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All Going Swimmingly?

All Going SwimminglyThis is a long and detailed article because it is a potentially serious matter that we all need to understand.

The Bathing Waters issue is set to have very significant implications for the economy of the Fylde coast. We believe it will cause damage all the way along the chain of businesses that serve visitors - because almost certainly there will be less visitors. And in turn, that means a reduction in living standards for those who are in business or employed in the tourism industry - as if they haven't had enough to put up with already in recent years.

If you don't want to read the long article, the rough-and-dirty bullet-point synopsis is below:

  • The EU has introduced more stringent requirements to improve the quality of bathing waters.
  • The water sampling for that new system is being done now, but results are currently being published using the 'old' classification.
  • This means some beaches/Bathing Waters are currently being given pass grades when, under the new classification they would have failed; badly.
  • We don't think the work that is currently planned is enough to fix the problems.
  • By 2015 we think some of the beaches that are presently designated as bathing waters along the Fylde coast will either be de-designated for bathing, or they will have signs put up advising people not to bathe.
  • By 2019 it is possible there could be permanent signs warning people against bathing.

In our opinion, it's not so much the advice not to bathe that will damage the tourism industry. (The number of people who swim in the sea these days is much less than in yester-year. And places like St Annes attract an older clientele that is less devoted to maritime immersion). So for them, it wouldn't be so much of a disaster to be advised not to take part in swimming.

But the disaster will be the perception that the notices will create.

This part of the world will be seen as a leper-like 'unclean' place. We will be seen as 'dirty' - and people who wouldn't even think about going into the sea will stop visiting - simply because we're prepared to have polluted bathing waters.

So what's it all about?

Well, we've now completed the first year of water sampling for the revised Bathing Waters Directive (rBWD) after European legislation set about driving up the quality of bathing waters.

In turn, this Directive is bringing tighter regulation and a lot of work and cost for water companies.

That, in turn, means more cost on our water bills of course.

The Marine Conservation Society has recently published its latest 'Good Beach Guide', and warned that swimmers could fall ill from bathing in polluted water. It says a total of 42 beaches failed to meet the minimum EU levels expected for bathing water in 2012 - a rise of  seventeen on 2011's figures,

It also said that only 403 of the 754 UK beaches assessed were awarded their top "Recommended" award for their water quality in 2012, that's 113 fewer beaches than in the previous guide.

MCS said the rain and flooding had led to an increase in bacteria and viruses in bathing water, coming from a variety of sources such as agricultural and urban run-off, storm waters, plumbing misconnections, septic tanks and dog waste.

Here in the North West, popular beaches at Blackpool North and Blackpool South failed to meet even the basic mandatory standards, but Blackpool Central and both St Anne's and St Anne's North beaches did reach the 'Mandatory' standard for last year.

However, that's not the story everyone would like it to be, because although the testing is currently being done under the 'new' (rBWD) standard, the *results* are being published under something akin to the *old* (and much less stringent) classification system.

The new classification system is a LOT harder to meet, and both .St Annes. and .St Annes North. waters that passed last year would have failed last year if the new classification system was in use now.

We first introduced the topic in 'Sewage Sea Shore' in May 2012 where we broke news of the possible introduction of notices telling people not to bathe along the Fylde coast.

Then in 'Turning Tides' in September 2012 we reported a conference that brought together several of the parties involved and outlined some of the issues.

In both these articles we were critical of Fylde Council for not getting more involved and taking the matter seriously enough. We're pleased to say that Fylde is at last waking up to the threat and is starting to act, but it's all going very slowly. Too slowly.

Part of the problem is that for a whole variety of reasons (we imagine not least, the potential impact on tourism), much of what is going on locally is being kept out of sight and behind the scenes.

We're pleased to be able to say that from what we can see, the Environment Agency is now adopting a more open approach and is publishing lots of figures and information to help people understand what's going on, but locally, from Council perspectives, the process seems as though it is being kept under tight control and behind a cloak of secrecy.

For example, as we have previously said, 'Fylde Council' is described as being a 'member' of the 'Fylde Peninsula Water Management Group' - yet we are repeatedly told this is an officer driven and attended organisation and it has no councillors attending its meetings. (This is despite the fact that Wyre believes they appointed a councillor representative to it). That status means its agenda, minutes and meetings are not open to public scrutiny as it would be if councillors were running the show, nor can the public attend to listen to its deliberations.

We're old fashioned enough to believe that 'Fylde Council' cannot be a member of something unless and until a report has been made to the Council and elected members have considered the terms and arrangements, and decided to become a member. Only after that, should officers attend the meetings and speak on behalf of the Council that employs them. We also expect those officers to report to the Council about the matters considered and discussed at such meetings, and to receive mandates from the Council about the direction they should take in future meetings. Ideally this should be done in public so the electorate can also see what is taking place.

But it is not taking place in public.

This Fylde Peninsula Water Management Group is involved in making decisions about the plans to meet the new criteria.  We think it should have elected Councillors on it, but above all, we believe it is absolutely imperative that Fylde, and Wyre, and Blackpool should not be allowing officers to attend and participate without first giving them explicit authority to do so, and setting their agenda.

Officers cannot, and indeed should not, be allowed to speak for the community. We cannot elect nor can we unelect them. They are not accountable to the electorate in that regard. The right and proper place for decision making about this matter is with elected councillors, not their hired hands.

So, despite what appears to be  a wish to keep this matter quiet, counterbalance aims to remove as much of the cloak and smoke around this topic as we can, so local people and businesses have the opportunity to influence their councillors - who in turn can influence the direction that matters take.

It's a complicated topic, so - unusually - we're breaking this counterbalance up into headings and sections. We apologise in advance, because some of them, of necessity, overlap. We're also less sure than usual about the data (because it is so complex and changing). We've tried to check the main facts with the relevant bodies or their publications, so here's hoping.....

Firstly we'll look at the regulations, and technical stuff about the measurements and classifications. Then we'll look at the timeline for action. Then we'll look at the arrangements that are currently being made, and groups that are involved locally. Finally we'll look specifically at what Fylde is doing about it.

 REGULATIONS
The original Bathing Water Directive (76/160/EEC)  came into force in December 1975, and had to be enacted by member states before December 1977. It established microbiological standards with which bathing waters must comply: They had - at least- to meet a minimum standard called 'Mandatory.' Alternatively, they could endeavour to meet higher 'Guideline' standards. If neither of these standards was met, the bathing water would be said to 'Fail'

Under this system, although other markers were measured as well, the two main markers used to assess the quality of bathing water were numbers for 'total coliforms' and for 'faecal coliforms'. These are types of bacteria found in the guts of humans and other warm-blooded animals, and are indicators of faecal pollution.

A new directive (2006/7/EC) effectively replaced the 1976 one in February 2006.  The aim of the revised Directive (which you may also see written as 'rBWD') is to protect public health and the environment from faecal pollution in bathing waters. Member States were required to identify popular bathing areas and to monitor water quality there throughout 'the bathing season', which in England, runs from mid May to the end of September.

Confusingly, the new Directive also uses different markers for its measurements.

Rather than measuring total coliforms and faecal coliforms, it is more specific and measures a specific bacteria called Escherichia coli and intestinal enterococci (the latter being faecal bacteria of the genus Streptococci).

From the start of the 2012 bathing season the Environment Agency has collected and analysed samples using the new (specific) markers as required by the revised Directive but, (perhaps confusingly), until 2014 it is aggregating the sample results under something akin to the former "Guideline", "Mandatory", and "Fail" system which (even more confusingly) the EA now calls "Higher Quality", "Minimum Quality", and "Fail".

Furthermore, from March 2012, there is no requirement to monitor salmonella, enteroviruses, physico-chemical parameters or any other substances that were the markers specified in the original 1976 Directive.

We're not saying the Environment Agency is doing anything wrong here, or that they're trying to hide anything. They're quite properly working within the law as it stands today. But because the process is all in flux, it is difficult for ordinary folk to make direct and proper comparisons, especially when different names are used.

From 2015, there will be another change.

After that date, the results will have to be published (as well as collected) under the specific requirements of the revised Directive, and there will be four (new and different) classification categories. (Although these will still be based on a very similar sampling process and frequency).

These classifications use a four-year rolling data-set for each subsequent year. It sounds complicated, but it's not really.

Under the rBWD, the first year of collection of the new data was 2102. It follows that four years on, ie from 25 March 2015, the first of the new classifications will have to be published. The new categories will be:

  • Excellent (approximately twice as stringent as the current Guideline standard);
  • Good (similar to the current Guideline);
  • Sufficient (approximately twice as stringent as the current Mandatory standard), and
  • Poor, for waters which do not comply with the Directive's standards.

When the first results using the new four-year rolling classification are published (ie from 2015), if a bathing water has been classified as "Poor", it means a sign must be displayed at the bathing water which advises against bathing. It is the equivalent of the present "Fail"

Going forward, if five consecutive "Poor" classifications arise from the rolling dataset at any time, (ie potentially at any point from the 2020 bathing season onward), then permanent advice against bathing must be displayed at the bathing water.

At this point the Environment Agency will stop sampling the bathing water and the bathing water will no longer be designated as a bathing water.

Comparison of requirements is difficult, but we're going to have a go.

The standard measurement of quantity currently uses the number of colonies of bacteria per 100ml of sample, and twenty samples are taken at approximately the same location for each beach during the period May to September each year. (The actual sampling criteria goes into much more detail to try as far as possible to secure consistent methodology).

Fail Mandatory Standard
(EA 'Minimum')
Guideline Standard
(EA 'Higher Quality')
Up to 2012
More than 10,000 total coliform bacteria
or
More than 2,000 faecal coliform bacteria in more than 5% of samples
Less than 10,000 total coliform bacteria
and
Less than 2,000 faecal coliform bacteria in at least 95% samples
Less than 500 total coliform bacteria in at least 80% of samples
and
Less than 100 faecal coliform bacteria in at least 80% of samples
and
Less than 100 faecal streptococci bacteria in at least 90% of samples
 
From 2013 to 2015
More than 2,000 E. coli bacteria in more than 5% of samples 100 to 2,000 E. coli bacteria in at least 95% samples Less than 100 E. coli bacteria in at least 80% of samples
and
Less than 100 Intestinal enterococci bacteria in at least 90% of samples
 
From March 2015 Onward   (Four new and revised classifications)
(All now based on 'Colony forming units per 100 millilitres (cfu/100ml)')
Poor (Fail) Sufficient Good Excellent
E Coli:
more than 500 (1) 500 (2) 500 (1) less than 250 (1)
Intestinal enterococci
more than 185 (1) 185 (2) 200 (1) less than 100 (1)
       
(1) based on 95 percentile evaluation
(2) based on 90 percentile evaluation

So after 2015 anything less than 'Sufficient' is a fail. There are also new standards for inland bathing waters which differ from the above.

It is instructive to compare these new standards with those of today, and in 2012

St Annes Beach
(which, under the 2012 classification was given an "EA Minimum" grade pass)
the samples were:

  • E. coli: 6 out of 20 results with more than 500 colonies per 100ml
  • Intestinal enterococci 3 out of 20 results with more than 185 per 100ml

St Annes North Beach
(which, under the 2012 classification system was given an "EA Minimum" grade pass) the samples were:

  • E. coli: 5 out of 20 results with more than 500 colonies per 100ml
  • Intestinal enterococci 2 out of 20 results with more than 185 per 100ml

Without being statisticians and using the percentile calculations, both look pretty much like solid and clear 'fails' to us if you apply the classification that will be in use from 2015 onward - the one that says 95% of the 20 water tests results must have less that 500 colonies of E. coli.

So some waters pass at present (using current standards - ie they have less than 2,000 E coli in 95% of samples) but they are, at the same time, a very strong 'fail' using what will be the new classification. (which allows no more than 500 E coli in 95% of samples).

In October 2009, the Environment Agency published a document called "Water Quality Classification Predictions For Bathing Waters In England And Wales Under The Revised Bathing Water Directive" It applied the revised standard to the results current at that time and the result is quite staggering for the North West in comparison with other parts of the UK. Follow this link for a copy of the document. (The NW is near the end).

We're not setting out to be alarmist here, just making a comparison and trying to wake people up to the seriousness of all this.

We should also point out that work is currently in progress to alleviate some of the problems - by building more of the big storage tanks that act as sewage reservoirs in times of capacity problems (see later).

But what we have not seen, and what we cannot find anywhere, are detailed calculations that relate known previous weather data to the current capacity of the sewage system, and to what capacity would be needed for 100% prevention of overflow spillage, and what percentage capacity the works currently planned and in progress will actually deliver.

Until we know that, we can only assume we're not being told because either it's 'Mission Impossible' to achieve it, or everyone is working blind - which is even more scary.

We're also told that "In England, DEFRA and the Environment Agency have agreed that no reliable national prediction system can be developed in a cost effective way at the present time"

To be honest, we don't go with this. Even non-statistical folk like us can see that if you had access to weather records for the dates around which combined sewer overflows were allowed to discharge, you could pretty soon develop a prediction that would tell you what combination of volume and period of rainfall would produce discharges. It might not be perfect, but it would be better than not trying. Failure to achieve perfection at the outset should not be a reason for not even making a start.

Finally in this technical / legislation section, we've no doubt some people will be surprised to find that the regulator - in this case the Environment Agency (EA) - issues what are called 'discharge consents'. In effect these are a license to pollute. These are usually issued in relation to specific places or situations.

In the same vein, it is also accepted by the EA that, given a choice between flooding people's homes with sewage and loosing it into the sea (or in extremis onto a beach or the estuary) they have granted a sort of running 'general discharge consent' for the Water Company.

The argument here appears to be that you shouldn't even try to contain all the sewage because the cost on people's bills would be too great to bear, so you should accept a discharge once every 'x' years, or 'x' times a year, or whatever.

We'd have more sympathy with this approach if, in the year ending 31 March 2012 the water company's after-tax profits were not over £300m, and they had managed to pay off of all debt due to be repaid in the 2010 to 2015 period, and that these positions were not seen as being a greater priority to them than discharging untreated sewage onto our beaches because they have failed over the years to provide sufficient network capacity to meet the need.

And we're not talking peanuts of a discharge here.

The Environment Agency thinks that around 30% of the problem in the North West is linked to sewage from our wasetwater network because, in the past, the region's waterways were used for the disposal of raw sewage. As was commonplace at the time, it was disposed of directly into the water, with (according to United Utilities) up to 570 million litres a day (or 34 million toilet flushes) discharged off the region's coast.

We think it's probably more than 30% attributable to this cause because we don't believe that all the outfalls are known about.

We asked the Environment Agency for the overflow data from just the Fairhaven Pumping Station which is at the St Annes end of Fairhaven Lake

In the final three months of 2011 at Fairhaven pumping station we were first told there was:

  • 17th September an 8.4 hour spill which released 2,577,000 cubic metres.
  • 11th December a 35.3 hours spill which discharged 1,355,000 cubic metres.
  • 23 December lasted for 2.75 hours, but its volume was not recorded on the data we were given.

On that basis, it appeared that from September to the end of December, the Environment Agency's records show that more than 3,932,000 cubic metres (an incredible almost 4 billion litres) of sewage - was discharged into the sea at Fairhaven.

Using a pro rata calculation based on the figures on the EA website, we make that equivalent to around 235,000,000 toilet flushes discharged in that period.

We didn't think that was possible, and we suspected the figures were wrong, so we asked the Environment Agency if they would confirm them.

They passed our enquiry on to United Utilities who told us the Fairhaven storm tanks hold a capacity of 18,000 m3 before spills occur, but they do sometimes overflow, and, on

  • 17th September 2011 there was one (no time record given but it resulted in a volume) of 1,220 cubic metres of discharge
  • 3rd December 2011 there was one 1.5 hour storm sewage discharge resulting in a volume of 500 cubic metres of discharge.
  • 7th December 2011 there was one 15.1 hour of storm sewage discharge resulting in a volume of 12,500 cubic metres of discharge
  • 23rd December 2011 there was one 8.4 hour screened storm spill which resulted a volume of 690 cubic metres of discharge.

These figures from United Utilities give a total of 14,910 cubic metres which is 1,4910,000 litres and equates to 88,000 toilet flushes

They are a lot less than the original figures we were given (they're actually between one two thousandth and one three thousandth of the original) so that must be better, but we did think it was worrying that United Utilities and their regulator the Environment Agency seemed to have different records - not only of the volumes of the discharges, but also for some of them, of the dates they occurred.

The process is that United Utilities send the data to the Environment Agency. So we asked both if they have any further comments as to how such an enormous discrepancy might have arisen. The EA has told us that the original figures we were given were taken directly from information in a .xml file provided by United Utilities as part of their spill reporting requirements. We understand there is something of an investigation going on at present, and we will update this article if/when we receive further information.

We would like to say that both the Environment Agency and United Utilities have been open and very willing to get to the bottom of this dichotomy. We congratulate and commend them for that transparency.

Whichever figure is right, they mostly they arose outside the 'bathing season' and when that happens, they do not count toward the official 'bathing water quality' figures. If that happens again in the future it might be considered a small mercy. But we have to ask in this day and age whether it is appropriate that we should accept a system that allows raw sewage discharges to happen at all - even if it is in the winter.

United Utilities argue the North West struggles particularly because it has many densely populated areas, including large clusters around the coast, and they say that if you stand at the top of Blackpool Tower and look away from the coast, you can see the size of the area which drains to the sea.

But at the heart of this problem is how much the profit, and the shareholder dividends, and the water company charges to the public via water bills should bear the cost of the improvements. Broadly speaking, one or other group is not being asked for enough to completely solve the problem, so some places are going to lose out.

It could be that Heysham is the first of these places.

That's because we've seen the first de-designation of a North West beach (possibly the first in the country) so it is not embarrassed by the continual failure that will result in designated bathing beaches having to put up warning signs.

The official consultation blurb for this move said "Heysham Half Moon Bay is being considered for dedesignation because there is little usage for bathing. It is at risk of eventually being dedesignated if it receives five consecutive Poor classifications after 2015. Following local consultation, Lancaster City Council has applied for de-designation at this stage because of very low usage for bathing at the site."

What's happened is that Lancaster City Council had applied to the Department of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) for permission to remove Heysham's 'Half Moon Bay' from the list of bathing waters designated under the Bathing Water Directive, and DEFRA agreed to consider it and put out a consultation on the matter.

The consultation was to be 'evidence-based' and it detailed facilities and usage at the site, together with the outcomes of a local consultation by Lancaster Council. For a while, a summary of the evidence for dedesignation can be found at the link.

And the criteria for designation and dedesignation of bathing waters can be found at: DEFRA's criteria document

The consultation is now closed. Only three responses to the consultation were received and considered. They were from: The Marine Conservation Society; Ofwat, and United Utilities.

The decision to de-list the Bathing Water has now been made, and is said to be because it has "very low usage for bathing" - even though the consultation document described it as being just 'low' usage. (We haven't been able to find a table that sets out what is low, very low, high or whatever).

That's potentially important, because under the current regulation "low usage is the only reason that is accepted for a beach to be removed from the list of bathing waters."

The DEFRA consultation document described the area as being "at risk of being de-designated eventually" although it at least did say it was little used for bathing, and it acknowledged that Lancaster had asked leading questions which might have biased their results.

Lancaster City Council had asked things like "Do you feel that it is better to de designate the beach now before the beach is classed as a failing bathing water beach?" and it undertook an online survey that asked “How do you feel about the proposal to dedesignate the beach now before the beach is classed as a failing bathing beach?" So it looks to us as though they were looking to protect their 'reputational integrity' rather than seeking evidence of how often people went in the sea there, and whether they wanted their beach to be substantially free of sewage in the summer.

To be fair, Lancaster also did a 'face to face' survey of 247 people on the promenade and beach area, in the library and in local businesses. About half of them (141 to be precise) said they had been in the sea.

Now, it might be that Half Moon Bay at Heysham is not the best spot in the world for bathing. It is just around the corner from Heysham's dock and nuclear power station. But, as the picture from the Half Moon Bay Cafe's website shows, it's not the most unattractive beach you've ever visited either.

Half Moon Bay

The evidence for de-designation came from a survey that took place on 46 days (including 17 weekend days) during the 2012 bathing season, beginning on 7 July. Swimmers, paddlers and other beach users were counted twice on each day in the survey. We don't know what times the daily visits were made.

The results were

  No. of days
in survey
Swimmers Paddlers Beach users Total usage
July 16 3 6 178 187
August 23 0 6 464 470
September 7 0 0 39  39
Totals  46 3 12 681 696

On the basis of those results (which seem to contradict the 50% that went in the sea in the face to face surveys) de-designation has been approved.

We suspect Half Moon Bay will be the first of several beaches to withdraw from consideration rather than be forcibly closed when the water quality fails to reach the standard.

But of course that means faecal bacteria are still present in the water at Half Moon Bay, and will probably be present for the future, it's just that the problem won't continually be highlighted.

Whether 'fiddling the figures' like this is the right way to go, and whether a more important beach in say, St Annes or Blackpool, could see the same fate, is a moot point.

We did see some figures presented to the Turning Tides conference workshop by the Environment Agency which showed that St Annes Bathing water had quite low numbers of people actually in the sea, (they said an average of 61 bathers from 700 beach users - but the sampling methodology for these claimed results wasn't clear - and we thought it looked like a single snapshot view).

The presentation might have been a bit of 'kite-flying' for St Annes to be de-designated at some future date as well. We think that would be wrong. Very wrong.

The same EA presentation last September also said that

  • 18 of the 33 Bathing Waters in the NW were at risk of not meeting the new standards,
  • United Utilities have invested over £1bn to date (£200m St Annes),
  • Tourism is worth £14bn each year to the North West
  • a failure of all Bathing Waters would produce an annual loss of £8.1m to the wider Fylde economy

So the question of whether the profits, shareholders and customers of water companies like United Utilities who fail to meet the required regulatory standards ought to take a hit - (like the profits and shareholders and depositors of failing Cypriot banks have recently taken a hit), is a point we will leave our readers to cogitate on.


 TIMELINE

2006
The revised bathing water directive (2006/7/EC) was introduced

2008
Bathing Water Regulations 2008 came into force in England and Wales

2008
Environment Agency generated the first list of bathing waters under the revised Bathing Water Directive.

2011
Environment Agency published bathing water profiles for all bathing waters.

2012
Signs must be in place at all bathing waters by the beginning of the bathing season. The Environment Agency will begin monitoring

Beach signage and information must be made available to the public and, from May, the Environment Agency began monitoring (using the parameters of the revised Directive) so a four year classification can be in place by 2015.

The information to be provided includes:

  • A brief general description of the bathing water , in non-technical language, based on the bathing water profile.
  • When bathing is temporarily advised against, a notice must advise the public of the nature and expected duration of the pollution.
  • During the period of any 'abnormal situation' information of the nature and expected duration of that situation.
  • When bathing is permanently advised against, a notice must say that the area is no longer a bathing water and explain why.
  • An indication of where to find more complete information (for example, in the bathing water profile on the Environment Agency website)

2014
This year sees the final bathing water report using the standards of the pre-2006 EU Directive as the current bathing water directive is repealed at the end of the year

2015
First set of classifications of bathing waters under the revised Bathing Water Directive, and using the new parameters, will be published by the Environment Agency, based on the data set commenced in 2012. Bathing waters will be given one of four classifications: excellent, good, sufficient and poor.

These classifications will be based on a dataset using four years of water quality data measured against the tighter microbial standards in the revised Bathing Water Directive. Monitoring for the 2015 classification began in 2012.

2016
Standard EU symbols for bathing waters have to be used across all bathing waters

During the bathing season that follows a 'poor' classification, signs must display the appropriate classification symbol and the symbol for advice against bathing with an explanation of the reasons for the classification (including the causes of the pollution) and information about management measures being taken to mitigate pollution

When this situation arises the Environment Agency will provide the relevant information.

Following five consecutive 'Poor' classifications, permanent advice against bathing must be introduced. The Environment Agency will discontinue sampling and the public will be advised not to bathe at the area concerned. The site will be removed from the list of designated bathing waters in the following year and a sign must give advice against bathing, together with reasons. Permanent advice against bathing can be introduced within a shorter period if it is infeasible or disproportionately expensive for the bathing water to achieve a classification of 'Sufficient'.

At bathing waters affected by this requirement the Environment Agency will have carried out investigations into sources of contamination and related mitigation measures, in most cases for at least five years, and will advise about the information to be included on the sign.


 ARRANGEMENTS AND GROUPS

DEFRA and the ENVIRONMENT AGENCY
From what we can see from a helicopter view, DEFRA and the Environment Agency seem to be on top of the arrangements necessary to bring the scheme into being. Readers can see that for themselves from the forgoing. The issue with the EA and DEFRA is whether, as regulators, they will be sufficiently strong and far-sighted to require the water companies to implement the measures that are necessary to ensure at least the 'Sufficient' standard applies to all bathing waters, or whether they will take the easy way out and pressure for de-designation of bathing waters so the water company does not need to effect all the improvements that should (in our view) be made.

UNITED UTILITIES
We're much less sure about the readiness of United Utilities. Certainly they are doing a lot of work and spending a lot of money. The huge storage capacity at Preston is an example, but that is to stop sewage entering the Ribble and eventually (maybe) reaching the beaches at Lytham St Annes and Blackpool. But if stormwater overflows continue as at present at Fairhaven and elsewhere, we can see nothing in train to change to what is being allowed out there. And if that isn't being attended to, you have to wonder which other stormwater sewer combinations are not?

We're also concerned about the way that United Utilities in particular (but others as well) seems to want to shift the focus elsewhere. As they say "Farmers and the general public also have a part to play, with water running off fields containing animal droppings and dog fouling on beaches having an impact on water quality. Simply picking up your dog's mess on a beach walk can help"

Blaming dogs (and more recently, seagulls and donkeys and beach litter) seem to us to be little more than smoke and mirrors to distract from the real problem which are the sewage treatment works overflows, the combined sewer overflows, and the underground storage capacity

They are also apt to blame the weather saying "...the region's natural make-up means it is prone to rainfall, with several areas of the North West regularly named among the wettest areas of the UK by the Met Office. And the rain has continued to fall. Recent years have seen widespread flooding and more than twice the normal rainfall fell in Greater Manchester and Cheshire in 2000, the wettest UK year on record, while 2012 was the wettest year ever in England, with many parts of the North West hit by flooding."

As a result they argue "The sewage system simply cannot cope with such levels of water in a short space of time and this leads to diluted storm sewage entering the region's rivers and the Irish Sea, via the outfalls."

We argue from a slightly different angle. It can't cope because - despite the undoubtedly large sums of money that have been invested in recent years - it has still not been enough to increase the temporary storage capacity to that which is needed. Furthermore, at the same time, more and more houses have been built that aggravate the problem.

The problem IS easily solvable. The issue is simply one of cost - and perhaps limiting new developments to those where sewage will not add to the existing disposal load - in the same way that surface water drainage may not flow into drains at a rate exceeding the rate it would flow through undeveloped land.

In other words, perhaps developers should be required to install local sewage storage capacity in new developments as and when new houses are built, and to release it at a pre-agreed rate.


FYLDE PENINSULA WATER MANAGEMENT GROUP
This supposedly has the following members: Blackpool BC; Fylde BC; Wyre BC; Lancashire County Council; Environment Agency; United Utilities; and Keep Britain Tidy.

Its stated aims are:

  • To provide the opportunity to use collective expertise and resource in the most efficient way
  • To improve communication challenges and to speak as one voice
  • To present the economic benefits of improving the environment of the Fylde

And its stated priorities are:

  1. To get the partnership signed up and on-board
  2. To develop 25 year vision and work programme
  3. To deliver early actions
  4. To Identify funding sources and partners for further work

We worry a lot about aims like "speaking as one voice" with this organisation because it can so easily make it appear that councils are required to adopt courses of action that elected members may not even be aware of, let alone have debated and voted on. It is those elected members who should be setting the requirements for this organisation, not the other way round. Members need to OWN this process.

As if to demonstrate this exact point, the FPWMG was instrumental in arranging and staging the 'Turning the Tides' conference which itself presented a fait-accompli plan to create a new group.

We don't recall that - as a 'member' of the Peninsula group - Fylde BC was consulted on the plan for a new group, or in establishing what it's terms of reference should be, who should participate, and so on.

That said, Blackpool Council *was* told last September that "The [Turning Tides] summit will see the launch of a Turning Tides strategy group for bathing water improvement for the region, which will be chaired by Blackpool Council's Chief Executive, other members will include Chief Executives from the other Partnership member organisations of the Fylde Peninsula Water Management group."

FBC is supposed to be a Member of the group that gave life to this new regional body and set its term of reference, but there was no debate about this matter by any committee of Fylde Council. Yet Blackpool knew about it's creation in advance, and expected to be the only Local Authority involved.

We have to ask why anyone should think Blackpool's CE should have more locus in this matter than the CE of Fylde or Wyre. As we will show, Blackpool's public position is way behind even Fylde on this matter, and Fylde isn't as far forward as it should be!

TURNING THE TIDES GROUP
This is the group that was formed at the Turning Tides conference and it aims to provide a regional (NW) perspective. As we reported in 'Turning Tides' it was established by an announcement during the Conference that the following people would be its members:

  • 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.

Conference was told 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 involved in this project, one for the North West and one for the 'Fylde peninsula'.

Yet again, we see a group of professionals with no proper oversight or control by elected members. As a result, this group, like the Fylde Peninsula Water Management Group, do not publish the agenda for their meetings nor do they publish minutes, nor are the public allowed to attend their meetings, so it's really hard for anyone to find out what is going on.

LOCAL COUNCILS
As far as Councils are concerned, from what we can see, whilst there may be backroom officers who know what's going on, the elected members mostly seem to have insufficient awareness of the problem that is hurtling down the track at them. This is a tragedy that is slowly unfolding.

There is nowhere near enough sense of urgency. The timer has been set. The clock is ticking down to 2015 but the work needed will take (literally) years to accomplish and no-one seems to realise that it is almost too late now to do anything meaningful.

Each of the three costal councils engage with this matter through their 'Scrutiny Committees.'

A Scrutiny Committee has two purposes. Firstly to scrutinise decisions made by the Cabinet and other organisations and to challenge those decisions where it feels they are inappropriate. Secondly they conduct preparatory investigations and reports to inform the Cabinet, Council or other organisation about some particular topic.

SCRUTINY IN BLACKPOOL
Blackpool created a 'Bathing Water Quality Scrutiny Panel' on 12 October 2012. It was expected to be active for six months (Follow this link for Blackpool's scoping document).

The overall objective of Blackpool's scrutiny review says all the right things. It aims to ensure that plans and proposals to improve the quality of bathing water at Blackpool's beaches are drafted and implemented by the Council and its partner organisations in order to ensure Blackpool's bathing waters meet the standards required of them.

Specifically, the Scrutiny Panel set out to consider:

  • The current standard of Blackpool's bathing water.
  • The legal standards required for bathing water and the implications should these fail to be met.
  • The causes of bathing water pollution and the related policies of the key partner organisations to tackle these issues.

Blackpool envisaged its Scrutiny Panel would undertake fact-finding and evidence gathering meetings, consultations with key partner organisations, such as the Environment Agency, Marine Conservation Society, United Utilities and representatives from other Fylde coast local authorities.

The Panel met on 3rd December 2012 and considered "recent results of water safety tests and the proposals to improve standards by the Turning Tides Strategy Group and the Fylde Peninsula Water Management Group, including that Group's top 10 actions to improve bathing water standards. Panel Members have been invited to a Keep Britain Tidy Beach Summit later in December and will meet in the New Year to consider the Communications Plan being drafted by the Turning Tides Strategy Group."

The Blackpool Panel met again on 7th March 2013 and had invited representatives from the Turning Tides Strategy Group, the Fylde Peninsula Water Management Group, the Environment Agency and United Utilities to make presentations on the actions being taken to improve the standards of bathing water in the North West. The Chairs of the relevant overview and scrutiny committees at Wyre Borough Council and Fylde Council were also invited to attend this meeting.

A report of that meeting was not available when this article was prepared.

So, we can see that Blackpool is having a stab at it, but from the sound of things they are less far forward than where Fylde was last October when it did the same thing and met with all the main agencies to get a semblance of what was going on. Fylde has since begun to scrutinise the information that was provided.


WYRE

Wyre is usually ahead of the field.   Early on, the said they had appointed a Councillor to the Fylde Peninsula Water Management Group, so we had hopes they would still be leading the pack, but they don't seem to be doing so now.

The Minutes of a Wyre Scrutiny Committee meeting on 28 January 2013 note that "Cllr May Gandhi agreed to report back to the Committee on 25 February regarding a joint review of bathing water quality that had been proposed by Blackpool Council. She had been invited to an initial informal meeting about the review on 30 January 2013, at which the three councils involved (including Fylde) would discuss whether a joint review was appropriate."

After the informal meeting on 30 Jan, another report to a Wyre Scrutiny meeting (28 February), explained what Blackpool were doing, and said "..... the Panel recognises that the issue impacts upon the whole Fylde Peninsula they are exploring the possibility of joint scrutiny work between the relevant local authorities. Cllr May Gandhi has been invited to attend a meeting of Blackpool’s Bathing Water Quality Scrutiny Panel on Thursday 7 March."

After that meeting Wyre Scrutiny Committee was told (on Monday 25 March) that, "Councillor Gandhi said that, following her attendance at the meeting of Blackpool’s Bathing Water Quality Scrutiny Panel held on 7 March, referred to in paragraph 3.1 of the report, she was satisfied that the issue of monitoring and improving bathing water quality on the Fylde Coast was being actively pursued at Chief Executive level by Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre Councils."

We have to say we're struggling to agree with both her logic, and her implication that it will be alright on the night, because we don't think it will be, and we absolutely believe that elected members need to be at the forefront of damage limitation by maintaining pressure in the appropriate places, and by doing what they can to support things that will improve the situation.


 SO WHAT'S FYLDE DOING?
By publishing 'Sewage Seashore' in May 2012, we hoped it would alert councillors at Fylde to the problem.

It did.

In September when we reported the 'Turning Tides' conference in Blackpool, we were happy to be able to say that Fylde had fielded both officers and members in significant number to hear what was going on.

As a result of concern about what they heard, in October 2012, Fylde held a Scrutiny Committee Meeting to receive an officer's overview of the work underway to improve the quality of the bathing waters in light of the revised Bathing Water Directive (rBWD), and to hear presentations from the various agencies involved.

In this regard, they received presentations from:

  • Clare Nolan-Barnes: (Head of Capital Projects and Regeneration) at Blackpool Council and representative the Fylde Peninsula Water Management Group.
  • Steve Molyneux and Rachel Haigh: of the Environment Agency.
  • Rob Tidswell: Wastewater Catchment Manager for United Utilities.
  • Rick Hayton: Lancashire County Council

Each gave some background information about the matter and outlined what their respective organisations were doing about it. They also agreed to provide detailed answers to ten or so quite searching questions that had been put by Cllr Liz Oades.

As well as thanking the people for their presentations, Fylde's Scrutiny Committee resolved:

1. To note the work underway to improve Fylde bathing waters and to recommend to Cabinet that a further report on the matter be presented to the next meeting of the committee detailing the following:

  • Formal response to the questions raised by Councillor Oades
  • Clarity on the 10 action points proposed to address the quality of bathing waters
  • Clarity on the undertaking of the bathing water regulations and dates signs may be required.
  • Clarity on what has been done on the DNA tracking on Fylde coast bathing waters
  • As assessment on the appropriateness of undertaking a joint scrutiny review with Blackpool Council on the matter.

So it was that on 29 November Fylde's officers produced an update report with responses to Queen Elizabeth's questions, and news that the Fylde Peninsula Water Management Group was finalising its action plan, and was about to adopt ten 'high level actions'.

We have a problem with this, because Fylde is considered to be a 'Member' of this group, yet here they are being told of ten "high level actions" the group is about to adopt when we don't recall ANY of these actions being discussed or debated by Fylde Council as proposals whilst they were being formulated by the group of which Fylde is supposed to be 'a member'

Furthermore, Fylde is about to be asked to adopt them as its future plan, with no proper explanation other than as high level bullet points set out on a sheet of A4

The officer report to Fylde's 29th November Scrutiny meeting said "The Fylde Peninsula Water Management Group is finalising its action plan. Attached at appendix 2 is the high level top ten actions which the group is about to a adopt. Each action identifies which organisation(s) is taking the lead. There is a significant amount of detailed sub-actions which flow from each of the ten top level actions. All partner organisations on the group are currently considering the resource implications of each detailed action. A further meeting of the group is due to take place before the date of the Scrutiny meeting and therefore an update will be given to members at the meeting.

Meanwhile the Environment Agency has published its list of ‘asks’ to help improve bathing water quality which is attached at appendix 3. This supplements the top ten action plan above and sets out how the council could assist in improving bathing water quality on the Fylde peninsula."

We find it wholly unsatisfactory that priorities for Fylde residents are being devised without any of Fylde's Councillors being involved in their preparation.

For example: there are some serious financial implications for Fylde Borough residents regarding retrospectively fitted sustainable drainage systems. This matter is under the charge of Blackpool's Chief Executive

There is also a plan to prioritise the delivery of new development on brownfield land - to limit the contribution of new foul discharges and to maximise the opportunity to reduce surface water flood risk and associated unconsented discharges to watercourses and bathing waters.

Whilst this would be popular with many, it flies in the face of what we are hearing at planning appeals, and is probably a non-starter as far as Fylde is concerned.

There is also talk of dog exclusion area and even dog bans on beaches.

Worryingly, once the Fylde Peninsula Water Management Group's Action Plan is finalised FBC will be expected to sign up to it - and they will then be accountable to the (unelected) Fylde Peninsula Water Management Group who will scrutinise delivery of their plan.

We regard this as entirely topsy-turvy. It proposes that the unelected technocrats and bureaucrats who have designed the scheme will hold democratically elected councillors to account for its delivery. This way madness lies. Councillors need to get hold of this and shake it vigorously.

The report by Fylde's officers continued "Blackpool Council has established a Scrutiny Panel to look at the issue of bathing water quality. Discussions are taking place to ascertain the appetite to undertake a joint scrutiny exercise with Fylde and this will be reported to members at the meeting."

Like Wyre, Fylde was invited, but by all accounts it was not at all impressed with Blackpool's idea of Joint Scrutiny, as we shall show.

On 4th April 2013 officers presented another report to Fylde's Scrutiny Committee.

To be honest, we think it was probably the worst report we have seen in a long time. We would have been ashamed to be its author, and even more ashamed to present it to councillors.

It was little short of a disgrace.

The report said its purpose was to update members on issues raised at the previous meeting. It attached a copy of the Draft '10 Point Plan', and its recommendation was that "Members comment on the ten point action plan."

The body of the report said "Since the last meeting further work has been done on the ten point action plan. The latest draft is attached. Members are asked to consider the attached plan, raise any questions of the officers at the meeting and make any comments."

It also said "It is intended that the plan be finalised and launched at the Fylde Peninsula Water Management Group Workshop being held on Monday, 22 April 2013. The workshop allows each partner in the group to present and receive presentations on work currently underway. The relevant portfolio holders and Chairman/Vice Chairman of CFSC [Fylde's Scrutiny Committee] have been invited. It is likely that a formal portfolio report will follow to adopt the plan on behalf of Fylde."

There followed 25 pages of the '10 Point Plan' proposals from the group of which Fylde is 'a member'.

What was sadly missing here was what Fylde pays its officers for.

It pays them to provide technical advice on matters Members are asked to consider.  It pays them to interpret the reports of others (like this 10 Point Plan) and to assess and explain and evaluate the implications for Fylde. It pays them to make estimates of the cost of things they are being asked to commit to.

Back in October, Fylde's Committee had said the needed CLARITY on these matters.

But Fylde's officers had done none of this. They simply dumped this complex and potentially very controversial report on an unsuspecting Scrutiny Committee and said, in effect, 'well there you are let's see what you make of that'.

We regard that as a complete abdication of responsibility. We know former Committee Chairmen who would have eaten officers alive for producing such a report.

What makes it worse is that this was not an inconsequential matter.

The Plan's first target is "Reduce the number of spills from combined sewer overflows to a maximum of 3 at each designated bathing water by March 2018"

The supporting text says "Combined sewer overflows act like safety valves, preventing flooding by releasing excess overflows into nearby watercourses such as streams, rivers or seas. These spills are permitted under wet conditions but can then reduce the quality of bathing water." (sic)

We say there should have been tables and figures and maps showing the locations and volumes of discharges over recent years from each overflow, there should be data about present discharges; and the discharges that will arise after present works are completed, and a statement of the works necessary to eliminate the discharge of sewage altogether.

But there is no data, just a pious hope.

And look at that 'hope'

The proposal is to reduce the overflows to 3 at each outfall. This is a completely hopeless hope! There could be three instances that are 20 days long, or three that are 20 minutes or 20 seconds long. The volume of the discharge is not being measured! We would not be surprised if this move is not simply to be able to hide from the public the volumes that are actually being discharged.

Did the Scrutiny Committee spot this? No they did not. Did their officers alert them to the dangers? No they did not. Were officers complicit in helping to make the information more obscure for the future? We can't tell.

Another target aims to rectify all the wrong connections that have been identified by the Environment Agency as being responsible for polluting.

Surface water outfalls and private sewage systems, such as septic tanks, that are causing pollution are in their sights. We understand caravan and camp sites with septic tanks and soakaways are chiefly in the line of sight here. Fylde has many such sites, and looks like being asked to undertake some enforcement actions to address issues where action isn’t taken voluntarily at properties with wrong connections.

Another target aims ensure there is "No failures of bathing water standards attributed to dogs, horses, donkeys or other beach activities"

It also has an ominous proposal for the "management of bird numbers"

You know where this is going don't you dear reader. It's heading toward dog bans - or at least large dog exclusion areas - on beaches. It's goodbye to, or at least much tighter control of, the donkeys and horses. And as for 'managing bird numbers' has anyone mentioned that great tracts of Fylde's beaches are classified as Sites of Special Scientific Interest and as Special Protected Areas for Birds?

The plan says that by May 2013 (ie now) Local Authorities will deliver action which will ".... include improving enforcement of dog exclusion zones, improved signage, and management of birds and donkeys. These actions will reduce the risk that beach users, such as dog walkers and horse riders will cause localised pollution" And they will review their effectiveness and see if more actions are needed for 2014.

These measures are likely to be controversial with beach users.

The proposed 10 point plan also places a great deal of emphasis on communications - what we call 'spin' - to condition the way the public think and, more especially, to make it look like litter picks and getting children involved are part of the solution. They aren't. The solution is the reduction of faecal coliforms.

Another target is to "Identify and create 50 hectares of retrofitted Sustainable Drainage (SuDS) by 2025."

What this really means is downgrading the efficiency of existing drainage systems from property so they slow down the rate at which rainfall reaches watercourses.

Amongst other things, councils will be required to "Undertake a study to assess and prioritise the opportunities for taking council owned sites off mains surface water sewerage, i.e. discharge to ground or watercourse, which will provide both cost savings and benefits to surface water runoff."

Target 8 is to "Meet a target of 60% of new housing on brownfield land" The aim for Councils here is to "Promote brownfield development, building on policies such as Wyre Council’s Preferred Core Strategy, which states that 60% of new housing provision will be on brownfield land."

We think it can 'state' all it wants, but it's not going to happen in Fylde - at least not based on the number of planning inquiries we've attended in Fylde.

There are more targets, but these are the ones we think will be the key ones for Fylde.

There was almost no discussion of these matters at the Scrutiny Meeting. We don't believe members understood what they were being asked to support - and we suspect this was because officers had failed in their duty to explain the meanings and the implications of the proposals for Fylde.

What we did hear at the meeting was the Chairman saying he had not been impressed with the Joint Scrutiny operation with Blackpool. We got the impression he wanted Fylde to do it's own scrutiny of this matter. And we think he's right.  He had not been able to go to the Blackpool meeting himself, but had asked his Vice Chairman to attend in his place. Unlike Wyre's Cllr Ghandi who was happy with everything, Fylde's Vice Chairman said she was not at all impressed by Blackpool's position. She said Fylde were far ahead of them in understanding what was happening, and Blackpool's idea of scrutiny was far removed from that of Fylde.

The minutes of Fylde's Scrutiny meeting say something different of course. They (uncontroversially) say the Chairman will "....further pursue a joint scrutiny approach with neighbouring authorities and work with the Director of Resources on the models available." and that he will "Present an updated report to a future meeting of the committee."

So there we are.

We thought the one ominous sentence in that Fylde's officer's report was the one that said "It is likely that a formal Portfolio Report will follow to adopt the plan on behalf of Fylde."

That probably means there is going to be a report to one of the six Portfolio Holders when the 'Ten Point Plan' has been approved at its 'Workshop'

Then that Portfolio Holder, (quite probably acting on their own), will take 'an Individual Member Decision' whether to approve and adopt undertakings for Fylde that almost certainly will not solve the problem of faecal bacteria in the sea off St Annes, and will commit the Council to considerable spending, and to courses of action that they have as much idea about as Cllr Trevor Fiddler did when he approved the disastrous sale of Melton Grove.

That was no idea at all.

So adherence to the Ten Point Plan is set to become one of Fylde's undertakings. And it looks as though that will happen without all the Councillors we have elected even realising what they are letting themselves in for, let alone understanding, debating and voting for it.

Is all going swimmingly?

Most definitely not.

We have no confidence that the measures outlined in this 'Plan' will ensure the Fylde Coast Bathing Waters will escape the accolade of 'Poor' - resulting in signs advising people not to bathe in the sea because of faecal pollution.

We also think that if Fylde BC signs up to this plan, it is signing itself in for a lot of trouble - and not insignificant cost - at least it is if it intends to carry out what the Ten Point Plan expects of it.

And if it doesn't do what it has signed up to, we wouldn't be surprised to hear the Fylde Peninsula Water Management Group saying St Annes beaches have failed because Fylde Council didn't do what they should have done.

As the man from Ulverston's friend used to say "Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!"

We might rather say we're heading up that famous creek without a paddle.

A FEW USEFUL LINKS
Bathing Water Data Explorer: St Annes
Bathing Water Data Explorer: St Annes North
EA Interactive Map Results for St Annes

Dated:    8 May 2013


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