England falls behind on bathing water quality

We’re hoping to see more successful bathing water applications in the coming year, and looking forward to having the results of the ones we put forward for Henley, pictured above, and Wallingford Beach. Photo by Ryan Davies

Bathing water sites are extremely important across Europe and the UK. They provide safe leisure areas where communities can connect with nature, enjoy the outdoors, unwind, and improve their well-being – to name just a few benefits. While our European neighbours have been doing quite well in maintaining high water quality in those sites, the picture looks different in the UK.

According to the European Environment Agency, out of the 21,658 officially designated bathing sites in the 27 EU Member States, 85.7% of bathing water sites were rated excellent and 95.9% met minimum water quality standards in 2022. However, this percentage dropped to 79.3% when considering only inland bathing water sites. This is due to coastal waters being constantly renewed and having a greater capacity for self-purification than inland sites such as lakes and rivers.

There’s been a slight increase of 0.5% in the number of designated bathing sites between the 2021 and 2022 seasons, with Poland, France and Portugal leading the highest numbers. The five top-performing countries with the highest percentage of bathing waters classified as excellent in 2022 were Cyprus (99.2%), Austria (96.9%), Greece (96.6%), Croatia (95.6%), and Denmark (94.3%). Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania had 100% of their inland bathing waters designated as excellent, which might be attributed to the small number of inland sites they have – 4 in Bulgaria, 3 in Greece and only 1 in Romania; followed by Denmark (97.5%) and Austria (96.9%).

Unfortunately, England’s numbers don’t look anywhere like the ones just mentioned. England has the fifth-biggest share of bathing waters classified as poor when compared to the EU and UK. Out of 424 bathing water sites in the country, less than three-quarters (66.4%) are designated as excellent, according to the 2023 Environment Agency report. It gets even worse when we look into our rivers. Despite only three being designated as bathing waters, all of them were rated as poor during the 2023 bathing season.

Another concerning number is how many sites were granted bathing water status in the 14 months prior to March 2023: only 2 out of 21 applications. We’re hoping to see more successful applications in the coming year, and looking forward to having the results of the ones we put forward for Henley and Wallingford Beach.

On a more positive note, 96% of bathing waters met minimum standards, with nearly 90% rated as excellent or good. However, there was a slight decrease from the 2022 bathing season, which saw 97% of sites meeting the minimum requirements of sufficient, and 93% ranking as good or excellent.

There’s still a long way to go if we’re to meet the Water Framework Directive requirement of having all water bodies in the UK reach good ecological status by 2027. We can and must do better to protect our rivers and oceans for our sake and the environment.