Britain’s seaside sweep

Britain’s seaside sweep

At the beginning of this summer British beaches were shown to be cleaner than they’ve been for decades. Of those tested, almost 70 per cent achieved the gold standard of the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), meaning ‘recommended’ for bathing. An EU directive on bathing-water quality is partly responsible for the improvement, and from this year a stricter standard is being phased in. Many beaches achieve it already, but some well-known ones don’t.

The clean-up of the sea has taken years. ‘Since 1976, water companies have spent billions of pounds investing in sewage-treatment plants around the country,’ says Dr Robert Keirle, pollution programme manager of the MCS. One of the most impressive programmes has been South West Water’s ?2-billion Clean Sweep, completed last year after more than two decades of work. It has resulted in the closure of almost 250 crude-sewage outfalls around the coastline. South West Water says that since 2001, at least 100 of its 144 officially designated bathing beaches have continued to meet the EU water-quality standards, compared with just 38 before Clean Sweep. But, says Andy Cummings, campaign director of Surfers Against Sewage, ‘the system is still being overloaded at times, especially when there are heavy rains’.

Fortunately, holidaymakers can keep abreast of the effect of storms: Surfers Against Sewage has a text-message service to inform beach users when there has been a problem; from this year, beaches with Blue Flag status – awarded to more than 3,000 beaches (142 of them in the UK) by an international organisation that monitors safety and services as well as water quality – will have to display information about pollutants in the water; and South West Water has live updates on its website ( about local beaches.

When the new, much stricter standards for water quality are phased in, the government expects 53 per cent of Britain’s monitored bathing spots, many in the south-west, to qualify as ‘excellent’ in the new system. However, it believes that as many as 14 per cent of those now passing could fail. From 2015, beaches where water quality has been rated ‘poor’ by EU standards for four consecutive years will have to display ‘No Swimming’ signs. The prospects for what was once one of the most popular British seaside towns look grim – at Blackpool beach, the bathing water does not even meet the existing standards.

Pictured: traditional beach huts on the dunes at Saunton Sands on the North Devon coast

Published in Conde Nast Traveller September 2012.

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