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Beach Pollution: Clean-Up Schemes

Volume 591: debated on Thursday 9 July 1998

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3.14 p.m.

What progress is being made to clean up polluted beaches in England and Wales; what is the role of water authorities in the process; and what funds may be available from the European Union.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, considerable progress has been made with compliance with the headline standards of the Bathing Water Directive, rising from 66 per cent. in 1988 to 89 per cent. in 1997, in England and Wales. The Government expect further progress as more improvement schemes are completed. However, the results for 1997 went against the improving trend with a very small fall in compliance compared to the previous year. The role of the water companies is to maintain or improve the sewerage infrastructure to meet the Environment Agency's discharge consent conditions which are set so that the Bathing Water Directive standards are achieved. Funds are not available from the European Regional Development Fund for works which are required to meet EU directives, but in some instances funds may indirectly help progress in cleaning up beaches.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her helpful reply. Does she agree that our beautiful coastline and beaches are very much national assets? Does she further agree that as a baseline the continuation of the coastal discharge of raw sewage and untreated waste water less than a mile off shore is not acceptable in today's environment? I would add that despite the vigilant monitoring of the quality of the bathing water by the Environment Agency, which gives great public assurance, we need more. Will the Minister consider her department taking a fresh look at the matter, along with the water companies and the Environment Agency, focusing on the need for future investment to hasten the modernisation of the treatment works in order to deal with waste water around our coasts?

My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Earl that our beaches and coastline are great national assets and that we need to protect them. It was for that reason that my right honourable friend Mr. Michael Meacher called on the Environment Agency and the water companies to take urgent remedial action in the kinds of instances which the noble Earl described and to report on the prospects for compliance with the directive and on the action needed in the case of persistent failures. The Government will not be satisfied until we are regularly achieving close to 100 per cent. compliance.

As regards investment, we are looking at the possibility of providing more to improve bathing waters under the current periodic review of water company price limits. Other measures which would help to improve compliance are the completion of the bathing water improvement programme; the urban waste water treatment directive programme, and the EA policy introduced last year requiring design and guideline standards where secondary treated effluent may impact on bathing waters.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that when I was a Member of the other place, the whole of the Durham coastline fell within my constituency, and much of my time was spent dealing with the fact that the golden sands—which they were in those days—were being transformed into a black mess because of the dumping of coal waste into the sea? All the pits have now closed, but the problem does not seem to be improving. Can the Minister say whether any research has been done into this matter? If she does not have the answer to hand—which she probably does not—would she care to write to me about it?

My Lords, I shall certainly write in detail to my noble friend. I know that the beaches around Easington certainly had the problem that he described and was concerned with when he was the constituency Member. I understand that there is a reclamation scheme to clean up those beaches. The cost is being met through millennium funding. I understand that it is being brought forward by a consortium of local partners. The Environment Agency is advising on the proposals and their environmental impact. The aim is to reclaim those beaches and perhaps give back to the noble Lord his golden sands.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that European Union structural, cohesion and regional funds are being used by other countries for that very purpose: to clean up their beaches and to make sure that raw sewage is pumped further out than one mile from the coastline? As that is the case, is there any merit in suggesting to the Minister's right honourable friend either that application be made to the EU to get funds for this particular area of the United Kingdom—most of the United Kingdom does not qualify for such funds—or that application be made to the EU that this particular area of responsibility should be taken outwith the structural, cohesion and regional funds and put into a certain fund to which the United Kingdom can apply for this purpose rather than have it fall on the water companies?

My Lords, I shall certainly consider that suggestion. My understanding is that moneys from the regional development fund are not available simply to meet the requirements of directives. However, as I said in my Answer, a variety of projects are funded under the ERDF, including infrastructure projects which might involve tourism. It may be possible through such funding to take action to improve bathing water standards. I shall investigate the issues raised by the noble Baroness.

My Lords, can the Minister please give us any reassurance about what seems to be an absolutely appalling situation in the Fal Estuary at the moment and, with the summer coming and children and everybody else using many of the beaches around the Fal estuary, can the Minister tell us whether South West Water is really going to have what seem to be several months to try to get the matter right?

My Lords, I saw the reports, which were confirmed yesterday, that the Falmouth and Truro Port Health Authority served an abatement notice on South West Water requiring the company to cease to discharge sewage effluent from the new outfall at Blackrock on the grounds that the port health authority considers the discharge to be a nuisance and prejudicial to health within the meaning of the law. As I understand it, that is now an issue for the courts to resolve. It is for South West Water to show whether it has used the best practical means to prevent or counteract the effects of any nuisance which may have been caused. If bathing waters are affected, the Environment Agency will obviously have an interest in this.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that in relation to its total coastline the Isle of Wight has the cleanest beaches in the United Kingdom?

My Lords, I understand the loyalty to the Isle of Wight which is displayed by the noble Lord. However, last year there was quite a serious problem—

with leakages between foul sewers and drains contaminating the bathing water. However, action is being taken and I hope that it will resolve the problems that were experienced last year, lead to further improvements in the future and to the reinstatement of the high quality to which the noble Lord referred.

My Lords, although beaches need to be cleaned up as soon as possible, given the loot that has been acquired by those who own the private water monopolies, could we not ask them to pay for this to be done rather than fund it from public sources?

My Lords, that is exactly the issue under consideration in the periodic review of water company price limits. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State will be giving advice on the extent of the environmental improvements that he expects the water companies to make.