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Sewage No-Go Zones: Eight Out of Ten Brits ‘Not Comfortable’ Swimming in UK Waters

Fewer than one-in-five Brits would be willing to take the risk of swimming in British waters, amid surging levels of sewage

Warning signs along the seafront in Southend on Sea, advising people not to enter the water. Photo: Penelope Barritt / Alamy

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Eighty-three per cent of British people “do not feel comfortable” swimming in Britain’s coastline, rivers and waterways, according to exclusive new polling for Byline Times.

The survey, which was conducted this week by pollsters We Think, comes as new figures show that the number of sewage spills in British waters doubled last year to a new record high.

There were 464,056 discharges in 2023, according to data submitted to the Environment Agency.

As a result, just 17% of Brits still say they would feel comfortable taking a swim in UK waters, today’s survey suggests.

Campaigners told Byline that the surge in spills was a result of deliberate profiteering by water companies.

“This basic public service over the last 30 years since it was privatised, has effectively been not run to produce a facility for ordinary people like you and I, it has been run to produce profits to be distributed back to shareholders who have effectively asset stripped the industry,” Charles Watson, founder of the charity River Action told Adrian Goldberg on the Byline Times Podcast.

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“We have a failed system and what bears witness to that is the vast quantity of basically human poo, flushing down the rivers. It’s a disgrace and a scandal.”

Watson added that victorious rowers in the annual Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race had been warned this week not to jump into the Thames due to “off the scale” levels of E. coli bacteria detected in the river.

Watson said that Government cuts to enforcement of sewage spills had opened the door to the current crisis.

The budget for the Environment Agency in England, which is the principal body to protect nature and protect our rivers, since austerity was introduced 15 years ago has been cut by 75%. 

“In 2012, I think there was something like 250 successful prosecutions of polluters. In 2021 there were two.”


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The Labour Party this week called on the Government to impose an immediate ban on water company bosses being handed bonuses.

“The Conservatives’ are too weak to get tough with polluting water companies”, Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary, Steve Reed MP, said.

“Instead of imposing Labour’s ban on water bosses’ bonuses, Steve Barclay has weakly chosen to only talk about doing it. 

“The evidence is clear. We don’t need the dither and delay of a consultation, we need immediate action.”

You can listen to the full Byline Times Podcast on the Sewage scandal here.

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