Sand Bunnies on Portobello Beach

Exposed: the dirty beaches given prizes for being clean

Eight beaches across Scotland officially condemned as “poor” because their polluted bathing waters make people sick have been given prizes for “good water quality” by the government-backed charity, Keep Scotland Beautiful (KSB).

Another 12 bathing waters contaminated by human and animal faeces and rated as merely “sufficient” by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) have also won KSB’s much-trumpeted seaside awards for 2014.

The awards have been denounced as “worthless” by environmentalists and criticised as “embarrassing” by politicians. They have earned KSB nearly £20,000 in application fees from local authorities and others.

A new analysis by Sepa has rated 20 of Scotland’s most popular bathing waters as “poor” because they fail to meet European pollution limits currently being brought into force. The waters are badly contaminated with toxic bacteria like E-coli from overflowing sewers or animal wastes washed off the land.

Yet eight of these dirty beaches – in South Ayrshire, Edinburgh, Fife, Angus, Aberdeenshire and Moray ” have been celebrated by KSB as “some of the cleanest and best managed beaches in the country”. One – Central Beach in Nairn – was chosen by the Scottish tourism minister, Fergus Ewing MSP, to launch the awards two weeks ago.

Ewing heaped praise on the prize-winning beaches, and was pictured with local dignitaries holding the seaside award flag. “We love Nairn beaches and visit them regularly at the request of our daughter,” he said. “They and the walks beside them are enjoyed by generations and generations of families.”

Yet the bathing waters at Nairn and other award-winning beaches are so contaminated that as many as one in seven bathers could catch a stomach infection and suffer diarrhoea, according to an environmental group. “The seaside award is worthless in relation to water quality,” said Andy Cummins, the campaigns director of Surfers Against Sewage.

“The water quality standards it requires are so low that qualifying beaches could worryingly still offer bathers a one in seven chance of contracting gastroenteritis. Because of these shockingly poor water quality requirements Surfers Against Sewage believes the seaside award flag should be flying at half mast.”

Labour’s environment spokeswoman, Claire Baker MSP, pointed out that most people would expect prize-winning beaches to have high quality bathing water. “We have to ensure that these awards are more than just PR exercises and that the seaside award benchmarks are robust enough to reflect what the public expect from our award-winning beaches,” she said.

“Considering the number of beaches across Scotland that will continue to pass Sepa’s tougher testing, the minister’s decision to launch the awards at a beach that will currently fail to meet the standard is embarrassing for the government.”

In addition to rating 20 beaches as poor, Sepa put a further 20 beaches in the second worst category of “sufficient”. A dozen of those in East Lothian, Fife, Aberdeenshire and North Ayrshire were given seaside awards by KSB (see tables below).

Sepa also classed another 28 bathing water as “good” and 15 as “excellent”. The ratings are assessments of how the beaches will fare under new legal safety standards replacing 38-year-old limits widely seen as out-dated, inadequate and unable to protect against illness.

Two of the beaches rated by Sepa as having excellent water quality – Ruby Bay at Elie and Silver Sands at Aberdour in Fife “were the only two in Scotland to win the international Blue Flag award this year. Overseen by the Foundation for Environmental Education in Copenhagen, this has much stricter water pollution standards than KSB’s seaside awards, which were given to 61 beaches in 2014.

“There is a clear discrepancy in the toughness of criteria between the seaside award and the Blue Flag scheme,” said Baker. “If people are to have confidence in the awards then they must be credible.”

Alison Johnstone, a Green MSP on Holyrood’s tourism committee, called for government investment to clean up dirty beaches. “For us to have confidence in the beaches we all use and love we need clear information,” she said.

“The way Sepa score these beaches on water quality over a longer periods compared to the wider amenity aspects Keep Scotland Beautiful consider will result in mixed messages, and I would urge the tourism minister to address this.”

She also urged Ewing to recognize the need to “look beyond” the seaside awards. “Where there are beaches at risk we must see investment,” she argued. “By improving the quality of our beaches we protect a great environmental resource which in turn helps the economies of our coastal communities.”

According to KSB, it costs £300 to apply for a “rural” seaside award and £400 for a “resort” award. There were 46 rural awards and 15 resort awards in 2014, giving KSB an income of £19,800, not counting any failed applications.

KSB said that the money covered the cost of a managers’ meeting, assessing the beach, support and promotion. “The cost of administering the awards scheme has always exceeded the revenue raised,” said a KSB spokeswoman.

“The Scottish seaside awards are given by a jury on the basis of 28 criteria, of which water quality is only one. The criteria are designed to reflect the whole visitor experience and they also recognise excellence in beach management, on-site facilities, benefits to local people and the tourism economy of the area.”

The KSB spokeswoman defended the use of the 1976 water standards that are now in the course of being replaced. “On water quality standards, KSB is guided by Sepa and no award would be made if measured water quality fell below the current EU directive standard,” she said.

The seaside awards brought “tangible benefit” to Scotland’s tourism industry, KSB argued. According to the government tourism agency, Visit Scotland, there had been an increase in seaside holidays in Scotland in 2013.

Sepa stressed that its ratings of bathing waters were projections based the previous four years and could change. “It is encouraging that already more than 75 per cent of our existing bathing waters would be sufficient, good or excellent under the revised directive classifications,” said a Sepa spokesman.

The Scottish government pointed out that the new directive was not due to be fully introduced until 2016. It promised to work closely with Sepa to protect the water environment.

“The KSB awards consider many aspects when assessing and allocating seaside awards,” said a government spokesman. “We welcome the recognition these awards provide to many aspects of what makes our beaches worthy of recognition and visiting.”

The Marine Conservation Society defended KSB’s awards as doing “what they say on the tin”, but pointed visitors to its own good beach guide. More investment was needed to minimise the number of bathing waters likely to be deemed poor, argued the society’s Scotland manager, Calum Duncan.

The dirty beaches given seaside awards by Keep Scotland Beautiful

BeachPollution Rating
South Beach, Ayr, South AyrshirePoor
Portobello, EdinburghPoor
Harbour, Kinghorn, FifePoor
Seafield, Kirkcaldy, FifePoor
Monifieth, Dundee, AngusPoor
Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire Poor
Cruden Bay, Peterhead, AberdeenshirePoor
Central Beach, Nairn, MorayPoor
Millport Bay, Great Cumbrae, North AyrshireSufficient
Longniddry, East LothianSufficient
Milsey Bay, North Berwick, East LothianSufficient
East Beach, Dunbar, East LothianSufficient
Yellowcraig, East Lothian Sufficient
Black Sands, Aberdour Harbour, Fife Sufficient
East Beach, Leven, Fife Sufficient
East Sands, St Andrews, FifeSufficient
West Sands, St Andrews, FifeSufficient
Balmedie, Aberdeen, AberdeenshireSufficient
Tiger Hill, Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire Sufficient
Lido, Peterhead, AberdeenshireSufficient

Other dirty beaches

BeachPollution Rating
Rockcliffe, Dalbeattie, Dumfries and Galloway Poor
Sandyhills, Dalbeattie, Dumfries and GallowayPoor
Mossyard, Kirkcudbright, Dumfries and GallowayPoor
Dhoon Bay, Kirkcudbright, Dumfries and GallowayPoor
Prestwick, South AyrshirePoor
Heads of Ayr, South AyrshirePoor
Irvine, North AyrshirePoor
Saltcoats/Ardrossan, North AyrshirePoor
Eyemouth, Scottish BordersPoor
Fisherrow West, Musselburgh, East LothianPoor
Lossiemouth East, MorayPoor
East Beach, Nairn, MorayPoor
Brighouse Bay, Kirkcudbright, Dumfries and GallowaySufficient
Southerness, Dumfries, Dumfries and GallowaySufficient
Girvan, South AyrshireSufficient
Seamill, West Kilbride, North AyrshireSufficient
Ettrick Bay, Isle of Bute, Argyll and ButeSufficient
Luss Bay, Loch Lomond, Argyll and ButeSufficient
Whitesands, Dunbar, East Lothian Sufficient
Central Bay, Thurso, CaithnessSufficient

A version of this article was published in the Sunday Herald on 15 June 2014.

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