A green charity has complained to Environmental Standards Scotland about the Scottish Government’s allegedly “unlawful” approach to protecting bathing waters from sewage leaks, claiming it is the weakest in the UK.
The Environmental Rights Centre for Scotland (ERCS) argues that a policy to only award bathing water status to sites that have had 150 daily visitors, makes it “effectively impossible” for many to gain the status and, in turn, protection from sewage leaks.
Rivers, inland lochs and seas awarded bathing water status by the government are monitored regularly by authorities to prevent health risks such as sewage pollution. The government is legally required to designate a bathing water where it expects a “large number” of people to bathe there.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats accused the government of “conspiring to prevent these sites from gaining protection.” The Scottish Greens said “it cannot be right that we stand by and do nothing based on a technicality”.
The Scottish Government highlighted that the number of bathing waters had increased from 84 in 2015 to 87 in 2022, with those rated as “excellent” by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) reaching record levels.
The government defines the “large number” to be at least 150 people using a beach or bathing water in a single day.
Comparatively, there is no threshold for visitors in England while Wales decides the specific figure for each site. Northern Ireland has a much lower threshold of “over 45 bathers on at least one occasion or over 100 beach users on at least two occasions across a review period”.
ERCS said Scotland was “by far the most difficult part of the UK to have a bathing water designated.” Dr Ben Christman, an ERCS in-house solicitor, said: “Areas which are otherwise popular locations for swimming are unable to obtain the protections that come with official designation.
“150 bathers is well in excess of a ‘large number’, and it precludes any consideration of past trends and infrastructure or facilities provided, or other measures taken, to promote bathing, contrary to the regulations.”
ERCS has asked the public body, Environmental Standards Scotland, to force the government to remove the minimum threshold and change the application process. Christman claimed that while the government told him the threshold is “not a rigid policy”, “the evidence suggests otherwise”.
In 2021, The Ferret found that sewage was dumped into the River Almond 500 times in a year.
The River Almond Action Group (RAAG), formed to tackle sewage leaks in the river, claimed the government had “effectively set an artificial barrier to enabling communities to reap the health benefits from safely swimming in the Almond.”
“Many local residents would only allow their families and themselves into the waters knowing that sufficient monitoring is taking place to ensure clean waters, as it would under bathing waters designation,” a spokesperson told The Ferret.
“RAAG hopes that the Scottish Government can align itself with the other UK administrations by removing or lowering this threshold and approving more bathing water applications.”
Government ‘conspiring’ to avoid bathing water protection
In 2021, we revealed that Scotland was “way behind” England in tackling sewage spills, Scottish Water had allowed an “unacceptably high” number of leaks, according to internal emails we obtained from government officials.
Our probes led the Liberal Democrats to secure a statement from the environment minister, who was urged to start reporting on sewage spillages annually.
The party also backs a change to the government’s approach to bathing water designation.
“I want Scotland’s waterways and bathing sites to be clean and pleasant places for everyone to enjoy,” party leader Alex Cole-Hamilton told The Ferret. “Instead the Scottish Government are conspiring to prevent these sites from gaining protection.
“Keeping our rivers and beaches clean needs to rapidly rise up the Scottish Government agenda. I hope that enforcement action from Environmental Standards Scotland can help to drive that change.”
Labour MSP Mercedes Villalba said it was “vital that waters used for swimming and bathing are given full environmental and legal protection”. She added: “The new first minister has an opportunity to take a fresh and progressive approach to protecting waters used for bathing.”
Scottish Greens MSP Mark Ruskell said bathing water designations had been “a long running issue, not just for smaller beaches and rivers, but also for larger spots like Loch Leven.”
“In these cases existing pollution can mean that bathers avoid the waters, meaning the 150 threshold is never reached,” he claimed. “It cannot be right that we stand by and do nothing based on a technicality”.
Bathing water designation “brings together regulators, Scottish Water and landowners to make changes and invest in solutions”, Ruskell added. “But a change of approach is needed if it is to be effective at improving all of our waters and people’s access to them across Scotland.”
Environmental Standards Scotland is a non-ministerial office, independent of the Scottish Government and accountable to the Scottish Parliament. It was set up in October 2021 “to ensure environmental laws and standards are adhered to in Scotland, replacing the European Union’s scrutiny and enforcement role after Brexit”.
Mark Roberts, chief executive of ESS, confirmed he had received the complaint about bathing water designation: “We are conducting preliminary work and have begun discussions with the Scottish Government. We will keep the organisation that made the representation informed on our progress and will provide an update on our website once we have finished this preliminary work.”
The Scottish Government said bathing waters were “not only important to our environment, but they also provide spaces for recreation and contribute to good health and wellbeing”.
“We are continuing to work closely with Sepa, Scottish Water and other stakeholders on bathing water designations and to protect and improve bathing waters classifications,” said a spokesperson.
“Bathing Water classification in Scotland is undertaken by Sepa following strict standards as set out in the Bathing Waters (Scotland) Regulations 2008. These standards were reviewed by the World Health Organization in 2018, which concluded they were fit for purpose.”
Header image thanks to Coldupnorth