Local groups denied access to reasons for refusal of English river bathing areas

Local communities fighting to clean up their rivers by creating protected bathing areas have been refused access to the reasons their applications were rejected by the government.

Sandra Laville www.theguardian.com

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) turned down a series of freedom of information (FoI) requests submitted by campaigners in Kent, Yorkshire, Oxfordshire, Cornwall, Suffolk and Lancashire to obtain more information on why the applications were unsuccessful. The campaigners have lodged a complaint against the refusals.

Community groups have been working to achieve bathing-water status for areas of their rivers in order to help clean up the waterways, because the designation means the Environment Agency has to test water for faecal bacteria.

However, Defra has granted only two of 21 applications over the past year. The Wharfe in Yorkshire was the first river in the UK to be given bathing-water status, but applications for three other areas on the river were all turned down.

Also rejected were the River Tyne at Wylam, Northumberland; part of the River Deben in Woodbridge, Suffolk, in the constituency of the environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey; and the River Kent in Cumbria. At the time, the campaigner Sheila Adam of the Clean River Kent Campaign told the Guardian: “We don’t get any information at all. We don’t know why we were unsuccessful – it might be numbers, but they have not told us what the numbers required are.

“We wanted to get this status so the Environment Agency would be required to test the water for bacteria and force a clean-up of the river. The river is a site of special scientific interest and has European conservation status, and we think it should make it a priority for investment.”

Defra has also refused FoI requests for details to inform local people as they decide on whether to continue the fight for bathing water status. According to the responses to FoI requests seen by the Guardian, Defra has refused to provide details of the number of “bathers” required to meet the threshold for the status; what local consultation is required to meet the criteria; the score for each river area against the criteria; and what public facilities might be required in order to be given bathing water status.

The complaint launched by some of the campaigners comes as Coffey faces criticism for the lack of ambition in her plan for water, which was published on Tuesday.

The plan has been criticised for including measures such as a ban on plastic in wet wipes that was announced several years ago, and for failing to provide a comprehensive strategy to tackle the crisis of pollution, over-abstraction of water, and drought in English rivers.

Every river in England has failed tests for chemical and biological pollution, and a Conservative government target for three-quarters of rivers to be in good chemical and biological status by 2027 is unlikely to be met despite the promises under the plan.

In response to the series of FoI requests, Defra said the criterion for the number of bathers was “a large number of people”. It added that “all applications for bathing water designation are assessed against this criterion” and “only sites where the application provides evidence of a large number of people bathing have been taken forward for consideration for bathing water status”. However, Defra refused to say how many bathers amounted to a “large” number.

Becky Malby, of Ilkley Clean River, who worked on the successful application for bathing water status for the River Wharfe, is coordinating the FoI requests. She said the fact that so many river applications were rejected, based on the numbers of people using the river, despite huge local public support and consultation, demonstrated that the criteria were not clear and transparent. A complaint about the refusal to answer the questions has been lodged with the head of information rights at Defra.

“The applications are coming from public groups who are not party to, and excluded from the decision-making. Without knowing the assessment criteria and decision-making process, the public will continue to waste days of volunteer time putting together bathing applications over months that then fail,” said Malby.

“The application process requires the public applying to count people using the water over a three-month period, to identify facilities and to conduct consultation. This is a massive amount of work for local people and should only take place against publicly clear and transparent criteria.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “We would not comment on individual applications that are not being taken forward to consultation, but all applicants have been informed of the outcome of their application. When selecting new sites for potential bathing water designation, we consider how many people bathe there, if the site has suitable infrastructure and facilities, such as toilets, and if measures are being taken to promote bathing at those waters.

“All applications are assessed against these factors and applications that do not meet the essential criteria will not proceed to national consultation.”