Water Quality and tourism is now everyone’s business?

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Events in recent years have served to refocus of the “bathing waters” debate away from a relatively small number of designated, mainly coastal locations, towards a far broader debate about natural water quality everywhere, including, the vast majority of coastal waters that are not specifically designated as bathing waters, a wide range other inland bodies of waters and, in particular at this moment, on the nation’s major river networks.  As a consequence of this changing emphasis, the problems of physical and, especially, of reputational management, currently the niche preserve of a relatively small number of destinations, in practice, at no more than a few hundred, point locations, across Britain, is now likely to become the concern of many more destinations, at far more locations, whether designated as bathing waters or not.  The pace of that change of emphasis is accelerating and it has already acquiring the necessary momentum to continue on that course at ever increasing speed. 

Having spent over 45 years concentrating, because we had to, on getting the water quality up to at least the minimum acceptable standard at a few hundred, mainly coastal, designated bathing waters, it has belatedly become apparent that there are still and always have been thousands of miles of UK coast, hundreds, if not thousands of lakes and other bodies of water and thousands of miles of major rivers that could potentially require much the same consideration. The recreational usage of water other than for bathing has for many years been a grey area; at what point does or doesn’t that usage involve potential emersion and therefore a public health risk?  Similarly, the concept of bathing season is a grey area that has relied on the assumption than insufficiently large numbers of people would be “nuts enough” to voluntarily go into cold water between September and May.  Developments like the availability of protective equipment for use in all activities and the booming popularity of wild water swimming, protected from the cold or not, throughout the years has given renewed cause for some to question just how grey these areas really should be? 

If the public go in to a body of water, or arguably even on it, in any numbers, then there is both a PR/perception and, more importantly, an unavoidable public health issue to be addressed, if that water is known, or thought to be subject at some point to significant contamination, especially if the pollutant is untreated animal or human waste.  That is problematic, since for example, due to increased testing, we now know that few of the UK’s rivers meet the water framework standards (14% of English rivers met good ecologic standards, or more telling 86% don’t), while the only two riverine bathing sites in the UK, both recently designated, have now failed to meet minimum standard and look set, in due course, to be removed from the list of sites (four fails in a row and you’re out). A process that involves the sites being permanently sign with advice against bathing.

Of note, the riverine standard is half as stringent as that applied for coastal bathing waters.  Doubtless there are good scientific reasons for this but it is another one of those very interesting question: why is twice as much faecal load deemed an indicator of acceptable water quality in a river, than that found in a sample taken from the sea?

Over the last decade plus, a number of broadsheet newspapers, notably among them the Time/Sunday Times, have championed bathing water issues, often asking awkward questions of Government, the water industry and bathing beach/water operators.  More recently they have also reported, if not helped shape the debate around the poor state of riverine water quality. They have helped to expose the at best scandalous actions of some or all of the waste water companies in respect of untreated sewage and storm water discharges, way in excess of permitted levels. They have also helped alert us all to the perils of self-report and self-policing, including poor, in some cases false, recording and reporting of the frequency, volume and duration of discharges. They have highlighted the apparently ineffective monitoring, policing and enforcement by the Environment Agency (EA) and of Ofwat and questioned the alleged long-term prioritisation of profit over known but sometime disguised, necessary capital investment by some if not all of the privately owned water companies.  Agriculture and agricultural practices, animal husbandry and the disposal of animal waste and the associated levels of direct or indirect run off from farm building or farmland, together with alleged failings in monitoring and enforcement have also been increasingly highlighted by them.  

Two weeks ago, the Time unexpectedly upped the ante, changing its approach from that of occasional editorial comment to that of a branded, formal public campaign. Thus far this has taken the form of advertising the campaign itself on a near daily base and of regularly featuring related articles on and around the issues involved.  The campaign has a website and the half dozen or so article published to date are currently publicly available outside the Time’s normal subscription only restrictions. 

The campaign has four broad objectives: three principally aimed at the water industry (higher penalties, earlier target dates, hundreds more mainly riverine bathing waters) and one at agriculture (incentivise water friendly practices and products).  Not everyone of course reads the Times.  However, a good number do, including individuals who can directly influence and report in other newspapers and via other media channels, a process that we know from past experience can and does amplify the core messages and spreads the word more widely. 

The Times has both the resource and the incentive to continue, not only to report but also to investigate and publicly question past actions and inaction, future intentions and proposed direction.  Investigative journalism undoubtedly helped exposed the parlous state of riverine and other water quality issues and the part that the waste water and agricultural industries have played in it. The Times and more general media interest also now have the potential to keep industry and Government at all levels on their toes and both them and the public alert to depth and breadth of ongoing issues and the many competing difficulties involved. 

Government, the water and agriculture industries, consumers and recreational water users, all to some degree or other find themselves between a rock and a hard place; broadly everyone agrees that we want clean water, but there no coconscious yet on how to achieve that or who ultimately pays for it.  It is far too late to undo what has happened, or more accurately in many instances, what should have happened but didn’t over several decades, for example, arguably too much profit, not enough necessary long-term capital investment.  But it isn’t too late to influence what will happen in the future, albeit that much of what now needs to be done can’t physically be implemented overnight.  This is going to be a long haul, much like sorting out the few hundred designated coastal and inland bathing waters proved to be, from the instigation of the EU bathing waters directive in 1975 to getting towards full minimum level compliance with, the admittedly now more stringent, standards in the early 2020s.

In the coming months the Westminster Government have to make a number of critical decisions effecting England and in some cases Wales, that will shape water quality standards, levels of investment and practices in agriculture and waste water management. Something that ultimately may well be directly or indirectly reflected in increased consumer’s product and service costs.  These decisions ranging from confirming when certain key water quality standards must be met, to setting the upper level of civil fines applicable in the event of an EA prosecution for a pollution incident.   Proposals for the former keep changing by anything up to a decade, while the later, is for is now an ineffective £250k but could, we have been told, rise by a thousand-fold.  Recent turmoil within Government, effectively three changes of governance within one Government in under a year, has seen significant changes in priority and direction within environmental policy and much else besides.

Previous Ministers suggested an increase from £250k to £250m might be appropriate deterrent, from presumably past known reckless and proven criminal behaviours.  The new/latest Secretary of State apparently now views this figure as being “disproportionate”, although disproportionate to what or why has not necessarily been fully articulated.  They are probably right; the potential threat of a civil fines of up to £250m may well have unintended consequences. For example, on the willingness of private sector to engage in the waste water industry and the levels of future investment, whether that is via the addition of external investment funding or via reduced levels of profit taking?  Regardless, it may well have been far better if the bar and therefore expectation of some had not been set so (needlessly?) high, in what increasingly appears to have been a defensive response to public disquiet over the revelation of the number and frequency of pollution incidents.

Unless and until rationally explained, anything less than the headline grabbing £250m maximum fine, is a PR trap and a barrier to a sensible, well considered solution that’s entirely of government’s own making.  Even if the maximum fine was to be set at £250m, the principle of proportionality, as it applies to UK/EU civil and criminal law means that a civil case would only be brought, if it was deemed a proportionate administrative means of dealing with issue at hand and any punishment, in this case a fine, could and would be challenges unless it was deemed proportionate to the offence committed. I.E., as we all instinctively know, the level of punishment should fit (not exceed the severity of) the crime.  That is something the courts can do within the limits set by Parliament, provided of course they are set high enough, which at £250k recent events have shown they currently patently are not.

For me the four big takeaways from recent events and now the advent the Times campaign are:

1. Water quality and associated designated bathing water issues (which aren’t necessarily exactly the same things) are now, or is fast becoming, a mainstream tourism issue.  An issue that is likely to impact at an ever-accelerating pace on many more destinations and individual locations.  If you have substantial body of water in your product mix that isn’t yet a designated bathing water, it is no longer possible to simply ignore it, or its water quality. Water and its quality are now a potential practical PR and/or promotional problem for your destination, whether or not you actually manage or operate the body of water or the “product(s)” using it yourself.

2. The Times/ Sunday Times’ sometimes welcome sometimes not so welcome engagement has been effective in the past at raising awareness and in directly or indirectly helping to get results (necessary changes).  Their new formal campaign, however long it lasts, is likely at the very least to maintain, hopefully broadly welcomed, pressure for improvement, if not help increase it.  If and when the campaign ceases, their continuing engagement in environmental issues general and water quality in particular, isn’t going to cease, unless of course there are no longer any substantive issues to be addressed (all but inconceivable in the foreseeable future). So get used to the idea there is going to be greater public awareness and interest in water and other environments in all destinations and not just at the coast and in the countryside.

3. Defra as the leading department is in the process of making a number of critical decisions that will impact on those already actively engaged in designated bathing water management but also on a large number of destinations and locations that currently aren’t but could or will be involved over the coming years.  Destinations may wish to have some influence on those decisions.  Decisions that in many localities, could (almost certainly will) leave some with a growing public expectation or demand for better general water or bathing quality water but absolutely no prospect of delivering it, because the target dates, standards, investment profile, investment programme decisions, penalties, enforcement regime etc., all of which are then outside of your own control, don’t favour your particular circumstance. Of note this is pretty much the same sort of scenario that many coastal destinations faced pre-2000 before investment and associated improvement began to catch up with bathing water requirements.

I will endeavour to make sure tourism interests are made aware of any specific consultations or opportunities to influence future direction; hopefully other tourism representative organisations will try to do the same. It should be noted that tourism’s interests, beyond the current established designated bathing waters, doesn’t appear to register that highly on Defra’s radar.  All the more reason I would suggest for non-designated bathing waters and non-coastal destinations to start putting down a strong marker of interests and intent in issues that many have previously largely been able to ignore.

4. Whatever the outcome any significant improvement at the local level that is reliant on infrastructure and capital investment, will take years to come to fruition.  There isn’t going to be a ubiquitous, or instantaneous improvement and, therefore, there may be competitive advantage for those that recognise they have a potential problem early and make the earliest and best case to fix it.  Given the scale of the task facing the water companies there will, as there always has been, a need for prioritisation based on, among other things: the environmental, social and economic value attributed to any improvement being delivered.  Those that don’t make a case, aren’t likely to win any prizes and those that do but do it belatedly, will in all probability find themselves towards the back of the queue. Act now or pay a much higher price over a longer period later.

The time campaign and associated articles can be accessed at:


Three other developments of relevance: 

The campaign group Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) have recently won their case for a judicial review of the Governments plans to push back certain target dates for water quality improvements. A date for that review is not yet fixed but it adds another level of complexity to the question of target dates and therefore of investment planning and indeed on subsequent enforcement action if those targets aren’t met. 

A landmark court ruling from several years ago has made it possible for the public to access discharge date from the Water Companies which they previously were able to withhold. As a consequence, the water companies’ actions are now open to much greater scrutiny and challenge, regardless of any resource driven restrictions on EA’s monitoring and enforcement activities.  The activities of local campaign groups, privately funded water testing and local investigations are likely to become a growing feature of the water quality debate, particularly away from, or in response to trying to achieve official bathing water site status.  Keep local campaign groups close and understand their aims and objectives might be sage advise?

Another recent landmark case brought by the owners of Manchester Ship Canal against United Utilities (UU) found in UU’s favour.  The findings apparently sever to help blocks private companies and private individuals from seeking damages from the private utility companies for pollution from overflows.  This if anything increases the need for effective, efficient and meaningful monitoring and enforcement by EA, who can (but currently seldom do) prosecute on behalf of the public.  That in turn puts the onus on Government to give EA the legal tools, the direction to prioritise and the resources to undertake enforcement action. Essentially if EA, Ofwat and Government don’t effectively govern waste water discharges no one else can now help do so.    


One thought on “Water Quality and tourism is now everyone’s business?

    C Dier said:
    February 22, 2023 at 5:27 pm

    Farming is difficult as it is a million small businesses. However, perhaps we could learn something from the French here. By roofing cattle yards etc, with a grant we would stop at least a cubic meter of rain water mixed with waste for each square meter of yard and therefore massively reduce run off to rivers. The French granted all their farmers electricity and ability to sell back to the grid by putting solar panels on all the new building roofs. Therefore helping the environment and their farmers in a very useful way. We could do this too.

    Over development of housing and under development of sewage treatment plants is a major factor for rivers and indeed coastal areas. If the local sewage system cannot cope then councils must be forced to turn down planning permission to developers if the Sewage treatment plants are exceeding capacity, which must be the case, else there is no reason for discharges into rivers or the sea.

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