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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.

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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.

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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?]

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