UK bathing water ranks next from last in EU beach table

The UK is second bottom in a league table ranking EU countries on the quality of their bathing water, stoking fears that the "dirty man of Europe" could be on his way home after Brexit.

96.4% of British beaches were found safe to swim in last year, but 20 sites failed the assessment in the annual survey by the European Environmental Agency (EEA) released on Tuesday. Only Ireland had a higher percentage of poor quality bathing waters at 4%.

And with Brexit casting doubt on the future of EU regulations that staunched runaway coastal pollution in the 1970s, some influential Brussels figures are warning of retaliation if the UK lowers environmental standards to allow the export of dirty factories, practices, or waste across the Channel.

Benedek Jávor, the co-chair of the European parliament’s environment committee, said that if that happened “the EU could put pressure on the UK by saying that British products will not be allowed into EU markets unless they meet environmental standards”.

He added: “If there are scandals or the bathing water quality falls below a certain level, national governments or the EU could send warnings to companies not to organise trips to British beaches.”

Theresa May’s government has said it will transfer all existing EU law into British statute under a planned “great repeal bill”. After this has been done though, thousands of articles and provisions may then be amended or deleted without the approval of MPs.

Leaked government documents have suggested that the government plans to “scale down” climate and environmental laws to secure post-Brexit trade deals.

Molly Scott Caho, the Green MEP for the south-west, said the health of Britain’s coastline was at risk and would now depend on the strength of government factions after next month’s election.

“The businesspeople I speak to in the tourism industry are very worried about the anti-regulation extremists in the Conservative party,” she said. “Before we joined the EU we were the dirty man of Europe and it took a long time for our beaches to be cleaned up – and that was because of action from the EU.”

In 1993, a European Court of Justice lawsuit forced the UK government and its newly privatised water industry to clean up infrastructure, and designate sufficient bathing water sites. However, the UK continued discharging raw sewage into the sea until 1998, longer than any other European country.

Barry Gardiner, Labour’s shadow spokesman on climate and trade, said: “People need to ask why UK beaches are the worst in Europe bar one. It was only an EU directive that forced the government to clean up its act this much. What do people honestly think will happen when the directive no longer applies?”

Peter Kristensen, the EEA’s bathing water expert, said: “We have seen tremendous progress in the quality of bathing water across Europe, including in the UK, over the past few decades thanks in part to the EU’s bathing water directive which set Europe-wide standards in water quality and we again saw progress last year.”

The number of UK bathing waters deemed unfit for swimming fell from 31 to 20 in 2016, because of increased infrastructure spending and better weather conditions, the EEA said.

edie is part of the Guardian Environment Network

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