‘Flawed’: Bathing water designation process criticised after river bid fails

The government is consulting on plans to designate a further four sites as bathing water sites, including a river, however a local councillor has described the process as 'flawed' after a request to designate a further site was not taken forward by DEFRA.

River Deben. Photo by Ruth Leach

The sites proposed are the river Deben in Suffolk, Sykes Lane Bathing Beach and Whitwell Creek in Rutland, and Firestone Bay in Devon. If the sites are designated they will benefit from regular water quality monitoring during the bathing season.

There are currently only two rivers classed as designated bathing areas out of the 420 on the list, with the majority of sites on the coast.

Should a site be designated as a bathing water, the local council is required to display information about water quality during the bathing water season.

Bathing waters are classified annually as ‘excellent’, ‘good’, ‘sufficient’, or ‘poor’, based on an assessment of the water quality. The number of bathing waters classed as poor tripled in 2021 and those meeting water quality standards fell from 413 to 407, according to the latest official statistics.

The river Deben – one of the locations that could be designated as a bathing water under DEFRA’s consultation proposals – runs through the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

MAPPED: How clean is the water at England’s beaches and other bathing areas?

However, local councillor Ruth Leach, who is part of the Save the Deben group which had been pushing for this designation, told ENDS she was “absolutely shocked and outraged” that a second spot the group had applied for at Woodbridge had not been put out for consultation.

She noted that the Woodbridge site is a similarly popular swimming area, however the water in that location is more polluted as more sewage outflows are situated there.

The application for Woodbridge included 1,158 pledges of support as well as letters of support from the parish, town, district and county councils, and national stakeholders such as Anglian Water and the National Trust.

Leach also criticised the process of applying for an area to get bathing status. She said: “We need to change the status quo”. 

“From my own point of view, it is a tragedy,” added county councillor Caroline Page. “It means I will never in my lifetime be able to swim again in the Deben at Woodbridge. I cannot tell you what a loss this is.”

DEFRA has been approached for a comment.

Sykes Lane Bathing Beach, at Rutland Water, which is a reservoir managed by Anglian Water, is already a popular attraction according to the water company. Whitwell Creek, also at Rutland Water, is located near the Rutland Watersports Centre. Firestone Bay is a small pebble beach in Plymouth.

Dr Robin Price, director of quality and environment at Anglian Water, said: “We’ve seen a huge increase in wild swimmers at our Rutland Water reservoir in recent years so we’re delighted that our applications for designation at both Whitwell Creek and Sykes Lane Bathing Beach are progressing. Achieving designation at both of these sites is a great way to promote open water swimming and provide our region with access to a safe place to do.
“We were happy to see the site at Waldringfield on the River Deben also be put forward for consultation. Nonetheless we share in the disappointment of the Save the Deben group that Woodbridge has not been taken forward. We are still fully committed to supporting their work at Woodbridge to enable a re-application.”

Announcing the proposals, water minister Rebecca Pow said: “England’s bathing water sites are an important part of how we safeguard our precious coastal waters, rivers and lakes, as well as protecting the health of bathers.

“The actions we have taken mean that people across the country will be able to swim at more sites and in better quality water, but we know there is more to do.”

She encouraged all residents and bathers to take part in the consultations, which can be found on the DEFRA website.

Under the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, which was published last year, targets have been set to improve all storm overflows discharging into or near designated bathing areas and improve 75% of overflows into high priority nature sites by 2035. This requirement is set to then apply to all remaining storm overflows by 2050.

If the new areas are designated, the total number of bathing sites will go up to 424. However, a consultation on whether to remove Tunstall Beach from the list of designated bathing waters has also been announced. The quality of the water at this spot was not assessed in the latest published data, as Environment Agency officers were not able to reach the beach.

The Environment Agency website says: “Accessibility issues caused by cliff erosion have resulted in low user numbers for bathing and have made it infeasible for the Environment Agency to carry out sampling at the site.”