Dozens of popular swimming locations in England would be deemed “poor” quality if officially designated as bathing spots, according to a report exploring the “shocking state of UK bathing waters”, ITVnews has reported.

Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), which campaigns for clean oceans, rivers and lakes, released its annual water quality report. The environmental group said 40 locations were sampled weekly by volunteer citizens throughout the 2023 bathing season.

It said 20 were popular sites for swimming and 20 were upstream of nearby sewage overflow associated with the swimming spots, although none of the sites are officially designated bathing waters.

The research found that 24 of these locations would be deemed “poor” quality were they designated bathing waters, as per the Environment Agency’s methodology. The research also suggests that four out of 20 locations showed a clear decrease in water quality from locations upstream to those downstream of a sewage overflow.



SAS said the report looked at the “shocking state” of UK bathing waters in a year when untreated sewage was discharged more than 399,000 times into UK waterways – the equivalent of more than 1,000 discharge events every day.

It noted that many overflows in Scotland and Northern Ireland go unreported, meaning this figure is likely to be an underestimate of the frequency of sewage discharges into UK waters. SAS said that just four per cent of Scotland’s sewage overflows are monitored – compared to nearly 100 per cent in England and Wales – which the group said leaves Scots “in the dark”.

SAS said it also unearthed documents that indicate that Dwr Cymru Welsh Water have used emergency overflows to release sewage into designated bathing water multiple times over the last two years.

End Sewage Pollution Manifesto

SAS said it has developed the End Sewage Pollution Manifesto in collaboration with environmental charities, community groups and sport governing bodies, which sets out policies to clean up UK rivers and seas.

These include enforcing the law and regulations, stopping pollution for profit, empowering a nature-led approach to tackle sewage pollution and ensuring transparency on sewage pollution.

Giles Bristow, CEO of Surfers Against Sewage, said: “Yet again, our annual water quality report reveals the complacency and disregard of governments, water companies and regulators towards the health of rivers and coastlines in the UK – and by extension people’s health.

Water minister Rebecca Pow said: “We agree the volume of pollution in our waters is utterly unacceptable, and this is the first Government in history to take such comprehensive action to tackle it.

“Our Plan for Water is delivering more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement to ensure every overflow is monitored, reduce all sources of pollution and hand out swifter fines and penalties.

“This plan includes targets so strict they are leading to the largest infrastructure programme in water company history – £60 billion over 25 years – which in turn will result in hundreds of thousands fewer sewage discharges.”

Further response from Defra

Defra have responded to the media articles of the SAS Water Quality report by saying:

To note, it is important to be aware that the 40 sites that Surfers Against Sewage mention are not designated bathing sites, and therefore are not include in published bathing water statistics.

Substantial improvements have been made to bathing waters. In 2022, 93% of designated bathing waters met the highest standards of ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, up from just 76% in 2010 and despite stricter standards being introduced in 2015. In the early 1990s, just 28% of bathing waters met the highest standards in force at that time. These improvements have been driven by £2.5 billion of investment and facilitated partnerships.

Surfers Against Sewage’s report also looked at the number of times untreated sewage was discharged into UK waterways. The Government and the Environment Agency recognise the volume of pollution in our waters is utterly unacceptable, which is why stringent targets have been set to reduce discharges. We are also clear water companies must not profit from environmental damage and Ofwat has been given increased powers under the Environment Act 2021 to hold them account for poor performance.

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “We share Surfers Against Sewage’s absolute commitment to improving water quality in England, and much of the data released today is available because of the significant steps we’ve taken to improve the regulation of our waterways.

Whether its tackling agricultural pollution, road run-off or sewage discharges, we know there is more to do to improve designated bathing sites and our waterways, which is why we will work with everyone – from farmers or water companies through to citizen scientists – to reduce pollution.

We will also take action against polluters where there is evidence permits have not been complied with and we are conducting our largest ever criminal investigation into potential widespread non-compliance by water and sewerage companies at thousands of sewage treatment works.”

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