To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, with reference to the European Environment Agency's assessment entitled State of bathing water 2020, what assessment he has made of the reasons for which UK bathing water quality regularly lags behind that of other European countries.
Bathing water quality for the UK was reported to Europe for the last time in 2020 even though no classification was produced in England and Scotland due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 European Environment Agency (EEA) league table ranked the UK last because this missed all of the normally ‘Excellent’ English and Scottish bathing waters that were not classified.
The most recent classification, from 2019, showed that in England 98% of bathing waters met at least the minimum standard of the Bathing Water Directive and the percentage of ‘Good’ and ‘Excellent’ bathing waters was 93%, with 72% in the highest ‘Excellent’ category.
The UK’s ranking is usually better, but it traditionally still appears in the lower rankings of the league table for a number of reasons. The EEA figures ranking countries by compliance against Directive standards takes no account of the geographical challenge faced by northern European countries versus those in the south.
Bathing waters in southern Europe benefit from the natural disinfection effect of bright sunlight and infrequent runoff from rainfall, so the task of ensuring compliance is much easier for some countries than for the UK with a northerly latitude, frequent rainfall and a high population density.
The EEA ranking of countries also doesn’t take account of the different standards applicable to fresh and coastal waters. Coastal bathing waters are subject to standards that are twice as stringent as those for freshwater bathing waters. As an island nation, nearly all of our bathing waters are on the coast and subject to the more stringent standards. This is in contrast to many countries in mainland Europe who have many more freshwater bathing waters; subsequently, this has an effect on the UK’s ranking versus other countries’.
If English bathing waters are compared to other equivalent northern European coastal bathing waters, our position is broadly comparable, despite the arguably larger challenges from high population density, high rainfall totals and often turbid waters. That being said, this Government is committed to delivering clean and plentiful water, as set out in the 25 Year Environment Plan, and will shortly be setting ambitious targets for water quality under the Environment Bill framework to drive further action in this area.