IN A NEW row over water standards at British beaches, the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) has attacked last year's Seaside Awards as 'the most outrageous piece of environmental trickery'.

The awards, presented for the first time last year by the Tidy Britain Group, the English Tourist Board and the British Resorts Association, with the support of the Department of the Environment, placed more emphasis on beach and seafront amenities than on water standards.

In its 1993 Heinz Good Beach Guide (Vermilion, pounds 6.99), the society says the awards were 'cynically' introduced after the tightening up of qualifying standards for a European Blue Flag Award last year. The Tidy Britain group says it is seriously considering suing the society for its remarks. In 1992, only 17 beaches were awarded a Blue Flag; 93 received a Seaside Award.

'The Seaside Awards were and are simply a tool by which a flag of sorts will fly at those UK resorts with borderline water quality - the same resorts that the Department of the Environment's own research shows carry an unacceptable risk to public health,' the MCS says.

The guide, which lists information on more than 500 UK beaches, has awarded top marks to 91 beaches, but dropped 74, most of them because 'they are so polluted'. Say the guide's authors: 'The bulk of the beaches were dropped due to poor water quality. Sewage pollution is still a major problem around the UK coast. The presence of sewage-related debris or excessive litter on the beach is also a problem.'

The six beaches dropped from the new guide for 'constituting a risk to the health of bathers' are Crackington Haven, Cornwall; Swanage, Dorset; Eastbourne (east of pier); New Quay, Dyfed; Cwmtudu, New Quay, Dyfed; and Caswell Bay, West Glamorgan.

For the first time, this year's guide includes a section on European beaches. The society criticises the lack of a standardised system of monitoring bathing water in EC member states.

'What is the point of a law like the EC Bathing Water Directive if all member states use different ways of assessing how clean their bathing beaches are? The MCS would like to see a tough, consistent Bathing Water Directive,' says Guy Linley-Adams, joint editor of the guide.