New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Chart of the Day
22 August 2022

How does the UK’s beach water quality compare with Europe?

The quality of swimming water at Britain’s beaches and rivers is among the worst in Europe.

By Katharine Swindells

This summer, thousands of holidaymakers across the UK have enjoyed the hot weather by swimming in the country’s seas and rivers. But in areas such as Cornwall, Devon, Cumbria and Lancashire, many are being warned to avoid the water entirely, due to high levels of sewage pollution making the UK’s waters unsafe to bathe in.

This isn’t a one off. In fact, the water quality at Britain’s beaches and rivers is among the worst in Europe – and has been for many years, according to data from the European Environment Agency (EEA).

The 2021 EEA data on bathing water quality finds that, across the EU member states, 85 per cent of river and coastal bathing sites have “excellent” water quality when it comes to the presence of bacteria, pollution or sewage. In countries such as Austria, Greece and Croatia, the water is even cleaner, with over 95 per cent of sites judged as “excellent” in 2021.

By comparison, data from the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra, the best source of information as Britain no longer submits data to the EEA) finds that only 70 per cent of the UK’s 419 water sites in which people bathe or swim were “excellent” in 2021. Only five European countries – Albania, Estonia, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland – have worse water quality than the UK.

Areas that received a “poor” water quality classification in 2021 include Cullercoats Bay in North Tyneside, the River Wharfe at Ilkley, West Yorkshire, Heacham beach in Norfolk, and Weston-super-Mare beach in Somerset. This can be due to agricultural run-off from farms in the vicinity or the release of sewage by water companies, and is worsened in times of heavy rainfall and flooding.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

In fact, this data from Defra could be underestimating the extent of the UK’s dirty water problem. In 2019, when the country was still required to report to the EEA, it submitted data for 644 bathing sites, and only 66 per cent were found to be “excellent”. In 2021, with the UK no longer feeding data to European agencies, Defra only published information on 419 bathing sites.

Meanwhile, data obtained by the Labour Party from the Environment Agency through a freedom of information request found that, in 2021, water companies spent almost 2.7 million hours discharging sewage into the UK’s rivers and seas, more than 25 times the amount released in 2016.

[See also: How much raw sewage is actually being pumped into the sea?]

Content from our partners
The future of private credit
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors
How the apprenticeship levy helps small businesses to transform their workforce

Topics in this article : , ,