Defra rejects Henley-on-Thames’ Mill Meadows application for bathing water status

Environmental charity Thames21 has expressed disappointment about Defra’s decision not to award Mill Meadows in Henley-on-Thames bathing water status [1] for 2024.

An application was submitted in October 2023 [2], but Thames21 received a letter from DEFRA on 26/02/24 stating that the application had “not met the criteria” due to swimmers being counted during an organized event.

Defra made changes to their bathing water application guidance during the 2023 bathing water season, which many communities have disputed, due to their stricter restrictions on eligibility [3]. The stretch of the Thames at Mill Meadows is a popular spot for swimming events, with hundreds of competitors enjoying the swimming course annually. It’s also incredibly well used by rowers and other river users, all of whom arguably deserve access to a healthy, safe river.

Designated bathing waters are regularly monitored for water quality by the Environment Agency, with an overall classification from ‘Excellent’ to ‘Poor’ displayed on site, allowing swimmers and other river users to make informed choices about safe river use. Whether or not a site is designated is not an indication of existing water quality, but designation puts pressure on the water company to investigate and address poor water quality to ensure the site meets bathing water standards.

Aggie Hodges, Bathing Water Development Officer at Thames21, said: “The River Thames in Henley is an incredibly significant part of the town’s cultural and natural heritage, and missing this chance to take steps to protect it is massively disappointing. Bathing water designations can be an effective tool to improve water quality, as has been evidenced by England’s coastal bathing waters. However, there are shockingly few inland river bathing water designations in England, especially when seen in contrast to the hundreds in countries such as France. None of England’s rivers, including the Thames through Henley, is in ecologically ‘good’ health [4], and raw sewage was discharged upstream from the proposed bathing water site at Wargrave Sewage Treatment Works for 319 hours in 2023. We believe all river users, including event participants, deserve to swim without risk to their health. Despite this setback, we will continue to work with the community to fight for a cleaner Thames.”

Kellie Hinton, Mayor for Henley-on-Thames, said: “We are incredibly disappointed to hear that Defra has not taken Mill Meadows through to the national consultation stage for bathing water designation. The organized events that take place on the River Thames are what Henley-on-Thames is famous for. It is frustrating and perplexing that Defra does not consider the participants of these events as people who deserve clean rivers safe from health risks. We were happy to support Thames21 on this application and will continue to work together and with the community to advocate for a cleaner, safer Thames.”

Susan Barry, citizen scientist and year-round swimmer with the Henley Mermaids, said: “The River Thames is central to life in Henley and is enjoyed by rowers, swimmers, anglers and boaters, yet it’s routinely polluted by sewage.

It is bitterly disappointing that our iconic town did not make it through to the national consultation stage for bathing water designation. But I wasn’t surprised either. Last summer, the Government moved the goalposts, requiring at least 100 bathers a day during the bathing season, discounting all the river users such as rowers, canoeists, paddle boarders and people attending organized swimming events, often numbering in their hundreds.

As a keen swimmer and a member of the Henley Mermaids and Henley Open Water Swimming Club, I was excited to have the opportunity to get involved with Thames 21 and its water testing program alongside Henley’s application for Bathing Water status. As swimmers, we are aware that the river can contain sewage and we accept the risks but even I was horrified by the results [5]. This just reinforces the urgent need for formal bathing water status designation so people can take informed decisions about when they use the river, and to hold Thames Water to account. If nothing else, this has raised awareness about the chronic state of our sewerage infrastructure and the scandal that Thames Water is using our beloved river as an open sewer.”

Note to editors

  1. For more information on bathing water designations: