We need to get tough on the water companies by strengthening bathing water regulations, this is why I am proposing new legislation

North Devon is blessed with a beautiful stretch of coastline, and people travel from across our United Kingdom to surf in our bathing waters. However, the risk of sewage is causing people to avoid the water entirely. This isn’t helped by unclear information that makes people think twice about visiting bathing waters, threatening our local economy. The bill I have introduced in Parliament will provide swimmers and surfers with the data they need to enjoy bathing spots all year round.

Officially designated “bathing waters” can be found all along England’s coastline. Of the hundreds we have, North Devon is home to 11. Coastal bathing water designation is a success story. In the early 1990s, just 28% of them met the highest standards at that time. Last year, 90% of English coastal bathing waters were rated ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, despite the standard becoming stricter in 2015.

That is not to say, however, that the current system is perfect. During the official “bathing water season”, which runs from mid-May to late-September in England, the Environment Agency (EA) does regular water quality checks at designated sites, providing bathers with the information to decide whether or not to swim or surf that day. From October to mid-May, there is no requirement for the EA to monitor these sites.

Unphased by the cold, the beaches of North Devon are full of hardy surfers all year round. But without clear information during these colder months, many swimmers are left in the dark with only the data from the summer to rely upon for their safety. That is why the government should take action to monitor bathing sites all year round, and provide swimmers with the confidence to get in the water whenever they want to.

If we have any hope of cleaning up our water, we also need data about what pollution we are actually contending with. Where this gap has emerged in the EA’s monitoring, the likes of Surfers Against Sewage have sought to fill it with competing resources. This leads to confusion about where to go for accurate information about swimming.

This is problematic. In winter, when rainfall is at its highest, so is our use of storm overflow pipes. These automatic outlets have literally been designed to allow our system to cope when it is overwhelmed with rainwater which then can run into bathing spots. We do not know what the composition of what is coming out of these pipes is, but it is nonetheless classified as raw sewage by default. This lack of accurate and detailed data is now being abused along our coastlines too often to scare people out of the water.

My bill seeks to fix these two gaps in our current system. Firstly, it would extend monitoring of sites to the entire year, not just the limited season, to better reflect actual bathing patterns.

The second part of my bill will define what is and what is not “raw sewage”. The legal definition is clear that it consists primarily of human faeces and water, but the data we have paints a very different picture. If an overflow is made up of almost entirely rainwater, this binary approach to classification leaves too much open to interpretation.

This points to an important issue with the current debate: in constituencies like mine, less than 1% of the water pollution we deal with is related to human sewage. There are many other polluting factors at play that have not gained the same level of attention and resources.

There is certainly work to be done to stop storm overflows, which the government is working on through its Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction Plan. We are also currently waiting on Ofwat, the water regulator, to approve £96 billion of water company investment which will go a long way to improving our sewage situation.

But storm overflows are not the be all and end all for water quality. We cannot just throw all our resources at one part of this problem. We need to follow science wherever it leads us, across the entire catchment. Therefore, we must provide those who want to access the sea with the information they need to do so safely.

The more voices in the debate, the more contradictions and confusion emerge, and the more people steer clear of perfectly swimmable waters. We need more and better data from trustworthy and reliable sources. The government has committed to reviewing the existing bathing water regulations this summer, and the changes proposed within my bill provide an excellent starting point for doing so.

Selaine Saxby MP

Selaine Saxby is the Conservative MP for North Devon, and elected in December 2019.