Water pollution: how UK lakes and seas compare to Europe on bathing water quality amid sewage dumping scandal

The water quality at swimming spots in the UK lags behind those in the rest of Europe, official figures reveal. Use these interactive charts and maps to see how the UK’s bathing spots compare.

Water quality of bathing sites varies across Europe (Image: NationalWorld/Mark Hall)
Water quality of bathing sites varies across Europe (Image: NationalWorld/Mark Hall)
Water quality of bathing sites varies across Europe (Image: NationalWorld/Mark Hall)

Water quality at the UK’s bathing spots is falling significantly behind some neighbouring countries in Europe, analysis by NationalWorld can reveal.

As water companies continue to pump raw sewage into some of the country’s most popular swimming spots, figures suggest that the issue may be largely isolated to the UK.

Across much of Europe bathing waters recorded much higher standards than those found in the UK, data published by the European Environment Agency (EEA) and UK equivalents reveal.

Environment watchdogs monitor bathing spots such as coastal waters, lakes and rivers and classify the standard under excellent, good, sufficient or poor.

NationalWorld analysed ratings data for more than 21,000 European Union (EU) and 600 UK bathing sites, finding the proportion rated less than excellent in the UK was more than double that of Europe – 31.9%, versus just 12.5% on the continent.

We excluded around 700 European sites which had not been given a rating.

So how do swimming spots in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales compare with those at popular holiday destinations in Spain, France and Italy? These four charts will show you how the quality of bathing sites varies across the continent.

What do bathing water ratings mean?

The Environment Agency, which monitors bathing sites in England, tests for bacteria (E.coli and intestinal enterococci) throughout the summer season. The readings taken over the last four bathing seasons then determine the annual classification for the site.

The Agency said ratings can vary depending on the weather, pollution from agricultural and urban sources and storm water overflows.

An excellent rating is the highest/cleanest classification, good means generally good water quality, sufficient means the minimum standard has been met and poor means the water has not met the quality standard.

When there is poor water quality swimmers are advised against bathing. The government publishes daily information on water quality at bathing sites in England.

Similarly, the EU Bathing Waters Directive requires country’s to monitor microbiological pollution (and other substances) at bathing spots throughout the summer season.

How do waters in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales compare?

Scotland had the greatest proportion of bathing sites classified as less than excellent in 2021, with almost two-thirds (62.4%) or 52 bathing spots falling into the category. Only one site in Scotland was found to be in a poor condition however  –  Dhoon Bay in Dumfries and Galloway.

England had the second greatest proportion of bathing sites classified as less than excellent with 28.3% or 122 in total. Across the country four sites were deemed poor.

Neither Northern Ireland nor Wales recorded any poor bathing sites in 2021, however 26.9% and 19% of bathing sites were still found to be less than excellent respectively.

The chart below shows a breakdown of how each nation’s bathing sites were classified in 2021.


How do UK waters compare with the EU?

The European Environment Agency (EEA) publishes data on all 27 EU member states plus Switzerland and Albania.

Proportionally, the UK would rank joint second for the number of bathing spots classified as less than excellent among these nations, with just under a third (31.9%) falling short of excellent standards in 2021. In total 202 bathing sites fell into this category. Albania also had 31.9% of less than excellent bathing spots.

The countries were second to Slovakia which had 44.8% of bathing sites being deemed less than excellent by regulators respectively.


Cyprus on the other hand was found to have some of the best bathing water in Europe. Every single bathing spot in the island nation – bar eight which had not been rated – was found to be in excellent standing. Next up was Greece with 98.7% excellent and Austria with 98.1%.


The map below shows what proportion of bathing sites were classified as less than excellent in 2021 – the darker the colour of the country the greater the percentage of bathing sites classified as less than excellent.


The best and worst beaches in Europe

From the Balearic Islands to the French Riviera, almost 350 bathing spots in Europe were classified as poor in 2021. These range from Playa Sa Caleta PM1 in Menorca to Plage Du Barry in the French Riviera – how does your favourite holiday spot compare?

You can use the interactive map below to see how bathing spots across Europe were classified by the EEA. Zoom into your preferred country and click on a dot to see how it was rated in 2021.