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Bathing Water Status: Rivers

Volume 722: debated on Wednesday 9 November 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Nigel Huddleston.)

I am delighted to have been successful in securing this debate to cover such an important subject, and it is very good to see my hon. Friend the Minister in her place at the Dispatch Box. She has led many Government initiatives on improving our environment, which of course I strongly support.

There are many elements to the work to improve our water quality, but I am only going to focus on one specific element in this debate. As colleagues will have seen from the title of the debate, I want to see more rivers achieving bathing water quality status. Specifically, I want the River Nidd at the Lido Leisure Park in Knaresborough to achieve bathing water status. Even more specifically, that is a pinpoint location rather than a stretch of river, because that is the process we have to engage in.

My hon. Friend the Minister is a knowledgeable and well-travelled lady, but I should detail for the House a bit more about the Nidd. It is a tributary of the Ouse, rising in the high dales on Great Whernside and flowing down through Nidderdale, skirting Harrogate and going through Knaresborough before joining the Ouse. The upper section is in the Nidderdale area of outstanding natural beauty, then the Nidd gorge, and when it reaches Knaresborough it forms part of one of the most famous Yorkshire views. I cannot distribute pictures, but I ask hon. Members to imagine a castle on a crag, a viaduct over the gorge and homes cascading down the valley side—Knaresborough is a very beautiful town.

Just downstream from that famous viewpoint is the lido, a leisure home site owned and run by Meridian Parks and the Maguire family. It is also a popular location for wild swimming. Of course the issue of water quality is not confined to one area, and while we have many designated bathing areas around our coast, there are very few inland areas and those few are overwhelmingly lakes, not rivers. Indeed, looking at the data from the Outdoor Swimming Society, 98% of areas with bathing water status are coastal.

There is one river in our area of Yorkshire that has achieved that status, and it is the River Wharfe in Ilkley. It is good to see my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) in his place, and I know he intends to say a few words and share some insights from his excellent work there. The purpose of seeking this debate was to highlight that many more rivers must be awarded bathing water status right across our country and to promote our campaign for the River Nidd in Knaresborough.

Inadvertently or not, my hon. Friend is making almost precisely the points that the Environmental Audit Committee made in its inquiry into water quality in rivers: that bathing water quality status should be an objective of every water company over the next pricing period, so that we can radically improve the quality of our rivers and allow more people to take great pleasure from swimming in all weathers in more and more rivers around the country.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. I have to say that I had not picked up all the output of his Select Committee, so apologies for that, but I strongly agree with everything he has said this evening. He is right that it should be an objective, but to achieve that objective, a team approach is needed, and one that involves the local community, local businesses, Government agencies, local government and national Government.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this debate forward. I spoke with him before in the Tea Room, so he sort of knows what I am going to ask, and I am sure he is well prepared for it. To achieve bathing water status, it needs the efforts and the input of councils for a start, as well as that of local communities. It also means that the local councils and agencies should look at safe swimming in rivers. It is important that if the waters are right, they have to be safe for swimming. Does he feel that there should be legitimate signage and information posts to make strictly clear that if there is no information, individuals should not swim in any section of that river? It is about the quality of the rivers, but it is also about the safety.

Well, it would not be an Adjournment debate if the hon. Member did not intervene. These things should become proprietorially known as “Shannon moments”. I obviously agree with his point that water safety is critical, but also his point about informing people about where it is safe and not safe. There is a role for local government in signage. I certainly agree with him.

I have met Nidd catchment anglers, the owners of the lido, residents and businesses, and they are all on board with the proposal for the Knaresborough site. So how do we reach that important water quality standard? The answer is to improve the actions and inputs on water quality from so many stakeholders.

One key concern for river water quality is the Victorian design of our sewerage system. This system mixes foul water—sewage—and rainwater run-off in the same sewer system. Combined sewer overflows were installed to enable sewers to cope with the additional volume during periods of heavy rain. That enabled the sewers to discharge into rivers. If the CSOs did not exist, it would back up into our homes when the system is overloaded, and that would be worse, but we have seen them operating more frequently due to increasing population and in particular due to changing weather patterns, with more intense rainfall.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for letting me intervene on him. He speaks with total passion on this issue, and it is a passion that West Oxfordshire feels, too, about the Evenlode and the Windrush, which we have. He is right that this challenge must be overcome with a team effort, but does he agree that sooner or later the Victorian infrastructure he has spoken about will need to be upgraded and water companies’ investment will be key to that?

My hon. Friend is as wise as ever. I happen to know the Windrush a little bit, and it is a very beautiful part of our country. He is most fortunate to have it in his constituency. While it is a team effort, it will have to be backed by investment. It is one of a number of policy areas where our requirement for infrastructure has not kept pace with modern demands, so he is absolutely correct, and I do agree with him.

One area where we have seen significant progress is with the increased monitoring of CSOs, and that has contributed to greater awareness of the number of discharges. In 2016, only 5% were monitored—next year it will be 100%. That is very good progress. Information from the House of Commons Library, based on monitoring data supplied by the Environment Agency, shows that 97% of CSOs are monitored in Yorkshire, which is ahead of the national picture. In 2021, each CSO in Yorkshire discharged on average 34 times, with the average duration at 5.8 hours. While that is the second-best performance for the duration of discharges in England, it is still way too much and it shows just how far there is to go.

In terms of progress on this issue by my local water company, Yorkshire Water has recently announced an additional £100 million investment, funded by its shareholders, on top of its existing five-year business plan, aimed at reducing average bills by a minimum of 20% a year by March 2025, and that is compared with a baseline in 2021. In addition to the increased extreme weather and flash flooding events that cause CSOs to operate, a change to what we put into the system has been occurring over the past decade or so, particularly with wet wipes, but also with nappies being the main new entrants alongside fat from cooking.

Wet wipes are responsible for 90% of sewer blockages and contribute to the formation of fatbergs—all hon. Members probably know what fatbergs are; they are truly grim. When the sewers are blocked, the CSOs operate and flush the wet wipes, and anything that is backed up behind them, which obviously includes human waste, into waterways. The hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) has done good work with her Plastics (Wet Wipes) Bill to remove plastic from wet wipes. I support that work and think it is right, but even removing plastic from wet wipes is not guaranteed to make the problem go away. Consumer behaviour can change, however, which could help; the UK currently flushes 11 billion a year.

I raised the issue of new building standards at business questions last week. Rainwater run-off from new housing estates contributes to the volume of water that can overwhelm sewers and trigger a CSO to operate. In terms of building standards, developers must ensure that water is retained on site for longer before it is gradually released into the system. Attenuation tanks and ponds have a role to play. We have just had an important debate on levelling up rural Britain, and agricultural practices are also involved. Rainwater can cause fertilisers, pesticides and animal waste to enter rivers and lower water quality, which is highly significant in many parts of our country.

We as legislators also have a major role to play. The Environment Act 2021 contains a variety of measures, but at its heart is transparency. It makes it a legal requirement for companies to provide discharge data to the Environment Agency and make it available in near-real time to the public. That increase in monitoring and transparency has already led to more enforcement action, and in some cases fines, for water companies where breaches have been found—and quite right too.

I view water improvement as a real team effort; it is not for a single actor to take the actions. It means improved targets, vigilant monitoring, enforcement action, increased investment from water companies, and behavioural change. Achieving bathing water status is a significant step to implementing the changes needed to improve river water quality more widely because, if achieved, the Environment Agency will develop a bathing water profile and put plans in place to monitor and protect the bathing water.

That is why I wanted to bring this complex and long-standing issue to the House to ask the Minister what more can be done to promote the quality of inland waterways. Bathing water status in the UK has mainly been a coastal issue up to now, but rivers must be included far more in future. I also wanted to highlight, of course, our campaign to secure bathing water quality status for the River Nidd at the lido in Knaresborough to make one of Yorkshire’s best even better.

Robbie Moore sought permission from the mover of the motion and the Minister to make a short contribution to this Adjournment debate, and they have agreed. I have been informed.

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) on securing this important debate. I know how passionate he is about securing bathing water status for parts of the River Nidd in Knaresborough and I thank him for allowing me to make a short contribution.

In December 2020, a stretch of water on the River Wharfe in Ilkley in my constituency was granted bathing water status—the first stretch of river in the UK to be awarded such a designation. I know how important that is, having heard my hon. Friend’s points about sewage getting into rivers. I put on record my thanks to the Ilkley Clean River Group, which did such a good job in getting our application off the ground in the first place and continuing with its efforts. I hope that my hon. Friend’s campaign is a success.

Why does this matter? Simply, we all care about improving water quality and ensuring that our rivers are clean, healthy and thriving environments. Of course, achieving bathing water status on rivers provides an additional mechanism to ensure that a river ecosystem is as healthy as it can be. The River Wharfe in Ilkley has had, and continues to have, problems with pollution being discharged due to inadequate sewage infrastructure. When it rains, Yorkshire Water’s sewage treatment works in the surrounding area often spill into the River Wharfe. Residents along Rivadale View will be familiar with that, as will residents downstream of the Ashlands sewage plant. Even more damaging are storm overflows, which are frankly inadequate to deal with the high percentage of rainfall we receive. My hon. Friend has already commented on our challenges with the combined sewer system.

Let us be clear: until now, no Government have had the willpower to tackle sewage discharge. I was pleased to vote for the Environment Act 2021, which will help tackle and put a stop to sewage discharge. I must say it was disappointing that the Opposition parties did not, like us, vote for that Act.

Of course, having secured bathing water designation, we are provided with an additional mechanism, which will help clean up our river system by putting additional pressure on water companies—in my case Yorkshire Water. Regular testing is now required. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that has resulted in the River Wharfe being classified as poor, but the data that is collected will put additional pressure on Yorkshire Water and other water companies to secure investment in infrastructure and additional apparatus to ensure that the stretches of water where bathing water designation is secured are clean.

Let me finish by making a couple of points about what I have learned from our experience. It is not good enough just to have a single monitoring point on a river; we must consider a stretch. I have concerns about the term “bathing water status”; I think “clean water status” would be much more apt, because that is what we are all trying to achieve, and there are some difficulties with rivers and it being safe to swim. In addition, the guidance from DEFRA needs to be updated to deal with rivers and not just coastal areas.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and wish him all success in his campaign on the River Nidd. If he has the success that we have had in Ilkley, that will put more pressure on the utility companies to clean up our rivers, which is what we all want to see.

I thank Members for showing such interest in this important subject. In particular, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), who has a wonderful career ahead of him as a blue badge guide—or, indeed, in any role in the tourism industry in his area—such was the wonderful picture that he painted. I congratulate Members across the House on championing what DEFRA very much wants to achieve: clean water.

Let me set out how we are going to achieve that. We are absolutely committed to driving up the water quality of our lakes, our rivers and our coasts for the public to enjoy and for the benefit of nature. Designated bathing waters protect people’s health at popular swimming spots across the country. As a Member of Parliament in the Lake district who has enjoyed much wild swimming for many of my 46 years, I know the benefits that that can bring. The water quality at those sites is monitored regularly—much more regularly than previously, as Members noted—and improvements are made if it does not meet the minimum standard.

There are 421 designated bathing waters in England. As my hon. Friend mentioned, the vast majority are coastal, but in the past two years we have designated our very first bathing waters on rivers. It is very much thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) that we have been able to achieve that in his constituency. I am pleased to say that we have many more applications for rivers to be designated bathing quality areas.

The Minister will be surprised to hear that I want to talk about a river and not a lake. We are seeking bathing status and clean water status for the River Kent. The “Clean River Kent” campaign has raised over £8,000 to do sampling, lab testing and surveys—massive thanks to it for raising that money, and to the people who sponsored me to do the Staveley trail to help raise a bit of it. Does the Minister agree that the regulator should be driving this work, instead of local groups having to raise the money to do it? Does she also agree that the water companies could come up with some of the money to fund these bids, because, let’s be honest, it is their fault that the rivers are not in a clean state to start off with?

The hon. Gentleman raises an excellent point on the part water companies must play in cleaning up our lakes, rivers and coastal areas. I am a neighbouring MP and will be delighted to meet him to talk about the natural management that could be done—very much part of my portfolio in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—to assist in cleaning up Lake Windermere in particular and of course the River Kent.

Bathing waters across England are a success story, with almost 95% achieving “good” or “excellent” status last year, the highest rate since the new stringent standards were introduced in 2015. Of these, 70% of bathing waters were classed as “excellent”, the highest quality standard, whereas just 28% of bathing waters met the highest standards in force in the 1990s. That demonstrates the excellent progress the Government are making in cleaning up our waters and holding water companies to account. Over the last 30 years, there has been good progress, following more than a century of poorly regulated industrial practices. A large proportion of the improving trend in bathing water quality can be attributed to improvements in sewage treatment.

Over £2.5 billion has been invested by English water companies to improve bathing water quality since privatisation, and England now has the cleanest bathing waters since records began. We know there is more to do to continue to drive up the quality of our rivers, lakes and coastal areas so people can enjoy them and nature can thrive. Areas used by large numbers of bathers and that have facilities to promote and support bathing are eligible for designation. We welcome applications for bathing water designations for both coastal areas and inland waters such as rivers. We actively encourage applications by writing annually to the chief executive of every local authority in England; we also write to other stakeholders such as swimming associations, because local authorities and stakeholders best know which popular riverside bathing areas may be suitable for designation. Once a site is designated as a bathing area, the Environment Agency will assess what action is needed to improve the water quality so that it can meet the standards that the public rightly expect and which are set by the bathing water regulations.

In 2021, we were delighted to approve the first designated river bathing water on the River Wharfe in Ilkley, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley for his superb championing to get that designation over the line—I know he is supporting other Members across the House. That was followed by Wolvercote mill stream on the River Thames at Oxford this year, so it is wonderful to have my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) here, championing bathing water quality and improving all water quality across the country. The designations are driving action to improve water quality.

My Department has received a lot of interest this year, and clearly society is paying a lot of attention to cleaning up our water. Our aim is to announce which new sites will be eligible to be designated before the start of the next bathing season, which is officially 15 May 2023, so get your Speedos ready—other outfits are available. We look forward to receiving the application for the River Nidd in the very near future, and I will be delighted to work with my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, as will the Minister responsible for this area, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow).

Guidance to assist applicants with their applications is already available on the Government website, and we plan to update this next year. To respond to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, that will make it easier for community groups to understand the criteria for bathing water and ensure that only the necessary information is requested, to save such a lot of time and effort. In addition, we are reviewing the Bathing Water Regulations 2013 to ensure that they reflect changes to how and where people use bathing waters.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough raised the subject of wet wipes. There is absolutely no doubt that wet wipes cause huge damage to sewers and to the environment when they are incorrectly flushed away. In fact, they make up 90% of the material that causes sewers to block. Let me take this opportunity to remind everybody across this House and across the country to bin it, don’t flush it.

Blockages can cause pollution and surface water flooding, and cost the water industry in England and Wales £100 million a year. The case for action is very clear. We are considering various options to tackle the issues caused by wet wipes. In November 2021 we launched a call for evidence that included questions on those options to help us build our evidence base and to inform our approach. That call for evidence closed on 12 February, and the Government will publish a response later this year.

Once again, I thank all Members, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, for championing the best quality water we can possibly achieve, to support people to enjoy bathing and so that nature benefits from clean water, which we will all benefit from. I also agree, as has been said across the House, that water improvement is a team effort. We can all play a part. That is why we will continue to take action to require water companies and industry to achieve the necessary improvements to reduce pollution. I am pleased that water companies have committed £56 billion to be spent over the coming years to clean our water and improve storm overflows.

We recognise that healthy and well-managed water is key to our wellbeing and an important part of the Government’s pledge to hand over our planet to the next generation in a better condition than we inherited it.

I hope the Minister is reassured that my speedos are at the ready for about May, I should imagine, no sooner.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.