Government swims against tide over water standards: Jonathan Foster reports on three beaches that will put Whitehall in the EC dock

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The Independent Online
LITTLE ones gambolled in the surf on Southport beach yesterday, still posing a threat that the Government seems anxious to pretend does not exist.

The tiny bacteria and viruses in the water have consistently been measured at levels unhealthily above European Commission standards.

Southport and neighbouring beaches at Formby and Blackpool would have been in the dock this week had the Government not obtained postponement of its prosecution by the EC.

Latest samples reveal improvement in the water off Formby beach, but continuing pollution at Southport and Blackpool.

Improvements in sewage collection and treatment, sought by campaigners since the early 1980s, are not yet under way, and Brussels lost patience with Whitehall because many bathing beaches were not even designated - let alone kept clean - by the Department of the Environment.

As sunshine broke through at low tide in Southport yesterday, most families stayed closer to amusements and ice-cream vans than to the water.

Adults in charge of a group of eight young children told them that swimming was forbidden, paddling allowed, and sand-castle construction preferred.

Derek Pedder, assistant chief tourism officer, said visitors were not put off by the resort's pollution record. Southport anticipates a 25 per cent increase in tourism revenue this year. 'We do not make any mention of water quality in the resort guidebook. We promote Southport as seven miles of golden sands. And we have beaches, like the one next to Pontin's camp, which have bathing water of good to excellent standard,' he said.

Bill Doherty, chief lifeguard on Southport beach, said many samples had been taken from near the pier, where visitors were bound to pollute the water and distort the statistics. 'At the moment, it's like vintage champagne . . . when you get an offshore wind, you get clean water. When there's an onshore wind, you get all the muck from Liverpool.'

Friends of the Earth, the pressure group, says Southport, Formby and Blackpool beaches suffer from a lack of local sewage treatment and a labyrinth of drains that mix household waste with rainwater. Gary Mahney, of the Liverpool branch, said: 'The beaches are caught in a pincer movement of sewage from the Lancashire coast and the Mersey. The Government has been reluctant to designate beaches because they then become subject to quality standards.'

A new sewage works, plus improved main sewers, have been budgeted by North West Water, but many visitors yesterday said their faith in British beaches had been badly shaken.

The Day family, on a day trip from Leek, Staffordshire, did not know Southport's seawater had registered consistently poor readings. 'I'd like to see the statistics displayed more prominently for bathers,' Phil Day said. His wife, Lynn, said their daughters Tara and Tasha would be allowed to paddle. 'I would never bathe at resorts like Southport, Blackpool or Rhyl. It's not worth the risk - especially to the little ones.'