Government flags up ‘Swimfo’ water-checking tool as sewage protests rumble on

Environment Agency’s online checker currently shows more than 30 swimming spots with active warnings against bathing

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Amidst protests against sewage-infested waters, the government has pointed citizens in the direction of an online tool for checking water quality at beaches across England.

In a press release published by the Environment Agency – marked by the complete and conspicuous absence of the word ‘sewage’, or any acknowledgment of related issues – bathers are encouraged to visit the Swimfo website.

Featuring an interactive map of the UK, the online tool contains the latest information on water quality at beaches around England, as well as a handful of inland ponds, lakes and streams. 

Clicking on each of the hundreds of points on the map brings summary information on the location’s water-quality rating in its most recent annual inspection, as well as the current advice, based on daily pollution risk forecasts, on whether it is safe to swim.

At time of writing, there are currently 31 bathing spots where bathing is being actively advised against – in some cases permanently or based on the annual rating but, for the most part, temporarily, and on a rolling daily basis.

The south of England is particularly badly hit in this regard, with 10 locations across the coastline of East and West Sussex, six on the Isle of Wight, and one spot in Bournemouth currently subject to daily safety warnings.

Visitors to the Swimfo site are also instructed that “bathing is not advised today” at two beaches in Essex, another two in Norfolk, and Cleethorpes in Lincolnshire, as well as at Frensham Great Pond in Surrey.

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The remaining eight warnings relate to permanent advice against swimming, or a 12-month warning based on the water being rated ‘poor’ in the most recent annual inspection.

Of the 23 sites subject to temporary daily safety measures, 10 achieved the top-rated water-quality classification of ‘excellent’ their last yearly review – for which the Environment Agency uses a three-star rating system. A further 11 achieved a two-star rating of ‘good’, while two were rated at the one-star level of ‘sufficient’ – the minimum needed to avoid a long-term warning against swimming.

For swimming spots that are subject to a daily safety warning, the government said that: “This is where water quality may be temporarily reduced due to factors.”

It added: “These factors include: heavy rainfall which has been the case during the recent heavy rain/thunderstorms; wind; sunlight; or the tide.”

Another factor likely to prompt people to check in with the online advice tool is the growing concern about water companies dumping sewage into the country’s rivers and seas – a practice which, subject to the relevant permits, is allowed, and is intended to ease the pressure on sewer systems at times of heavy rainfall.

In each of the last two years, raw waste has discharged in this way about 400,000 times, according to Environment Agency data.

In light of the recent spate of warnings against bathing in coastal waters, the Conservative government has faced fierce criticism for last year voting against a proposed amendment to the Environment Act put forward by the House of Lords.

The proposals would have enshrined in law a “duty on sewerage undertakers to take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows”. Water companies would also have been required to “demonstrate improvements in the sewerage systems and progressive reductions in the harm caused by untreated sewage discharges”.

The amendment – which was proposed by the Duke of Wellington and backed by a peer from each of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties – stipulated that ensuring compliance with these obligations would be the duty of the Environment Agency and the secretary of state.

After the House of Commons rejected these proposals from parliament’s upper chamber, various government representatives pointed to the fact that the cost of the legal changes had not been calculated. A statement at the time from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs promised that a “very similar” amendment to that proposed by the Duke of Wellington would follow in due course.

This has not stemmed protests from the likes of national charity Surfers Against Sewage, as well as various local groups in coastal towns around the country.

There has also been outcry from the government’s political opponents, including Labour’s shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh, who this week claimed that “the country is facing a dirty water emergency”.

“This Tory government has sat back and enabled private water companies to treat our waterways as dumping grounds,” she added. “Labour will end this disgraceful practice, ensure enforcement of unlimited fines for water companies and toughen up regulations that currently allow the system to be abused.”


Sam Trendall

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