Most applications for bathing water status to clean up rivers and coastal waters in England have been rejected by the government in the last 14 months, according to new data from the Liberal Democrats.
Local groups have been working for months to create bathing water areas, where the Environment Agency is forced to undertake more rigorous testing for faecal bacteria. Grassroots groups are focusing on inland waters in particular, in a push to stop the discharge of raw sewage by water companies and force a clean-up of English rivers, which all fail tests for chemical and biological pollution.
But new data shows in the last 14 months only two areas have been granted bathing water status out of 21 applications, according to a written parliamentary answer to Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesperson. Four areas are out to consultation for bathing water status.
The government refused to provide the Guardian with a list of the rivers and coastal areas where bathing water status had been turned down since January 2022.
The Conservative government has publicly backed the creation of bathing waters, with the environment minister Rebecca Pow last year making a high-profile visit to Oxford after part of the river was granted bathing status.
But the scale of rejections showed the system was a mess, said Farron. “The Conservative government’s attempt to protect bathing water is nothing less than a cruel joke. Ministers are rejecting almost every application made by local communities and swimming groups.”
There are 600 bathing water sites in England and Wales – the vast majority in coastal waters. Farron said even when a site achieved bathing status, water companies were still allowed to fill it with sewage dumps. Data shows there have been 340,581 hours worth of sewage spills in bathing waters – totalling 52,653 separate spills – in the last two years. He said all raw sewage discharges into bathing waters should stop.
“[Environment secretary] Thérèse Coffey should apologise to every community turned down for bathing water status. Instead of rejection, ministers should work with the community to ensure the site is granted the status,” said Farron.
“People are being left to swim in filth and the companies responsible get away with it.”
Among the bodies of water rejected are three parts of the River Wharfe in Yorkshire, Coniston Water in the Lake District, the River Kent at Staveley in Cumbria, the River Tyne at Wylam and part of the River Deben in Woodbridge – which is in Coffey’s constituency.
Campaigners from several areas have attacked the lack of transparency around the process, and submitted freedom of information requests to find out why their river has been turned down. But the applications for information have been refused by Defra.
In a communication to local groups, Defra said: “Due to the fact that you are requesting this information as an interested party, and that elements of your request do not amount to a valid request made under these regimes, we feel it would be best handled under general correspondence … As such the bathing water team will be in touch directly in relation to a reply.”
Ruth Leach, of Save the Deben, says she feels sure her request failed on the number of people required to be visiting to swim. “They just ask about ‘bathers’; they don’t take into account the huge surge in people using the water since Covid on paddleboards, in kayaks and also swimmers. They need to recognise that there are massive number of people using the river now.”
Stephen Westgarth, from the local group that submitted an application for the River Tyne at Wylam, said they had sent an FoI request to Defra to get more information on why their bid had failed: “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 Environment Agency to actually monitor the river properly.”
The four areas where consultation on bathing water status is taking place are a section of the River Deben at Waldringfield, Suffolk, Sykes Lane Bathing Beach and Whitwell Creek at Rutland Water and Firestone Bay in Plymouth.
Defra said: “We would not comment on individual applications that are not being taken forward to consultation, but all applicants have been informed of the outcome of their application. When selecting new sites for potential bathing water designation, we consider how many people bathe there, if the site has suitable infrastructure and facilities, such as toilets, and if measures are being taken to promote bathing at those waters. All applications are assessed against these factors and applications that do not meet the essential criteria will not proceed to national consultation.”
• The subheading of this article was amended on 23 March 2023 because an earlier version mistakenly referred to the Environment Agency granting bathing water status. As reflected in the article, it is Defra that assesses and approves applications for bathing water status, not the Environment Agency. It was further amended on 28 March 2023; owing to an error in data provided by the Liberal Democrats, we said there had been “340m hours” worth of sewage spills in bathing waters, when the correct figure was 340,581 hours.