Beachgoers face risk of more pollution as campaigners call for action on sewage

Last week saw more than 100 alerts of sewage pollution for beaches and swimming spots following heavy rain.

Emily Beament
Wednesday 24 August 2022 15:52 BST
People enjoying the warm weather on Scarborough beach, North Yorkshire. Campaigners have warned of the risk of more sewage pollution on coastlines ahead of the bank holiday (Danny Lawson/PA)
People enjoying the warm weather on Scarborough beach, North Yorkshire. Campaigners have warned of the risk of more sewage pollution on coastlines ahead of the bank holiday (Danny Lawson/PA) (PA Wire)

Campaigners have warned of the risk of more sewage pollution on coastlines ahead of the bank holiday as they called for greater ambition to conserve rivers and seas.

Data from campaign group Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) shows 654 alerts of sewer overflows spilling sewage into bathing waters this summer, from 171 locations in England and Wales.

Last week, as heavy rain falling after weeks of dry weather overwhelmed the sewage system, there were 100 alerts for pollution, the data shows, with the south west and south coast of England worst hit.

With rain forecast again for parts of England in the next day or so, SAS chief executive Hugo Tagholm said: “We wouldn’t be surprised if we saw more pollution events along the south coast where there’s rainfall.”

We need more ambition to have clean, thriving rivers, the best bathing waters in Europe, if not the world, and make sure the water companies are investing far more of their vast profits in protecting and restoring our wild blue spaces

Hugo Tagholm, Surfers Against Sewage

He said it did not take exceptionally heavy rainfall for raw sewage to be flushed out in storm overflows, and urged people to check the SAS Safer Seas and Rivers Service app which gives real time alerts of pollution incidents.

With the app, he said: “People are forewarned, they can make a decision to go somewhere that’s not affected, to have a good time at the beach.”

Data from the app shows the most affected areas this summer have been Longrock, Cornwall and Scarborough on the Yorkshire coast with 19 warnings each, followed by Cowes on the Isle of Wight with 16, and Spittal, Northumberland and Walney Biggar Bank in Cumbria, with 14 each.

There has been growing public outrage in recent years at the volume of raw or partially treated sewage pumped into the UK’s rivers and coastal waters.

Mr Tagholm said sewage pollution was a public health issue and one that affected wildlife, and was linked to the climate crisis which is driving more extreme weather of very dry or wet conditions.

In the last decade, there had been a reduction in investment in sewage infrastructure in England and defunding of regulators, with water companies left in charge of self-monitoring, he said.

KG34JH Coast of Longrock in Cornwall with houses, sea, ship and many clouds in the summer sky.
KG34JH Coast of Longrock in Cornwall with houses, sea, ship and many clouds in the summer sky.

“We need more ambition to have clean, thriving rivers, the best bathing waters in Europe, if not the world, and make sure the water companies are investing far more of their vast profits in protecting and restoring our wild blue spaces that people rely on for their health, well-being and local economies,” he said.

And he said that over the years, water companies had spent £5 billion to upgrade water infrastructure but had taken £70 billion in dividends, and solving the issue was affordable for them.

The Government should cap dividends, profits and bonuses until the situation was sorted out, he urged.

A Water UK spokesperson said: “Water companies agree there is an urgent need for action to tackle the harm caused to the environment by spills from storm overflows and wastewater treatment works.

“They are investing over £3bn to improve overflows as part of a wider national programme to improve the environment between 2020 and 2025.

“However, companies want to go further, faster and are pushing to be able to spend more, and for processes to be streamlined so that investment can be quickly targeted where it is needed most.

“Any new investment must be combined with action from Government on wet wipes and urban creep that are increasingly triggering spills.

“Water companies can’t do this alone which why we’re also calling for Government, regulators, water companies, agriculture and other sectors to come together as soon as possible to deliver a comprehensive national plan to bring about the transformation in our rivers and waterways we all want to see.”

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