Environmentalists are calling on the Government to reveal why it rejected all but one application for bathing water status by English rivers, as local groups say they have been “left in the dark”.
Campaigners representing at least nine sites on English rivers are known to have submitted applications to be granted official bathing water status as part of a campaign to clean up Britain’s waterways.
However just one site, on the River Deben in Suffolk, has proceeded to the next stage of the application process, with the rest receiving letters of rejecting from DEFRA.
Local groups said they have not been told why their applications have been rejected and have hit out at the Government for a “lack of transparency”.
“It’s one thing to say you haven’t met the criteria, but it’s pretty poor not to say which criteria you haven’t met,” said Richard Newton-Chance, a Parish Councillor based in Calstock, Cornwall, who was part of a group who submitted an application for a stretch of the River Tamar.
While people can still swim in water that is not an official bathing site, the designation forces the Environment Agency to carry out additional tests on bacteria levels.
The UK has over 600 designated bathing water sites, however the majority of these are coastal and only two are located within rivers.
However a campaign is currently underway, led by the group Surfers Against Sewage, to get bathing status for 200 rivers by 2030.
Achieving bathing status is viewed as an important tool to improve Britain’s rivers for both humans and wildlife.
Research has found that wild swimmers across the country are currently plunging into rivers that contain up to 20 times the safe level of harmful bacteria, in part due to the dumping of raw sewage in the water.
“What we were trying to do here was try and find another mechanism for putting pressure on the Environment Agency to actually test the water and do something about it,” Mr Newton-Chance said.
“We’re not going to top people swimming in it, because we already do. So our main objective is to try and make the water as safe as we can by putting pressure on the people who are currently polluting it. We can’t do that unless we get regular testing.”
While DEFRA is yet to provide any specific information on why it rejected the applications, several local groups suspect they have been rejected due to the number of people using the site.
As part of the application process, campaign groups must carry out surveys of the bathing site throughout the summer and submit information on how many people are using the site.
Charlotte Ireland, from the Ribble Trust, which submitted an application for a stretch of the River Ribble in Clitheroe, Lancashire, said the site, which is about a mile long, can have up to 300 people using it on a hot summers day.
However, she thinks their application may have been rejected by DEFRA as these numbers are not as big as those seen on coastal bathing sites.
“We’re not sure if they might be comparing two incomparable areas basically,” she said.
“It is frustrating. It makes it very hard to get your application together. You are kept very in the dark about what they want to see. You just get vague hints and it doesn’t make it easy.”
The application took 10 months to submit, using up money and volunteers’ time, she added.
Isobel Stoddart, who is part of a group who submitted an application for bathing water status on the River Kent in Staveley, Cumbria agreed “there should have been more detail in the application process and on how to apply”.
“Rivers are really important places and they should be clean for bathing and other recreational activities,” she said.
“There was a huge amount of work that went into it, and a lot of volunteer time and it’s really important that we don’t let this deflate our campaign.”
She added: “That was such a valuable tool for us to be able to get some sort of protection for the river and there are no other places that we can go to now to actually get the kind of monitoring that we need on the river.”
i is currently running a campaign called Save Britain’s Rivers, which is focussed on revealing the plight of the UK’s waterways and driving policy change.