Water Quality and Safety at North Down Coastal Bathing Areas

Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:30 pm on 2 November 2021.

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 5:30, 2 November 2021

In conjunction with the Business Committee, I have given leave to Mr Andrew Muir to raise this matter. Before I invite Mr Muir to introduce his topic, I advise Members that I have received apologies from the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. Although this topic comes under his remit, he is unable to participate in the debate due to ministerial business in Glasgow. He has asked his ministerial colleague Gordon Lyons, Minister for the Economy, to respond on his behalf. I welcome Minister Lyons and thank him for agreeing to provide a response. Mr Muir has up to 15 minutes.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I thank the Minister for coming to respond to the Adjournment debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to highlight an incredibly important issue, which has become one of increasing concern for many people who live in or visit my constituency of North Down, namely the need for increased water-quality testing and safety measures across North Down's ever popular coastal bathing areas.

We are extremely lucky to have a number of beautiful coastal bathing areas on our doorstep, right across North Down. These spots are used by sea swimmers, paddleboarders, kayakers and other open-water sports enthusiasts. Open-water swimming has become increasingly popular in recent years and especially since the beginning of COVID-19 lockdowns. While running, as I often do, it is great to see many people taking a dip, including my good friend Colin. Colin finds great solace in taking an open-water plunge. He is encouraging me to jump into the water too; maybe one day, I promise. Seeing his head bob up and down near Brompton one morning made me say to myself, "Fair play", and then on I dashed, my feet staying firmly on the ground.

A number of organised groups meet regularly to swim together, including the Donaghadee Chunky Dunkers, Helen's Baywatch and the Brompton Belles and Beaux Dippers. Members of those groups, and others from the area, have helped to highlight some of the issues that we will cover this evening, demonstrating the importance of water quality, safety and the local environment to North Down's bathing water users.

Sea swimming has become an invaluable outlet throughout the pandemic. Many regular swimmers highlight the positive impact that it has had on their physical and mental health. As the pastime becomes ever more popular, it is vital that we ensure that swimmers bathe in areas that are clean, safe and pleasant for those who are brave enough to enter.

Currently, water-quality testing takes place, between 1 June and 15 September each year, at 26 designated bathing water sites across Northern Ireland. However, it only takes a quick glance at Helen's Bay beach, Brompton or any of the other key swimming spots in North Down to see that this is not just a seasonal sport. In fact, the presence of jellyfish throughout many of the summer months mean that many swimmers choose to avoid the water at that time. It is also important to note that many of North Down's most popular bathing areas are not listed as bathing waters where water quality is tested during the summer months.

Brompton Road and Skippingstone beach in Bangor are not designated bathing areas, but they are popular all year round, as is the area around Orlock and Groomsport. Brompton and Skippingstone even have ladders and railings that make them the perfect spots for getting in and out of the water.

While I very much welcome the progress that was made with the pilot EU SWIM project at Ballyholme for providing water-quality sampling throughout the bathing season and making that information easily available through an app, such projects need to be implemented and expanded to cover all coastal bathing areas and to ensure that sampling takes place throughout the year. One of the main concerns of local bathers is the lack of communication on water quality. The EU SWIM app demonstrated how easily that can be remedied.

Last year, a significant amount of pollution made its way from a field into the river and then into the sea at Crawfordsburn Country Park. A number of local residents got in touch with my office to highlight the lack of notice of that contamination on the beach. In response to a question, I was told that it was down to the relevant authorities and councils to alert the public to such matters by the erection of signage. In this day and age, we should have more in place to alert the public to pollution in our bathing areas.

Just around the coast from Crawfordsburn beach lies Helen's Bay — another incredibly popular spot for water sports enthusiasts. Also located on that coast is a waste water pumping station. Current guidance states that bathers should avoid the water for 48 hours after heavy rainfall in the area due to large spills potentially being released into the sea.

As we all know, heavy rainfall is not uncommon in Northern Ireland, yet many sea swimmers try to visit our coastal bathing areas daily. Simply telling people not to enter the sea for 48 hours after heavy rainfall is not good enough. The public should be able to access information about the activity of the waste water pumping stations so that they may make informed decisions about when to enter the water. There is a critical need for regular and wide-ranging water-quality testing across North Down and beyond. A person told me recently that:

"We can all tell when we are swimming in sewage, but usually not until we are in the water and we can see or smell the film on the water. It is much more difficult in darkness. Then we need to rush home and wash it off. It is really not pleasant at all. A couple of swimmers told me recently that they had been ill for seven days after unpleasant experiences such as that in this water."

That was a person reporting issues around Helen's Bay and the waste water pumping station.

Hundreds of people swim in coastal areas daily, and it is vital that any possible risk to their health by swimming in polluted waters is identified before they take the plunge. Through the EU SWIM project, we saw how easily that can be done. Due to the passion of regular swimmers, it is clear that local swimming groups are prepared to volunteer to do the water-quality sampling.

There is also an urgent need for increased investment to promote safety and sea awareness across North Down. At a council level, there has been progress in that, with the Ards and North Down Borough Council, in conjunction with Sport NI, delivering open-water safety awareness webinars. Such information sessions are a great way to ensure that those who regularly use the water are informed and aware of how to stay safe. However, there is a need for visual information at bathing sites that can be easily accessed by all. Increased investment in bathing water infrastructure, such as bathing shelters and sea wall railings, ladders and slipways, will ensure not only that the users of the coastal areas are safe but that the spaces are inclusive and can be accessed by everyone. We have also heard calls from local swimming groups for the installation of defibrillators.

The lack of regulation around recreational and personal watercraft such as jet skis and small motorised boats also poses a huge risk to the swimming and coastal bathing areas. Throughout the summer, I was contacted on a regular basis by constituents who had witnessed near-collisions and accidents between people on motorised watercraft and people swimming in the sea. I fear that it is only a matter of time before a serious incident occurs due to the lack of regulation on the issue.

Earlier this year, I was pleased to hear from the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs that his Department is developing options for by-laws to regulate the use of jet skis in marine protected areas. Mr Poots also said that jet ski and sea swimmers' safety would be raised at the Better Beaches Forum, which was due to take place last month. I look forward to hearing about the progress that was made on that incredibly important matter.

The Department for Transport in London has also been consulted, and it proposed changes to legislation to make operators of personal and other recreational watercraft subject to similar safety obligations for the operators of ships and to give enforcement authorities additional prosecution powers in cases of deliberate and negligent misuse. In response to the consultation, I welcomed the proposed changes and highlighted many issues that we face across North Down with regard to the lack of regulation surrounding watercraft.

I am proud to live in and represent an area of outstanding natural beauty that people are making the most of. Let us take the opportunity to support our local community by ensuring that there is regular water sampling at all our popular bathing areas, good communication of that information, visible safety messaging and the ability to take enforcement action against those endangering the safety of others to ensure that everyone has an enjoyable but, most importantly, safe visit to our coastal areas.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 5:45, 2 November 2021

I call Stephen Dunne. All Members who wish to speak will have six minutes each.

Photo of Stephen Dunne Stephen Dunne DUP

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the Member for securing the debate on this important issue and the Minister for coming this evening. Sea swimming has become an incredibly popular activity for people of all ages, and North Down has some of the best and most beautiful areas of Northern Ireland for open-sea swimming. Areas like Helen's Bay, Ballyholme, Brompton Bay, Crawfordsburn, Orlock, Groomsport, Donaghadee and Seapark are among some of the most popular and spectacular areas in which to enjoy such activities. Those areas are all accessible from our spectacular north Down coastal path, which is such a wonderful attraction right on our doorstep. It is great to see the levels of interest in open-sea swimming, and it has many benefits, particularly for people's physical and mental health and well-being, which is crucial now more than ever. The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns undoubtedly led to an increase in people engaging in cold-sea swimming. There were periods of gym closures, some parks were closed and people were spending long periods of time at home. That all led to a great increase in interest in exercising in our seas and waters.

I welcome the '2021 Bathing Water Compliance' report that was announced by the AERA Minister two weeks ago. It confirmed that almost three quarters of our bathing waters met excellent standards and continue to improve. While that is welcome news, as with many issues, there is always room for improvement. Helen's Bay, Crawfordsburn, Groomsport and Millisle, which are all in our constituency, achieved the excellent standard, and that was a step in the right direction and an improvement on past years. I also welcome the recent commitment by the AERA Minister that his Department will continue to work with NI Water to improve the water environment through targeted investment in improved sewage treatment and with the agriculture sector to administer a number of agri-environment incentive schemes.

There is room for more regular and increased water-quality testing, particularly at those key hotspot areas. Areas that are very popular with swimmers are not being tested, as they are currently not classified as beaches. Those can be harbours, slipways or other unclassified areas of natural beauty. While the bathing season normally runs from 1 June to mid-September, many keen and, some would say, brave swimmers are out daily all year round. Across the entire coastline of the Ards and North Down Borough Council area, the Department monitors the water quality at only six locations. Although I understand that that is the most monitoring in a council area, there is the capacity to do better.

There are also capacity issues affecting our water and waste water network, which, I appreciate, is not under the remit of the Minister in attendance or DAERA but which lies with the Infrastructure Minister. There are certainly issues that need to be addressed that affect parts of our constituency. We have seen a number of overflow issues, with raw sewage impacted by blockages, which is a concern and for which we need medium- to long-term and, indeed, short-term solutions.

I also welcome recent initiatives from Ards and North Down Borough Council, with marine safety training schemes being rolled out for sea users, including cold-sea swimmers. That initiative, along with others, looks at recreational areas for shared usage in order to create better separation for swimming and motorised use of the sea. It is important that such measures are carried out in consultation with user groups. There is great potential to develop it, and it is important that we support those who enjoy cold-sea swimming, which is becoming a popular pastime. Indeed, there are risks with it, and, unfortunately, we have seen a number of local tragedies over the past number of years. That is a reminder of the danger of water and the need to provide better protection. All in all, I welcome this debate. I call on the Minister to continue to work towards improving water quality and safety right across our country and, indeed, in our North Down coastal bathing areas.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

North Down has a history of coastal seawater pollution, mainly brought about by the population boom in the early 1970s when so many families moved there from Belfast. The area had an outdated sewerage system that released all the sewage produced in North Down through an outlet at Orlock. It was totally untreated and flowed through a grill that was meant to capture solid material. Some poor Northern Ireland Water employees had to scrape clean those grills twice a week and take that material away to be incinerated. Those who use the waters around Groomsport and Ballyholme will remember those bad old days. It was so bad that fishermen had to disinfect their ropes at the end of a day's fishing, and local youth groups, for example, had to cease all inshore water activities because of the unsightly and unacceptable flotsam that polluted the waters, particularly around Ballyholme.

Northern Ireland Water's investment in a new waste water treatment works outside Donaghadee was a game changer. It decided that it would give the sewage secondary, or what I would describe as silver-plated, treatment. It was going to extend the outlet at Orlock to pump the treated waste further out to sea. However, it found that, logistically, it could not extend the pipe. I do not know what the building problems were. It therefore decided that it would upgrade the treatment being provided at the new works to what is called "tertiary treatment", which means that the water leaving the waste water treatment works is of drinking quality. I have not put that to the test, but I will take their word for it. That is gold-plated activity.

Ballyholme continued to be a problem, however. At times of heavy rain, the system could not cope with the sheer volume of sewage coming down from Bangor to a pumping station to be pumped up to the new treatment works. There had to be release valves, and if those were not opened in time, there would have been an explosion in the pumping stations along that line. To avoid that, the valves were opened, and whatever rainwater and sewage were in the system went straight out into Ballyholme Bay. That was unacceptable and spoiled the whole project. Northern Ireland Water therefore made a huge investment and introduced three, I think, large sewage retention tanks along the line so that, in heavy rain, the water could be retained; it did not have to be released into the sea. When the rain eased off, it was pumped up, in a controlled way, to the treatment works.

I know that, in the past year, the coastal waters around Helen's Bay, Crawfordsburn and Groomsport have all got A1 pollution results and low bacteria results, so why is Ballyholme still a problem? It is not solid matter in the water; it is bacteria. You cannot see it. The water is clear and looks clean, but, if you took a mouthful of it, you would probably be sick. It is a bacteria problem. Where does the bacteria come from? The Cotton river, which some call the Ballyholme river, flows into Ballyholme Bay. Back in 2016, I asked the Minister of Agriculture whether any domestic waste water or street rainwater was piped directly into the Cotton river from that pumping station. I got a very honest answer: there is only one asset along the Cotton river, and it has an emergency overflow that is piped directly into the river. That problem has never been addressed. There has been a lot of talk about it, but it has never been addressed. From time to time, sewage comes down the Cotton river and flows straight into the sea at Ballyholme.

There is also a pumping station at Sandringham Gardens, which services all of the sewage from Ballyholme. The properties there are all very mature and have a single storm drain and sewerage system. That system overflows from time to time, which, as it is only a couple of hundred yards away from the sea, means that practically raw, untreated sewage is going straight into the sea thereby increasing the bacteria levels.

What is the answer? The last piece of the sewerage jigsaw in North Down is the Cotton pumping station, and that has to be addressed. It needs to have a storage capacity whereby in heavy rain it can retain the sewage rather than releasing it in an emergency situation into the river. That is the answer, it is the last piece of the jigsaw and it will fall to the Minister for Infrastructure through Northern Ireland Water to implement it. I hope that in the near future they can address that.

It would be remiss of me if I did not mention that Donaghadee is still experiencing problems. I have spoken about that in the House before, so I will not rehearse those arguments. However, Donaghadee has problems due to the fact that there are 20 outlets south of Donaghadee that have a licence to release untreated sewage into the coastal waters in emergency situations. That has been resolved by a huge investment that was announced in the last number of months. In the coming years, that problem will be addressed.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 6:00, 2 November 2021

I take it that you were not on the tourist board for there a number of years ago.


Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

I thank the Member for securing this topic for the Adjournment debate today. Much of what I will say has been covered by other Members, which shows that this is an issue that we have all dealt with as constituency MLAs.

As we know, there are hundreds of people swimming off the beautiful North Down coast every day or taking part in the wide variety of water sports that are on offer. Although not a regular, I have been known to jump off the pier at Kinnegar on Boxing Day to get rid of the cobwebs, swim off our beaches or have a paddleboard around the lough, which usually involves a bit more time in the water than on the board. Like Mr Chambers, I remember being told to not go into the sea and the lough, not because of the jellyfish but because of the pollution and the water quality in certain areas. My memories are from the being in the water around the Holywood and Kinnegar areas, where I frequently saw items from the sewerage pipe floating past me, which was not the most pleasant of experiences. Despite successful attempts to stop sewage going into the lough, which were and are welcome, it seems that the water quality in certain bathing areas needs serious attention, hence the topic for today's Adjournment debate.

I want to share my experience in the last couple of years. I have been dealing with a rising number of pollution incidents along the North Down coast that have been reported by constituents, so there is much more that needs to be done by people, communities, council and the Departments to ensure that our waters meet the best standards for people and the environment alike. We need to look beyond the lough and the coastal area to improve our water quality.

Mr Muir already covered this, but last year there was a slurry spill at Crawfordsburn river, for example, which is a protected area. In April this year, there was a diesel spill in Millisle, which a number of Members were dealing with. The efforts and concern of the volunteers who helped to clean up the areas are testament to how much local people care about our natural environment and want to protect it. Diesel spills, as we know, are extremely dangerous for marine and bird life and impact on fish and shellfish long after the diesel has left the area and been washed away. The Millisle incident showed the need for improved signage and communication with groups and people that use the area.

In August just past, visible pollution was reported in the river at Seapark in Holywood. It was found that the blockage was caused in the sewerage system due to a build-up of grease from commercial premises. I appeal to everyone to not pour grease or other materials down the drains as these so-called fatbergs are very costly to remove and can cause serious disruption and damage to our water infrastructure, which, as we know, is already under pressure.

We know that, despite the investment, Ballyholme's water quality was low this summer and that there was a spike in bacteria recorded in the water that was tested. As Mr Chambers outlined, Ballyholme's water quality has improved in recent years, but it failed to meet the minimum standards in 2016 and 2017 and has consistently just been graded as sufficient ever since.

I will not repeat all of the issues that Mr Chambers raised or what needs to be done. We know what needs to be done to address the issues at Ballyholme, so I encourage the Minister to work with the Minister for Infrastructure to do so.

We need to know whether our communication processes need to be improved for the area, if something inappropriate were coming from the countryside or the hills after heavy rain, for example. We need to ensure that our water-quality standards are met and that our natural environment is given our best care. I remember, many years ago on council, discussing the idea of putting nets around drainage pipes to collect larger waste items, and that being turned down. Why? I, of course, argue that those items should not be in our pipes or sewerage systems or be thrown away improperly, but litter ends up in our sea and on our shores.

It is a big problem, as anyone who takes part in the many litter-picking groups that are active across North Down will tell you. We know from the recently published marine litter report that an average of 375 items of litter are observed per 100 metres of beach, with 67% of the items recorded being made of plastic. There is, again, a body of work to be done with the Minister for Infrastructure. I encourage the Minister to do so in order to address water quality and mitigation measures and solutions for the long term, perhaps through the blue-green infrastructure funding. That could also be looked at to provide water safety and rescue items along the coastal path.

As has been noted, the bathing season normally runs from 1 June to 15 September. I suggest to the Minister that that be revisited. Bathing season is now every day, every month of the year. I would certainly welcome testing and monitoring over the winter period, as well as the expansion of testing to areas that, despite not being designated, are used by people. A bathing water report from 2016 states that the general advice is not to bathe during or for up to two days after a heavy rainfall event. Is there any public awareness of that? Is advice going out? Also, what is a heavy rainfall event? It was lashing over the weekend; does that mean that we should not swim on Sunday or Monday? It is certainly not something that I have any direct information about.

There is much more that we can all do to ensure that we make further improvements to our water quality in and around North Down, but also across Northern Ireland. We can learn from places such as Switzerland and New Zealand. If we need regulatory reform to improve standards, let us do it. Our coastlines and beaches are there to be enjoyed, to provide us with much-needed access to the outside, and to be looked after and maintained to ensure that the environment is as healthy as it can be.

Photo of Alex Easton Alex Easton DUP

I thank the Member for securing this Adjournment topic; well done. I also thank the Economy Minister for attending.

I am pleased that, this year, water quality in North Down never fell below satisfactory. That is maybe not good enough, but, as Members have said, it is still an improvement. In most places, for the vast majority of the bathing season, water quality was rated as excellent by the Department. That is an improvement on last year, when, for example, Ballyholme in my constituency achieved only an overall rating of sufficient. I note that the water quality in Ballyholme has improved significantly over the past five years. In 2016 and 2017, it was rated as poor and failed to reach compliance with the 2006 water bathing directive. However, it remains vulnerable to pollution from agricultural run-off and overflows from the waste water treatment network.

I am aware of five recent pollution incidents: one in Holywood, one in Crawfordsburn, two in the river that flows through Ward Park and then out into the sea, and, as my colleague mentioned, quite a serious incident in Millisle. An incident in Helen's Bay was reported in the 'County Down Spectator' newspaper only last week. I know that that is something that the Department has been investigating, and I am pleased that there is ongoing work to the sewerage systems in Bangor that may contribute to improving the quality of water at Ballyholme beach in particular.

However, there are other forms of pollution affecting not just Ballyholme but all areas of the North Down coastline that are far easier to take control of. For instance, dog fouling, littering and fly-tipping in North Down are issues that are raised constantly with me. They are often, but not always, related to our coastal areas as they are more general problems. Dogs run free on the beaches, and owners do not always pick up after them. Litter is, unfortunately, all too common. Fly-tipping near rivers and our beaches is not an uncommon sight.

I appreciate that signs have been put up by the council warning people of the fines that they may receive for such actions, but I question how often they are imposed. Visible neighbourhood policing is a wider problem, but the lack of policing and oversight at our coastal areas means that there are no deterrents for such actions. It is all well and good to have signs, but no one will adhere to them if there is seen to be a lack of enforcement.

An aspect of the issue that requires more promotion is how the public can go about reporting incidents of pollution at the coast. That is not common knowledge, and reporting is not something that people instinctively think to do. Of course, it would be of great help. The investigations triggered by such reports can close bathing areas in the interest of public safety until the quality of water that has been found to be unsafe improves.

Water quality is not simply about the quality of the water itself but about the greater environmental repercussions of changes to our marine ecosystems. I would, therefore, like to discuss the impact of water quality on marine life and its implications for people. Pollution is clearly an issue for marine life. Only a few weeks ago, we saw distressing images of a seal in Belfast lough with a tin can stuck in its lower jaw. The seal was in danger of serious injury or death. It was a horrible incident that none of us here would like to see repeated. Better enforcement or harsher penalties for littering incidents along our shores could go some way to preventing scenes like that. I was glad to see that that seal was picked up in Scotland and had the tin can removed. That vigilance in Scotland is something to be thankful for.

Commercial fishing is a huge problem on Belfast lough and negatively impacts on our marine ecosystem. I have called for a marine protected area in the north Down area, and I reiterate that call. For instance, the thornback ray was once abundant in Belfast lough. From discussions with local anglers, it is clear that the population has been decimated; in fact, it is probably extinct in Belfast lough now. A thorough survey of marine life in Belfast lough is needed. That would give us a better idea of wildlife population numbers as well as information regarding pollution and water quality. It would also potentially enable us to reintroduce in large numbers animals and fish such as the thornback ray, which it would be possible to breed at the Exploris Aquarium in Portaferry.

It is our duty to ensure the sustainability of Belfast lough and maintain the overall water quality for our marine life, for those who use the lough, such as anglers, and for the members of the public who enjoy it. There is no reason why Belfast lough cannot be a hub for wildlife. It is our job to attempt to correct the damage that has been done so that we leave the generations following us a safe and thriving coastline to enjoy. I am passionate about the issue, and I hope to continue to push the Department on it.

I am pleased that water quality in north Down appears to be improving, but there is still some way to go. It can be done in small ways such as through better sewerage infrastructure and better enforcement of existing laws on issues like littering. However, we also need to be ambitious and think of conducting a survey of Belfast lough or introducing marine protected areas. Such things are not unrealistic, and we must strive for them.

Photo of Sinéad Ennis Sinéad Ennis Sinn Féin

While I am not a North Down constituency MLA, South Down shares a coastline with North Down, so I have a vested interest in the topic. I thank Andrew Muir for bringing this important issue for debate. I also thank the Minister for the Economy for sticking around to hear us out.

Like other Members, I genuinely feel so lucky to live, work and represent communities along the County Down coast, an area famed throughout Ireland and the world for its beauty and unique marine heritage. Murlough Bay, Dundrum Bay and Carlingford lough are home to some of the most beautiful bathing spots. Our County Down coastal waters are also home to some of the most important marine habitats and species. We have sea pens, basking sharks, seals, shellfish, eelgrass, many species of birds and other fish, commercial fishing industries, shipping, bathing waters, special areas of conservation, special protection areas and coastal areas of special scientific interest (ASSIs) all existing side by side.

I am delighted that three of the North's most recent blue flag beach awards went to beaches in my constituency: Cranfield, Murlough and Tyrella. That means that those beaches scored highly on environmental education and information, water quality, environmental management, and safety and services. On water quality, the criteria state:

"No industrial, waste-water or sewage-related discharges should affect the beach".

I argue that none of our beaches should be affected by industrial waste or sewage-related discharges. The reason why we have clean, safe beaches at all is EU directives on pollution, bathing waters and urban waste water. If it was left to the British Government, they would, no doubt, still be dumping faecal waste, sewage and other chemicals in the water, and, from what we have witnessed in the last few weeks, when we saw Brexit Britain dumping tons of raw sewage into its coastline, it seems that old habits die hard.

Improving water quality and maintaining that quality protects public health and the environment, but it also has an economic benefit. We have witnessed a marked increase in tourism along the County Down coast in recent years. That is good, and I want to see that continue in a sustainable way. East Coast Adventure, a company based in Warrenpoint, is opening up Carlingford lough to locals and tourists alike. It educates people and provides an outlet for people to get into our coastal waters and to enjoy our rich marine heritage. We are perfectly positioned to open up the County Down coast and to increase our tourism product, but we need investment in infrastructure and sustainable practices, and we need to ensure the quality of our seas and coastal waters.

The explosion in popularity of open-water swimming over the last few years has brought many swimmers to County Down. I am a fair-weather swimmer at best, but open-water swimming is becoming a year-round activity, and that is why we need to increase the frequency of water quality testing. We want to ensure that County Down's coastal waters are pristine all year round and not just during the designated swimming season, and I concur with colleagues that we should re-examine when the water quality testing season occurs.

Some councils have recognised the popularity as well as the health and economic benefits of investing in our bathing sites. I call on my council — Newry, Mourne and Down District Council — to make more improvements to bathing sites in our district; to invest in amenities and provide information about bathing sites; and to invest in more signage, litter collection, access points, car parks, lifeguards and, importantly, changing facilities. I call on local and central government to do more to protect, promote and enhance County Down coastal waters for the enjoyment of future generations.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 6:15, 2 November 2021

The Minister has up to 24 minutes, if he chooses to use them.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I probably will not, Mr Speaker, but I welcome the opportunity to speak on water quality and safety in North Down. I thank the Member and congratulate him on securing the Adjournment debate.

North Down is widely known for its outstanding coastline and popular beaches, just like its friends across the lough in East Antrim, and that, of course, is supported by the number of beaches that have received awards this year, including Helen's Bay, Crawfordsburn, Groomsport, Ballywalter, Millisle and Cloughey. Unfortunately, as the Speaker said, Minister Poots cannot be here this evening. He is attending COP26 in Glasgow, but he has indicated that he remains fully committed to the ongoing development of our beaches, and I believe that North Down's record of high standards will continue.

In looking at water quality and safety at North Down sites, I draw your attention to the work that DAERA is doing in a range of areas, working in partnership with the council and others. DAERA has been leading a partnership known as the Better Beaches Forum over the last 10 years, as the proposer of the debate mentioned. Partners are Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful, Northern Ireland Water, councils and other landowners like the National Trust, and they all have a role in managing our bathing waters and beaches. The forum has developed an action plan to focus on three main areas: first, improving water quality; secondly, improving beach cleanliness, facilities management and signage; and, thirdly, keeping the public and media better informed. Those are actions that underpin our coastal economy and tourism offering. This evening, I will take those areas in turn to give you a flavour of that work, with a particular emphasis on the North Down area.

The first area of the Better Beaches action plan is concerned with improving water quality. Minister Poots released the 2021 bathing water compliance results on 22 October and announced that all 26 of Northern Ireland's bathing beaches met minimum standards of water quality. Of the 26 beaches, 19 were classed as excellent, five as good and two as sufficient. In North Down, six of the beaches — at Helen's Bay, Crawfordsburn, Groomsport, Millisle, Ballywalter and Cloughey — were classified as excellent —

A Member:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

— with Ballyholme remaining sufficient. Although the result at Ballyholme is disappointing, we are seeing a year-on-year improvement in water quality there, which reflects the continued improvements that Northern Ireland Water has made around the North Down shoreline, where it has recently invested £30 million. The problems at Ballyholme are not solely due to waste water issues, and agricultural pollution incidents have also been recorded in the Ballyholme catchment. DAERA continues to investigate all pollution incidents that cause bathing water failures, and that has led to the year-on-year improvements that I just mentioned.

The second area of the Better Beaches action plan is concerned with improving beach cleanliness, facilities management and signage. DAERA continues to work with partner organisations such as Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful to promote clean and safe beaches and tackle the scourge of marine litter. In most cases, the councils and the National Trust lead on that area of the action plan as the statutory bathing water operators. However, in North Down, DAERA is the bathing water operator for Crawfordsburn and Helen's Bay, two of the busiest sites in Northern Ireland. Therefore, the Minister fully appreciates the challenges that the councils face.

We are all aware of the particular issues that arose over the COVID period, with unprecedented numbers of people at all our beauty spots. Although it is great to see everyone appreciating our beautiful outdoor spaces, we all know that not all our citizens leave no trace. I am pleased to say that the 'Marine Litter Report 2020' produced by Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful (KNIB) suggested that litter levels reduced during that year. Although levels are still unacceptably high and 2020 was a highly unusual year, it will be interesting to see whether a trend is emerging.

In a new effort to tackle marine litter, in September, DAERA pledged funding through a marine litter capital grants scheme to a number of initiatives in the North Down area. That included funding to the Cloughey and District Community Association to provide water fountains at the beachfront and to encourage the use of reusable bottles. Also funded was an initiative by the Donaghadee Community Development Association that will encourage an additional programme at four local schools. That involves the installation of a litter-picking station that allows children to undertake periodic litter picks and to analyse the litter that is collected. The children will also collect water samples for analysis using water testing kits and digital microscopes and record their findings, which will be compared across the period and against the results recorded by the other schools. Alongside that activity, a series of talks and visits will be arranged involving organisations such as KNIB, W5, Ulster Wildlife, the Peninsula Kelp Company, Queen's University Belfast (QUB) and the Exploris Aquarium in Portaferry. I am confident that initiatives such as those will contribute to the quality of people's visits to the coast of North Down.

On facilities management, I want to turn to safety issues at our beaches. We have seen increased reports around Northern Ireland and, indeed, the whole UK coastline of the problematic use of jet skis in areas that are used by swimmers and that are causing disturbance to marine wildlife. Incidents have also been reported in the North Down area. Although marine safety is a reserved matter, councils have powers to manage harbours and slipways under by-laws to prevent danger, obstruction or annoyance to persons bathing in the sea or using the shore. Some councils are now using permitted slipway systems to identify users and make them aware of any restrictions or complaints.

DAERA has powers to introduce by-laws, but only where there is a risk of disturbance to marine wildlife, and it is considering options to develop more by-laws to regulate the use of jet skis in marine-protected areas that are considered at risk. DAERA is committed to a collaborative approach to tackling that issue, and it has developed links with councils to produce advice and guidance for jet ski users. The management of jet skis was discussed at the Better Beaches Forum on 25 October 2021, and there was an agreement to establish an advisory group that will help to develop complementary measures by councils, which will focus on public safety, and by DAERA, which will focus on protecting marine wildlife from disturbance.

I believe that the first meeting will take place soon.

The third area of the Better Beaches Forum's action plan is:

"Keeping the public and media better informed".

Members may be aware of an EU-funded project to predict bathing water quality at six sites across Northern Ireland: Castlerock, Portrush/Curran, Waterfoot, Newcastle and two sites in North Down at Ballyholme and Ballywalter. The EU Swim project partners, University College Dublin, the Agri-Food Biosciences Institute (AFBI) and Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful, have developed models to predict bathing water quality at all those sites as well as signage and a smartphone app to ensure that bathers are informed about predicted water quality before they choose to swim. I hope that that addresses some of the concerns that have been raised. That is a major step forward, as bathing water quality had been able to be provided only retrospectively.

I will conclude by informing Members about a current consultation and one planned for the near future. The first is the UK marine strategy consultation, through which UK marine and fisheries Ministers are seeking views on the measures being taken across the UK to address marine litter pollution and other issues. The consultation is live and is on the DAERA website. It closes on 29 November, and I encourage everyone with an interest in our coastal environment to take part.

The Minister plans a review of bathing waters during 2022. He is aware of the huge increase in wild-water swimming and plans a public consultation during the winter period to take views on whether new sites need to be considered for identification as places where the public is safe to bathe. The consultation will also address matters such as the length of the bathing season, because the Minister is aware that, as others mentioned, people enjoy swimming all year round, although "enjoying" is, perhaps, not a word that I would use to describe swimming in every month of the year. All councils, including those with possible inland bathing water sites, have been contacted in a preconsultation exercise. I encourage Members to get involved and to watch out for the consultation.

Members' contributions had a consistent theme. I do not intend to mention all the subjects addressed during the debate, but it is important to recognise a few comments that Members made.

The Member who secured the debate, like others, realised the growing importance to many people of sea swimming and recognised not just the physical but the mental health benefits that come from it. His comments on the need for people to be able to engage in open-water swimming and the need for increased testing were echoed by Stephen Dunne. I will certainly pass that on to the Department. Mr Dunne also mentioned the need for all Departments to work together. He mentioned the Department for Infrastructure in particular, and we can all agree that a cross-departmental approach is required.

Mr Chambers gave us, in graphic detail, a history of sewerage infrastructure in North Down. Every day is a school day, and I certainly know a lot more about the subject than I did an hour ago. I am grateful to him for that, but he raises some important issues, and it is only right that we look at the quality of our infrastructure system, because that has a direct impact on how we enjoy our coastline. As Economy Minister, with responsibility for tourism, I want to see that expand. To that end, I was delighted to meet the team from Ards and North Down Borough Council yesterday. The team was at the World Travel Market in London, and members told me about all the sites that I can enjoy in Ards and North Down. The Member's council is doing a very good job. Many of those sites offer water-based activities, and the team encouraged me to come paddleboarding, which I may well take up in the near future. As other Members mentioned — Mr Muir and Mr Dunne — there is so much potential on that water, and we need to make sure that we have it as clean as we possibly can.

I am also grateful to Mr Easton for the points that he raised, particularly around the importance of wildlife. We spoke a lot about the impact on us as humans as we try to enjoy our coastlines, but he was absolutely right to highlight the impact on wildlife. I appreciate his raising that issue, as well as the ever-present issue of dog waste in our communities. For the life of me, I cannot understand why that continues to be an issue and why we cannot see more responsible people, because it impacts on us all.

Ms Woods, in particular, mentioned the impact of pollution. It is absolutely right that there are not only waste water issues but pollution spills, diesel spills, fatbergs and all of the things that she mentioned. That is why we need to make sure that we have responsible consumers, businesses and members of the public.

Sinéad Ennis also spoke. She has left us now, but I congratulate her on turning a debate about North Down into a debate about South Down and on being able to bring Brexit into it. That said, it was an important contribution in that she mentioned the need not just for Departments to work together but for all of us to work collaboratively on this, because it touches on many Departments' responsibilities. Also, the issues that are faced in North Down, South Down, East Antrim and other constituencies are similar, so it is only right that we work on them together.

I thank Members who contributed to the debate. I hope that I have addressed all of the issues that were raised. If I have not, I will contact Members. Please be reassured, however, that the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs will do all that it can to improve water quality and safety at beaches in North Down and across our beautiful coastline. We will continue to do that, and, if necessary, additional steps will be taken.

I close the debate by reminding Members of the live consultation on the UK marine strategy, which includes measures to tackle marine litter. I also encourage Members to take part in the impending consultation to review our bathing waters. I hope that this has been useful for Members, and I again thank Mr Muir for bringing the issue to the attention of the House.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 6:30, 2 November 2021

I thank the Minister for his attendance this afternoon. I thank all the Members for their contributions.

Adjourned at 6.32 pm.