Revealed: The English beaches with the dirtiest bathing water

·3-min read
A person jumps from a rock into the River Wharfe near Ilkley in Yorkshire, as people continue to enjoy the hot weather. (Photo by Danny Lawson/PA Images via Getty Images)
A person jumps from a rock into the River Wharfe near Ilkley in Yorkshire. (Getty)

The English beaches with the dirtiest bathing water have been revealed.

The Environment Agency tested for E.coli and intestinal enterococci bacteria across 400 sites during the 2021 bathing season (15 May to 30 September).

In total four of these sites were rated “poor” for water quality standards, including Tynemouth Cullercoat in North Tyneside, Wharfe at Cromwheel in Ilkley, Heacham in West Norfolk and Weston Bay in Weston-super-Mare.

The report revealed water quality standards were being met at 99% of designated bathing spots in England, with 70.7% of beaches and inland waters rated “excellent”.

A further 24% were rated “good” and 4.3% were awarded a score of “sufficient”.

A pre-dawn fitness class on the beach at Cullercoats Bay, between Tynemouth and Whitley Bay, on the north east coast of England. Picture date: Friday September 17, 2021.
The beach at Cullercoats Bay, between Tynemouth and Whitley Bay. (PA)

The presence of E.coli and intestinal enterococci in water samples is often an indicator of sewage contamination.

The latest figures, published on Wednesday, compare to 98.3% in 2019 – the last full data set due to interruptions in monitoring caused by the pandemic.

Water quality has come under growing scrutiny over the past year, with reports about the volume of sewage and chemicals discharged into waterways sparking public outcry.

Last summer, Southern Water was handed a record £90m fine at Canterbury Crown Court for 6,791 unpermitted sewage discharges between 2010 and 2015.

In October 2021, the government was forced to U-turn on its refusal to impose legal controls on water companies to prevent them dumping raw sewage into rivers and seas following a public backlash.

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MPs were whipped to vote down an amendment to the Environment Bill, but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) later said a duty to reduce sewage discharge “would be enshrined in law”.

The following month, it emerged water companies in England and Wales had issued 5,500 alerts of sewage being discharged into coastal waters in 2020 – up more than 87% on the previous year.

Commenting on the latest bathing water figures, Environment Agency chair Emma Howard Boyd said: “The polluter must pay. To restore trust, water companies, industry and farmers need to get the basics right or face legal action.”

Environment minister Rebecca Pow added: “Our Environment Act puts in place more protections against water pollution than ever before, we are investing in programmes to support farmers to tackle water quality issues, and we are clear that where water companies do not step up we will take robust action.”

A man jumps from the suspension bridge into the water as others relax on the banks of the River Wharfe in Ilkley, northern England, on June 2, 2020 as warm weather continues during the coronavirus lockdown. - Suspected and confirmed cases of deaths from the coronavirus outbreak in Britain have risen to 48,000, according to official data published Tuesday. (Photo by PAUL ELLIS / AFP) (Photo by PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
The River Wharfe in Ilkley, northern England. (Getty)

A report published by Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee on 13 January said England’s rivers were struggling with a “chemical cocktail” of sewage, agricultural waste and plastic.

On Tuesday, the Environment Agency’s chief executive Sir James Bevan called for the bosses of the nation’s worst corporate rule-breakers to face custodial sentences.

A spokesman for Water UK, the industry body representing UK water companies, said current water quality levels were the result of “decades of water company investment and different sectors and regulators working towards a common goal”.

The spokesman said the industry supported the creation of a network of inland bathing sites in rivers across England, adding “we must not allow complacency to reverse this positive trend” on water quality.

“This will not happen overnight but with targeted investment, effective regulation and the co-operation of other sectors we believe we can do for inland bathing what we have done for coastal bathing,” Water UK added.

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