Port Meadow on the Thames in Oxford up for consultation as the second river swimming site in the UK

Oxford has reached the next stage of its application for designated Bathing Water status – with DEFRA launching a national public consultation on designation for the River Thames at Wolvercote Mill Stream [1].

If successful, the site will be only the second river swimming area in the UK, after the River Wharfe at Ilkley to receive official Government designation. It is hoped that the designation will make it safer for swimmers and other river users as water quality will be regularly monitored by the Environment Agency. It should also lead to a reduction in the number of raw sewage discharges upstream of the site.

Anyone may respond to the consultation on the DEFRA website, which closes on 2nd March: https://consult.defra.gov.uk/water/consultation-on-designation-of-wolvercote-mill-str/.

The application, submitted by the Oxford Rivers Project – a partnership project involving Oxford City Council, environmental charity Thames21, The Rivers Trust and Thames Water [2] – shows that the site is very popular, with upwards of 400 people entering the river at peak times in the summer.

Last year, water quality testing for harmful bacteria at the site showed that after rainfall, bacteria levels can rise to up to 8 times the safe limit. However, in drier months, such as July and August, the quality was good [3].

Councillor Mary Clarkson, Cabinet Member for Culture, Leisure and Tourism, Oxford City Council, said: “I am delighted that Oxford has reached the next step in its journey to achieving bathing water status. If you are a fan of our rivers, then I encourage you to take part in the national consultation.”

Claire Robertson, the Thames21 Oxford Rivers Project Officer who submitted the application, said: “It’s self-evident that such a well-loved and well-used site should have water quality testing to help people enjoy the river safely and healthily. It’s even more self-evident that raw sewage discharges should not happen anywhere near this site, for peoples’ health, but also for the many wildlife species that live in this stretch. We hope our application, if successful, will be part of the growing movement to clean up our rivers nationwide and accelerate investment by water companies to protect them as beautiful, precious natural places – not a place for raw sewage.”

Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, said: “I am delighted to see that DEFRA has chosen to progress one of the applications for bathing water status. This gives people across the country the opportunity to let the Department know how important it is that this application is granted. People are fed up with swimming in polluted rivers. Ensuring that this stretch of the Thames is being regularly tested will encourage many more to visit the beautiful Port Meadow and enjoy swimming.

“I am, however, disappointed that DEFRA have not chosen to take forward the application for Fiddler’s Island. I remain hopeful that this application may be successful in the future, and that the positive impacts of bathing water status upstream may cause DEFRA to revisit this decision further down the line.

“I encourage everyone to take part in this consultation, and show the Government the strength of local feeling on this issue. I will tell the Government how important granting this application is, and I hope that the many people across Oxford who have expressed their concerns about sewage pollution will do so too.”

Christine Colvin, Director for Communications & Partnerships at The Rivers Trust, said: “We’re really happy to hear that the application to make Port Meadow a designated bathing area is now being considered by Defra. It’s testament to the hard work of a lot of data analysts, citizen scientists, and a number of cross-sector partners. Hopefully the application will be successful and that will ultimately lead to a cleaner, safer river environment.”

Once a site is designated as a Bathing Water site, the Environment Agency has a duty to test the water regularly, and the landowner, must display signage displaying the water quality – classified from ‘Excellent to Poor’.

It was recently revealed that the sewage treatment works only 2 miles upstream of the bathing water site – Cassington sewage treatment works – is under investigation for suspected incomplete treatment of sewage and ‘early spilling’ – discharging raw sewage to the environment before the treatment works are at capacity [4].

The application has strong local support, including unanimous cross party support from Oxford City Councillors and a debate in Parliament tabled by MP Layla Moran [5]. 96% of local people consulted were in favour of designating the site, with many respondents noting that multiple generations have learnt to swim at the site.

Combined with the numerous rowing clubs and the many tourist punts that make up the Oxford river scene, regular testing of water quality to help protect public health is timely.

At this stage, the second location in the application – Fiddlers Island – has not been presented for public consultation by DEFRA.

The consultation and application can be accessed here.


Notes for editors
1. The consultation and the application can be accessed here https://consult.defra.gov.uk/water/consultation-on-designation-of-wolvercote-mill-str/
2. More information on the Oxford Rivers Project endsewagepollutionthames.wordpress.com
3. Full report on bacteria levels at bathing sites in Oxford, published September 2021 https://endsewagepollutionthames.wordpress.com/2021/09/22/press-release-sewage-pollution-makes-popular-oxford-bathing-site-unsafe-after-rainfall-study-finds/
4. https://www.itv.com/news/meridian/2022-01-21/video-appears-to-show-untreated-sewage-being-released-into-river-thames and https://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/19858226.cassington-sewage-works-investigation-ahead-protest-thames-water/
5. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-59137255