Campaigners criticize government decision on river baths

River Wharfe at Ilkley

The River Wharfe was the first British river with an officially designated bathing place.

The government’s rejection of all but one application for bathing water status for English rivers is “deeply disappointing”, say environmentalists.

Part of the River Deben in Suffolk is still in the running, but clean water campaigners say proposals for eight other river sites have been rejected.

Designation as an official seaside resort obliges the Environmental Department to regularly check the water quality.

Activists say they were not told why the decisions were made.

You can still swim in non-designated locations, but the water quality is unlikely to be monitored or tested.

Water companies are currently required to provide data on how many hours raw sewage flows into waterways, but there has been limited testing of what this means for water quality.

There will now be a consultation period about four new locations that are officially designated as bathing water. Two are by a reservoir in Rutland, the other on the coast in Plymouth, as well as the River Deben in Suffolk.

“The actions we have taken will allow people across the country to swim in more locations and in better quality water, but we know there is more to do,” said Water Secretary Rebecca Pow.

There are already 421 designated bathing places in England. The vast majority of them are coastal with only two, in Yorkshire on the River Wharfe and Oxfordshire, on the River Thames.

Applicants for official swimming status are asked for evidence of local support, data on how many people are swimming at the site, and whether there are any facilities nearby, such as toilets.

Kirsty Davies, water quality officer for the campaign group Surfers Against Sewage, called the rejections “a slap in the face to communities trying to tackle the sewage pollution crisis”.

‘Catch 22’

“It’s a Catch 22,” Ms Davies said. “They don’t care about waters that aren’t designated, but we apply for a designation and they refuse.”

One has been turned down in Wallingford on the River Thames. In a statement, South Oxfordshire District Council said they were “extremely disappointed” by the decision and sought clarification on the reasons behind it.

In 2020, part of the Wharfe in Ilkley became the first UK river to be designated a seaside resort, in what was then seen as a major win for water quality campaigners. But attempts to get three more sections of the Wharfe officially designated have been rejected.

Councilor Linda Richards, who had worked on the designation, told the BBC they had received emails saying they did not meet the criteria, but did not explain why.

“This is a disappointing setback, but not the end of the road,” she said, explaining that they would bid again for the designated status.

A spokesperson for DEFRA said they would not comment on individual applications, but sites that did not meet the criteria would not proceed to national consultation.

Additional reporting by Sophie Woodcock.

Follow Jonah on Twitter @jonahfisherbbc

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