for a stretch of water running through Staveley near a recreation ground. Sheila Adam of the Clean River Kent Campaign said the numbers using the river were not huge, but in the summer there were children, kayakers and anglers using the river. She said Defra had given no reason for turning down the application.
“We don’t get any information at all,” she said. “We don’t know why we were unsuccessful – it might be numbers, but they have not told us what the numbers required are. We will be seeking to find out why. We are trying to tell all our volunteers and donors to tell them we are not giving up, the fight goes on.
“We wanted to get this status so the Environment Agency would be required to test the water for bacteria and force a clean-up of the river. The river is a site of special scientific interest and has European conservation status, and we think it should make it a priority for investment.”
The letter from Defra to the group was received on Thursday evening. It said: “After carefully considering the evidence provided in the application against these factors, we regret to inform you that the secretary of state has concluded that the application for the River Kent, Staveley Village has not met the criteria set out in the regulations and therefore will not be taken forward for bathing water designation on this occasion.”
Becky Malby from the Ilkley Clean River Campaign, which helped the groups to make their applications, said the government was refusing to publish thresholds for the numbers of visitors required to qualify for bathing water status, and more transparency was required. “Bathing water status provides communities with regular testing of river water quality for sewage pollution.
“It’s the only way people can know if their river is safe for them and their children. There is no other testing for E coli. If Defra really wants to clean up rivers it must support testing and public signage of pollution. This should not just be about rivers with high numbers of people; either they want to clean up all rivers or they don’t.”
She said there was no transparency in the process. “It means local people spend up to a year counting, surveying, to apply, with no idea if they are even near the threshold. This is a gross waste of public time. This needs to be a fair and transparent process for all.”
Stephen Westgarth, from the campaign for bathing water status on the River Tyne, suspected the reason they were turned down was the lower number of swimmers who used the river. He said: “We are very disappointed. The purpose of the application was to support local swimmers and all river users, and to clean up the River Tyne. The application had some potential teeth to force water
companies and other polluters to comply, and the EA to actually monitor
the river properly. I don’t understand why it is acceptable to pollute any site, irrespective of size.”
Defra has been approached for comment.