Bathing Waters (Monitoring and Reporting)

– in the House of Commons am 1:20 pm ar 14 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Ceidwadwyr, North Devon 2:00, 14 Mai 2024

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about monitoring and reporting of water quality in bathing water sites in coastal areas;
and for connected purposes.

I am proud to represent some of the finest and cleanest beaches in the world. North Devon is home to the UK’s only world surf reserve, and the only cold water surf reserve in the world. I must declare an interest as I surf—badly—and was in last weekend. I am proud of this Government’s work to take the monitoring of storm overflows from just 6% in 2010 to 100% last year. However, this data is abused along our coastlines and often scares people out of the water. We know that something comes out of a pipe, but we have no idea what it contains.

The Bill seeks to expedite the testing of what is in an overflow pipe, and to define what is and what is not raw sewage. Despite asking numerous questions of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I am still unable to explain to anyone how an overflow pipe that contains at least 95% rainwater can still be defined as raw sewage. Legal definitions online are clear that raw sewage should consist primarily of human faeces and water. It is not the water where the bacteria hang out—clearly, the more water, the more diluted. My Bill relates to bathing waters at coastal sites, because clearly there is a major difference in the impact of an overflow event into something as environmentally sensitive and slow-moving as a chalk stream, compared with the massive tides, huge volume and fast-moving seawater of the Atlantic ocean. Saltwater itself can kill some bacteria.

We have seen a surge in year-round activity along our coasts, thanks to improved wetsuits and a growing number of hardy folk wild swimming. However, our bathing water season, which determines when our coastal waters are tested, runs only from May to September, meaning that when water-based tourism is still going strong in Devon there is no testing along our coasts. The bathing season data gives vital historical information about water quality. Although I warmly welcome DEFRA’s announcement yesterday that it plans to consult on a series of potential reforms, it will not resolve the misinformation and lack of immediate information after a storm overflow event.

This winter, tests took place to see if the season could be extended, but it is hard to replicate the Environment Agency’s testing regime with a test tube at the testing site just off the beach, during winter storms with 12-foot waves. Throughout the winter, bathers have to try to work out what is going on from the average of the previous summer’s data, along with details of the last storm overflow, despite having no information about what came out the pipe. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport advises that the Environment Agency provides the gold standard for whether bathing water is clean enough for sporting activities, despite the lack of data for half the year. One group of year-round bathers explained to me that they peer into the water and decide if they think it is safe to go in. Surely, we can do better than that.

Based on the experience of the Environment Agency, one would think it was possible to determine when it was safe to go back into the water after an overflow event. The EA recommends waiting one full tidal rotation before going back into the water after an overflow has run. However, Surfers Against Sewage advises 48 hours, because of viruses and World Health Organisation data, but clearly the issue is bacteria in a storm overflow.

Surfers Against Sewage did such great work when established 40 years ago to make water companies clean up their act along the coast, which has seen an increase in the number of bathing waters with an excellent rating. However, its current campaigning seems to be destroying the hard-won reputation of those bathing waters. Last winter, Devon and Cornwall were under a permanent sewage watch according to Surfers Against Sewage, yet South West Water helped event organisers along the coast to ensure that Christmas and new year swims went ahead as far as possible.

We would all like no overflows to run, but it rains a lot in the south-west of England, and climate change has caused a big increase in the number of big storms and torrential rain. With the best will in the world, the water companies will not stop it raining, and that rain has to go somewhere. Sporadic testing on our beaches shows that, often, the streams running on to the beaches are far more polluted than the water coming out the storm overflows. We need to follow the science and recognise that in constituencies such as mine, less than 1% of the water pollution we deal with is related to human sewage.

There is work to do, but stopping storm overflows is not the be-all and end-all to improving the quality of our bathing water. Even Surfers Against Sewage recognises that there have been improvements, although it does not like my sharing the email it sent me last year, which stated:

“With regards to the beaches in your constituency, we totally agree that huge improvements have been made to water quality there and in many places around the country. And the very last thing we want to do is scare people off from getting in the water.”

Anyone can set up an app and advise whether the water quality is safe, but no one knows whether the water has been tested. Many regular users of our bathing waters recognise that when it rains, even if there is no storm overflow, the water is not as clean as when it has not. We need accurate and up-to-date data on the water quality in its entirety, not just when an overflow has run.

There are some awful examples of when the system does not work. When the Ashford sewage treatment works on the Taw broke down earlier this year, the EA advised closing four beaches, via the councils. However, even though Surfers Against Sewage is normally the first to rush to tell people that there is raw sewage on the beach when there is not, it did not raise a flag at all because it does not use that data. Surf lessons continued because the messages from councils did not reach the beaches, and proper untreated sewage was discharged for six hours. It was not classed as a storm overflow on a bathing water beach, so nobody paid any attention.

The Bill would ensure some form of test data from coastal bathing waters all year round. It would also require water companies to test what is coming out of their storm overflows when they run, and that the term “raw sewage” be used only when the concentration of bacteria warrants it. New definitions would be determined to accurately reflect what is coming out a pipe, and the seawater would be tested after overflow events to accurately determine how long it takes for the pollution in a storm overflow to dissipate, as this varies widely depending on tidal conditions, and by beach and overflow event. Over time, good data banks would be established and better guidance would be issued than the current blanket guidance. Any organisation that fails to follow the guidance would not have access to the data.

Our beachgoers deserve better data. My own surf school said that if we listened to Surfers Against Sewage, we would never go surfing. Despite being in the water every day, not one of its instructors has ever been unwell. We need all-year-round data, instant testing after incidents and consistent advice in a consumer-friendly format. North Devon’s beaches are some of the cleanest in the world. As the one-woman tourist board for North Devon, I urge hon. Members to come down and to swim, surf, sail and enjoy the beautiful coastline. As a mathematician, I know that we need better data. Reducing storm overflows is vital, and this Government are demanding that of water companies. However, just knowing that a pipe has discharged when it has been raining is not good enough. We must get better bathing water data available all year round.

Question put and agreed to.

That Caroline Ansell, Mrs Flick Drummond, Anna Firth, Kevin Foster, Sir Liam Fox, Sir Robert Goodwill, Sally-Ann Hart, Simon Jupp, Cherilyn Mackrory, Matt Warman and Selaine Saxby present the Bill.

Selaine Saxby accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 14 June, and to be printed (Bill 217).