‘It’s a disgrace’ - one in four swimmers avoid taking a dip in UK seas this summer over sewage, campaigners say

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Henley Mermaids said it is a “tragedy” and they have personally seen the impacts in the River Thames from “sanitary products” to “sewage tide lines on swans”

It is a “disgrace” and a “tragedy” swimmers are put off from taking a dip in UK seas because of sewage, campaigners said.

A new poll from the Liberal Democrats found almost one in four UK adults said they would not go swimming this year because of sewage dumping by water companies.

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Just over 30% said they would go sea swimming during the summer but 23% said they would not.

The Henley Mermaids, a campaign group made up of five middle-aged women who share a passion for river swimming, said they have “personally seen the impacts” of sewage in the River Thames such as “sanitary products, sewage foam and sewage tide lines on swans”.

They said it is a “disgrace that the water industry has been given free rein to pollute our rivers” and UK rivers and seas must not be treated as “open sewers”.

The poll, carried out by Savanta with 2,272 UK adults between 21 and 23 July, found 43% of regular beachgoers said they were less likely to visit the British seaside this summer because of the sewage discharges.

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‘It’s a disgrace’ 1 in 4 swimmers avoiding the sea over sewage spills. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images) ‘It’s a disgrace’ 1 in 4 swimmers avoiding the sea over sewage spills. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)
‘It’s a disgrace’ 1 in 4 swimmers avoiding the sea over sewage spills. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images) | AFP via Getty Images

Josh Harris, Head of Communications at sewage campaign group Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), told NationalWorld the “incompetence of decision-makers and the greed of water companies” has “eroded one of the great pleasures of our island nation – swimming in our coastal waters”.

He added that the water industry and government must “put people and planet before profit” and “reverse the shameful decline of our seas” as a “matter of great urgency”.

An analysis by the Lib Dems earlier this year showed there were 1,504 sewage discharges in 2022 on beaches with a Blue Flag rating – a standard that is supposed to signify that a beach is free from sewage pollution.

The party is calling on sewage dumping on Blue Flag beaches to be banned as it is “ruining the British beach holiday”, Liberal Democrat environment spokesperson Tim Farron said.

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Farron said coastal communities are “at the mercy of water companies who unapologetically discharge raw sewage into popular swimming spots” and “tourists will turn away” if it continues “leaving small businesses and local tourism to suffer from their mess”.

He added: “No-one should have to go for a swim or build a sandcastle next to raw sewage.”

A spokesperson from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs said banning discharges “overnight without any plan to fix storm overflows” is “reckless” and “would see sewage backing up into people’s homes and the street”.

The spokesperson added: “The secretary of state demanded action plans on every storm overflow in the country and our Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction Plan requires water companies to spend £56 billion to eliminate the harm from storm overflows – the largest infrastructure investment in water company history.”

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A Water UK spokesperson said “just one out of every 10 beaches achieved an excellent water standard in the 1990s” but “thanks to water company investment, that has increased to seven in 10 beaches today”.

However, the spokesperson added that the industry recognises “more should have been done sooner” and now has “an unprecedented plan to start to put it right”.

This includes £10 billion investment over the next seven years to transform the Victorian era sewer networks.

The spokesperson said: “As part of this, bathing waters will be prioritised and among the first to receive funding.”

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Soon after the announcement of this investment, reports surfaced that millions of households could see their yearly water bills rise by up to 40% to tackle the cost of meeting strict targets to tackle the sewage crisis.

England’s privatised water firms said they need the extra money to help foot the costs to upgrade sewer networks.

Southern Water has been slammed as a “disgrace” after documents from a focus group revealed the firm is proposing to charge customers 73% more by 2030 - a total of £759 a year.

In response, people across England are refusing to pay their wastewater bills and demanding water companies “stop billing” households for removing their sewage as they are “not treating it”.

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Angler Matt Marlow, from Stockport, Greater Manchester. said he stopped paying his water bill entirely to United Utilities about six months ago because the water company is “trying to charge me for something I’m not getting”.

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