Prior to the introduction of the EU bathing water quality directive, Britain was known as the ‘dirty man of Europe’. Many people recall swimming is seas surrounded by sewage. This led to the creation of marine conservation charities such as Surfers Against Sewage, who have played a huge part in pressuring the Government to clean up our beaches using the EU Bathing Water Directive and the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive as a framework for their campaigning.
The European bathing water quality directive was first introduced in 1976 (76/1160/EEC) with the purpose of protecting public health by ensuring sewage was not present or had been adequately processed. All member states were given a decade to bring their bathing waters up to the mark.
The UK government‘s loose interpretation of the Directive led to only twenty seven beaches in the UK being designated as bathing waters. Criticism that the Government had failed to comply with the Directive led to the government designating a further 327 bathing waters around the UK.
Britain was taken to court in 1993 accused of failing to meet the Directive’s standard in nine bathing waters around the Fylde area. The UK Government lost the case and the European Commission agreed to wait until 1996 to see if the UK had successfully tackled the problem, but they still failed in six of the nine cases.
In 2001 the European Court of Justice ruled against the United Kingdom for failing to meet bathing water standards at over 10 per cent of designated bathing waters during the 1996 and 1997 seasons.
A revised Directive came into force in 2006 (Bathing Water Directive (2006/7/EC) which introduced a more stringent classification of bathing waters and attempted to standardise the information available to bathers. This was fully implemented in the UK by 2016 and bathers are now advised against bathing if water quality is poor. Bathing waters classified as poor will have advice against bathing throughout the following season and if a bathing water remains classified as poor for five consecutive seasons the advice will become permanent.
In 2018 eight beaches in Cornwall were added to the designated list making a total of 89 in the county; South Fistral beach in Newquay, Booby’s Bay near Trevose Head, Mexico Towan, Upton Towan and Godrevy, Northcott Mouth beach to the north of Bude , Gwynver Beach and Tregonhawke.
These waters are routinely monitored for bacteria such as Escherichia coli and intestinal enterococci which are found in the intestines of animals and humans. Their presence indicates that human or animal excretions may be present in bathing water alongside other potentially harmful organisms that could cause illness.
Over 95% of UK beaches meet the minimum bathing water standards today (as opposed to 27% in 1990) but the UK Government had to be taken to court to force compliance with the Bathing Water Directive. Their reluctance to comply suggests that post-Brexit, standards may not be upheld to the degree that they are now and this is of obvious environmental and economic concern to Cornwall.