Press release

96% of English bathing waters meet required quality standards

Government and Environment Agency outline action to further improve bathing water quality.

96% of bathing waters in England have met minimum standards, with 90% of bathing waters in England being rated as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, continuing to show an overall boost in water quality over the last decade. This compares with just 28% being rated as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ in the 1990s and 76% in 2010. 

The results, published today, follow testing at over 400 sites regularly used by swimmers throughout the summer. These tests, carried out by the Environment Agency, monitor for sources of pollution known to be a risk to bathers’ health, specifically E coli and intestinal enterococci. 

The substantial improvements seen over the last 30 years come as the Government continues to take action to boost water quality through the Plan For Water. This will help drive investment, bring in stronger regulation and toughen enforcement to tackle pollution and further clean up our waterways and bathing waters. This includes a £1.7 billion accelerated investment to reduce sewage spills from storm overflows.

Environment Agency Chair Alan Lovell said: 

Many people enjoy time in or on lakes, rivers and coastal waters, and we know the value they bring in terms of social, health and wellbeing benefits. 

While overall bathing water quality has improved over the last decade due to targeted investment, robust regulation from the Environment Agency and work carried out by partners, these results show there is significant work still to do to ensure the quality of our bathing waters is increasing every year.  

The slight fall in standards this year show we must go further to drive improvements and that this takes time and investment. That’s why we are strengthening our regulation and working with the water sector, farmers, industry, and others to help them put the environment at the heart of their activities and improve our bathing waters for all.

Whilst bathing water quality has improved over the past few decades, standards have fallen slightly in the last year, likely in part due to an unseasonably wet summer causing run-off.  

Other complex factors which influence bathing water quality can include tides, and physical or environmental changes at a site, with every catchment affected differently.  

Last year’s statistics showed that 97% met the minimum standard of ‘sufficient’, whilst 93% met the highest standards of ‘good’ and ‘excellent’.

Water Minister Robbie Moore said: 

Our bathing waters have improved significantly in recent years, and we are fully committed to seeing the quality of our coastal waters, rivers and lakes rise further for the benefit of the environment and everyone who uses them. 

Our Plan For Water is delivering more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement to clean up our waterways and continue to improve our bathing waters. 

We have also set stringent targets for water companies to reduce sewage spills from storm overflows which frontloads action at designated bathing waters to make the biggest difference to these sites as quickly as possible.

Measures to improve water quality include:

  • Setting strict targets for water companies to reduce the impact of storm overflows. This has led to the largest infrastructure programme in water company history with £60 billion to be invested over the next 25 years, preventing hundreds of thousands of sewage overflows every year. 
  • Significant new investments to improve water quality at bathing waters, ramping up the investment from the last price control to improve hundreds of storm overflows across the country, and investment to install thousands of new state-of-the-art water quality monitors across the country. 
  • Supporting farmers to reduce water pollution and an increase in agricultural regulation, including doubling funding for free face-to-face support on reducing water pollution to all farmers in England. The Environment Agency carried out more than 4,000 farm inspections across England last year, helping farmers comply with legal requirements and resulting in more than 5,000 actions undertaken to improve farm practices and drive improvements to our environment.

On the back of today’s results, the Environment Agency is working with local authorities to take targeted action at all bathing waters classified as ‘poor’. 

Over the past 30 years the Environment Agency has directed £30 billion of water company investment in sewerage improvements and other measures to improve and protect water quality.

Case studies: 

  • Whitwell Creek and Sykes Lane: This is the first year that Whitwell Creek and Sykes Lane on Rutland Water, the Riven Deben Estuary at Waldringfield and Plymouth Firestone Bay, have been given official classification after being added to the list of bathing waters in 2023. 
  • Porthleven: The bathing water site at Porthleven, Cornwall, was classified as ‘good’ in 2022, but had achieved ‘excellent’ this year. The Environment Agency worked with South West Water to identify misconnections in the local sewerage system, which the company then fixed. 
  • Eastbourne: In 2022, Eastbourne bathing water moved to ‘Sufficient’ which prompted an investigation by the Environment Agency. It was discovered that a privately owned sewer had been discharging into the sea. As a result of these investigations, the sewer was repaired, and the classification has now moved up to ‘Good’. 
  • Hastings Pelham: Hastings Pelham bathing water was at risk of being classified as ‘poor’ in 2019, but following extensive monitoring by the Environment Agency, it was discovered that there were issues with misconnections. The EA, Hastings Council and Southern Water worked together to install screens in a stream that ran out to this stretch of coastline. This resulted in improvements to the local water quality and as a result the classification of the site was not downgraded.
Published 1 December 2023