The bucket-and-spade season is officially underway, but the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) offers a sobering caution that may halt some people’s headlong dash into the waves. Its latest statistics show that swimming off a third of UK beaches carries a one in seven chance of contracting a sewage-related disease. For although the number of destinations listed in the MCS’s 2010 Good Beach Guide is up on 2009, 348 of the 769 beaches assessed still did not meet the society’s required standards for water quality; even those that passed this time round, including Rock in Cornwall and Chalkwell Bay in Southend, are in danger of failing when more stringent EU requirements come into force by 2015. Black spots include the Bristol Channel-the Somerset coastline only features once in the Good Beach Guide, at Porlock Weir; Lancashire; the Wash, and parts of Suffolk and the north-east coast.

Much of the blame is placed squarely on water companies; since 1990, Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) has been lobbying for better regulation of combined sewer overflow pipes which discharge raw waste into the sea when the usual methods of treating contaminated water are overwhelmed by extra heavy rainfall. The MCS estimates there are about 22,000 of these pipes, of which ‘only a fraction are monitored’. This issue has been particularly acute over the past three years as Britain has endured the wettest succession of summers since 1914, a factor that has exacerbated other sources of bathing water pollution: farm run off and pollutants from city streets. The general advice is not to swim for 24 hours after a downpour.

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However the outlook is not entirely murky, and other organisations may provide more cheering reading. In May, the Environment Agency (EA), which uses guidelines set by the EU Bathing Directive, classified 82.2% of beaches in England and Wales as ‘excellent’. On the basis of these figures, our bathing water quality ranks 12th out of 22 EU member states-ahead of France, Italy and Denmark-and is a significant improvement on 20 years ago, when only about 30% of British beaches could be classified as ‘excellent’. And things are set to get better. ‘Bathing water may have improved beyond recognition but we are not complacent,’ states the EA’s Chris Tuckett.

‘We’ve secured millions of pounds of investment in environmental improvements from water companies, and are using the latest technology to help meet the new EU goals.’ Visitors can play their part, too. ‘During high season, we pick up 30 cubic metres of litter a week,’ reports Andrew Brockbank, who looks after the National Trust-owned beach at Formby. ‘The water quality is outside our direct control. It’s managing the visitors that is our biggest challenge’. The SAS run a ‘Return to Offender’ campaign, in which they send rubbish back to the company that
Britain’s cleanest beaches

The Blue Flag programme is like an international Michelin Star system for beaches; it mainly applies to larger beaches and takes amenities into account.
Star countries: Spain (522 Blue Flag beaches), Greece (421), France (321), Turkey (314), Portugal (241), Italy (226), Denmark (216), Croatia (116), Ireland (74), England (71)

Star counties: Pembrokeshire accounts for 13 of Wales’s 45 Blue Flag beaches, and the Isle of Angelsey alone has seven. Devon is next best with 12, followed by Kent with 10 (www.blueflag.org.uk)
Visit also www.goodbeachguide.co.uk and www.environment-agency.gov.uk/bathingwaters