Britain's dirty beaches still fail test

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Sewage pollution of Britain's beaches may be declining, but the United Kingdom compares poorly with the rest of Europe, figures released in Brussels yesterday reveal.

Despite having one of the continent's longer coastlines, the UK designates and monitors pollution on a much smaller number of beaches than Italy, Spain, Greece, Denmark and France.

But the dirty man of Europe in this domain is the newcomer to the European Union, Sweden, usually among the most progressive on environmental issues. They have the most polluted beaches and the worst monitoring record.

Publishing figures for compliance with the EU's bathing water directive yesterday, the environmental commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard was deeply disappointed that 3,000 designated beaches in the union - one in 13 - still failed to meet the legal, mandatory standard 10 years after it should have come into force.

"I'm not prepared to let the matter rest," she said. "I intend to keep pressure up on the member states to ensure that the directive is fully applied."

In Britain, 89 per cent of our 464 designated beaches met the mandatory standard for sewage bacteria last summer - slightly below the average of 92.5 but a marked improved on the 80 per cent pass rate in 1993.

Seven nations scored higher but the UK beat Germany and France. Ireland claimed the cleanest beaches of all.

On the more stringent, guideline standards for sewage bacteria Britain performed much worse. Just under half of UK beaches achieved them, compared with a community average of 80 per cent. Sweden, the Netherlands and Belgium came lower than Britain.

Italy designates and monitors 10 times as many beaches as Britain, which covers about the same number as Germany. But the commission's figures show that Britain's monitoring is second to none with none of our 464 designated beaches failing to provide sufficient data.

The EU depends on the member states for the reliability of the data. "We have to believe them until we have proof to the contrary," said an official.

Several member states including Britain have been prosecuted in the European Court for failing to comply with the directive. The commission is insisting that Italy, Spain, Germany and France present plans to bring all their beaches up to the mandatory standards.

Britain had promised that almost all UK beaches would comply by this year. An expensive programme of improving coastal sewage works was accelerated, adding to water bills.

Blackpool, which has always failed, should come up to scratch this summer after completion of a pounds 150m scheme. But a few other designated beaches around the coast will continue to routinely fail the directive's mandatory standard for several years to come.

Seaside standards

How Europe's beaches compare for safe bathing ...

Number of designated beaches

% reaching mandatory standard

% reaching guideline standard

% of beaches inadequately sampled

Belgium 39 97.4 12.8 0

Denmark 1188 95.6 83.5 0.2

Germany 446 85 67.3 2.7

Greece 1526 98 95.6 0.5

Spain 1519 96.7 84.8 0.7

France 1874 88.4 64.7 5.7

Ireland 108 98.1 88.0 0

Italy 4592 91.5 85.5 2.9

Netherlands 46 65.2 41.3 30.4

Portugal 333 91.6 81.7 2.4

Britain 464 89 49.6 0

Finland 100 73 61 25

Sweden 252 44.8 33.3 54.4