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Thames in Oxford: Bathing Water Status

Volume 702: debated on Tuesday 2 November 2021

Before we begin, and in line with updated guidance issued this morning, let me point out that hon. Members are expected to wear face coverings in line with current Government guidance, which is that they should be worn where there is a greater risk of transmission of covid. That is now considered to be the case across the parliamentary estate. Everyone should also maintain distancing, as far as possible, on the estate, including in Committee proceedings where possible. We have been advised that the risk of transmission in Committee meetings appears to be greater. I remind Members that they are also asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week, if coming on to the parliamentary estate. That can be done either at the testing centre in the House, or at home.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered bathing water status for the river Thames in Oxford.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. Achieving bathing water status for the stretch of the River Thames in Port Meadow is something that I have long campaigned for. The Minister will be aware, I am sure, of the early-day motion that I tabled last year on this very issue. It called on the Government to work with Thames Water to protect the Thames in Oxford, so that the river could remain clean and enable Oxford’s residents to swim safely.

A year on, our application for bathing water status is now in the hands of the Department, but there is of course also a renewed national focus on cleaning up our rivers in the Environment Bill. I will reassure the Minister that that will not be hijacking this debate. Of course, the Environment Bill does return to the House on Monday and it will give us the opportunity to improve water quality in our rivers everywhere—not just in Oxford—by placing a duty on water companies to ensure that untreated sewage is not discharged into our inland waters. The public backlash following the defeat of the Duke of Wellington’s amendment surely made clear how important that issue is to people up and down the country. The Government say that they want to act, and I look forward to seeing any strengthened amendments that might come back next week, but whatever happens, I hope that our application gives the Government an opportunity to demonstrate further their commitment to that cause.

I am also heartened that the water companies themselves recognise that more must be done. The chief executive officer of Thames Water, Sarah Bentley, admitted during her recent appearance before the Environmental Audit Committee that Thames Water’s track record on sewage has been unacceptable. It is worth noting that it already has alerts when it intends to release sewage. She went on to commit that Thames Water would spend £1.2 billion over the next five years on improving the overall network and ensuring that sewage is not released during heavy rain.

Just last year in the Lake district, United Utilities, the north-west water company, dumped raw sewage for the equivalent of 71 full days into Windermere, England’s largest lake. Does my hon. Friend agree that bathing site status, which I am asking for Windermere and the Rivers Rothay, Brathay and Kent, would be a way of ensuring quick action so that water companies do not carry on doing this outrageous stuff?

I could not agree more. No doubt many other places in the country would want the same thing.

It is worth noting that our application has the support of Thames Water. In fact, it paid for a staff member to help to put in the application, so it is determined to do something about the issue. However, on the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) made, we also need an effective Environment Agency, because it is the regulator and it needs the resources and the teeth to hold the water companies to their promises. Therefore, I urge the Minister to assess its ability to do that important work and to ensure that it is well funded to do it. The will is there, and things are moving in the right direction, but we now need as much action from the Government as possible to keep up the momentum and keep water safe.

I am sure that I cannot have been the only one who, during the pandemic, contemplated the natural beauty around me. Indeed, I even bought a wetsuit, hoping that I would get into the river. I did not quite make it, but a lot of people did. In a survey of residents in Oxford, 21% said that this was the first year that they had ever dared to go in the river. They reported that it helped their mental health and wellbeing. There is a truly national movement for wild swimming, and it is wonderful.

Last month, I had the opportunity to meet activists at a bathing site in Wolvercote, just on the edge of Port Meadow. They told me how important it was for them that the designation was made. It would mean that the river that they loved would be subjected to a strict testing regime based on public health requirements. The number of people swimming or picnicking there peaked at an impressive 2,000 a day. It is a very popular spot and there are many like it across the country, as we have already heard. Shockingly, however, there is only one other river in the whole of England that has been granted bathing water status: the River Wharfe in Ilkley, Yorkshire.

The hon. Lady mentioned the River Wharfe in Ilkley, which she rightly says is the first river in the whole of the UK to be awarded bathing water status. I want to congratulate the Government on granting that status on the back of a very successful campaign run by the Ilkley Clean River Group. I wholeheartedly support that, because this is a great mechanism for putting more pressure on our utility companies, such as Yorkshire Water, which is discharging storm overflow sewage into the Wharfe.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman’s group on bringing that forward, because we want to double the number of rivers with that status—indeed, to triple or quadruple it in this room alone.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. On my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore)’s point, I am pleased to confirm to the hon. Lady that the River Teme in my constituency has also been put forward by Severn Trent Water to, I hope, become the second river in England to achieve bathing water quality status. It will cost quite a lot of money to do that. The Government have allowed, through Ofwat and the green recovery challenge fund award to Severn Trent Water earlier this year, close to £5 million to be invested in improving the very things the hon. Lady was going on to talk about, and which my hon. Friend raised—that is, the storm overflow discharges upstream of Ludlow, to allow bathing water quality to be improved. I urge the hon. Lady to invite Thames Water to explain to her how many storm overflow assessments have been done on the Thames upstream of Oxford, so that she can get a view on the progress it is making. I understand that over the weekend five discharges were identified from the storm overflows upstream of Oxford. In the last two days, people might have been enjoying swimming but they could not.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his advice and intervention. Here we are: we are five in the room. That compares with France, which has 573 designated swimming areas. Germany has 38 and Italy 73 —we are way behind. We are lagging behind when we should be leading the way. I sense an all-party parliamentary group forming—but anyway, there is certainly a lot of keen interest across the House.

Our application went in on 20 October. In fact, the city council has put in an application for two areas on the Thames at Port Meadow: one at Fiddler’s Island and the other at Wolvercote. Once the status is given, the water company and the councils will have five years to reduce bacteria levels to at least sufficient status in the summer months, otherwise, the area is de-designated. That pressure really matters. It also places a duty on the Environment Agency to keep testing the water regularly and the council to display signage on water quality. It is entirely right to give river users the choice about whether to bathe; currently, they simply do not have the information to decide whether it is safe. Unfortunately, all evidence at the moment suggests it is not.

Research by the Oxford rivers project published in September found that sewage pollution is increasing bacteria levels in popular swimming spots to the point where they are deemed unsafe. The current situation, where the Government allow water companies to release untreated sewage into rivers in exceptional circumstances is untenable and downright dangerous, because it is not exceptional. In Oxfordshire, just up from the areas I am talking about, it happened around 60 times last year. The average is more than once a week. The only thing that is exceptional is how it is allowed to happen at all. Bathing water status would be a small but significant step in holding those water companies better to account.

The most recent assessment nationally from the Environment Agency found that only 14% of rivers in England are in good ecological health and 0% are in good chemical health. According to the two sampling points included in the application to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Port Meadow has poor water quality.

In April, a survey of 1,140 Oxford residents found that 67% had been swimming in the river for years, and 75% of them said they did it weekly in the summer months. It is a self-selecting group, but these residents nevertheless recognised the risks that they are taking, as 57% listed water pollution as their top concern, with river swimming or similar river activities such as kayaking or paddle boarding being something they worry about. It is such a shame that such a joyous activity is tempered by such concerns. When A.A. Milne invented the game Pooh sticks I do not think he thought the name would have applied quite so literally. Our rivers should be places of protected picturesque beauty, not low-cost avenues for getting rid of sewage and, for that matter, biodiversity along with it.

Oxford has a centuries-long history of river swimming and other river activities, so it was ridiculous that, before this campaign—started by a PhD student, Claire Robertson, and volunteers as part of the Oxford rivers project—river users did not even have information about whether the quality of the water would affect their health. The research found that in months with heavier rainfall the bacteria levels were as much as double the recommended threshold. These levels have the potential to make anyone coming into contact with the water very ill indeed. When experts looked at which type of bacteria was causing this illness, they found that it was actually sewage, not agricultural run-off, which is what they had previously been told it was—yuck! Claire and her project have been funded by Thames Water, Thames21 and the Rivers Trust to do this research, and they have done a truly remarkable job.

There is such strength of feeling in Oxford from across the community that the petition for bathing water status has now reached over 5,000 signatures, but many of these residents have written to me separately. Heidi, who is part of a group of West Oxford women and regularly swims in the Thames at Port Meadow, described in her email that

“we’re very concerned about the pollution in the river and especially the release of raw sewage by Thames Water into the river after rain fall. I have signed up to a sewage release alert and I’m very shocked how often I receive emails from them notifying me of a sewage release”.

Max wrote to me and explained,

“over the summer I swam a number of times with my family in the Thames in and around Oxford...My daughter even became sick after a swim and was laid up with stomach cramps for several days”.

Jessica, in her email, told me,

“each swim is tempered with how even better the water quality could be. I’ve seen photos of the river 5 years previously and the bright green of the weeds and clear water look stunning, now it’s a brownish grey”.

Cherry described to me:

“I swim every year from Port Meadow, it is a great pleasure but I am appalled that the water is so unclean. As you know it has been a favourite swimming place for many people. I grew up swimming in the Thames and Cherwell and continue to do so at 79.”

For some, the experience can have much longer effects. Amanda wrote in to me and said:

“I knew immediately I got in that the water was different. It looked green and felt fizzy. I got out straight away but still became ill, requiring antibiotics”.

Unfortunately, these experiences are all too common, and they need to stop.

In conclusion, I simply urge the Government and the Minister to take action and protect our rivers, starting by granting the River Thames in Oxford at Port Meadow bathing water status. The application has the backing of the community, the water company and the councils. We are not asking for any money at this point, but we want the application to be granted so that we can work with all the partners concerned, including the Environment Agency, Thames Water and the Oxford rivers project, and make sure they have the tools they need.

I appreciate that the application is in and it is unlikely we will get an answer today—although if the Minister wants to give us positive news, we would be delighted—but I very much welcome her remarks in her response, and I look forward to a positive outcome as soon as possible for the people of Oxford.

It is a pleasure, as ever, to see you in the Chair, Dame Angela. I thank the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) for raising this issue on behalf of her constituents. Of course, it is an issue that many people are talking about. I like the image of her in her wetsuit and I am sorry she did not get to use it. I am a bit of a coward when it comes to the cold. I always wear my wetsuit, even in high summer in Cornwall when I go to the bathing water areas there, which I recommend. It’s great.

The hon. Lady knows—at least, I hope she is getting the message—that the Government have made improving our water quality an absolute priority, and it is a personal priority of mine. I hope colleagues understand that. I worked closely with my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) on what was going to be a private Member’s Bill and we rolled it over into the Environment Bill. I have worked with other Members here. My door is always open to talk about these issues, because we want to improve our water quality. I am sure the hon. Lady knows that I have put the water companies on notice. They are under the microscope and things need to improve.

I will touch on the Environment Bill, although the hon. Lady promised that we would not get bogged down in that. She knows that we voted through six pages of measures in the Environment Bill the other day when I was at the Dispatch Box in the main Chamber, and they were all things to improve water quality and to tackle sewage pollution in particular. I made it crystal clear to the water companies that what has been happening is unacceptable.

The Government have also introduced new environment measures that will require water companies to report in as near real time as possible on storm sewage overflows—in fact, within an hour of their being used. That will make a significant difference to how the Environment Agency can then enforce those measures. Those things will be positive. As well as all the other measures introduced in the Bill, the Government announced in the other place the other day that we will further strengthen the Bill with an amendment to ensure that water companies secure a progressive reduction in the adverse effects of the discharges. We have worked very closely with colleagues on that, and we are going in the right direction. All that gold-plates what we have already flagged to the regulator, Ofwat, in the draft policy statement. It has to make it a top priority for water companies to reduce their use of storm sewage overflows, which is the first time a Government have done that. Also, DEFRA has to produce a plan for all that by September 2022. So movement is happening, and it needs to.

The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon talked about water quality in detail, and there are many pressures on our water environment that affect it. It is not just storm sewage overflows. It all relates to our growing population, intensive farming, climate change, chemical use and so forth. We need to collectively address all those things in order to return our water to its near natural state. The Government are determined to do that. I put on the record that £30 billion has already been invested by the water companies since 1990, and they have achieved a significant reduction in phosphates and ammonia, but there is a lot more still to do.

The hon. Lady mentioned enforcement, and I am pleased to say that we have provided additional funding for the EA to increase farm inspections nationwide over the next 18 months. That will include an extra 50 inspectors carrying out more than 1,000 inspections this financial year. They will target areas of particular concern initially—for example, the River Wye, the Solent, the Somerset levels in my constituency, and Lyme bay. We have also committed additional funding for extra catchment-sensitive officers to work on the ground to tackle land use on the agricultural side, which also impacts on our pollution. We have support for farmers to help deliver on that.

The bathing water issue is obviously the crux of the debate. There are more than 400 designated bathing waters in England, mostly around the coast, because we are an island. That is a difference between France and us. They are managed to protect the public’s health. The EA regularly takes samples and tests the bacteria level because the water needs to be clean and safe for swimmers. We recently introduced a new measure for water companies to monitor those sites all year round and give data, which is very useful for swimmers, surfers and others. There has been good progress over the past 30 years, but there is clearly more to be done.

More than £2.5 billion has been invested by English water companies to improve bathing water since privatisation. Figures in those bathing areas are good on the whole: 98.3% of bathing waters in England pass the minimum test and, of those, 70% achieved excellent ratings. That compares with 28% in 1990. I was an environment correspondent in the west region and regularly reported on those sites. I can confirm that things have improved since those days, but there is certainly more to do.

We welcome applications for bathing water designations for both coastal and inland sites. They are used by many people and we believe more people would use them. Coronavirus has demonstrated how valuable they are. When an application is received, it is reviewed against Government criteria, which are on the site. If it meets those criteria, a consultation is run, as happened in the Wharfe area, as my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) will know. Following that, a final decision is made about whether the site can be designated. If so, the aim is to designate it the following season.

If a site were to receive the designation of bathing water status, the EA is enabled to spring into action and look at what is needed to improve the water quality to meet the standards set by the regulation. It could add a requirement to the water industry natural environment programme—WINEP as we call it—for funding for the next price review, for example. If necessary, the EA assessment could include discussing options with Ofwat, to explore bringing forward investment. There are measures, as the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon well knows.

As has been mentioned, this year my Department designated the River Wharfe in Ilkley. We are currently considering the application, received just two weeks ago, from Oxford City Council. We received letters of support from the hon. Members for Oxford West and Abingdon and for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds), as well as from Thames Water, making clear how proactively it wants to support this, which is welcome.

I met the chief executive at my chalk stream restoration strategy launch recently, and she told me how determined the company is to get to grips with the storm sewage overflows. It has made a commitment to get close to real-time notifications on all discharges, and expects to have that up and running by 2022. That will obviously be significant for this application. The point is that water quality will not change overnight; it will not be instant. That is why all the other actions to reduce the overall levels of pollution, taken by farmers, landowners, the industry and other combinations, are so important. Multiple organisations will be involved, as they are in the Ilkley area.

We heard references to some other areas. I am heartened that we are getting those other applications because it means we can genuinely get moving. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley for the work he is pushing on that. Similarly, I look forward to hearing from my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow about the River Teme application and the work that he is doing; he is doing such good work on this issue. I have already met the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) about Windermere.

Local authorities have been able to apply for bathing water status since 2013 and every year my Department writes to them to ask them if they would like to put forward a site. Interestingly, how many such applications do hon. Members think we have had since 2013? Five. Obviously, each application is considered, and of those five applications four have gone forward. So this is a new world of bathing water that we are looking at.

Anyone can submit an application, as we saw in Ilkley, where it was not the local authority that submitted the application; it was our hard-working, dedicated campaign group that was at the forefront in submitting that application. I just wanted to reiterate the point that this process is open to everyone to get involved with.

Order. We are talking about bathing water in the Thames at the moment. I have given some leeway, but let us not stray too far.

Thank you very much, Dame Angela, for getting us back on track and enabling us to get back to Oxford. However, my hon. Friend made a very good point and we genuinely understand everybody’s strength of feeling about swimming in their local area.

I am very much guided by your words, Dame Angela. I was very interested to hear what the Minister said about the number of applications made by local authorities; the hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) made the point that other people can also make applications. However, is the Minister saying that—whether it is the Thames, Windermere, a river in Kent or any other river or waterway—if local authorities make a request for bathing site status for one of their waterways, that request will be taken seriously and considered?

I had hoped that I had already made that clear. There is a process, which is set out on the website. What has to be done and the procedures that have to be gone through are set out very clearly. Then there is a consultation and consideration of the feasibility of an application.

However, I must reiterate that there are other requirements, which the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon mentioned. There is also a particular emphasis on safety; for example, will life-saving equipment be provided? Is there space for all the people who might turn up and will they be provided for, with parking spaces, cafés and toilets? All those things then become part of the whole discussion about whether a site is a suitable area for bathing. As I say, safety—keeping people safe when they are swimming—is obviously a really key issue.

I will wind up there. As a Government, we recognise the real health benefits of healthy waters and the importance of managing them well. Of course, all this links in to everything we are doing this very week at COP26 to have a healthy, sustainable planet on which we can all live and thrive.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.