Opinion: Blue Flags - Are the UK`s Beaches Flagging?


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The economic downturn is having a marked effect on the way the average UK citizen spends his or her vacation time. The numbers of overseas holidays increased steadily from about 7 million in the mid-1970s to a peak of 46 million in 2006. Numbers began to fall in 2008 and the latest national statistics show a drop of about 10 million trips by 2010.' A recent survey2 suggests that three-quarters of us have changed our holiday habits and there is a marked increase in those opting for holidays in the UK (so called 'staycations'). It is likely that many of these will opt for a seaside holiday and coastal resorts will be competing to attract visitors. One important factor in this competition will be the receipt of one or more of the various awards that arc made annually for seaside resorts meeting certain quality standards. These awards all have water quality as one of their key criteria and they all derive their standards from those set out in the European Bathing Water Directive.

As early as 1960, the UK had an unofficial 'golden list' of beaches put together by the Coastal Anti-Pollution League, an organisation established by a couple whose daughter contracted polio after swimming at a contaminated beach. It was incidents such as this one that provided the impetus for European legislation on bathing water quality. The impact of the 1976 Bathing Water Directive3 on quality in the UK was not immediate. The UK Government was sceptical of a link between disease and bathing water quality and adopted a minimalist approach to implementing the Directive. Article l(2)(a) required Member States to 'take all necessary measures' to ensure that the quality of bathing waters conform, within 10 years, to limit values specified in the Directive. The term 'bathing water' was not precisely defined, but was described as including waters where 'bathing is not prohibited and is traditionally practised by a large number of bathers'. There being no definition of 'large number of bathers', the government adopted its own criteria based on the number of people on a stretch of beach. The result of surveys based on this criterion led to the designation of just 27 Bathing Waters. The list excluded some obvious popular beaches like Blackpool and Brighton. Theses omissions were subsequently to land the UK in court for failure to comply with the Directive with respect to the water quality at Blackpool.4

Following forceful criticism, including a recommendation from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution,'1 the number of the designated beaches was dramatically increased by the addition of a further 350 beaches in 1987 and by 1991 there were 453. The House of Commons Environment Committee's 1990 report on Pollution of Beaches** made strong recommendations for more studies to determine the level of risk posed to bathers if they swam in polluted seawater. The committee was persuaded by the results of pilot studies7 commissioned by the then Department of the Environment, the Welsh Office and the National Rivers Authority8 which had indicated that there was a higher incidence of symptoms of disease in sea bathers compared with non-bathing users of the same beaches. These recommendations came 15 years after the adoption of the Directive and five years after the date for the implementation of its water quality standards. Frustration at the previous complacent attitude towards bathers' concerns led to the founding of the campaigning organisation Surfers Against Sewage9 in the same year. It focused its attention on the newly created water companies and on their environmental regulator, the National Rivers Authority, and was instru¬mental in persuading companies to invest considerable sums in a coastal clean up. In the early 1990s, the level of compliance was about 75%, somewhat below that attained in other European countries. The government subsequently set in place a £2 billion improvement programme to bring virtually every beach up to guidance level standard by 1995, mainly by addressing sewage treatments, although it is likely that this programme was motivated as much by impending requirements under the Urban Waste Water Directive10 as by the state of bathing waters. Subsequent years saw increased investments into capital works to treat sewage. South West Water, for example, claims to have invested £1.5 billion on clean bathing water since 1989 and Dwr Cymru Welsh Water has committed almost a £1 billion to capital works to improve coastal water quality.

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