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Turning Tides?

Turning Tides?In 'Sewage Sea Shore' back in May, we introduced the problems that are going to arise in the UK when the EU's new water quality standards start to bite. (They will make passing the bathing-water quality tests twice as hard as they have been up to now)

The most recent results (using our current, and lower, water quality standards) show that 10 beaches in the UK failed this year.   Six of those ten failures were in the North West, where United Utilities rules the roost.

The measurements for the new standards are already being taken on our beaches, and if there are enough failures over the next four years, there will be trouble. Notices will be erected prohibiting people from going in the water.

If the bathing beaches continue to fail, that advice will become permanent and they will be closed to visitors.

This is very serious stuff.

If readers want a more 'official' perspective, we've attached a pdf file. Follow this link to an information page and this link to a map of the NW Bathing beaches.

Up to now a group calling itself 'The Fylde Peninsula Water Management Group' has assumed responsibility for dealing with the problem. According to its blurb, it comprises Fylde, Wyre and Blackpool councils, together with Lancashire County Council, the Environment Agency, United Utilities plc and Keep Britain Tidy. It claims to have been set up as long ago as April 2011.

We were, and we remain, critical of Fylde Council for not treating this issue more seriously to date, and of not giving it the importance and attention it deserves.

Wyre Council appointed a Councillor representative to this Water Management Group, but Fylde did not.

Officers at Fylde were insistent to us (see the correspondence set out in our previous article) that it was a technical group, and there were no Elected Members on it.

As said in our earlier report, that statement is not correct.

One of Wyre's Councillors *is* a member of the Group.

His authority to participate derived from a formal decision of Wyre Council to participate in the group.

We spoke to him recently and asked him directly. He told us he was, and is, a member of the group, and attended the meetings. He also told us he would have welcomed the support of a councillor from Fylde to strengthen the perspective Borough Councils on the group, and to support what Wyre were trying to do.

Quite why Fylde didn't appoint a member to help drive policy for this group we can't begin to understand.

It might have been that an officer claiming delegated powers was attending from Fylde, but that misses the point completely. An officer cannot give the political dimension and the democratic legitimacy that is necessary to push for a particular direction within the group, and of course, officers are not accountable to the electorate.

But belatedly, and thankfully, it looks as though Fylde has woken up to what's going on.

We went to a major conference in Blackpool last week called "Turning Tides"

There were about 150 influential delegates attending, of which ten were Fylde Councillors, and nine were Fylde's officers, including the Chief Executive himself.

We've done a report of the main points for our readers, and our own take on the day.

In the introduction (by Jim Hancock - former political editor for BBC Northwest who ably chaired the meeting) we were told the first Bathing Water Directive was made in 1976, and the latest revision takes full effect from 2015.

DEFRA Minister Richard Benyon addressed the conference by video, saying that Government regarded the economy and the environment as being equally important. He said "Now is the time for the Northwest to rise to the challenge and crack the problem"

He also said "Wherever the minimum standard is not met, there will be signs warning against bathing" adding (almost unnecessarily we thought) "Research suggests that putting up signs against bathing has a direct impact on tourism"

STEVE MOORE: North West Director - Environment Agency
Said there were 33 designated bathing waters in the NW, including iconic resorts. Blackpool had 10m visitors and 7m people live in the NW within 1 hour of a bathing beach. Looking back, he said the industrialisation of the NW had turned rivers into sewers, and the first regulations came in the 1970s.

Looking forward, he said if no action is taken, seventeen of the NW beaches would fail the water quality tests and only 8 NW beaches would pass.

He said the main problems were: sewers, agriculture, wrong connections, and new developments, adding that in May this year, we began the start of the wettest summer on record, and by 11th May, Cleveleys beach had already failed for the year.

He said that maintenance works by water companies needed stepping up because breakdowns and failures of pipework affects the frequency of overflow conditions (Where raw sewage is discharged straight into the sea or the Ribble).

He was also concerned about the Government's planned relaxation of planning regulations for domestic extensions and so on, because he believed it risked more sewer connections being made improperly to plain water drainage systems .

STEVE MOGFORD: CEO - United Utilities
Gave us his vision of the future. He said UU provide water and wastewater services to 7m customers, adding that UU could not solve the problem alone and needed the help of the community to solve it.

He showed the conference a map from 1988 when 22 beaches failed the even lower standards applying at that time. The problems at that time included the discharge of raw untreated sewage twice daily into the sea, together with the weekly dumping at sea of sewage sludge from inland treatment works at Manchester.

After the 'Sea Change' improvements programme in 1991-96, with a spending of 500m, there were fourteen fails.

Between 1997 and 2000 additional storage capacity (to avoid storm conditions causing overflows of raw sewage) further reduced the problem, giving only six fails and three overspills a year instead of the previous ten spills.

Between 2000 and 2005, having spent another 124m, there were further improvements, including increased ultra violet treatment of sewage to kill bacteria. Only one beach failed and there were 3 overspills during the bathing season.

But the period 2005 to 2015 saw a deterioration, even though they planned additional spending of 165m.

By 2011 there were six beach failures again, mostly because of the weather - increased storms causing more (he didn't say how many) overspills. (And we assumed the extra houses that had been build since 2005 probably hadn't helped either.)

Worryingly he said that continuing short-burst heavy rainfall patterns will give the same problem for the future, and that building big storage tanks underground (as they have done before) isn't going to solve the problem.

We were subsequently told by one delegate that in their view, the volume of mixed sewage and rainfall arising from combined sewers in periods of heavy rain couldn't possibly be accommodated in tanks - or rather you couldn't build enough tanks to accommodate it.

He concluded by saying (also worryingly for us) that the new directive was really "about public information and choice".

To us that implied a counsel of despair. It sounded as though he knew UU is not going to be able to meet the new standards, so we have to expect that in the near future, people who have been 'informed' by what will be the new signs will 'choose' not to go to places that have failing beaches.

Although Cllr Simon Blackburn (Leader of Blackpool Council) was supposed to speak, he was unwell (and yes, someone did crack the joke about whether he'd been in the sea over the weekend),  so we went into Question Time at this point.

The first was from someone from Wyre BC who asked why, if the installation of underground tanks wasn't going to solve the problem, where UU doing exactly that at Singleton rather than building a new sewage works there as they originally planned? The answer was that tanks would ease the problem.

We didn't think that was a very good answer to be honest.

Another question came from Cllr Peter Hardy from Fylde who said the impression he had formed from UU's talk so far was (like ours) that they were looking to manage our expectations because it was inevitable that some beaches would fail when the new standards came in.

The first answer from UU was - shall we say - not entirely clear, and the Chairman pressed for a more specific reply, to which Mr Mogford said "I wouldn't describe it as inevitable"

At one point in the remaining Q& A someone said "Everyone living and working in the North West is making a contribution to the bathing water" Whilst the speaker no doubt meant it was costing everyone to improve the standards, we have to say we saw another interpretation.

One of the most interesting questions (we thought) was from a lady from the National Farmer's Union who asked what statistics there were for infection from UK bathing waters. The Environment Agency seemed to say they didn't know, and hadn't got such statistics. The NFU lady went on to say that DEFRA's own impact assessment says that the UK health authorities are not concerned with the public health issues from bathing waters.

A senior person from the Pleasure Beach asked if we could ask for a relaxation of the 2015 deadline from the EU. The reply was that it had been looked at, but it was not thought that Europe would agree to a relaxation - and that wasn't the issue anyway.

One Councillor asked about the impact of fracking - especially the large volume of waste water from it. The answer was a pretty bland - more or less 'it will be appropriately treated'.

NEIL JACK: CE Blackpool Borough Council
Standing in for Blackpool's leader, said the Council owned many tourism assets and anything that risked upsetting tourism is vital for Blackpool's future. He gave a quick outline of Blackpool - 14m invested over last few years, bigger names coming into the resort, one of the most deprived areas, lowest life expectancy in the UK for men, and third lowest for women. People originally came to Blackpool for bathing, but with bad notices erected, the fear is people will go elsewhere.

We then had two youngsters give their impressions of the problem. No doubt the organisers saw them as representing the perspective of future generations.

SOPHIE CADE: Nurture Lakeland
Spoke about a programme they had implemented to help reduce the levels of phosphate in the lake district waters.

Using limited expenditure by latching onto existing organisations and activities they promoted the message about using low phosphate washing powders. We presumed this speaker was to illustrate community engagement.

DR ROBERT KEIRLE: Marine Conservation Society
began by drawing attention (as we have done repeatedly) to the problems of Combined Sewer Overflows. He said they were essential because without them, in times of high rainfall, the sewage would backflow up though loos and manhole covers in driveways and streets. He said CSOs need to be mapped and monitored, and their details made publicly available.

He also said 'diffuse pollution' (that turned out to be things like sheep droppings and dog poo directly on the beaches) was also a problem but in the north west there were no reliable data about what proportion of the problem came from each pollution source, so he was working on a pure guess of one third each.

We didn't think that sounded very sensible in all honesty, but he said not even the Environment Agency had enough data to apportion blame.

He criticised councils for lack of vision and an absence of joined up thinking and, risking the anger of his audience he said "The people of Blackpool seem to have turned their back on the natural environment"

He said he thought that by 2019 there would be 'no bathing' signs on the promenade.

One question to him asked "you have criticised councils for a lack of vision and joined up thinking, and you also said there needed to be proper mapping and monitoring of combined sewer overflow discharges, and there is no reliable data to even say how much of the problem is from CSOs, how much from agriculture and so on, but without a proper evidence base how can councils, or indeed anyone, begin to produce joined up thinking and a clear vision?"

He replied to say things were as they were, and hinted that in some areas of the UK the water companies had been much more proactive in sourcing and identifying problems than had happened in the NW. He said United Utilities was toward the bottom of the pack of water authorities in the UK and there had been mapping and monitoring in other places.

ROBERT SHEASBY: Regional Director - National Farmer's Union
Was polite and measured, but clearly (well to us at least) angry, at what he painted as inaccurate accusations directed toward farmers with little or no evidence to support them.

He said nationally 79.2% of beaches were expected to comply, with 50% compliance in the north west, and that 98.7% of beaches accorded with the current standard. He said the standard measured Faecal Indicator Organisms (FIO's) such as E Coli and intestinal enterococci and "These are not an issue from an agricultural perspective"

He said the aims of the directive were enteric viruses, not bacteria, adding that UK health systems didn't detect bathing illnesses and health professionals regard this issue as a low priority.

Speaking of farming practices, he said agricultural run off didn't occur in summer (when bathing water was measured) adding "The role of agriculture has been greatly exaggerated due to an inappropriate focus on Faecal Indicator Organisms."

At this point in the conference we had some surprise news - well, a surprise to us. Mr Elphic of the Environment Agency said that a new group was being formed today as a result of the coming together of the conference. He said its aims would be to address the whole of the North West, and it would be called the "Turning Tides Group".

It would comprise
Neil Jack, Blackpool Borough Council
Keith Ashcroft, Environment Agency
Steve Fraser, United Utilities
Robert Sheasby, National Farmers Union
Peter Hampson, British Resorts and Destinations Association
Richard McIlwain, Keep Britain Tidy
Dr Robert Keirle, Marine Conservation Society.

He said it would be a small group of senior people, and the Environment Agency would provide the secretariat.

So now we seem to have two groups running this project, one for the North West and one for the Fylde peninsula.

In the afternoon, the conference broke into working groups. We went on the one that looked at the value of bathing waters. A presentation from United Utilities said they had invested 1bn to date, and if they ensure all the NW beaches passed, it would put an extra 34m a year into the local economy.

We were then treated to a slide showing (or claimed to be showing, - the yellow text made it impossible to read) that something in the order of 50% of the problem was attributable to the Water Company or private sewage apparatus; something in the region of 15 to 18% because of wrong connections, around 20% from agriculture, and another 20 or 25% from other sources.

There was no sourcing data given, and the circumstances of data collection were unclear, so we've no idea how much credibility to give it.  In all honesty, the presentation lacked a great deal in what it should have been. Perhaps the presenter was nervous.

We asked for a copy of the presentation to be emailed to us so we could use accurate figures from it, but so far we're still waiting.

Then we were shown a series of data for two example beaches, one of which was St Annes beach. We were told the number of bathers (in the water) at any time had visited peaked at 61, although they had counted or estimated 700 beach users. He said tourism generates (it sounded like)  1.3b (although it could have been 'million', his diction and enunciation made it difficult to hear what he was saying) and he said that transformed into 23,000 jobs (so it probably was million).

He said if all the beaches failed it would result in a loss of 8.1m.

He then put up another slide we would have liked longer to capture the data from. It showed (or at least seemed to show) that Fairhaven storm overflow accounted for 4% of the pollution, (we think it's a lot more than that), and Preston overflow accounted for another 2%. Amazingly (as far as we were concerned) it said Wigan storm overflow accounted for 11 % of the pollution on St Annes beach, Southport 2% and Savic Brook 2%.

Clearly that got us nowhere near 100% and we'd have liked a lot longer, and better slides, and clearer diction, but it was not to be. We will press for this data and bring it to readers as soon as possible.

To be honest we were disappointed with this workshop, the 'facts' seemed very shaky and looked to us like someone's best guess.

In answer to questions, United Utilities said they did have data about the frequency of storm overflows from Fairhaven Sewage Pumping Station, and they provided them on returns to the Environment Agency.

When EA were questioned, they said they did have the returns and they were either published or available under the Freedom of Environmental Information Act - adding somewhat ominously, "unless they were classed as confidential business data."

We're going to be on that case as well pretty soon.

The main points to come out of the workshop sessions were, well, we have to say, a bit weak and pointless in our view. Things like needing "branding for bathing waters" - whatever that might mean. And "Better Communication and Education" and Face to face contact" being the perceived way forward.

We thought the man from the British Resorts Association was the most honest. He said "There will be signs all over the beaches in the North West, we're not going to meet these standards in two years"

The man from the Environment Agency said "We all want great bathing water but there is a risk that we might fail to meet the standards"

We also heard that United Utilities was going to start doing real-time monitoring of discharges from Fairhaven "from next year"

Yes, really. That's what they said.

The enemy is at the gates. The EA is already taking water samples that will be likely to fail the beaches because of the higher standard, and United Utilities will start to do real time monitoring next year.

They don't even seem to know the definitive cause of the problem.

To be honest that perception was fairly typical of our overall impression of the conference.

We thought people who ought to know a whole lot more than they did about this were running around, not unlike headless chickens without any proper idea of what to do, or at least without a transparent and published evidence base to direct their priority and spending.

There seemed to be no proper published, peer reviewed or academic data setting out the exact nature of the pollution and where it was coming from, both in terms of humans and animals and in terms of geography. That work was only beginning.

We thought like Cllr Hardy, this conference was a lot about United Utilities - and to some extent the Environment Agency - managing expectation about what they could achieve in the timescale (and that was not going to be universal compliance with the new standard).

There was also quite a bit of talk about litter-free beaches and that sort of thing (which we haven't reported) because it is totally irrelevant to the issue of concern - the numbers of coliform bacteria found in each water sample that is now being taken.

There was also a lot of talk of sources other than combined sewer overflows as being the problem (diffuse pollution, wrong connections, farmers, dogs on the beach etc). Again whilst no doubt all of these contribute to pollution, we couldn't help thinking that 'bigging up' on such matters would help to deflect criticism from the Water Company if, indeed, as we believe, their combined sewer overflows are the real and main cause of coliform bacteria on our beaches.

It saddened us that the main findings to come out of the workshops was (repeatedly) that there needed to be better communication of information. To us that sound like cue to embark on a campaign of spin because they know they haven't a hope in hell of complying with the new standard.

We can see failing beaches and permanent notices in 2019. If it's possible to effect, we can see some beaches being reclassified as *not* bathing beaches at all, in order to avoid the need for compliance. And we can see additional costs on water bills.

As readers can tell, we were unimpressed and underwhelmed.

We were also concerned that being so far behind the curve, Fylde's politicians have not been there at the meetings of the Peninsular Water Management Group to push our case in St Annes, and to support Wyre's representative, and most especially, to make sure things like the real time monitoring of the sewage overflow onto Fairhaven beach had already been completed - to produce the statistics needed to justify proper decisions.

Time was when we had councillors like John Tavernor and Eileen Hall who would have had a much better grasp of what was going on, and who would not have let things get so lax that we don't even have the data on which to make proper decisions. Today, with this awful Cabinet system, it seems that half the councillors don't even get told what's going on, and you have to wonder how many of the other half actually understand the importance of what they are being told.

There's a famous saying about being up a well known creek without a paddle...... Sounds about right.

We understand that at the request of Cllr Mrs Oades, a Scrutiny Committee at Fylde is going to look into the situation next Thursday evening. We'll bring you more after that.

Dated:  27 September 2012


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