Bathing, a little light relief?

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Plans by the City of London Corporation to double the current £2 honesty box fee and employ ranger to enforce collection at Hampstead Heath bathing ponds has now hit the national media, having apparently causing local consternation earlier in the year. “So what?”, you ask.

The relevance to both inland and coastal destination manager lies in the background to this story. An apparent doubling in a decade to 655k users is set against a rising annual cost of staff and maintenance to £747k, offset by a user revenue of only £67k, a 4% voluntary compliance rate, for what was prior to 2005 a free to use facility. In short, the popularity of bathing in natural or “wild” environment is on the rise everywhere, whilst to offer active facilitation of it, is to accept legal duties and potentially onerous responsibilities, all with significant associated costs attached. On the flip side increased popularity may be an unfilled, enhanced or entirely new business opportunity for some destinations?

Importantly, Hampstead Heath isn’t a traditional coastal bathing water and, thus, illustrating to us and the powers that be, that bathing and bathing waters aren’t just yet another troublesome, exclusively coastal issue. Moreover, it helps evidence that the demand, is now impacting on rivers and inland bodies of water, as interestingly, it has always done in continental Europe, the north included. This change of emphasis can’t and shouldn’t be ignored.  The law says if people bath in sufficient numbers to present a public health risk then the body of water they bath in must be manged and of adequate minimum water quality standard. The role of Designated Bathing Water Controller, falls to the local authority, even if the waters, or more usually access to them, are in private ownership.

For many coastal destinations, the resource conundrum of providing safe, clean well-maintained bathing is hardly new, albeit the growth of immersion based water sports and the growing popularity of “wild swimming” is leading to increased consumer demand, at a time of reducing resource.  Few, if any, coastal public beach management bodies have yet dared seek to recoup costs directly from the users; whilst indirect methodologies for example, from parking charges to revenues from concessions, seldom cover full cost or are not without their detractors. A small number of privately owned beaches do of course charge for access to the beach and by inference the water, and because they are private sector, usually to less open public objection.

For both coastal and inland destinations the popularity of “wild swimming” has (ironically?) lead to greater demands for safer, more controlled, remoter sea bathing and for the inclusion of rivers and other inland waters within the tested bathing waters regime. By default, or by public demand, that then raises issues around the provision of more safety equipment and/or of life-guarding, where usage might reasonably warrant it. Alongside a debate about the need for a range of other land-based facilities, that the current regulations seek to ensure are provided at designated water; thankfully to lower levels at more rural, lower level use localities. (public toilets, showers, parking bins etc).

The increased use of coastal water, rivers lakes and other water bodies for recreational or wild swimming, doesn’t appear to have peaked yet and even if growth had peaked its current level of popularity seems unlikely to decrease, anytime soon.  In light of this, questions for destination managers may now need to include: how do you manage increased wild swimming, if at all and, if you do, with what resource?  There is also the question of, how to respond to the likely increased demand for support to existing designated bathing waters and requests to encourage and support beneficial sport, leisure and tourism activity at new and, as yet, undesignated locations.

Long experience at the coast suggest that enthusiasm to embrace new opportunities, needs to be balanced against the legal requirements to designate and then maintain to specified standards water that are deemed to be poplar “bathing” areas, based on an evidenced usage v public health risk assessment.  Maintaining a bathing water, as the historic Hampstead Heath example neatly illustrates, isn’t to be undertaken lightly and isn’t without expense. We should also be mindful that failure to meet minimum legal water quality standards, over a given number of consecutive years, will automatically result in mandatory permanent closure (advise against swimming). So it can’t every be a simple case of: if you build it, or facilitate it, the job is done they will come; at least not if there is the slightest doubt that mandatory water quality standards can be routinely achieved, year in year out, during the current May to September bathing season. 

As bathers increasingly can and do swim routinely in numbers outside the “bathing season” there is also niggling questions about how long the May to September usage v public health risk cut off can be sustained but thankfully, so far only were there are large numbers routinely swimming, outside those dates. Some authorities meanwhile are pressing for a shorter and therefore less financially demanding season, where they feel popular demand starts latter and/or finishes earlier. Currently the policy in England is to adopt and maintain set National season start and end dates. Whether, post Brexit, local variation to match proven local usage patterns will become permissible, remains to be seen.

British Destinations and the UK Beach Management Form, which is part of the organisation, are happy to assist inland destination members wrestle with the unfamiliar detail of what until recently has been a largely coastal resort and rural coastal area issue. We are also more than happy to assist coastal members running it new or unfamiliar bathing related issues.

See the Hampstead Heath article at:

https://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/swimming-fees-hampstead-heath-ponds-could-be-doubled-a4334591.html

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