A bigger percentage of bathing waters in England were rated poor this year than at any other time in the last eight years, Environment Agency figures show.
Of the 423 bathing waters measured in 2023, 18 were classed as poor, up from 12 last year and four in 2021.
The majority – 66.4% – were rated excellent but the figures show a marked increase in the number of swimming spots on the coast and in rivers that do not meet the minimum standard.
Only in 2015, when the Environment Agency began using the current classification system, was there a higher percentage of poor ratings, with no data recorded in 2020 because of coronavirus restrictions.
The figures also show that the number of bathing waters rated sufficient or good has dropped in recent years while the percentage rated excellent has also fallen.
Environment Agency Chair Alan Lovell said: “Many people enjoy time in or on lakes, rivers and coastal waters, and we know the value they bring in terms of social, health and wellbeing benefits.
“The slight fall in standards this year show we must go further to drive improvements and that this takes time and investment.
“That’s why we are strengthening our regulation and working with the water sector, farmers, industry, and others to help them put the environment at the heart of their activities and improve our bathing waters for all.”
River Action’s CEO, James Wallace, said: “We want to see all the UK’s rivers healthy and free of agricultural and sewage waste pollution.
“A good start is making sure the polluters always pay. We need a well-resourced Environment Agency capable of enforcing existing environmental laws.
“And we need the water regulator, Ofwat, standing up for consumers and demanding that the water companies invest in their leaky infrastructure and make up for decades of profiteering.”
Bathing waters are monitored during the summer between May 15 and September 30 with the Environment Agency looking out for E. coli and intestinal enterococci – bacteria that can come from sewage and agricultural pollution.
Readings taken from the previous four seasons define the rating of the current year.
Shadow environment secretary Steve Reed said: “The water industry is broken after 13 years of Tory government – with stinking, toxic sewage lapping up on our rivers, lakes, and seas.
“It is disgusting that families and children cannot enjoy these waters without the threat of getting sick.
“Despite this gross negligence, consumers are now expected to pay higher water bills, whilst CEOs are pocketing millions in bonuses.
“With Labour, the polluter – not the public – will pay. We will give regulators the power to ban the payment of bonuses to water bosses until they have cleared up their filth.”
Many people have reported being sick after swimming outdoors with sewage pollution thought to be a cause.
The Government said it is pushing water companies to invest more in infrastructure that would reduce the need for flushing raw sewage into rivers.
Water companies are legally allowed to dump raw sewage if there is a risk that the system would back up during periods of heavy rainfall and flood people’s homes.
Many companies have been caught dumping in times outside of these special circumstances.
A Defra spokesperson said: “We take oversight of the water industry very seriously, which is why we welcome Ofwat tightening rules on bonus payments.
“For 2022-23, no water company bosses in England are paying a CEO bonus out of customer money, and many CEOs have decided to take no bonus.
“Our Plan for Water is delivering more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement, including an additional £2.2 billion of accelerated water company investment in infrastructure, which is to cutting over 10,000 discharges.”