Scottish beaches officially rated as “poor” for pollution have been given awards for “cleanliness”, prompting accusations that the public have been seriously misled.

The government-backed charity, Keep Scotland Beautiful (KSB), has presented 2017 “beach awards” to four sites around the coast where the bathing water has been condemned by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) for high levels of faecal contamination.

A further two badly polluted beaches were initially listed as prize-winners. But it turned out that KSB had blundered, and they were removed from the list.

Environmental groups decry the awards as “close to farcical” and are calling for them to be withdrawn to rebuild public trust. KSB says that water quality is only one of many criteria, and that the public are warned in advance when it’s poor.

Scotland has a much higher proportion of poor quality bathing waters than other European countries. In 2017 13 per cent (11) are rated as poor, compared to 4.3 per cent in Ireland, 3.2 per cent across the UK and lower percentages in other European Union countries.

Wet weather meant that last week 23 bathing waters in Scotland were reckoned by Sepa to have poor water quality. Heavy rain washes human and animal wastes into the sea, and can cause sewers to overflow.

Scotland’s dirty beaches

KSB runs an annual award scheme to “celebrate clean, well managed and sustainable beaches”. Sites are recognised for “excellence in beach management, access and facilities, cleanliness, safety”.

But four of the 59 beaches given awards in May are classified as having “poor” bathing water in 2017 because of repeated faecal pollution. They are South Beach in Ayr, Central Beach in Nairn, Cruden Bay in Aberdeenshire and Monifieth in Angus.

A fifth beach rated as poor – Harbour Beach at Kinghorn, in Fife – was initially given an award. But it was withdrawn after a few days with KSB admitting to making a mistake.

A sixth beach with poor bathing water – Yellowcraig in East Lothian – was originally listed on KSB’s website as having won an award. But according to KSB, the beach had not actually applied, and had been wrongly included.

In 2014 The Ferret reported that KSB gave awards to eight beaches rated as poor by Sepa. The awards scheme that year earned KSB nearly £20,000 in application fees from local authorities and others.

Friends of the Earth Scotland lambasted the awards as “seriously misleading” and “close to farcical”. Other aspects of beach management “mustn’t be allowed to conceal the fact that the water isn’t even safe to paddle in,” said the environmental group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.

“The awards need a major overhaul if the public are to put any trust in them. The four beaches with poor water quality should be stripped of their awards immediately and the rules changed.”

Mark Ruskell MSP, environment spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, demanded “meaningful plans” to clean up the pollution. “These errors make the beach awards pointless and confusing for the public, undermining faith in environmental ratings schemes more widely.”

Surfers Against Sewage stressed that all beach users needed real-time information about water quality. “We have real concerns about any awards that may mislead the public into thinking water quality is better than official results show,” said the group’s chief executive, Hugo Tagholm.

“Should a beach with poor water quality really be receiving a beach award, given good water quality is a specific criteria for the award? We’d urge much more scrutiny from Keep Scotland Beautiful when considering awards.”

KSB argued that its awards were the benchmark for quality beaches across Scotland. “They are awarded on the basis of 25 criteria, of which water quality is only one,” said a KSB spokesman.

“The criteria are designed to reflect the entirety of the visitor experience and they also recognise excellence in beach management, on-site facilities, benefits to local people and the wider environment.”

The spokesman pointed that the four award-winning beaches rated poor for pollution all had predictive water quality warning signs updated twice daily by Sepa. “We believe that this gives people the accurate information that they need to make a decision on whether to use the beach to walk and play, or to enter the water to swim,” the spokesman added.

“If water quality is important to you, then choose a beach where the water quality is monitored and made available by Sepa, and check the latest status on their website or app.”

Sepa stressed that the awards were organised by KSB. Water quality at the four prize-winning beaches was not necessarily “continually poor”, said senior scientist, Dr Ruth Stidson.

“At all four of these locations we make daily water quality predictions to help people make informed decisions about whether to use the water. We display these forecasts on our electronic information signs at the beaches and on our website, mobile website and beach information line.”

Efforts were being made to clean up the beaches. “We are working with the Scottish Government and our key partner organisations with an aim to bring all of Scotland’s bathing waters to the sufficient or better classification by 2020,” Stidson added.

A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 11 June 2017.

Photo thanks to Barelyhere, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.