« Previous | Main | Next »

What we don't like to see beside the seaside

Post categories:

Eamonn Walsh | 09:00 UK time, Monday, 31 August 2009

This is the year of the "staycation", or so we're told. As the recession bites ever harder, millions more Britons are holidaying in the UK this year.

Chances are most of these holidays will include a trip to one of the more than 1,100 designated bathing beaches around the coastline to enjoy a refreshing dip in the sea or some quality time on golden sand.

However, the cleanliness of these bathing waters has long been a concern and a story that Panorama covered more than 50 years ago. A story that helped bring about the creation of one of the first environmental campaigns dedicated to the issue of coastal pollution.

In 1957, the tragic death of a six-year-old girl, Caroline Wakefield, from water-borne polio contracted after bathing in sewage polluted water off the south coast brought the issue to the forefront of public consciousness.

It was as a response to the lack of public knowledge about polluted water that Caroline's parents began a campaign that saw the creation of the Coastal Anti-Pollution League (CAPL).

CAPL was perhaps most noted for creating the Golden List of Beaches, forerunner of today's Good Beach Guide.

It was incorporated into the later-established Marine Conservation Society.

The Wakefield family's tragic story helped create a legacy of awareness and activism which still holds sway today.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

Perhaps, the most startling difference between 1957 and today is that several of the characters in local government who spoke to Panorama saw no real problem in coastal towns simply disposing of untreated sewage directly into the sea.

They certainly felt that it was not an issue that was worth spending money on addressing and it was to counter this attitude that CAPL was established.

The CAPL campaign certainly had an effect in changing public opinion - scientific understanding grew and questions were tabled in the House of Commons.

However, it took the more widespread rise in environmentalism of the 1970s and the 1976 European bathing water directive to really bring about an improvement in the water quality around the UK's coastlines.

To check on the current state of Britain's beaches we'll be revisiting this topic again in next week's Panorama: "Britain's Dirty Beaches'.


  • Comment number 1.

    There are some key facts that I haven't seen mentioned in the articles posted on this site, and I am hoping that there will be a more representative presentation in tonight's programme.

    For instance, Combined Sewer Overflows are the responsibility of the UK water companies and consents to discharge are obtained from the Environment Agency on the basis of a number of parameters. I don't really see how the opinion of "characters in local government" is relevant. The water quality and aesthetic impact of discharges from CSOs have been a subject of much academic and professional research and debate, and there has been significant investment to develop simulation software with which to assess CSO performance. On the basis of these assessments there has been very significant capital investment for a number of years now to improve / remove discharges from CSOs based on Bathing Water, Shellfish and other EA water quality standards.

    If there has been a decline in standards over the last few years I would suggest that this may be linked to changing weather patterns. The type of prolonged, high intensity rainfall that we have seen over recent summers would typically trigger storm sewage discharges from CSOs.

    This is unquestionably an area that deserves an increased level of general public awareness and investment - I just hope that the debate generated will be well informed?

  • Comment number 2.

    At Pitchup.com (https://www.pitchup.com%29 we list the UK's holiday parks and campsites. We wanted to display local bathing quality so that our users could find sites near beaches graded "Excellent".

    After taking some months to respond fully to our requests, the Environment Agency advised us that they charge a minimum of £5k for what they deem to be "commercial" access to their data.

    As a start-up, we couldn't afford this sum but have now sourced the data from elsewhere and will be launching a "sites near Excellent beaches" search in the next couple of days.

    Tonight's programme raises a number of serious issues. In the circumstances, we believe that beach users should have the right to decide for themselves where they stay with full information about local bathing water quality.

    By effectively excluding access to the data for businesses such as ours, the Environment Agency's pricing regime frustrates these aims and takes the organisation in the opposite direction to the growing campaign to open up public data sources.

  • Comment number 3.

    I would like to complement you on your programme last night. I thought it was fair and gave offials an opportunity to state their cases, even if one in particular made himself appear ridiculous with his alternative suggestions for the source of pollution.
    As far as I am aware the water authorities judge the risk posed by CSO's low because of the assumption that people will not be swimming in the conditions that cause them to overflow. It was perhaps a shame that your programme did not have time to challenge this. The assumption may have been valid when the rules were drawn up some decades ago but the availability of wet suits and the popularity of all kinds of surf sports makes a nonsense of it now.

  • Comment number 4.

    The problem with CSOs in the River Thames is acute with discharges occurring over 60 times per year on average with quantities of over 60million tons of untreated waste water deliberately pumped into the river by Thames Water every year.

    The process is legal and has got markedly worse over the years as Sewage Treatment Works and drainage pipes have become more overloaded and investment has not kept pace. Thames Water is allowed to discharge into the river to prevent inundation of plants and sewage backing up into streets and houses, but it has also allowed them to keep investment to a minimum and use the consent more and more.

    A new programme of upgrades for London's treatment works is just beginning, with an additional scheme to build a new sewage intercept tunnel, the £2.2bn Thames Tideway Tunnel, under the river itself. This massive storage tunnel is purported to be the solution to the problem or handling the waste water from the Capital. These new initiatives are all very well, but they are merely reactionary measures that need to be in place now but will take many years to come onstream. Meanwhile London is short of drinking water, yet it throws most of its rainwater down the drain creating the problem of the massive volume of waste water in the first place. Surely it would be sensible to put in place a long term programme to build water capture systems to provide extra water and keep it out of the sewers? Yet little investment or emphasis is being paced in such schemes and new developments, built with separated drainage as standard, still have drainage and sewage running together into London's sewers.

    Even with new measures to keep drainage and sewage separate we will still need the current wave of investment and probably the Tideway Tunnel too, but to make them work as planned it needs to be backed up with changes in legislation to force water companies to keep the discharges from happening. Inland waterways are more strictly covered and water companies are fined if they breach discharge limits. The current system of open consents for CSO discharges into rivers and seas needs to be revoked and discharge limits applied and monitored in the same way as inland. The investment of millions of pounds of tax and rate payers' money should only be provided on these conditions.

    Another point worth adding to the Panorama programme is that treated waste water from most Sewage Treatment plants contains a massive pathogen load, so even where CSOs do not discharge, levels of Norovirus, E-Coli, Campylobacter and parasites like Giardia and Cryptosporidium can be huge, which is why river outlets are invariably never really 'clean' and this will impact on the bathing water quality on a beach. Surfers Against Sewage have demanded UV treatment and microfiltration of waste water to reduce this problem, but this is only a suitable remedy for small treatment works. There is no current solution to this problem for large sewage treatment works.

    More information on: https://www.thamessewage.co.uk – the website of Rowers Against Thames Sewage (an independent group of water users campaigning for a cleaner Thames)

    and Surfers Against Sewage: https://www.sas.org.uk/

  • Comment number 5.

    You said .. Quote ...Perhaps, the most startling difference between 1957 and today is that several of the characters in local government who spoke to Panorama saw no real problem in coastal towns simply disposing of untreated sewage directly into the sea.

    To my mind the most startling difference between 1957 and today is the growth in the human population with the obvious increase in sewage that this produces.

  • Comment number 6.

    Our campsite search based on water quality is now live - over 2,200 sites listed within 15 miles of a beach with water graded "Excellent":


  • Comment number 7.

    Panorama raised some interesting points about the cleanliness of our beaches, but it didn't give the full picture. A lot of information that was provided to the BBC was left out of the programme.

    In response, the Environment Agency has produced a film to provide important information about bathing water that people need to know. 97 per cent of beaches in England and Wales meet minimum European Bathing Water Standards; and improvements to the Environment Agency's monitoring and testing regimes are aiming to further improve the quality of our beaches.

    You can watch the film at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EvAkO2Bm7jQ


More from this blog...


These are some of the popular topics this blog covers.

Latest contributors

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.